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Why Do Games Have Rules?

The next time you’re sat at the traffic lights, I want you to do something for me: I want you to count how many rules you can see.

Start with your car.

Consider the incalculable number of strict manufacturing rules and regulations that govern everything from the toughness of the glass to the rigidity of the chassis, the performance of the crumple zone, the symbol for the hazard light, the location of the indicators, the speed at which the airbags inflate, the size of the wing-mirrors, the regulation of the emissions, the size and colour of the number plate, the location of the tax disc and the precise composition of the tyres. And are you insured? Is your driving licence clean?

How many hundreds of thousands of hours of work, decision-making and rules (mostly governed by legislative frameworks) have gone into you simply being able to sit there in your car at that very moment in time?

Now look beyond the bubble.

How many rules and regulations govern the traffic lights, road signs, road markings, constituency of the tarmac, height of the curb, width of the grates, luminosity of the street lights and the camber in the road?

And what about that restaurant you’re parked next to?

Have you considered the food hygiene rating, the regulation height and width of the door, the precise number of fire extinguishers, the recommended layout of the kitchen, the minimum wage of the staff, the safety features of the circuit breakers, the business rates on the premises and the disposal of the waste that they deposit in their colour-coded waste bins? And what of their IT systems? The myriad of protocols used to create and store the raw data on hard discs that spin at a precise number of thousands of revolutions per second, receiving the emails that are fired over fibre-optic cables to inform them of the birthday party that’s just been booked online? I wonder how many vegetarians are coming.

Obsessing over rules can send you a bit GLaDOS.

And that police car that’s sat uncomfortably in your rear-view mirror: just how many rules can you work into that little nugget of joy? And let’s not even try to get into considering the laws of physics that govern the motion of the cars that pass you by on this familiar lump of rock we call home as it orbits your nearest star at thousands of miles per hour.

It’s enough to make you feel rather ill. And that’s all before the light goes green and you have to start worrying about what laws you’ll break if you knock over the old dear that’s taking far too long to get across the zebra crossing just up the way.

And what of life at either end of this fabulous journey of madness?! What rules (real or perceived) govern those two hemispheres? Family commitments, emotional battlefields, council tax, income tax, insurance policies, medications, data allowances, acceptable use policies, friendships, fidelity, study, subscriptions, personal hygiene, exercise regimes, exams, religion?

And so what do we do, cloistered in this bottomless rabbit hole that’s been dug by society’s self-imposed obsession with rules and governance? Naturally, we try to escape: into music; into art; into film; into literature.

Into games?

When you think about it, we’d be hard pushed to find another escape that’s more governed by rules than games are. Discounting the plethora of rules that dictate the size of optical disc, data storage protocols, licensing issues, bar codes, age ratings and online passes, let’s just focus on the actual code for a moment.

00110100 10101001 10101010 10010101
01010111 11010100 01010100 10100101

What is software and the hardware it lives upon if not a myriad of rules? It’s not chaos, that’s for sure. Even software designed to mimic chaos is nothing more than rules with the appearance of something else. If this happens, do this. If it doesn’t, do that. But there’s more. There are the rules built-in to the overarching design of the game. How many lives do you have? When will your magazine be emptied? How far can you sprint or jump. At what height will a fall kill you? What are the boundaries of the game world? Where are the checkpoints? How many kills will win the match? What aesthetic are we aiming for? What’s our target demographic?

Maybe it’s a good thing that some games have no real point?

Step back from it all. We’ve just managed to cram just as many (if not more) rules into the piece of entertainment that was largely designed as an escape from them, haven’t we? Did we really just escape? It doesn’t feel like it. And what does this all mean? Honestly: I’m not sure. Maybe we don’t need to escape. Maybe we’re just not built that way. Or perhaps we’re all so hopelessly addicted to rules that there’s simply no other alternative.

Or is there?

If you were to approach the Dutch province of Western Frisia by car, you’d notice a sign that reads “Verkeersbordvrij” – “free of traffic signs”. Dismissing the irony of this, if you were to press on, you’d find yourself in peaceful place where cars bumble around unhurriedly over beautiful, granite cobblestones. Stop signs and direction signs are nowhere to be seen. There are neither parking meters nor stopping restrictions. There aren’t even any lines painted on the streets. Pedestrians and cars go about their business in a casual and measured manner. The threat of danger is still very real and exposed but people simply act accordingly without the need to be told to do so, just as we may do here if we approach a set of traffic lights that are out. We slow down. We take care, just in case. Quite the opposite of what many people seem to do at the sight of an amber light, wouldn’t you say?

“The many rules strip us of the most important thing: the ability to be considerate. We’re losing our capacity for socially responsible behaviour” says Hans Monderman, one of the project’s co-founders. “The greater the number of prescriptions, the more people’s sense of personal responsibility dwindles”.

And so what does this mean, if anything, for games and for gamers – those so clearly desperate to escape from a reality framed by intrusive rules? Could it not be argued that there is presently a very strong correlation between the sheer volume of rules that weave video games together and the lack of personal responsibility that gamers are famed for demonstrating? Everything from skipping a shower to cancelling a night out to missing a deadline to pissing off the wife – all in the name of a few more virtual murders or a bit more virtual gold? Is this the escape that we would design for ourselves, given the chance? Can we not make for ourselves a world of games that follows fewer rules? Perhaps. You catch glimpses of it in delightfully abstract titles such as Journey, Noby Noby Boy or Unfinished Swan. Your reality is distorted when the fourth wall comes crashing down in master strokes such as Metal Gear Solid, Paper Mario and Eternal Darkness. And occasionally you get a full-frontal in titles such as Portal where the rules of physics are up for grabs or in leftfield masterpieces such as Populous and Minecraft.

But still, wherever you look, the rules persist. And to be fair, without them, what would life be?  It would probably be the ever-present, strange, misunderstood beast that we seem to naturally fear: anarchy.

But would anarchy actually liberate us from these chains?

Perhaps, but only if we all agreed to play by its rules, all of the time.

This article was originally published here on VoxelArcade in 2012

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