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Paper: The Implicit Rules of Board Games

by on October 19, 2011

The paper I chose to read is: Karl Bergström. 2010. The implicit rules of board games: on the particulars of the lusory agreement. In Proceedings of the 14th International Academic MindTrek Conference: Envisioning Future Media Environments (MindTrek ’10). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 86-93. It can be found here: click!

In this paper, the author explores the implicit rules that surround the playing of board games, in order to better understand gamers and gaming, as well as facilitate design. The paper describes the result of interviews with 11 experienced gamers. It describes a set of implicit rules commonly used, as well as possible points of discussion concerning these rules and how the players handle these.

Implicit rules are not part of the game itself, but of the social agreement between its players. They are often ambiguous, not shared by all players, often taken for granted and only verbalized when they are broken. The implicit rules in this paper are divided into three categories:

  • Game-focused rules: closest to the game and directly related to the explicit rules. Don’t cause the most friction between gamers. Examples: taking back a move, always play to win/do your best, adhering to the spirit of the game, …
  • Group-focused rules: these are more focused on the group of people playing and proper behavior while playing. These elicit more friction between players than the previous category. Examples: no early exit, no unacceptable whining on your position on the quality of the game during play, …
  • Rules in between: these fall in between the group and the explicit rules and often concern the boundary of the magic circle (the social agreement between players when playing). These cause the most friction when they are broken. Examples: no taking revenge for outcome of previous game, no metagaming (e.g.  threatening players with off-game consequences, favoritism, …), can rules be discussed during games or only afterwards, …

Depending on the category of the implicit rules, the consequences of breaking a rule can differ greatly. Game-focused rule breaches are generally solved by finding an agreement. Group-focused rules tend to more quickly lead to discussions, since some people tend to think that they are more “right” than others, which can lead to hard feelings. Finally, breaching the rules in between is seen as the worst transgressions, since this can lead to serious problems for the further enjoyment of the game. “Punishment” can vary from verbal remarks during/after the game, excluding players from future games or even outright termination of the current game.

I’ve learned from this paper that the implicit rules of a game should not be neglected compared to the explicit rules, when judging whether a game is fun to play. While explicit rules are generally not up for discussion, implicit rules often are. And the discussion that could ensue because of this, could have a great impact on the enjoyability of the game. Gaming is a social activity, so the human factor should also be taken into account during evaluation. It also follows that, knowing about these implicit rules, one should take them into account when designing a game and try to eliminate all ambiguities in the explicit rules that could lead to conflicts over implicit rules. Finally, the author made the interesting remark that digital games, especially now they are focussing more and more on multiplayer, also come with implicit rules, that if not followed, can spoil the experience. Examples of this are spawn camping in shooters or ganking and griefing in MMORPGs.


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