James Beatty

The Rules of the Game


Games are based on rules. This is what makes an activity a game as opposed to just horsing around. Even so, most people play games in a way that's informed by the rules but not necessarily governed by them; who among us doesn’t use house rules to play Monopoly? But video games are based on rules in an unavoidable way: the computers running the game do so by blindly following a program. There are no house rules for Halo. That’s the idea, at least, and that’s the attraction. Video games represent a manifestation of a particular dream of humanity–realities consistently governed by the impartial application of straight-forward rules. Life may not be fair, but video games are. Players seek out video games in order to escape a messy, chaotic reality. At the same time, hiding away from reality produces a counter-acting impulse: the desire to pierce the illusions that the games provide and uncover the chaos that has been so carefully hidden away. The way we play video games shows the ambivalence we have toward our use of rules to systematically hide reality from ourselves.

Video game players are playing on three different levels. The most obvious is playing in the game’s presentation of itself: the player is shooting aliens; the player is ordering the cavalry to charge; the player is jumping onto the next platform. Let’s call this the game reality–it’s the reality that the game offers as a substitute for physical reality. The Holy Grail of video games is a game reality that is sufficiently robust to totally immerse a player. Immersion doesn’t necessarily mean wearing some goofy virtual reality headset; rather, immersion in the game reality occurs when the game responds to the player’s actions in a way that the player finds intuitive and appropriate. The Grand Theft Auto series is an example of games that seek to create immersive game realities by providing simulacra of physical reality: players joyride around a detailed city map, as the game models the behavior of other drivers and (more or less) appropriate police responses. The game reality “feels alive” because its simulation of the autonomous behavior of the actors in it (traffic stopping at street lights, pedestrians diving out of the way of errant cars, etc.) matches what is expected of such actors in physical reality. In fact, a major criticism of the latest game in the series was that players felt too burdened by the demands of their simulated friends–the game reality was getting too close to the physical reality that players were trying to escape.

The second level of gameplay is ignoring the game’s self-presentation and playing with the abstract rules that undergird the game reality. As an example, consider SimCity 2000, in which the player was the god/mayor of a simulated town. The simulation is reasonably robust: it tracks crime and pollution in the city, as well as education and health services, all of which influence the wealth and happiness of the residents, which determine their ability and willingness to pay taxes, which set the income for the city to provide services. I played it when I was ten years-old; my metropoleis were utilitarian street grids full of bustling factories and soaring tenements. As actual cities, they would have been barely livable—as game constructs, they maximized population per area and tax revenue per capita. Compare that to the cities that my grade school teacher built: quiet villages on hill-tops overlooking the coast. The game presented itself as a city-building simulation and so she built cities she would like to live in. I, on the other hand, ignored the presentation of the game: the city sounds and little two dimensional buildings only served as window dressing for the underlying systems that governed how the game worked. By discarding those trappings, I was able to build larger, richer cities than players like my teacher, who focused on playing in the game reality instead of in the hidden rules that governed it.

The ability to hide game rules sets video games apart from other games that humans play. Hiding game rules doesn’t mean denying players any knowledge of how they work, but rather describing the rules instead of enumerating them. So, for instance, the SimCity 2000 manual will tell you that placing a police station reduces crime in the surrounding neighborhood but will not tell you how the computer calculates the precise amount that crime will tick down at a given spot on the map. This ability to hide rules–and more importantly the ability to hide the application of rules–allows video games to attempt the creation of immersive game realities in ways that a board game, say, cannot. Board game players are both players and enforcers of the rules, and the constant negotiation of both roles continually breaks immersion. By hiding the application of the rules from the players, video games are able to provide an environment players can lose themselves in. The consequence of hiding the rules, however, is that players who want to do well in a game need to seek out and uncover the occluded details of how the game actually works. Players, therefore, find a conflict between the desire to be immersed in the game reality and the desire to excel at gameplay.

Let’s talk about Master of Orion 3. Like its two illustrious predecessors, Master of Orion 3 puts the player in control of an interstellar empire, with the goal of galactic conquest. Master of Orion 3 was a bad game, but it was a bad game in an astonishing, singular way. The crux of Master of Orion 3 was the viceroys, which were an attempt at solving a central problem of video games that focus on imperial management. Not unlike managing empires in real life, once a virtual dominion gets large enough ittakes more effort to manage than it’s worth. Advances in computing technology exacerbated this problem. Players went from abstractly controlling star systems in Master of Orion to managing specific details of each planet in Master of Orion 2. They had greater control but this led to the wearisome end-game demands of hundreds of planets needing orders.

So Master of Orion 3 went for automation. The idea was that each planet and star system would be managed by viceroys, little automated subroutines that would follow empire-wide directives set by the player. By relying on the viceroys, the game could offer even more control over the empire than its predecessors without requiring that the player spend an hour every turn on tedious micromanagement. Well, that’s what the designers were aiming for. The trouble was that players generally avoid delegating that sort of control to the computer on the not-unreasonable theory that they can manage their empire better than it can. What really sets Master of Orion 3 apart from other games, what really makes it such a bad game, is how the game designers responded to this obstacle: they started lying to the players.

In order to prevent players from attempting to micromanage their empires, the designers had the game show only incomplete and inaccurate information about each planet and system. For instance, the game would claim to be showing you how much in taxes a given planet was contributing to the empire, but the number displayed was an intermediate calculation that didn’t take into account transfers to or from planets in the same star system. This meant that micromanagement was impossible–the player simply didn’t have access to the information that he or she would require to successfully make planet-scale decisions. Meanwhile, the viceroys would make bizarre, ill-suited production choices: in particular, due to an error in the code, the viceroys were set to build enough troop transports not for 80% of the imperial army but for 8,000%. Any planet that the player was not directly controlling would start building a seemingly endless amount of transports. The game reality was presented as imperial dominion, but the rule system gave the player only fitful control. All this led to a game that actually succeeded, in a perverse way, in simulating empire management: the player was thrust into endless combat with a deceptive, inscrutable bureaucracy.

As a game, not fun. But as an example of a game, fascinating! What Master of Orion 3 did, and what no other game has really had the balls to do since, was to set the game rules in opposition to the player: although the designers themselves might not have seen it this way, the real conflict of the game was not between the player and neighboring empires but rather between the player and his or her own empire. Master of Orion 3 presented itself as another empire management game, but players who accepted this presentation quickly found themselves with an empire that was spectacularly ill-suited to achieving any of the victory conditions of the game. Victory was only possible by discovering the rules of the game and understanding that the automated system was better interpreted as a threat than an ally. In most other games the mismatch between the rules and the presentation isn't as large, but the players still need to engage in a process of rule discovery in order to achieve mastery of the game. This process mimics the trial-and-error that people use to create an understanding of physical reality and social interaction. The key difference, and a reason why video games are fun to play with, is that in games the rules are always tractable–the rule discovery period is necessarily finite. In physical reality, not only are the rules not necessarily understandable, there may not even be rules in a meaningful sense. Mastery over your life is an elusive, perhaps unattainable goal. Video games offer a chance to mimic the process by which we live our lives, but with a promise of success. Seeking that success, however, prompts the player to begin pushing the boundaries of the game reality as part of rule discovery.

This brings us to the third level of gameplay: playing with the computer-rule system. The game rules are parsed by computers, using their machine rules–not infrequently, it's possible to get the machine to jump the rails and start applying the game rules to data they were not designed for. This gives rise to the glitches and hacks which are the occult knowledge of video gaming. Consider warp pipes and Minus World in Super Mario Brothers. Some Super Mario levels end with Mario entering a pipe; in the second level of the game, it's possible for the player to get Mario on top of the “roof” of the level so that he can run over both the end pipe and the impassable wall it juts out of. Players who did this found themselves able to run into a hidden room beyond the ostensible end of the level that offered tunnels (“warp pipes”) which allowed players to skip to levels further along in the game. These pipes were coded into the game, as a reward for exploration–finding them is an example of rule discovery. But there’s a second way to get to the warp pipes: if at the end of the level the player has Mario jump into that impassable wall in a certain way, a glitch in the program will cause Mario to glide through what is supposed to be a solid barrier and enter the warp pipe room. Players who enter the pipes this way, however, find themselves in “Minus World,” a level of the game that has no number (the name “Minus World” comes from the displayed name for the level, “World -1”) and no possible end other than death (entering the pipe at the end of the level just takes the player back to the start).

The warp pipes are a part of the game reality, albeit a hidden part. Minus World is accessible in the game, but it is not part of the game reality. To get to Minus World, the player needs to get the computer to take data on the game cartridge that was not meant to be interpreted as a level and start trying to interpret it as a level. Finding the warp pipes provides a sense of depth, a sense that it’s possible to explore the game world and gain an advantage in the game by doing so; this sense of depth, however illusory it may be, affirms the game reality as a reality that the player can be part of. Minus World, however, does just the opposite–entering Minus World requires the player to get the game to break itself and reveals the superficial nature of the game reality. Minus World is a famous glitch, but not the only one. In Grand Theft Auto IV, for instance, flying a helicopter into just the right spot of a certain skyscraper puts you through the walls of the game world and onto the other side, where you can fly around under suddenly transparent city streets. If video games are like magic tricks, finding the warp pipes is like waving your hand under a levitating assistant–even if just for a moment, you wonder if the trick is real. Getting into Minus World or flying through a skyscraper into the other side of the world is like catching a glimpse of the suspension wire in the spotlight. Ahh, you say, Ahh. So that’s how that works.

We construct games as replacement realities, which gives rise to the urge to achieve mastery. There is also an urge to have a deep ken, to understand the game reality in some fundamental sense. The attraction of game realities is precisely our ability to fully comprehend them in a way that we do not seem to be able to comprehend physical reality. Players seek mastery over the game as a sort of consolation prize for our inability to achieve mastery over our shared reality. But achieving that mastery pushes players farther and farther out of the immersive game reality. Circle back to SimCity 2000—when I was making my grimly efficient cities, what was I doing? I would have told you that I was making the biggest cities I could, but why? Although there’s an obvious symbolism to a ten-year-old wanting to have the biggest cities with the tallest skyscrapers, the simplest explanation is probably best: the two headline numbers for a city in SimCity 2000 are population and money, and my immediate impulse was to make those two numbers as big as possible1. The mastery I sought in the game was a mastery of the rules, which is to say: a mastery defined by the rules. Once I had proven my mastery of the rules by building superlative cities, there was nothing really left for me to do in the game.

Finally achieving mastery in a game, the player finds a new experience: boredom. There is nothing more corrosive to immersion than a bored player. Almost all glitches in games are found by players who have otherwise mastered the game and find themselves wandering the game reality, looking for something else to do. Game designers deliberately leave Easter eggs for these players to find. The first was in Adventure, released on the Atari 2600 in 1979, and discovered by a (presumably bored) 15-year-old in Utah; it was a hidden room in a castle, reachable only after finding an invisible block and bringing it into a certain hallway, and all it had inside were the words “Created by Warren Robinett.” Robinett had hidden this in the game even from other people at Atari because of the company's policy of denying designers credits in their games, out of fear they would gain recognition and therefore bargaining power for better wages. For game-makers, Easter eggs almost all function as demonstrations of ownership—signs of their complete dominion over the game reality, “Kilroy was here” scrawled in some impossible-to-reach corner of the world by a bored graffitist. For players, they act as a kind of virtual lingerie: here is what is hidden, and here is a glimpse of what it looks like. Secrets in video games are so rewarding for players to find because they act exactly as the deep ken that seems to be lacking from physical reality. Easter eggs reinforce game reality by reasserting the possibility of comprehension and control; glitches expose game reality by demonstrating its superficial nature. Fundamentally, however, both Easter eggs and glitches communicate a game reality’s inescapably rule-based nature, and therefore the inevitability of boredom once those rules are understood.

If immersive game realities are based on hiding rules and mastery is based on seeking them, can you make a game that isn’t essentially boring? The answer is yes, but you need to play it right. I got bored with SimCity 2000; my teacher didn’t. Long after I had stopped playing, she was still crafting idyllic seaside retreats–she treated the program more like a model train set than a game. Her cities may not have had as many people or as much money as my cities, but if someone bragged to you about the passenger throughput per hour of their model rail system you would conclude that they were missing the point of model trains, or insane, or both. To the extent that she sought mastery of the rules, she wanted just enough to let her manifest her vision of a city in the game—the rule system was a tool that could be used to help her accomplish that goal, not an object to be studied and mastered. I had a mastery of the rules, she had a mastery over the rules.

In video games there is tension between the desire to be immersed in the game reality and the desire to achieve mastery in the game–between the desire to have the structure of a rule system and the desire to find ways to break the rules. This tension is not limited to video games, of course. We rely on constructed rule systems for almost everything–language, manners, law, politics, economics. Societies need rules in order to function, but at the same time we recognize the limits of their utility and constantly question their application. We write constitutions and describe ourselves as a society of law, but also spend millions making and watching movies about superheroes who disregard those rules in the name of justice or vengeance or some perceived greater good. People who refuse to break rules at all find themselves called boring–rules might be necessary, in society as in video games, but they aren’t always fun. Maybe that’s because of some deeply held anarchic impulse; one thing everyone who has ever played SimCity 2000 remembers doing is letting a tornado or two loose on a city and watching the havoc. But breaking rule systems is also a reminder that rules hide reality from us; there is a universe of action outside of what is permitted. With well-constructed rule systems, it's possibly for the best that people mostly ignore or disregard the alternatives–that's how we can have orderly transfers of political power instead of pitched battles on the Mall every four years. Even so, my teacher probably had the right idea of it: use rule systems as tools to accomplish goals, not as ends in themselves. The idea of video games as well-ordered digital paradises sounds appealing, but order and boredom go hand in hand. We break games and try to find the reality lurking underneath the system not just out of a destructive impulse, but to remind ourselves of what we've chosen to hide away.

1 Cf. this Penny Arcade comic.

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