However, while attempts at simulation can be enormous fun to play, they are usually short-lived. Soon enough, our suspension of disbelief gives way, and we find ourselves examining the rules. We cast aside the fiction and graphics to peer at the underlying boundaries that define our ability to interact with the objects and systems being simulated.
Why do rules have such power over our minds?
I believe that childhood play is about practicing within the rules designed for adulthood, testing them out in a pretend world first. Later on, grownups deconstruct literature or art for rules (and the ways they have been tested) in a similar fashion.
Similarly, game rules are highly compact artistic statements which can be played with as the user experiments with the system to see if it contains lessons which may be of use. To be sure, the representation of those rules, and simulations of their results are certainly compelling, but it is the rules themselves that will define each player's overall success. As a result, players scan for rules constantly.
Simple, easy to understand game rules are powerfully capable of delivering valuable lessons and artistic messages. In fact, I would argue that even when the designer is not trying to make any kind of artistic statement about life, players often find worthwhile lessons communicated by these rules. Rules that relate to the human experience and have far reaching consequences for a game: These are our brushes and violins.
Rules as Lessons
The point is best demonstrated by a few short examples of board games:
- Chess: Anyone who has managed a large organization or is a student of history will have given a wry smile at the king's place in Chess. He is incredibly powerful, moving in any direction... but slowly, slowly. He can only be defeated indirectly, by restricting his freedom of action.
- Pachisi: In this game, the lucky get luckier - a rule imitated so often that it is easily overlooked. Many games deliberately unbalance the game by making the lucky even luckier. In Pachisi, if you get a great roll, you not only get the benefits, you get to roll again. Life certainly can feel like that. Those born into wealth are often also graced with attractive mates or good luck in business, for example.
- Oware: This is a member of one of the oldest games families known, the Mancala family. In Oware, players sow seeds amongst houses representing the dispersion and acquisition of some commodity within a community. There are many versions, but in my favorite traditional version, a player is not allowed to wipe out an opponent even when he is able. In fact, the rules of the game go even further, stipulating that one must make a move that allows an opponent to play.
Thus, a player must win without directly attacking his fellow player. This rule representing cooperative/competitive political situations within a small village is a wonderful model which applies just as well to modern cabinet politics, corporate maneuverings and immediate interpersonal relationships.
- Snakes and Ladders (aka Chutes & Ladders in the U.S.A.): The original Victorian version of this game had the ladders labeled with virtues such as "Faith," "Reliability" and "Generosity," while the snakes were labeled with sins such as "Disobedience," "Vanity" and "Vulgarity."
The game's rules are possibly derived from an older Indian game of spirituality. As a lesson about life's nature, Snakes and Ladders is interesting work: Firstly, it is entirely luck based, and secondly, no matter how well someone appears to be doing, there is always a chance he will land on a snake (a sin) and be whisked back down the board.
- Go: The rules of Go have informed numerous areas of thought from politics to business. It is a timeless statement of conflict, focus, and the management of influence and direct control. The elegance and aesthetic beauty of this game's rules are, perhaps, the finest invented so far.