Bending the Rules as an Art Form

A man who applies a particular mental skill to play Blackjack, counting cards, will eventually find security standing behind him, strongly suggesting he vacate the premises, when someone working for the casino figures out what he is doing.

That man has not brought any external items to the table. He has not smuggled certain cards with him in his sleeves, nor has he in some way altered the deck or the hands dealt to any other player. He has not brought any extraneous items into play, and he has not done some nefarious thing to anyone's chips. He is not breaking any of the visible rules. He has, instead, mastered a certain way of thinking about the rules themselves that gives him an edge considered unfair.

The gap between the written rules and the physically possible is one of those "here be dragons" areas in gaming. Dedicated players of any game feel extraordinary passion about the rules that apply to their world. Games ride right on the line of our mental compass for "fairness." If one plays within both the technical rules and the spiritual rules, one is fair. If one plays within the technical rules but violating the unwritten, spiritual rules, one is excoriated.

Over at Kill Screen, A. E. Benenson dives into the space between "breaking the rules" and "fair play" through the lens of sports and sports games, beginning with a boxing match:

Boxing isn't fighting; like all other sports, it is a game about fighting-a pretty crass metaphor, compared to curling, but a metaphor all the same for real-life rivalry. And like every game about fighting, boxing is defined by the specific rules that govern its metaphor. The rule sets of sports do not supplement the codes of conduct in real life, but replace them. Mayweather's knockout was the result of the momentary betrayal of the two overriding rules of the metaphor of boxing: punch (and only punch) when time is in; and protect yourself at all times. Ortiz's headbutt, his pleas for a truce-and his assumption Mayweather's open arms were a gesture of good faith-all make sense in the context of a real fight, not so much in a game about fighting.

Benenson goes on to examine how the idea of looking too closely at the details — the immediate rules that govern the metaphor — can blind a player to the very concept that all games are a set of rules wrapped around a metaphor. The simulation, he reminds us, is exactly that: a simulation, a specialized environment with its own set of rules. A game about baseball is not the same as a physical game of baseball. "When I play The Show, I don't play by the rules of baseball any more than Mayweather abides by polite conventions when he boxes," Benenson writes. "Just as a sport is a game version of some other Real Thing, a sports simulation is doubly a game: we aren't playing the real sport, but a videogame about the sport."

In the end, Benenson continues beyond the rules of boxing or baseball, and beyond the ideas of cheating and fairness, to turn us to the question of games as art. All kinds of art, too, have rules, and artists and viewers have cherry-picked among them for centuries. The more realistic the simulation, he concludes, the better off the player is leaving realism out of it all together.

My style follows the Modernists-Cezanne, Pollock, Stella, etc.-who dropped all the magical thinking to play with some ineluctable formal truths about their medium. For them it was the flatness of the canvas and the limitations of binocular vision; for me it's the glitches. The sim fans may be annoyed to play against someone like me, but the alternative is positively exasperating: If you play a simulation "realistically," every little clipped texture, every moronic AI move, threatens to ruin the source of your enjoyment.

I admit that I, too, would no doubt hate playing MLB: The Show against him. But the real question is: would that be his fault, for using the rules too well... or mine, for expecting unwritten ones to apply?

In Defense of Cheap Shots [Kill Screen]