Thursday, June 11, 2009

Video Games Are the Rules

This a rebuttal to Yehuda's post: Why Don't Video Games Tell You the Rules?

Firstly, a declaration: I am a video gamer and a board gamer. I love to explore any system that has rules and systems. However, there are fundamental differences between the organization and execution of each type of game that alters not only how we perceve them, but also how we play them. Most of these have to do with the social spaces of the games.

Walking The Path
I am going to object to the use of The Path as an example of video games because it does not represent even a fraction of experimental (and I hate to have to make this particular distinction) "art" games. I have not had the chance to play The Path, but from eveything I have read it is less a game and more a narrative exploration of a theme with in a environmental framework. Like a living story.

The rules of the game are deliberately hidden because the entire game is about exploration of the space as part of the underlying metaphor. As you discover how the world works you are also discovering the narrative that has been hidden, and are able to piece together your experiences (fabula) into a cohesive story that is unique to your understanding of the game space. That includes how you understand the game world's rules.

The Path is to most video games what Mao is to most card games: a deliberate exploration of rules and game space.

(For those of you who don't know, Mao is a card game for a moderately large group of people that primarily involves making up and figuring out the rules without explaining them out loud. It can get very strange, be very confusing to someone who doesn't know how to play, and will always be different. You may not even understand all the rules in play during a single session until it ends.)

Reason 1: Don't Tell, Show
I love complicated rule systems in my games. I own one board game that has a 30 page rule book. It's so complicated that it comes with an 8 page comic as a Quick Start Guide. I would rather explain the rules first than (or at least the basics) than just jump in with a confused (and often bewildered, wide-eyed) new player. However, the thing I most often hear is, "Let's just get started and they can pick it up as we go". So I wind up explaining both rules and strategy periodically as we progress and new situations come up.

But what if I could not only explain as we went, but show you without pausing? What if I could make strategies easy to understand by putting them in context as we play? In a board game I'd have to explain that Unit X can move 3 spaces and Unit Y can move 4 (but only over water tiles), but in a video game you could see that when you clicked on Unit X that 3 spaces in every direction were lit and allowed you to move there and that 4 spaces were lit for Unit Y, but only over water. Sure, both games might have a little icon with a 3 or 4 and a little wave icon for Unit Y, but the video game enforces the rules whether you know them or not. But I suppose that leads to Reason 2...

Reason 2: Crunching the Math
In Settlers of Catan you know exactly what the probability of rolling to get resources from any single hex is every time you roll (so long as you understand some basic probability and statistics). That doesn't mean you understand how the math plays into the overall strategy of the game. 6s and 8s are mathematically the best tiles to own, but if you don't diversify you may wind up just as stuck as if you chose 2s and 11s. Of course, the rules don't explain that, you have to play the game to understand the strategy.

In a video game you may not know the exact probability of hitting an enemy, or the exact damage you will do. The math may be hidden or obsured by other numbers or mitigating factors (like resistance). Same games may show this, some may not. This does not mean that you cannot make educated guesses and intuit strategies that work. All the while, developing a deeper understanding of the systems that underlie the combat. Of course that can't happen until you start to play. Whether the rules are detailed and understood before or hidden and revealed later, strategy only develops from playing and experience.

Any game you play (video or otherwise) that has poorly defined goals, indications of progress, or insufficient feedback is squarely in the fault of the design and not the medium. However, that does not mean you have to understand the math or the entire underlying system to play (or even to win). As a new game player, I would only know all the cards in Pandemic if I looked at them first and read the rules on how they worked. Many games have similar resources, should you be interested enough to look.

Reason 3: Concession is a House Rule
I will freely admit that one drawback to playing a video game over a board game (especially when playing a video game remake of a board game) is that there is no support for house rules. The computer will always mediate the situation; it is immutable. Variations must be added by the designers, but even these cannot be strayed from.

Concession is one such variation. Is there a way to concede in the rules of Monopoly? Risk? Only if the players agree. Is there a way to concede in a video game? Only if it is programmed in. My suggestion: tell your designer friend that it is good option to add.

Are there thoughtful video games, with explicit rules and goals, where the game is played, round by round, to calculated victory?
Short answer: Yes, of course there are.

Long answer: I'm actually a little disappointed that this is even asked. Are there board games with any depth and strategy? Ones that don't just have a rule system with a theme slapped on them? Of course there are, if you care to look for them. But if all you've seen are Hasbo games at Toys-R-Us, then you're not seeing the whole picture.

Judging video games by a scant few on the edge (an Art/High Concept game, a web game in development, and some second-hand FPSs) is hardly fair to the depth and breadth of gaming.

What would you like to play? Tactical game, management game, action game, strategy game? Real-time, turn-based, online? How much time do you have?


  1. Thanks, a good rebuttal.


  2. Let me just add: it seems that the real-time nature of many video games that makes complete knowledge of the variables unwieldy. And real-time is something board games can't really do.


  3. I often play hidden-object games. I am so addicted to these kind of Download Games. Lately I had engaged myself in management games. A kind of game that need some time management, that if a certain player wasn't able to follow his time table, he'll definitely loose the game.

  4. I often play hidden-object games. I am so addicted to these kind of Download Games. Lately I had engaged myself in management games. A kind of game that need some time management, that if a certain player wasn't able to follow his time table, he'll definitely loose the game.