Rules and Flexibility: Learning from Games for Ivanhoe

Do we want well-defined rules and roles? Do we want them to be fluid? Can rules and roles provide creative fluidity and playful flexibility? These questions have been a recurring theme in our conversations with the Praxis team as well as in our meetings with some of the Scholars Lab members.

For me, questions about the importance of rules and roles emerged after our first introduction with the Ivanhoe project – when we learned about its history and vision. My immediate reaction to Ivanhoe was that it aims to do too much as it is meant to be anything you want. Thus, I thought the freedom it offered to users was theoretically attractive – as it allowed them to choose having rules or not, and put no limits to their expression of creativity – but not useful in helping them act and keep the game going. This ‘freedom through design’ unfortunately seemed to unintentionally limit players as it did not offer a clear understanding of what the purpose of the game was. Players risked isolating themselves and others with their moves: less interaction with others also made the game feel less of a game and more of another-thing-on-my-to-do-list.

Too few rules, too much fluidity and ambiguity! This was my first thought on why I was confused and suspicious about Ivanhoe as a game. I was given too many options and were left with so many decisions to make. As a user/player I was not even asked the questions – e.g. do you want to play a game with rules or without rules? – I had to think of them myself. The challenges in playing Ivanhoe as a game for me seemed to come out of too much complexity, a lot of fluidity, unlimited flexibility and not clearly defined purposes of use. These feelings and thoughts could be just specific to my experience or because of my culture. As some researchers have noticed, the ability to perceive choices and the understanding of freedom changes from culture to culture (watch this fascinating TedTalk on The Art of Choosing )

As the 2014-15 Praxis team, we discussed this issue briefly during the process of drafting our charter. Previous charters had referred to the fluidity of roles and rules. While we understood the purpose of this statement – to allow for a processual definition of roles and rules and not assume that you know from the start who you are and what you do best – i.e. acknowledging individuals’ becoming rather than being – we were skeptical about the assumption it implied, that clearly defined rules and roles are more detrimental to creative work. This week we have to decide in what direction we want to go with the Ivanhoe project and what roles we are interested in taking to realize our goals within the Praxis program. The question of defining rules and roles has reemerged recently in our discussion about what aspects of design and development we want to concentrate on in order to make Ivanhoe simpler and more accessible.

Ivanhoe seems to require some kind of shared interest that makes individual players feel part of a group, a team or a greater collectivity brought together by the game. In its actual development and conceptualization, this game is different from Kari Kraus and her collaborator’s game DUST, as it lacks a clearly defined purpose, a particular audience and a narrative. It resembles much more a game like Minecraft in the flexibility of use it gives players. Nevertheless, even when compared to Minecraft, it lacks some design features that could make it an engaging game, one that keeps you in for a considerable time: visualization of the flow of the game i.e. a story line and extensive documentation that offers different scenarios for play. In this context, if I would have to choose between enhancing the playfulness and game-ness of Ivanhoe through new design features within the game – e.g. through turn-taking and visualization of the path/progression of a game through a map – and motivating audience through the provision of extensive documentation of different games and options available in this platform, I would prefer the former. I think it is important to acknowledge the power of well-designed rules and their ability to enable creativity and learning. Rules can be seen as channeling flexibility and fluidity into useful streams and productive avenues. We cannot assume the playfulness will break in and make Ivanhoe a game that keeps you involved and excited. Definitely, rules cannot be perfect but they can be a good starting point for action.

As Joseph Schumpeter and Karl Polanyi note in their works – Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy and The Great Transformation respectively -in advanced capitalist societies like the United States, regulation tends to be seen with suspicion because it is viewed as in opposition to freedom and democracy – much valued principles in American culture. They pointed out to the problems of propagating this myth that tended to silence any debate on the design of rules and different ways of organizing life. I see their point also highlighted by Abbott and Snidal (2000) in their article theorizing the use of hard law and soft law in the international context. Among others, they argue that less formalized rules i.e. soft law are a temporary mechanism of gaining time needed to negotiate large differences among parties and that in international negotiations, developing countries preferred hard law i.e. more formalized rules because soft law tended to benefit much more those already in power.

In short, don’t fear the rules! Let’s talk more about the KIND of rules and regulation we want and need to best realize our objectives. Regulation is a necessary enabling mechanism. Maybe to further develop Ivanhoe as a game, we need to reflect on our own game experiences: what kept you engaged in the game? Was there a particular element of that game that made you stay active as a player? Were there rules that enabled a sense of community or shared purpose to drive the game? What kind of rules make a game good or bad for you?

With Albanian nationality, a major in International Relations and minor in International Economics from the Middle East Technical University (METU) in Turkey, an MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics (LSE) in the UK, an academic Turkish husband, two domestic shorthair US cats and two origin-not-known parakeets, I am on the path…

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