There are far more cooperative games nowadays than in 2000, when Reiner Knizia’s The Lord of the Rings was published; or even than in 2008, when Matt Leacock’s Pandemic was published. Today we have many different takes on the concept: games in which all players win, or lose, as a team, hidden teams, individual goals within a larger team effort, and more.
There are both digital and non-digital cooperative games. Indeed, thanks to networked devices, cooperative games represent a significant part of online gaming – including, for instance, team-based FPS games, MMORPGs, and virtual escape rooms. I deal mainly with non-digital games (“board games”) in this text, but digital games are also included in the discussion.
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As I write, Boardgamegeek lists a little more than eight thousand board games tagged as cooperative – that is, games which include cooperative elements, even if those are not the defining mechanic.
To put this in perspective, roughly the same amount of board games is listed in the wargames list – and wargames have been popular for quite some time.
The entire Boardgamegeek game database lists near 125,000 board games. So, as of today, cooperative board games represent about six percent of all board games.
We have, then, a great many cooperative games.
But my contention here goes beyond that. I submit that all games are cooperative, when there are ate least two people involved in them.
I do not mean, by that, that all games use cooperative mechanics. Far from it. I am not interested in game mechanics here; my interest goes deeper than that.
Systems Theory tells us that a game is more than the sum of its parts. In order to have a game, we need not only components and rules, but also players. What I buy in a store is not yet a game, but a potential game. It will only fulfill this potential, and become a game, during play.
I open the box and set up the components over my table, and then my friends and I play. We turn a potential game into a real game; in a sense, we are creating a game anew. Just as no one ever steps in the same river twice, no one ever plays the same game twice.
It is this act of creation that interests me. Here lies the crux of my contention, when I say that all games are cooperative games. All games depend on cooperation in order to exist.
Part of this is something well-known. “All play is a voluntary activity”, wrote Huizinga in Homo ludens. This is indeed true, but only to a certain extent.
We may read several nuances in this “voluntary”. There are many motivations that could lead someone to play a game. For instance, my boss invites me to a friendly Poker game in his house. Even if I don’t like Poker, I may feel compelled to go and play.
On the other hand, what is this activity? There are a few dozen game mechanics, and there are unnumbered variations in how they may be combined, in order to create a game. Here, also, I want to go a little deeper; because there is, indeed, a common activity in the core of all games: the implementation of the rules.
There are many definitions of “game”; perhaps the only thing in common between all of them is a mention to rules. Even if the rules are changeable during play, there are always rules. And no rule may be self-implemented. Whether in a game or in a polity, all rules must be implemented by people.
Rules are an essential element of a game. But, unlike boards, cards or pawns, they do not exist by themselves: the players create them anew, every time they play. What is more: players must cooperate, since they all must agree to play by the same rules. Going back to Huizinga, he wrote that “the rules of a game are absolutely binding and allow no doubt” – even if they are not the exact rules printed with the game components.
It is important to note that there are different kinds of rules, although they must all be implemented by the players. First, there are constitutive rules: the rules which define what the components are, what is the playing area, how the game ends, and so on. In terms of Systems Theory, constitutive rules define the elements of the system, and its limits – in time and in space. Then, there are procedural rules, which describe which actions a player may or must execute, and the consequences of these actions.
Constitutive and procedural rules are usually set against each other, although the boundary between them may be a bit fuzzy sometimes. Another pairing opposes formal and informal rules. Formal rules are often found printed inside a game box; but informal rules are created by each group of players, both to complement and to override formal rules. Many informal rules take the form of “that simply is not done” etiquette rules, and this reveals that informal rules have a wider reach than formal rules.
It does not matter where a rule is situated in the constitutive-procedural axis, or in the formal-informal axis: it must still be implemented by the players themselves.
We have, then, a cooperative foundation common to all non-digital games, when at least two people play them. They must all agree to play, work together to implement the same rules, and be bound by them.
Both digital games and solitaire games offer challenges here. What about them?
Solitaire games, whether digital or non-digital, can hardly be said to be cooperative. But I will table this for a while, and tackle the digital games challenge first.
In digital games, most rules are non-negotiable, and they are implemented by software in a digital device. Effectively, the software takes over the rules agency from the players. However, the software only implements formal rules. Informal rules are still created and implemented by the players themselves. This is most evident in games that allow for team play, or other forms of strong interaction between players (such as trade); but this happens even in the most fiercely competitive digital games, just as it happens in the most fiercely competitive board games.
Thus, even in digital games, when at least two people are playing, the same cooperative foundation manifests itself: they must all agree to play, work together to implement the same rules, and be bound by them. Players in digital games have less rules agency than players in non-digital games, but they still have agency.
Going back now to solitaire games. They do not feature cooperation between players, since there is only one player.
However, solitaire play is still voluntary play, and the player must still implement rules. Even in a digital solitaire game, there is informal rules agency – “let’s see if I can level up without armor”.
The attitude of the solitaire player is the same attitude of the players in non-solitaire games. In The Grasshopper, Bernard Suits called it the lusory attitude. This is what allows a player to transition smoothly from “solitaire mode” to “multiplayer mode”, whether in digital games or in board games.
What we have, then, in solitaire games, is potential cooperation with other players.
In my argument, above, cooperation – whether actual or potential – is always mediated by rules. We create rules, we implement them, we submit to them, in order to create play.
Game rules are rules indeed; they are akin to laws, decrees, statutes, bylaws, and so on. The set of rules in a game is a normative system, as Joseph Raz indicated in Practical Reason and Norms. Normative systems are not all created equal – but they are all based on rules, and all rules are created in the same way… the way that I described previously, in which rules mediate cooperation.
Now, we can turn the argument upside-down, and start with the solitaire player. Here, we have potential cooperation, as I proposed above. What enables this single player to create the potential for cooperation is self-restraint. “I want to win this game, but only by following its rules”.
One year after Huizinga published Homo ludens, Norbert Elias published The Civilizing Process, in which he proposes that self-restraint is a key component of civilization. A few years before that, Jean Piaget had published The Moral Judgement of the Child, which from the very first page investigates how children submit to rules, created and implemented by themselves.
It seems that all games are cooperative games, after all.
Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process (1939).
Johan Huizinga, Homo ludens (1938).
Jean Piaget, The Moral Judgement of the Child (1932).
Joseph Raz, Practical Reason and Norms (1975).
Bernard Suits, The Grasshopper (1978).