Meta-rules in other arenas

By way of analogy, consider our (or any other) monetary system. Most people recognize that the currency we use has no inherent worth and that it gains its value from mutual (if tacit) agreement among its users, which means its value is subjective, symbolic, and subject to change.

Few people believe that there is an objective, stable method for determining how much milk a dollar should buy. Most of us understand that there are no "rules" or meta-rules we can refer to that would settle a dispute about the value of a dollar bill and that its purchasing power is dependent on consensus, on other people's willingness to give us this much milk for this many dollars. And yet we can still use the coin of the realm and, for the most part, get our money's worth (by our own standards).

The system works even though no one can explain it fully and even though we all know it could collapse at any moment if people stopped trusting each other or the system itself.

The same is true with another currency—language. Even though words have no inherent meaning and no one has been able to list all the rules governing the construction of sentences, we can still communicate reasonably effectively for most purposes.

We all know that anyone at any time can choose to destroy the process by acting on Humpty Dumpty's premise that words can mean whatever we want them to mean. We know that there is no rule book, no authority, no indisputable arbiter we can appeal to in such a case (since they would all have to use more words to settle the dispute).

Like any game, communication is dependent on the participants' willingness to operate as if there were universal agreement about meanings and grammatical rules.

We need to remember, though, that games are not analogous to these two currencies in at least one crucial way. Both money and language, after all, serve obvious, vital functions in the world, whereas the value of games is not nearly as apparent. We can easily understand why people would almost always try to go along with a monetary or linguistic system, since they believe that both can benefit them and the community significantly. In addition, most people recognize that destroying either system could ultimately threaten their own well-being.

Rule-preserving meta-rules

But games? The common perception is that no one gets hurt if a game is spoiled. So why would anyone continue to submit to an arbitrary (and incomplete) set of rules that was causing him or her to lose face, patience, and/or money? Why do people continue to play "by the rules" when they are losing the game?

Since losing is undesirable, we need to explain why so few players take advantage of the fact that the rules are incomplete and therefore infinitely challengeable. We need to understand why people almost always play as if the rules were not only complete but knowable and statable, and rarely allow themselves to play the meta-game of arguing about the rules and the meta-rules, ad infinitum.

One possible answer, of course, is that players don't realize that this "strategy" exists, but I think that all of us have witnessed many examples of the kind of behavior I'm talking about. Almost everyone has seen images of managers and players, nose to nose with an umpire, arguing a call or an interpretation of the rules, and even non-sports fans have probably seen TV ads based on John McEnroe's antics on the court, so I have to assume that virtually everyone realizes that this option is theoretically available to any player.

So what are the real "meta-rules" that keep most of us from playing this particular meta-game? Here are a few of them:

  1. A game is supposed to be for fun, and, generally speaking, playing the game itself is more fun than playing the meta-game of arguing. Except for young boys in the front yards of America (who will argue endlessly about a single play), most players have learned that the meta-game is boring, repetitive, and fruitless, often ending in a stand-off;

  2. A game is supposed to test certain skills, and these do not usually include the skills of debate, sophistry, and intimidation tested by the meta-game;

  3. A game is supposed to be for camaraderie, and arguing about the rules leads to antagonism rather than a spirit of friendly competition;

  4. Players are supposed to be good sports (whatever that is), and rule challengers are perceived as poor sports or even spoilsports;

  5. The "ideal" game, the game we all want to play, works fine as it is and does not include a discussion of rules or meta-rules;

  6. A set of rules that has been tested is better than one that has not, so if it's not broken, don't fix it;

  7. Doing things as others have done them in the past allows us to feel connected to our ancestors, our culture, and our traditions;

  8. Following the rules that others follow allows us to compare ourselves to a wide spectrum of players, not just our immediate opponent(s);

  9. Challenging long-standing traditions is inherently unwise because it creates the impression that nothing is sacred and could, if carried far enough, lead to anarchy.

For all these reasons, a player who argues about rules risks disapproval, sanctions, and even ostracism, so the vast majority of us choose to "leave well enough alone." Most people avoid and frown on the meta-game of arguing with rules and meta-rules because, without necessarily being aware of their reasons, they perceive it as a threat to pleasure, continuity, and stability. Thus, most games continue to be played "as they always have been." For the same reasons, many people are suspicious of new games.

To return to our central question, then, we can play a game even though we can't know all its rules because, for a variety of reasons, we tacitly conspire with our fellow players to act as if we know them all.

The big picture

In this way, games are no different from every system we use. In an important sense, all rule-governed systems—including law, politics, war, morality, education, economics, and language—are games, as many people have noted. Therefore, virtually all of the lessons we learn from "non-serious" games are directly transferable to the "real" world. What are those lessons? What follows from the acknowledgment that no human system has a completable set of "rules"? Let us spell out some of the implications.

  1. Power and authority are arbitrary, not inevitable, depend on consensus (or at least acquiescence), and have no "divine" right to exist;

  2. Rules for any system are not handed down from above, can exist only through the agreement of the participants, are always open to negotiation among the "players," and are continually evolving. As Robert McConville reminds us, if a game survives, "the rules for playing the game are constantly being changed as they are passed from tribe to tribe and generation to generation" (The History of Board Games, p. 8);

  3. The most powerful rules, the ones least likely to be violated, are those that are not stated explicitly, those that people have to infer or intuit. To state a rule is to invite players to break it, but to leave a rule unstated is to make its violation almost literally "unthinkable";

  4. We cannot accurately predict how any rule, stated or unstated, will be interpreted or enforced, so no rule, simply by its existence, will necessarily produce or prevent a desired behavior;

  5. We cannot accurately predict or control what customs, norms, conventions, traditions, or expectations will evolve for a particular game or system of rules;

  6. No set of rules is inherently superior to any other. In order to judge a set of rules, we must employ a set of meta-rules, which themselves would have to be judged by a set of meta-meta-rules, and so on ad infinitum;

  7. An infinite number of sets of rules will "work," will allow us, individually or collectively, to function successfully (or at least to our own satisfaction);

  8. The longer a system is followed and the more people who attempt to follow it, the more complex the recorded rules will become, and the more sets of meta-rules and meta-meta-rules, etc., will be recorded. Consider any legal system, religion, or professional sport as prime examples.

  9. Every person operates according to an unlimited number of sets of rules, so it is almost inevitable that some of these sets (such as religion and business) will come in conflict with each other, which means that every person is also operating according to an unlimited number of sets of meta-rules for reconciling such conflicts, and an unlimited number of sets of meta-meta-rules and so on;

  10. As humans, we have little choice but to act as though some of these sets of rules were absolute and indisputable. Otherwise, we would be trapped in an infinite regression and utterly unable to make meaningful choices.

  11. Paradoxically, we cannot live according to any set of rules (because we can never know them all and because they will inevitably conflict with other sets we are trying to live by), so in order to continue to perceive ourselves as faithfully following a "complete" set of rules, we must learn to rationalize our deviations from it (or feel a great deal of guilt).

  12. It is reasonable to say we are playing a game/living by a system even though we are not following all its rules. For this reason, following some of the rules in a system creates the expectation (in ourselves and others) that we will follow all the rules, including the unstated and the unstatable ones.

  13. No one can tell for sure if someone (including oneself) is "really" playing a game/living by a system because it is not possible for anyone to follow all the rules in a game or system. Therefore, we can pretend to be playing any game/living by any system without others being able to detect that we are pretending. We can also pretend to be pretending and so on, and no one will be able to tell the difference.

  14. No two people can possibly follow the same set of rules in exactly the same way.

Obviously, the recognition that we cannot know all the rules in a system can have a profound effect on how we approach the world. It can make us want to curl up in a corner with our thumb in our mouth or to go out and make sweeping changes in our most important institutions. It can destroy us or free us, depending on how we feel about a world in which there are no absolutes, no bottom lines, no final list of rules, a world in which all systems are "equal" and all meaning relational. Some (including myself) are comfortable with, even invigorated by, this notion, but others (perhaps a large majority) are enormously disturbed by it.

Today Parcheesi, tomorrow the world

Of course, there is nothing new about the relativist claim, but, to my knowledge, no one has applied the concept to games, those obviously artificial constructs. The argument has raged about more "important" human systems, like law and religion and language, so emotions and desires and values always tend to cloud the issues. People understandably want to believe that their beloved institutions are sacred, unchanging, and right, but (almost) no one feels that way about games.

So I have chosen to examine the reality of rules and meta-rules in this non-volatile, "safe" context of games, hoping I would not scare away those who tend to shun a relativistic argument. My goal has been to show convincingly that we cannot know all the rules but we can still play the game, so that I could suggest, through analogy, that

We can go on using (and revering) any system even if we acknowledge that it is as artificial, arbitrary, challengeable, and "incomplete" as any game.

Any system, no matter how long it has been around and no matter how complex its list of rules and meta-rules, is viable only as long as there are individuals who support it.


If my efforts have been successful, if people take away valuable lessons about "life" from this analysis of games, it will demonstrate, ironically, that games can indeed serve at least one vital social function:  as abstractions of "real-world" situations, they can provide an analog to other, more "important" and more complicated, aspects of life and thus can help us see what otherwise might be invisible. If for no other reason, games should not be dismissed as trivial forms of entertainment. If we remember to use them wisely, they could be a profoundly important aspect of our culture.

As the young would say, GAMES RULE!

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

Readers' Comments

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