Picture this: I’m playing a game of Trouble in Terrorist Town with a bunch of my friends. I’ve just figured out who the traitor is, and I’m alone with him. I shoot him right the head and proclaim my victory. After bragging that I’m a genius, the obvious question arose, “But Nick, how did you know?” to which I respond, “I saw him standing perfectly still, which meant he was buying stuff”. I then get scolded for brilliantly deducing that the guy very obviously being a traitor was a traitor, and that killing him based on that reasoning wasn’t in the spirit of the game. So now, with absolutely no salt in my tone, I’m going to try and reason that what I did was both totally awesome and fully in the spirit of the game… After I try and convince you that the whole concept is ridiculous.
I’ve been lectured about the way games are ‘meant’ to be played a thousand times. Sore losers complaining about cheesing, schticklers to the rules, anyone who disagrees with how I played within the rules in an atypical way, like building an advertising brand in DnD. It’s a perfectly valid way to approach the game, and when that marketing scheme literally pays off, it’s way better than doing the same old boring spells a million times. Exploration of the boundaries doesn’t seem to go down so well in video games though, but why get so crabby at hilarious plays? It’s not like this is BDSM we’re talking about, it’s just video games, and, you know, those aren’t the same thing.
Unless you play fighting games.
When people talk about ‘the spirit of the game’, they’re rarely discussing the metaphysical questions surrounding video games as a medium; they’re generally talking about the intent of the game’s design. Intent is a weird thing to talk about because, without a direct quote from the developer or artist who made the work, it’s impossible to know what the intent behind anything is. We can have a guess as to what the developers wanted people to take from their game from playing it, but we can’t really know. Without them telling us what we should be taking from the game, we’re left to our own devices to form meaning based on what is presented to us. To that end, intent becomes irrelevant since it is the design of the game that informs the audience of its intent, and this is where the problem comes up.
Every game has an intent behind its design that we can gauge from playing it, like Amnesia being designed to terrify you, but you have no idea to confirm that it was the actual intent. Thing is, if the actual intent doesn’t come through when you’re playing the game, what good was the design? We can only experience the execution of that design, so if it’s not part of the design, it’s not part of the intent. More importantly, we aren’t limited by the intent of the developer, we’re limited by the design of the game, and unless the design prohibits an action, we can only say that it was intentionally part of the design. This isn’t like DnD where everyone’s along for the ride and only refers to the rules when necessary, we’re talking about games that are defined and played through those rules and only those rules. If this is all a bit fluffy, let me put into terms we can all understand.
Hhhhnnnnggg, so relatable…
Let’s take two examples: Sex and Counter-Strike (separately, not together). Suppose your partner asks you to give BDSM a go, and you pull out your iPhone mid-whipping to check on Team Liquid’s progress in the latest GSL. That, undoubtedly, is not in the spirit of BDSM, and you should be ashamed of yourself for not giving the idea a red hot go. This is you stepping outside the bounds of the artificial construct of play to do something that detracts from the act of, uh, whipping your slave. Counter-Strike, however, is the construct and the act. There is no way to step outside of it with your P90 and C4, and as such, there is no way to do anything that takes away from “the spirit of the game” without breaking the rules. Even if you just stand still, that’s simply a poor strategy, and the opposing team can still win rounds. There’s no way to go beyond the rules in-game, and that is the key difference here.
The difference between BDSM (or tabletop) and video games is that you don’t have the choice to start an insurance firm in Counter-Strike or suddenly switch sides in Dragon Age. You’re limited by what you can do, not by what you can’t do, which means that ‘the spirit of the game’ is just the rules. If it wasn’t in the spirit of the game (aka, part of the intended design), it wouldn’t be allowed, and exploiting glitches inherently violates that, ya filthy speedrunner! Otherwise, it’s all fair, it’s fine, and there’s no way around that… Unless you cheat, which is most definitely not in the spirit of the game. If someone stands still in TTT, I can surmise that they’re buying something, and they should have hid better to avoid being seen standing perfectly still. Sure, it’s meta, but I’m allowed to do that and I’m punished if I’m wrong. So, if all of this is fair game, why do we get so shitty when someone cheeses us?
See all those shiny things? Those are pain responses to being cheesed.
Intent is one thing, but expectation is quite another. In playing a game, we form a schema of it in our heads, which is a fancy way of saying we organise the rules in our minds to form a coherent picture of the game. That picture is what drives our decision making, and once we gauge how the game works, we can start thinking up how to best go about killing some traitors. What’s key is that this schema is not necessarily a one-to-one picture of how the game works and how the mechanics relate to one another; it’s just how we perceive it and fill in the holes.
A schema is a bit like a base for decision-making, but like making an omelette out of french fries, it doesn’t have to be the most solid foundation for us to start adding to it. We obviously can’t objectively know what the intent of the game is or perfectly comprehend every minutiae of the mechanics, so we take a few shortcuts. We fill in the gaps of the schema with whatever information is available, but none of those gaps need to be filled with correct information, as long as they’re filled. If it tends to work, great, that’s good enough for our brain! Unfortunately, this means that different people will form different schemas of the same game, and this leads to different expectations from different players.
A lot of people still expect to be satisfied by this game. I don’t.
It’s easy to picture how people expect different experiences from the same game, but we don’t even need to imagine such hellish imagery, we can just look at League of Legends. Anyone who’s played LoL knows the utter horror of salt that happens frequently enough to be mentionable here. There’s always one guy, that one frakkin’ guy, who will rip you a new one and criticise you for not knowing the meta in excruciating detail, regardless of whether you win or lose. You expect people to be decent enough not to call you a twat-squaddlin’ noobscrub, but their expectation of the game (as informed by the schema they formed) leaves plenty of room to insult everyone else. Maybe they’re a troll, maybe they’re just an asshole, but they clearly harbour different expectations from the game, and that’s because we can’t help but apply ourselves onto the game’s design.
Those little shortcuts I mentioned before don’t come from someone else telling you what to think, they come from you, and they’re annoyingly pervasive. When you fill the gaps of the schema of a game in your head, you’re doing so from past experiences mixed with the implied intent of the design. Where the implied intent fails to inform, assumptions based on similar games leave their mark, and this makes truly understanding how a game is “meant” to be played so damn difficult. Everyone expects something different from the game because they fundamentally think about the game differently, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Of course, people going against what we know (i.e., think) is true never feels good. What is a bit of a dick move is to impose that view onto whoever else is playing with you, because like it or not, that’s just the game you’re playing.
You might as well be wearing one of these
Now, hackers and glitch-whores are the worst of the wrost, but if you’re not breaking the rules of the game as they’re set out, then no one has the right to tell you that you’re doing it wrong. You could say that haxlord96’s expectation of the game involves hacking the hell out of it, but that involves breaking the system you accept to conform to when playing the game, so, screw that guy. As I outlined earlier, the way that a game is ‘meant’ to be played is by the rules, and that is the only way to know what the ‘spirit’ of the game is. If I wasn’t allowed to do it, it would/will be banned, and unless it’s not allowed in the game, I can do what I want and you can’t say otherwise.
Games offer a rare freedom of experience for the audience that engages with it. The best games, in my eyes, are the ones which reward agency rather than following a standardised path. A perfect example of what I’m trying to get at is embodied by the online RPG, Space Station 13. The game has clear cut rules about staying in character and fulfilling your duties, but there are many mechanics afforded to players that can… Uh… Break everything. There’s no hacking involved, and breaking the rules is punishable by expulsion from the round, but you aren’t limited by role-play if you can get away with it. As long as you play within the confines of what is being offered, you can create utter anarchy, and the game will let you do that, which is awesome.
Corridor shooters get their name for a reason: They’re painfully restrictive
Now, for someone to come along and say you can’t do what you want goes against the freedom video games offer. In the same way that the one guy from LoL ruins everyone else’s game by being a twat, telling someone that they’re playing the game wrong is equally as disrespectful. Captain LoL shouldn’t get respect for calling everyone a scrub, but if I’m cheesing you without breaking the rules, I’m just employing a different approach. It’d be like complaining that one of the dudes in Counter-Strike is a really good shot when he’s not using an aimbot, so telling them that they’re interpreting the design wrong is straight up invidious.
The obvious exception to all this is when you’re playing with House Rules that aren’t enforced in the game’s design. When you play a video game normally, you’re confined to the rules and limitations of the design, but when you start messing around with your friends, the game’s design gets muffled. Take knife-only moments in CoD, where one person can shout out “KNIFE ONLY!” and no one is allowed to use guns until agreed otherwise. You’re allowed to use knives, but that’s the whole point; it’s knives only. This new rule has been added outside the design of the game, so it’s not really the same game you were just playing. The addition of the rules doesn’t have any in-game consequences either, and this is my whole point.
In EVE, cheesing is embraced, not dismissed as cheap or dirty… And it’s amazing.
Games don’t offer a spirit or mentality of how you should be playing it; they’re just a collection of rules that define some imaginary space where reality is no longer reality. Without getting too Phillip K. Dick about it, there’s nothing to guide our behaviour apart from those rules, and the interpretation of those rules is what constructs the schema/reality of the game we play. There is no spirit, there’s no one way to play, and there’s certainly no reason why your expectations should influence how I play the game (unless I’m exploiting some hack or cheating). Outside of that, the imaginary rules that we impose on the game are certainly more faith-based than the concrete ones in the game, and then and only then could we say that a game is meant to be played in a certain way. Otherwise, screw you, man, I’ll 360-noscope all I want.
It’s easy to let your own expectations colour the way we engage with a game, and not just when other players are involved. We can fall into the same traps of taking the obvious path, and we can get pretty salty when other people deviate from the norm. There’s no reason to, and deviation makes for some damn memorable experiences, so why not embrace deviance? It’s not like playing the same game the same way over and over again is all that fun, it’s practically why mods were invented. You know what else mods have? BDSM. Now, if that’s not in the spirit of good family, gaming, I don’t know what is.