Imagine a game with no rules

If you look at that image to the left, I would hope you can follow my train of thought in imagining that puzzle piece as a human being, requisite with four limbs and a head.

Even though I spent a lot of my youth playing both computer and console games, reading, and playing outside, one of my favorite activities was to take one of my puzzles (another hobby of young Denis) and assign each piece a set of statistics I kept in a notebook by my side. What would then occur depended on my mood that day. Some days large scale battles would take place, with turned over puzzle pieces indicating a unit that had been slain. Other days I would just use them as props to tell a story of exploration and adventure without any need for combat.

My younger brother, Dane, recently picked up World of Warcraft again. He and his family moved to a small village outside my hometown of Fulda. Therefore he has plenty of free time on his hand not socializing with said village-folk. He’s living the life many of my college friends desired–stay at home dad who gets to play video games all day while taking care of his son. Beyond his pleas to have me play again (I refuse), he has been regaling me with his efforts to gain his second level 70 character, earn his epic flying mount, and all manner of stories.

This past Friday he was being his usual self and antagonizing the GM’s. He was playing his level 70 gnome mage and because he was on a roleplaying server, he was requesting that he be allowed to switch his Alliance-loyal gnome to the side of the Horde. This was how he wished to roleplay his character, he would tell them. He knew going in that he would not be granted his request.

The GM’s actually surprised me by telling him they would forward his complaint of not being able to enact this change to the design team, to be dicussed for a future expansion and/or patch. Whether or not they actually follow through on this, I cannot say.

While he was waiting on that response, my brother and I engaged in one of our usual pasttimes: debate. As soon as he pointed out that he was on a roleplaying server, I pointed out to him that when he was playing Final Fantasy, Diablo, or any of a number of games, he was being told he was playing a roleplaying game. This did not automatically grant the title the benefit of roleplaying, though.

In fact, he argued that he just wanted to play how he wanted to play.

It’s something gamers are increasingly promised. You can do whatever you want.

Ending my debate with my brother, I pointed out that if he wanted a game without restriction, he might as well just use his imagination. Growing up in the same household as myself and knowing about my games with puzzle pieces, he let the matter drop with a winking face on our AIM clients and that was that.

Imagine a game without rules, however. Would it be fun? Would there be any point in playing it? The fact that there are rules seems to beg that we further examine the games and wonder why these rules were implemented. Someone made a choice to not allow my two male Sims in Sims 2 to marry but enter a civil partnership. Considering the fact that Everquest 2 allows crossing of factions, the various teams at Blizzard made a choice on whether or not to allow the crossing of Alliance and Horde allegiances.

Once designers and programmers make these decisions, it appears inevitable that one may question or try to break the rules. This in itself becomes a game. Just like a director (in film, stage, television, or whatever have you) dictates where your eye is focused, or what you can see if you decide to break that focus, games focus our attentions to certain criteria. Sure, you may not wish to progress the main plot, but in games without a modding tool, you are given limited options of where you can focus your energies. Then, of course, you can completely ignore it all together.

Truly being able to do everything you want in a videogame is a promise that will be made oft in the coming years, but I cannot help but feel we are far away from that point, if we will reach it at all. Honestly, I’d rather there be rules, as it allows me to think within the frame of the game and try to interpret the point of it all. If you believe the premise that a videogame can be art, this is just another tool in which to interpret and understand said piece of art. Of course, it’s also perfectly fine to look past that or not to aspire to make such a game.

After all, who’s to say that a puzzle has to be put together to make a picture?


About Denis Farr

Writer interested in intersectionality, games, comics, nerdy stuff in general, theater, and how it all mixes. Graduate of Wabash College, with studies in Theater, English, German, and Gender Studies.
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4 Responses to Imagine a game with no rules

  1. Well what do we mean by “No Rules”?Calvinball has not set rules allowing players to invent rules as they play. I suppose the only stated rule is that you can’t use the same rule twice; so no static rules.One must have rules and that’s not some fascistic declaration, but merely a fact. Without rules there’s nothing but a null sphere without existence.Psychologists have been mapping the degradation in the average human’s ability to deal with amorphous, non concrete situations and concepts. This seems to be linked to a childhood developmental issue. There is an age range (I think around 4-8) where kids begin to create games for themselves with their unstructured time. This involves the puzzle game you wrote about or the game I used to play where I took baseball cards and created a role playing system around it and playing actually ball games with d6s and the cards.The importance of these unstructured (rule-less) time is that a child that age will not exist with nothing to do and thus takes that null void and imposes their own rules on the situation. Even something as simple as “I’m going to try to walk across this beam and I can fall of twice before I ‘die'” or something like that. Through the act of creating rules out of thin air it later allows the child to better comprehend new and varied rules and parameters as they grow up. They integrate new information more smoothly and can problem solve at a higher level.When young children do this with other children the effects are greater because they learn how to jointly create rules and follow the rules of others as well as having unrelated parameters interact with one another to create new rules and games.Really interesting concept.Of course as you pointed out, most consumers are just whiny ass bitches that demand newer bigger better and they want it faster and cheaper. Signing up for a game that boasts two armies of diametrically opposed units, homelands, and goals and then complaining that the game doesn’t allow for intermixing those factions is akin to being cross that once can’t walk on the surface during free swim. Feel free to invent a game that simulates these realities, but don’t ruffle your feathers when the laws of Time, Space, and Blizzard (truly an elemental power at this point) refuse to bend to your will.

  2. A follow up to complete the poorly spelled (2AM) thoughts above. The reason for the degradation I mentioned is that in the last generation of children the concept of unstructured time has almost completely fallen away. Kids have soccer teams, dance teams, school plays, extra homework, church retreats, cub scouts, Goat of Mendes cookouts, Cotillions, tutors, et cetera thanks to hyper-crazed parents eager to create a bigger better model of child fit for resume busting college searches.Kids have no rules save the imposed rules of parents, clubs, and classes leading to entire swaths of the public then when asked to be creative and spontaneous just watch Mind of Mencia.

  3. Denis Farr says:

    Right, rules are something we use to understand and comprehend events oftentimes.However, the thing with games, especially of the video variety, is that we are given those rules. With a board game, sure, I can smudge some, but that becomes much more difficult on my Wii or Xbox 360, for instance. It’s becoming the fashion to have it one’s own way, I suppose, or at least have the illusion of such.It’s why I dreaded for the Dungeons and Dragons online game as soon as it was announced.

  4. Denis Farr says:

    Your second point brings up an interesting point, and perhaps why there is a slow clamor for more choice in games. Perhaps a desire not to waste one’s ‘precious’ time.I do plan on exploring the new hazards and how things will be easier for the next generation of gamers.

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