Flexible Rules

I’m trying to kick-start some writing on this blog that is not assigned, so here are some short thoughts on rules in digital games vs non-digital. ~

While playing Dungeons and Dragons with some friends about a month ago, I started thinking about the difference between that experience and the experience of playing Skyrim. Now, I have not actually played Skyrim, but it was a topic of conversation, and any digital RPG could be substituted in.

Apart from the social differences, and D+D is more social than ludic for me, a Skyrim player cannot negotiate the rules with Bethesda. Now, there are many (many, many, many) rulebooks for D+D, but in the end the game proceeds as a consensus between the players and the dungeon master. If Danny (our DM) is feeling evil, an encounter will have a much different feeling than if he is feeling charitable.

Between encounters that night, everyone else whipped out their smart phones or laptops and started playing their latest moves in Words with Friends. Again, a game I don’t play, but it offers an even better example. Words with Friends allows players to enter words and hope they are real words, which allows people to re-try many combinations they do not actually understand. Contrast this with Scrabble, in which we always challenge the player to know the definition of the word. In effect, Words with Friends removes the linguistic aspect of Scrabble. It could just as easily be played with arbitrary symbols assigned point values.

Beyond coming up with rules, one of the great tasks for game designers is defining those rules clearly. In modern video game development, coding it (either yourself or having someone else do so) enforces the rules with an iron fist. On the other hand, non-digital games played at a sub-professional level always have some wiggle room, in which the players write their own rules or interpretations of rules. Even in the strict rulesets of professional sports we have referees who are vested with great authority over the experience of any particular instance of a game. For example, the level of physicality allowed in a basketball game is almost entirely determined by what the ref lets slide.

From a pedagogical perspective I think this is one reason why non-digital games are being used to teach game studies or design. It is very easy to blindly follow the rules laid forth by a computer game, and very easy to adjust the rules in a non-digital game.

And now this has me thinking about a game where the players could have serious agency over the rules as well as the fiction. Hmm…