Games and Norms

Oct 17, 2014


This is the English version of my previous post originally written in Japanese.
I partly thank Zoyə Street's article for the translation.

I've collected @Masayuki Hambalek's sequence of tweets that really convinces me:

Roughly speaking, as I understand, he may claim that playing non-electronic games generally involves norms while playing video games generally doesn't (aside from any self-regulation like speedrun or any agreement in multiplayer game playing). Video games only constitute what you "can and cannot" do.* There is no room for what you "may and may not" do within video games themselves.

I really agree with him. His idea also accords with a common view that the term "rule" is unsuitable to describe video games.*

Now, this shows that norms are not essential for playing games, contrary to what some thinkers have claimed. Philosophers who focus on law or institution, e.g. H. L. A Hart and John Searle, have taken games as a paradigm of normative (i.e. rule-governed) situation. A Japanese philosopher of society, Nakayama Yasuo, also has written the very book titled "Norms and Games".

But norms are not inherent to playing games because they are not necessary for playing video games. The relationship between norms and games might be as follows:

  • Playing games in general takes place on the basis of what you can and cannot do.
  • In non-electronic games, in order to actualize this sense of "can and cannot", we need norms of "may and may not". For even if a non-electronic game rule says "it's impossible, you cannot do it", you actually can. What actually regulates your actions is the norm you accept in the context of game playing in question.*
  • In contrast, since video games can cut straight to "can and cannot" in a physical way, they don’t need extrinsic norms.

I'm sure that it's very common that board games or sports use the method of the regulation and constitution of acts and facts through norms or rules. So, there is nothing wrong with picking up games as an exemplar to explain other norm-based social phenomena. But normativity itself is not essential to games in general.

Even great thinkers in game studies, such as Johann Huizinga and Roger Caillois, have emphasized that games have a kind of normative aspect. It might be that they had this misunderstanding about the nature of playing games because they knew only board games, card games, or sports.

However, playing video games also might have a norm-like aspect. Even in playing video games, the acceptance of the goal that a game offers is player's part. No matter how game programs or mechanics order "save the princess!" or "defeat that dragon!" or "develop your city!", the intended game playing won't take place unless a player accepts it as her own purpose. She is always able not to go toward the given goal; if she does go toward the goal, it's because she should or want to do, not because she cannot but do.

Though I'm not sure that I should call it "norm", it's clear that this aspect goes further than simply what players can and cannot do. What video game mechanics create and implement is only the possibility of input ("what you can do") and the input-output causal chain ("if input so, then output so"). It is only when players accept the offered goal as their own one that the mere chain of causality changes into the chain of means to the end. The actions of game playing are to choose a move among possible means towards the given purpose. Thus, even playing video games involves not only "can and cannot" mechanics but also some special attitude that players should take.

Of course, it may be possible to immerse players in dramatic stories or give them emotional attachments to characters, and thereby lead them to naturally accept a certain goal. In fact, many video games may use this method.

To use representations like stories or characters in order to make players' accepting goals natural or rational, may be more characteristic of video games than non-electronic games. This difference might be not because of whether the medium is digital or non-digital, but just because of some historical reasons around gaming culture: historically speaking, video game culture is more representation-oriented while non-electronic game culture less.

Further reading


  • In addition, Masayuki says "in digital games, 'what you cannot do' does't exist in the first place". I partly agree and partly disagree with him in this point. For as long as a player expects that she can do so and so, there can be a case where she cannot (at least feels unable to) do so. Her expectation may derive from representational contents, some convention of the game genre in question, and so on. For example, when a door is represented, you may expect "I can open and go through it"; when facing a chest in JRPG, you may expect "I can open it and get its contents". And if you understand that the game program hasn't implemented the open action, you may feel impossibility (not permissibility).

  • For example, see Adams and Dormans' game design book. But it's just the matter of terminology and there's nothing wrong with calling video games' mechanics "rules". Rather, it might be reasonable to use the term "rule" in order to understand both non-electronic and video games under the same framework (e.g. Jesper Juul). In any case, it's important that when we use "rule" in relation to games, we should define the term definitely.

  • Such a norm extrinsic to game playing may be what the philosopher Bernard Suits calls "lusory attitude", a special kind of attitude that players have to take in order to participate game playing. Generally, spoilsports explicitly break this attitude, and cheaters secretly violate this attitude. I think the lusory attitude might be the attitude that transforms "may and may not" into "can and cannot" in players' mind.