Friday, May 4, 2012

Some Final Thoughts on Rule Theory in Video Games

Between the Law & Gamification series, MMO Judiciary, Kill Screen postings, the GWJ posts, and System Narrative posts I think I've gone through this topic pretty thoroughly. After seeing the modelling article flopped on reddit I decided maybe it was time to take a step back and reflect a bit. When it comes to rule theory and video games, I think games are a lot more useful to rule theory than vice-versa.

I base this just on the common assertion that what I'm writing about is usually obvious to people or that I'm taking simple ideas and dressing them up in fancy words. This is true in some ways, if rule modelling (for example) is something you only know from the perspective of game design then these concepts are pretty simple. In computer software, all rules are automatically enforced. Approaching the rule from a binary perspective is the most efficient method and the idea of choice or costs is not really an issue. A choice in a video game is really just a question of whether or not the person does it. Issues like who, why, what if they don't like it, how do we change it, or by whose authority are irrelevant in single-player games. Or in an MMO's case, minimal problems for the developer.

This is formalism. Pure formalism really, so much so that it is probably better labelled as 'game' or some other concept legal philosophy has yet to really address. Normally when you say formalism you're talking about a rule system where the rules are taken literally and this is true in video games. Yet the idea of a perfect formal system, one where all choices are expected and accounted for, is really a fantasy. A world where there are no hard cases or if there is one, the entire system breaks down. As a lawyer, I take for granted that there will always be messy, complex perspective and people involved in any system.

When I first started digging into this topic about a year ago, it began with the question of why this subject wasn't really addressed more in-depth. Legal philosophy has always acknowledged games for their capacity to illustrate complex ideas in rules. Two people fighting over what's correct in chess. What's the difference between writing down the rules for reference and treating that written text as the source of authority? What makes that tactic unfair and that one acceptable if they are still obeying the rules? I can capture this notion through the example of a game fairly quickly, as opposed to delving into banking law or something equally byzantine.

Games, by their nature, deify complexity. They selectively arrange the portions of complexity that are gratifying to master and hail the player for their capacity to overcome it. The players are taught everything they need to know and conversely, the rulemaker knows everything that could happen in their system. In such a space, there is no reason to be afraid of rules. Which is really the emotion that makes my job possible.

I'd like to close on an anecdote about the development of the tort law to illustrate my point. This is the legal mechanism by which if you get injured and someone else is responsible, you can sue them for damages. This did not exist until the Industrial Revolution. Prior to that point, most injuries were generally considered to be your own damn fault. The very rare scenarios where someone else was responsible could be handled by squeezing the lawsuit into some other area, criminal assault or nuisance for example.

What changed was that machines have a bad habit of blowing up. Railroads, steamboats, and factories maimed and killed people in large quantities. You can't really tell someone that it's their fault the steamboat they were riding to New Orleans exploded. So tort law was invented. What was once simple and taken for granted suddenly got a lot more complicated.

So it is with video games at the moment. While everyone awaits their Citizen Kane or Art Gallery or...whatever the hell it is people are going on about now, the lawyer is more interested in something else entirely. I am waiting for them to get more complicated.