Game rules as an ethical value

This article was written in 2019, and it was submitted to a journal that has gone defunct since then. It was never reviewed or published before.

Dec 31, 2019


This paper offers some thoughts and challenges on the role of rules in games, with special attention to the relationship between players and rules in digital games. Designing rules is an essential step in the design of a game: not only do the rules define the game itself, but they also define the affordances of its players. However, the relationship between players and game rules does not restrict itself to the confines of the game; rather, it is part and parcel of the players’ social experience. Understanding this relationship is thus a useful tool for game designers; but this also brings about a challenge.

There has been some disturbing connections between gamer culture and events such as Gamergate or the massacres at Oslo and Christchurch. Such events are complex phenomena, and no simple explanations exist for them. But studying the relationship between players and game rules may offer insights towards understanding these events.

Keywords : games; rules; ethical values; learning process; civilizing process.


Any given game expresses human values, and thus reveals much about the cultural environment in which it was created (Flanagan and Nissenbaum 2014). This adds ethics to the mix of characteristics which may be considered by a game designer (Schrier and Gibson 2010), and this also allow us to ask which values are presented, or transmitted, by a game. The intense emotional effect of games – one of the enabling factors of serious games – plays an important part here.

Here we have at once a very important point: even in its simplest forms on the animal level, play is more than a mere physiological phenomenon or a psychological reflex. It goes beyond the confines of purely physical or purely biological activity. It is a significant function—that is to say, there is some sense to it.
(Huizinga [1938] 1949: 1)

Here, I intend to demonstrate that the significant function of a game includes both its rules and the relationship between the rules and the players. As such, this relationship becomes an important value in itself, shared by all participantes in a game.

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Who is in the game

To say that a game includes one or more players is tautological. Indeed, the componentes of a game are not a game yet; only during play – that is, when players are added to the system – does the game actually exist. Before this, what is in a box or in a computer’s memory is just a potential. Of course, players do not even need to be human, as can be easily seen even in so many digital games.

Besides players, several games include other participantes. For instance, sports games often include one or more umpires; and anyone who has been in a decisive match in a crowded stadium will easily recognize the relevance of spectators.

In any given game, there is also another indirect, invisible participant: its designer – or designers, even the anonymous and forgotten designers of a long cultural evolution. The designer creates and defines the affordances and agencies of all participantes in a game, as well as the in-game consequences of all game actions.

This becomes readily evident in games such as tabletop RPGs, in which the game master is a subcreator both of the narrative and of the game system, which he will often change and reinterpret. In digital games, the computer plays a similar part, but it will act precisely as the game designer programmed it to act, thus fulfilling his vision of what the game should be.

Any participant in a game will necessarily deal with one of the main elements created by its designer: the rules of the game.


There are precious few unanimities in game studies. One of them: every game has its rules. Indeed, there are rules which define the game itself, and separate it from the common world: they delineate the magic circle wherein it will be played, they define who are its players and participants, what each of them can do, what are their objectives.

All game rules – indeed, all rules – share two common characteristics. First of all, they are social constructs, created by humans. There are no game rules in nature; there was a human agency which created them.

Second: no game rule is self-enforced. All rules must be implemented and enforced by the participants.

These two characteristics have different effects in digital and in non-digital games.

In digital games, the rules are implemented and enforced by the computer. Quite often, the players do not know the rules, except in what they can deduce from their experience with the game, or with similar games. However, this creates a rigidity in digital games which does not exist in non-digital games: the rules are fixed. Except for patches and new versions, the rules of a digital game will not be changed – indeed, they cannot be changed. Even games which admit game mods will only allow some aspects of the game to be changed by the mods – and this ability is itself created by the designer, as well as its limits.

The rules of non-digital games are directly implemented and enforced by the players. They are responsible for using the game components according to the rules. In non-digital games, house rules and variants abound, whether created by design or unconsciously.

Indeed, to change the rules of a game is a very common activity.

Learning rules

The first significant study about play was Homo ludens (Huizinga [1938] 1949). Right from the start, Huizinga mentions several theories which looked to explain play as a biological function.

According to one theory, play constitutes a training of the young creature for the serious work that life will demand later on. According to another it serves as an exercise in restraint needful to the individual.
(Huizinga [1938] 1949: 2)

Huizinga goes on to show that these theories are insufficient as explanations to understand the complex phenomenon which is play. However, this does not mean that they are completely wrong, or even mostly wrong. They still offer valuable insights on some characteristics of games.

Indeed, a few years before was published, one of the most celebrated works by Jean Piaget – The Moral Judgment of the Child (Piaget and others [1932] 1948) – showcased the way in which games enabled children to learn how to deal with rules – how to follow them, how to enforce them, how to change them. In short, games taught children one essential social skill.

Piaget’s work continues relevant today, and learning how to deal with rules is still an essential part of the learning process of children.(Retondar 2007: 55 ff.). What is relevant here is that any game may be used in this process; whether playing Hide-and-Seek with friends, or playing a serious game designed to teach some specific information, to learn to play is to learn to deal with rules.

To learn to follow rules is already a great step. Ideally, children will also learn that there are no absolute rules, they will learn to think critically about rules – and, especially, they will learn that rules are not self-enforced and that implement rules is an act of will (Kelsen 1991: 2).

In this sense, the fundamental difference between digital and non-digital games, which I mentioned above, results in a strong and unanticipated effect.

Rules in digital games

The computer is not only one of the participants in a digital game; it plays a role which, in non-digital games, is necessarily played by their players. The rules are now the sole purview of a non-human participant.

As I mentioned before, it is quite common that players do not even know the rules of a digital game. This is not an accident; quite the opposite, this is often a declared goal of digital game designers. Tutorials, “intuitive” interfaces, learning scenarios… there are a lot of tools used to teach how to play a game while not teaching its rules. All of this reveals quite clearly to the player: do not worry about rules, the computer will take care of that for you.

This is not to say that digital games have no rules. Their rules are created by their designers, just as in any game. But the rules are hidden from the players, who can only learn them from experience; and they are completely one-sided, imposed in an absolute way. It is quite impossible to escape them, since they completely define the world inside a game. If a player tries to act contrary to the rules, the computer – the simulated “reality” of the game – will handily prevent that.

For instance: if a FPS game includes objects which can be damaged by gunfire, the players may discover this affordance and use it. On the other hand, the same game may include objects which cannot be damaged by any player action; in the game “reality”, there is no possibility at all of players ever damaging one of these objects.

The player does not need to worry about rules. The reality will do this in his stead. The universe conspires in his favor, quite literally.

By removing this important function from the players, digital games may inadvertently feed two false notions. To begin with, the player may well think that he does not need to worry about rules, since others will do this for him; worse, that anything he manages to do is ipso facto within the rules, since it is impossible to act agains the rules.

Both notions are dangerously antithetical to life in society.

Not learning to follow rules, not learning that rules result from acts of will, may create a serious gap in the formation of a player as a member of a society. This, in turn, may become a contributing factor to aggressive behavior.

Understanding the influence of communication media upon society and its membres is still an open question.(Croteau and Hoynes 2019:439). However, Anderson et al. (2010) have shown that violent digital games may indeed be one contributing factor in aggressive behavior. As these authors mention in their paper, it is more important to study how to deal with this than to keep debating if games do cause aggressive behavior.

Indeed, the relationship between games and violence has acquired new dimensions, quite beyond the grossly inaccurate statement “games cause violence”. The sharing of cultural elements between gamers and extremists has been demonstrated by several events – such as in the massacres in Oslo (2011) and Christchurch (2019), or even the numerous incidents related to Gamergate – but it goes well beyond these high-profile cases (Khan 2019)(Farokhmanesh 2019).

Self-restraint and civilization

Stenros and Waern (2010) point out that digital games are a subset of games, and not the other way around. They also point out, quite correctly, that to analyze games just as systems is not enough to understand their effect.

The rules of a game create a set of affordances for its players, defining their agency. The game and its players are indeed a system, inside which the relationships between its components are those created by the game rules.

However, it is impossible to separate the game system from the social system in which it exists – precisely because the players themselves are the common element between these two systems. The social system, as the game system, has its own rules, which also define a set of affordances for its participants.

To learn to follow social rules is more than an important step of learning, as Piaget indicated. Norbert Elias identifies in this the civilizing process itself – which is based on self-restraint (Elias [1939] 2000: cap. 2, IX).

Games play an essential part in this process. Games teach that rules are based on the consent and self-restraint of players, not on some outward agency forever beyond their grasp, and to which they have no alternative beyond submission.

Final thoughts

It should be made clear that I do not intend to disparage digital games, or any other genres of games. In this, I follow Flanagan and Nissenbaum (2014), and I wish to participate in a constructive debate about games and human values.

We’re interested in the role that values play in animating personal, political, and artistic expression through any medium. We aim to provide resources for designers and design students who are interested in exploring the creative potential of what we call values-conscious design and who wish to consider, in a systematic way, the moral, social, and political resonances of digital games.
(Flanagan and Nissenbaum 2014: Introduction)

In this paper, my objective is to showcase that the rules themselves are the embodiment of an important human value. By abandoning rules fulfillment to a computer – which, inside the game, is omnipotent and omniscient – we are renouncing to an essential part of our social life.

The stereotyped “gamer” as a lone player of digital games is a figment of imagination. Gamer culture is quite real, and I once again go back to Huizinga, pointing out a common characteristic of players: games promote

the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means.
(Huizinga [1938] 1949:13)

Player groups often become permanent social groups (Huizinga [1938] 1949: 12) – for good or for ill.

The shocking events to which I alluded above are slowly revealing links between the gamer culture and a darker, more dangerous culture (Khan 2019). Even if violent actions as in Oslo and Christchurch are – fortunately! – the exception and not the rule, there are still many agressive behaviors in this gray zone, in which the will acts not as part of the civilizing process, but as a return to barbarism.

Rules may be written in paper inside game boxes, or they may be codified in algorithms. We create them; they are an important part of our lives, and we cannot renounce to our responsibility in using them.


Anderson, Craig A., Akiko Shibuya, Nobuko Ihori, Edward L. Swing, Brad J. Bushman, Akira Sakamoto, Hannah R. Rothstein, and Muniba Saleem. 2010. “Violent Video Game Effects on Aggression, Empathy, and Prosocial Behavior in Eastern and Western Countries: A Meta-Analytic Review.” Psychological Bulletin 136 (2): 151–74.

Croteau, David, and William Hoynes. 2019. Media/Society: Technology, Industries, Content, and Users. 6th ed. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Elias, Norbert. [1939] 2000. The civilizing process: sociogenetic and psychogenetic investigations. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. Revised edition. Malden: Blackwell.

Farokhmanesh, Megan. 2019. “Gamergate Comes to the Classroom.” The Verge. August 21, 2019.

Flanagan, Mary, and Helen Nissenbaum. 2014. Values at Play in Digital Games. Cambridge (MS): The MIT Press.

Huizinga, Johan. [1938] 1949. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. São Paulo: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Kelsen, Hans. 1991. General Theory of Norms. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Khan, Rumi. 2019. “The Alt-Right as Counterculture: Memes, Video Games and Violence.” Harvard Political Review. Cambridge, MA. July 6, 2019.

Piaget, Jean, and others. [1932] 1948. The Moral Judgement of the Child. Translated by Marjorie Gabain. Glencoe: The Free Press.

Retondar, Jeferson José Moebus. 2007. Teoria do Jogo. Petrópolis: Vozes.

Schrier, Karen, and David Gibson. 2010. Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play. Hershey: Information Science Reference.

Stenros, Jaakko, and Annika Waern. 2010. “Games as Activity: Correcting the Digital Fallacy.” In 2nd Conference on Video Gaming and the Future of Interactive Entertainment.

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Luiz Cláudio S. Duarte

Game studies, ludology, rules, writing, playing, photos, polymathia, philomathia.