No game is an island

As this example reminds us, no game or sport is played in a vacuum. All play activities exist in a "real-world" context, so to play the game is to immerse yourself in that context, whether you want to or not. In fact, it is impossible to determine where the "game" ends and "real life" begins. As a result, knowing only the recorded rules of a game is never enough to allow you to play the game.

Think of the constraints that do not ordinarily get included as part of the recorded rules of tic-tac-toe but which nevertheless influence the behavior of almost all players. Some of these involve the conventions, "etiquette," or "ethos" of this particular game and may vary from region to region or even family to family.

For example, I would guess that few tic-tac-toe players talk trash to each other (an acceptable and even expected behavior in some games and sports, like basketball).

Similarly, I'm willing to bet that few people play tic-tac-toe for money (in contrast to Poker) or prizes (as is sometimes true with Scrabble) or masters points (as with tournament Bridge) or glory (as in Central Park chess).

Also, most people, I suspect, would probably allow their opponent, especially an inexperienced player or a young child, the opportunity to "take back" an obviously unwise move.

Playing fair

Other unwritten rules are associated with being "a good sport" and would apply to virtually all games in our culture. For example, you may not attempt to coerce your opponent, through physical force or threats or bribery or blackmail, into putting a symbol on a particular square. You may not attempt to cause your opponent physical, mental, or emotional harm to keep him or her from competing effectively. You may not attempt to distract your opponent while he or she is contemplating the next move. On the other hand, you must make your moves in a "reasonable" time. You must take the game seriously and attempt to win. You must play "fair" at all times.

To understand the difficulty—or, more accurately, the impossibility—of spelling out every rule governing the behavior of tic-tac-toe players, try to imagine programming a computer to "understand" what is meant by the sentences in the previous paragraph. For instance, think about the notion of "distracting" an opponent. What counts and what doesn't? Suppose you are chewing gum or smoking or wearing perfume and your opponent claims to be bothered by the sounds or aromas you are producing. What would we tell Deep Blue about this situation? Can we really list every behavior that qualifies as distracting?

The human factor

Or for that matter, can we ever be sure (in the sense that we could program a computer to determine) that a player is "really" distracted? In his famous match with Boris Spassky in Rejkjavik, Iceland, in 1972, Bobby Fischer claimed to be "distracted" by negative vibes that were emanating from his opponent's camp. Officials could hardly appeal to the recorded rules, as "complete" as those might have been, to determine how to handle Fischer's complaints. They had to use their experience with people, including Fischer and Spassky, their understanding of human psychology, their awareness of the political and social implications of the situation, and their diplomatic skills to arrive at a satisfactory compromise. Which of these notions is programmable?

Even Deep Blue, the most sophisticated chess program ever devised, cannot distinguish between a game played for blood (or money) and one played for fun; cannot recognize when a move should count and when politeness or common sense or common courtesy or compassion or medical emergency dictates that it shouldn't; cannot take into account the emotional needs of its opponent; cannot know when it's appropriate to abandon the game or suspend play; cannot, in short, understand the social, political, moral, psychological, and philosophical context in which the game occurs.

Unspoken basics

Obviously, our ability to participate in a particular game is dependent on our knowledge of many "rules" which no one has ever spelled out to us. Yet it is easy to overlook this simple fact. In When Elephants Weep, the authors tell about a group of scientists who attempted to teach dolphins to play water polo. Although the dolphins were able to learn how to put the ball in the net (and seemed to derive pleasure from doing so), when the trainers tried to get them to stop the other team from "scoring," the dolphins launched an all-out war on the other team's players, using methods that no person steeped in the concepts of sportspeopleship would ever use.

After this experience, the trainers gave up their effort, apparently concluding that their task was hopeless, that dolphins couldn't be taught to play the sport. My guess is that they assumed that all the dolphins needed to be taught were the recorded rules of water polo and the creatures would be able to play the game like adult human beings. These scientists evidently did not realize how much of our knowledge of proper game behavior precedes the learning of the statable constraints of a particular sport.

But suppose these trainers had recognized, after their initial failure, that they had to provide their trainees with some more fundamental "rules" of game-playing. Would they ever have been able to teach dolphins all they need to know to play a single "human" game? Are dolphins capable of understanding fairness and sportscreatureship, "time in" vs. "time out," practice vs. competition, winning and losing. And even if they are, how would we go about teaching these concepts to them? Wouldn't we have to teach them much of our culture in order for them to play the game as we do?

Sportsmanship 101

To grasp the immensity of the trainers' task, let us look more closely at what we must know and do to play the simplest game in our culture. We must:

  1. intuitively understand what is meant by play in our culture, recognize how it differs from other activities, and be able to tell when someone is involved in the behaviors associated with play in general and games in particular;

  2. intuitively understand what game/sport is being played, which behaviors constitute part of that activity and which do not, when the activity is underway, when it is in suspension, and when it is concluded;

  3. consciously understand and pursue the object(s) of the game (i.e., what we must accomplish to be "successful");

  4. consciously understand and follow all (or at least a large majority of) the defining prescriptions and proscriptions of the game, the "written," statable rules—i.e., what we must and must not do in the course of pursuing the object or objects;

  5. consciously understand and follow the etiquette of the game— i.e., the unwritten but sometimes stated traditions associated with the game that do not necessarily affect the play itself (e.g., appropriateness of talking, gloating, taunting, celebrating, stalling, replaying a point, giving advice to your opponent or teammates, letting players take back moves, etc.);

  6. intuitively understand and follow the ethos of that particular game— i.e., the unwritten and rarely expressed assumptions about how to interpret and enforce the "written" rules (e.g., palming in basketball; the strike zone in American and National Leagues; the footfault in tennis);

  7. intuitively understand and follow the conventions of playing any game according to the culture of the participants—i.e., the unwritten and generally unstatable customs related to playing, competing, winning/losing, etc. (e.g., taking the game with the appropriate seriousness, knowing what takes priority over winning and over playing, not faking injury or personal obligation to avoid losing; playing "hard" regardless of the score; not claiming that previous points didn't "count");

  8. intuitively understand and respond to the "real-life" context in which the game is being played—i.e. the social, cultural, economic, political, and moral consequences of the result (e.g., whether someone's livelihood or self-esteem depends on the outcome).

"Unwritten Rules" by Stephen Sniderman2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7

The Life of Games
No. 1 (October 1999)
©1999 Kadon Enterprises, Inc.