Bending The Rules As An Art Form

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 specialised 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 video game 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]


  • I think this article makes perfect sense. Bare with me here as I make my point. I play a fair amount of racing games, and can usually count myself among the top 1%-2% of people on the Forza 4 leaderboards. I’m usually about 4-5 seconds slower than the very top guys. I have racked my brain about how i could possible pick that time up, and really, I can probably only make up a second or so. The thing is that these guys (or girls) are well tuned to the physics and rules of the game world. Probably in a more natural way than my methodical approach. My point is that they have been able to ‘command’ the ‘rules’ of the Forza universe better than most. Bending the rules maybe isn’t the best term for it, but taking command of the rules within a game environment will almost always see you come out on top.

    Just a thought…

    • Isn’t what he describing more like what I used to do on old f1 simulators? I knew I would never win by skill, so I would turn on invulnerability and drive backwards, smashing in to all of the cars until I was the only one who could still continue, and win the race.

      • I think you’re right. He’s basically talking about winning solely by glitching; this isn’t using a strategy that incorporates weaknesses in the code, it’s using a strategy built entirely around weak code. Worse, his defense seems to be “some parts of the game aren’t realistic, so therefore you should have no expectations of realistic play.”

        This is hardly “creative” play: in fact, it’s the exact opposite. Benenson finds a glitch and exploits it to its fullest, presumably every time he plays. To be sure, there are no shortage of people who play sports games like this online – in fact, the reason many online gamers take advantage of glitches is likely because the benefits of doing so are so great. And in that crowd, creating close plays at first or nano-blitzing or what have you is expected behavior … playing to win no matter what requires that you use the best strategies available, whether that means selecting the highest-rated team in the game or using non-pitchers on the mound.

        Benenson seems much like the people who use specific strategies to maximize their character development in Oblivion and then mock people who don’t: their way is right, yours is wrong and dumb. It doesn’t matter that we might be playing to explore the story line or to see what it’s like to use a particular build, to try to win “straight up” or to try to win by getting better at the game itself. It’s not what they do, so it must be “wrong”.

        It’s not, and neither is his method for playing … but Benenson would be better served by playing against like-minded individuals. Maybe he’d learn a little more about “defense”.

    • i don’t think it’s really bending the rules if they’re just good at it. It’s a question of how they found those extra 4-5 seconds. If they just drove better and had their cars set up better etc then that’s just being good at it. If, on the other hand, they did stuff like take shortcuts across large swathes of grass rather than going around corners properly then that would be bending the rules since, while the game might allow it, it shouldn’t. In a real race they’d probably get shown a flag for doing that.

  • Lol what a specious comparison to Blackjack; juking a game which is statistically tilted in the house’s favour from the start is not the same as being a glitch scrub against fellow competitors.

    The most logical progression of this type of “unlimited offence” modality is to become a full blown hacker. You want to win at any and all costs and you certainly have no qualms throwing your dignity away just as fast as you can so why not just hack and get it over with? You have no interest in the designer’s intent and have turned the experience into a race to the bottom so why draw this imaginary line at exploiting internal design limitations?

    As an aside, it’s funny how so many games now have these massive amounts of stat gathering when so many gamers are quite happy to glitch their way to “the top”. Congratulations, your stats no longer reflect your skill, they reflect your desperate nature and risk adverse attitude.


  • I think it also brings out the idea of ‘being cheap’.
    People will complain in fighting games about some characters being overly powerful, and about people spamming certain attacks (hadouken, hadouken, hadouken, hadouken, hadouken…)
    But that’s set within the game’s ‘rules’. Which brings up the ‘It’s part of the game argument’.
    It’s what makes people ban certain elements in tournaments.

    But it is finding these ‘flaws’ or ‘techniques’ in games that sometimes make them (or at least the player) better. Combos in street fighter (and then other fighting games) came about from flaws in animation and cancelling moves.
    Snaking in Mario Kart (which is perhaps balanced out by the items)
    Wave-dashing in Super Smash Brothers…
    Are these intended elements or emergent? And should they be ‘allowed’?

    • I see what you’re saying and it’s an interesting perspective on pushing the rules of a system; it’s not always a negative experience. That really is the difference between emergent gameplay (good glitches which enhance the experience across the board such as comboing/cancelling etc) and glitching, which degrades the experience and actually limits skill and expression within the game.

      At the end of the day i guess you take the good with the bad, it just seems ridiculous to defend behaviour which encourages escalation ie from bending the rules to outright breaking them so you can have an edge.

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