One of the recurring topics in gaming blogs, podcasts and videos has been how to behave properly at the gaming table. Whether it’s how and if to keep playing, once you know you can no longer win. Or which moves are not in the spirit of the game, despite being technically legal. Or the many other approaches to behaving correctly during play. Am I allowed to blurt out another player’s plans to make them more vulnerable? Am I allowed to mock somebody else’s sub-par move? Can I complain about my bad luck or how much it annoys me that everyone is colluding against me? And so on. What’s acceptable? What’s a step too far? Where is the line?
One way to deal with this question might be to put a code of conduct (for this game) into the rulebook. Some games already touch on this indirectly. For example when it comes to keeping information secret. Many deduction games state that you mustn’t (and shouldn’t) reveal everything you find out during the course of the game. Hanabi limits communication between players. The Mind outright bans any systematic form of communication.
But what would similar rules look like in negotiation games? What about games that deal with short-term alliances? How would you phrase such rules in a cooperative game?
What the details of such rules would look like isn’t all that important, actually. The real benefit of such an approach would be that games would be anchored as social interaction by definition. How to play the game wouldn’t merely cover the game’s mechanisms, but also how we treat and interact with each other. In other words, you could no longer ignore that in a game we are subject to the same social dynamics and constraints as we are in other forms of interaction. The things we take into consideration in other social spaces, would also play a role in the context of the game.
To some, of course, this would be a problem. Many still consider play a form of escapism, in the sense that it as an escape from the consequences of our own behaviour. There is the persistent idea that playing games creates a magical space in which the consequences of our actions only exist until game’s end. And no further.
This has resulted in many gaming groups adopting a level or thoughtlessness when they play games. Players would resort to the rules (“I’m following the rules, you have no right to complain”) or to the type of game it is (“it’s a competitive game, I don’t have to care about how you feel about my actions”). This casually accepted thoughtlessness may have added to board games’ reputation of attracting a certain type of person.
At best, we have isolated enclaves of players who don’t fit that type. It’s only when they join other groups, or play in public that they discover how rude and thoughtless playing games can be. What follows is an increased fragmentation of the gaming community, where each group considers the other an outlier. Whether it’s the toxic competitiveness on one side and the feel-good carebear types on the other. We are the ones who are genuine, proper gamers. It’s the other ones that are weird.
Rulebooks that dedicate part of its pages to outlining a code of conduct, would at least show that there are no universally accepted norms of playing; that such a framework isn’t so trivial and common sense that it rarely impacts play. Instead of having to rely on having the right group for a game to be fun, we could talk about the type of personal interaction the game is based on.
My reservations about such codes of conduct has to do with their function as rules. Namely, rules that limit our behaviour and personal interaction. Rules we have to observe and keep in mind, while also efficiently applying the game’s mechanisms. For some, it may be a stark adjustment to suddenly play games with others and also be respectful and considerate towards the group.
But rules also invite people to shirk responsibility. They let us skip over weighing the consequences of our actions, and and allow us to rely on blindly carrying out instructions given to us. This is one of the function of rules, and the reason why some people value them so. They tell us what to do. They provide clarity, when we are uncertain. This can be very helpful in some situations. But sometimes, working through our uncertainty is the whole point. Experienced gamers should know this all too well.
The most important and most valuable function of a code of conduct is that it points out boundaries. We draw attention to them in the hopes that participants will perceive those boundaries and respect them. To what extent such codes of conduct are effective, I have no ability to tell. At worst, people will turn contrarian and try to find loopholes or interpret them so literally to the point of absurdity. But a code of conduct would at least signal that people have accepted and considered what it means to see games as a social space. This might be far more valuable to people outside the scene, than to those who have been in it for a long time already.
Ultimately, the goal must be to establish that social interaction is as essential in games as it is in other activities. We usually don’t need codes of conduct or etiquette guides when we go to the movies, eat in a restaurant or visit our friends. We have a general understanding of what type of behaviour is acceptable and what isn’t. Not least of all, because we take our cue from others. It should be no different when we sit down to play a game.