Below is a "digital conversation" between me and Jason Begy. It started as a chat in the GAMBIT lounge and we thought that it might be interesting to concretize our ideas some by writing them down. We took turns writing paragraphs to each other continuing on for a few days. It should be stated that these are ideas we are still working out, and we simply wanted to lay bare some of our recent thoughts to perhaps move them forward. Enjoy.
I think our understanding of "design" with regards to games needs to be looked at more closely. The attachment of games to consumer objects, either packaged board games or software, seems to have skewed our understanding of what the creators of the game are actually doing. We seem to think that the fundamental operations of games are somehow being written by designers, with a direct authorial linkage like that of a painter to painting, a songwriter to song, or perhaps more frequently referenced, a director to a film. However, I stand behind the assertion that a game not-played is not a game at all, which implicates players in authorship. More dramatically, the organization of rules by a designer does not a game make either, which is to say, at best designers are configuring details and assigning symbols to preexisting forms, no small feat, but not wholly authorial. Allow me a parallel: a carpenter doesn't design the use of a chair as an object for sitting, rather she suggests only how a user might sit in it, should the user feel inclined to do so. The user may always place their belongings on said chair instead, thus rendering it a table.
Previously on this blog I have referred to a board game as a mnemonic device: whatever "state" it can be said to contain only exists in the minds of the players; the tangible pieces are there to lighten the cognitive load. Any meaning the boards and bits have is assigned and maintained by the players enacting the game; the "rules" as-writ are suggestions for a method of play, and the pieces facilitate that method. This is a key ontological distinction between video games and non-digital games. In a video game the rules are enforced by the underlying code: they are much more rules than the suggestions accompanying my copy of Carcassonne. I cannot chose to interpret Mario's in-game function in a way other than that dictated to me by the game. And yet your objection fits equally well: a board game in its box is just a collection of pieces, and a program not running is just lines of code. All of these points and ideas beg the question: What exactly is a rule?
Recently, casually around the lab, on twitter, and on my blog, I've been referring to rules and rule systems as "non-things." By this I mean to suggest that the idea of a rule does not exist until it is initiated. I fully acknowledge the playfulness of the language I am using here by calling a rule a "non-thing;" on one hand dismissing it and simultaneously reinforcing its existence through reference. However, I think it is important to distinguish the difference between an abstract understanding of a system, presumed cause and effect, and an actualized system that has been engaged, especially in the field of game design. In the digital realm this asks us to examine the relationship between computation and the user, to examine our understanding of the space of play, and to perhaps rethink what a designer actually creates. Some people making games are doing really interesting work in this area. The Copenhagen Game Collective's great game B.U.T.T.O.N. comes to mind. The space of play is radically expanded, rules are opaque rather than transparent, and the value of the game seems to reside in the liminality of computation and performance. Then again, board games seem to have done this sort of thing for a long time. Are video games actually so radically different? I'm reluctant to submit to "platform studies."
If a rule is a non-thing until enacted, can we talk about potential rules? Or our understanding of the rules we would follow, if we were to play a particular game? It seems logical to say that a rule of football (any kind) is that players must not step out-of-bounds, or at least there is a consequence for doing so. If I am not playing football right now, is this still a rule? The dichotomy is akin to the difference between a note as indicated on sheet music and as performed in some fashion. Not being one myself, I would imagine that most musicians recognize there is a difference between a written note representing a perfect instantiation of a given tone, and the subtleties of that same note performed. I am currently unsure of to what extent this dichotomy has been theorized, but it seems to me to be a promising and relevant parallel.
Another entry point into the vagaries of "rule" is to ask of a non-digital game or sport, Is a given rule a do or a do not? For example, in football the rule could be "always stay in-bounds" or "do not step out-of-bounds." Either the positive or the negative communicates the idea. But some rules are not susceptible to negation. In Monopoly, that Boardwalk costs $400 is a positive rule, and it is difficult to effectively describe this rule as a negative. In baseball you must hit the ball with a bat, in hockey you cannot throw the puck into the net, and so on. Once again video games are not susceptible to these tricks of language, as the rules are hard-coded. Perhaps the un-debatable nature of video game rules is where the idea of "rules-as-designed-things" comes from.
At the risk of positioning myself lest I be accused of being a social constructionist, I think that rules, hard-coded or not, necessarily depend on the society that adopts and engage them, even in the case of a video game systems.
One of my favorite things to watch is when Matt (the lead designer at our lab) plays a game for the first time. He is always looking for ways to "break" the game - immediately pushing on the boundaries of the game's affordances to find "something else to do." Matt's play is discursive. He may fall into patterns eventually, but he is first exploring the vocabulary and grammar of the system and finding ways to "play" with it. He creates a network between himself and the game (as code, platform, text and context), through play, that defines the game as played. Even a game that has minimal coded affordances can invite creative play. Again, this is one reason why I think B.U.T.T.O.N. is brilliant. It calls the relationship between player and game to our attention.
That musical note comparison is very interesting. What does that written note really represent? If I am playing the score on a piano tuned a half step down, am I expressing the same piece of music? Do the relationships between the notes matter more than the relationship between the written note and its physical manifestation? What role does the listener have in this mode of communication?
Something tells me we are having a discussion that is part of a larger philosophical discourse that extends far beyond just game studies. I only wish I could somehow know it all, making my writing more thorough.
I also think it's problematic to throw-out the role of the video game designer entirely. Playing against the rules of the game to see what works and what does not is certainly possible, but it only functions in the context of the system's affordances. Everything you can choose to do is in some way enabled by the code running the game. Certainly unexpected and unplanned behavior crops up, allowing the player to do things the designers never intended, but this is still a result of how the system functions.
One thing that continually returns to mind here is the MDA framework, which posits a high degree of designer control over player behavior. That such control is possible becomes apparent in very simple video games, such as Don't Shoot The Puppy. Here the player only has two possible actions: move the mouse (thereby shooting the puppy), or do not move the mouse. In the context of the game, the designers have a high degree of control over my actions simply because they have not given me many choices. Video games are deterministic in a way that other, non-digital games are not.
I do agree with you in that this is clearly part of a larger discourse that neither of us are particularly well-versed in at the moment. However, these are important questions to ask, especially when working in an environment that privileges the designer by default. Furthermore, this line of thinking reveals some of the problems with lumping all game-like activities under one banner. Clearly video games, sports and board games have a lot in common, but they are also clearly different, and there is room in game studies for more nuanced inquiries into all of them.