It’s no big secret that gamers have a thing for accuracy. It seems to me at least, that it comes easy to them to correct others unprompted and clarify vague statements, no matter how trivial. Some people call this pathological Know-It-All-itis, I prefer to describe it as attention to detail.
Many consider it a strength that helps them to get the correct, and hopefully best, experience out of a game. This affinity to being exact is something many critics tend to appreciate. It suggests a clean, non-contaminated test situation, that you’d require in a scientific experiment. We reduce possible factors that would result in a wrong result, because we use the object exactly as described in the instruction manual. We approximate a neutral, if not objective, foundation from which we then evaluate the game. If we follow the rules to the letter, our criticism will be unassailable. (note by me: LOL!)
This way the rules booklet becomes a central piece of our experience with the game. We must assume the infallibility of the words within it. In the same breath we pledge ourselves to the text unconditionally and without exception. Out of conviction and a vague sense of fear, we understand that any deviation from the rules threatens to unravel our enjoyment of the game. Worse yet, we would end up playing a game that isn’t the one we bought, but some kind of un-authorised variant. To not play the game correctly and as intended by its makers, would be some kind of unnatural act.
We would be playing the game wrong!
Clearly, this can not stand. We all know that people, who do something wrong, are punished. The game police could knock at our door any moment now. If not in person, that at least as our conscience, that we haven’t done ourselves, the game or its authors justice.
I’m going to take a guess here and say that at least two of those groups, couldn’t care less if we played the game exactly by the rules. Even among critics a rules mistake isn’t a problem, unless our entire critique of the game is based on it. Until then, it’s a regrettable flaw, like a small stain on your dinner jacket. Most people won’t judge you for it, and those who do, you shouldn’t take seriously anyway.
Naturally, I’ve had some experience playing games wrong. A little over a year ago, for example, I brought a game to the table, which – as it turned out afterwards – we ended up playing wrong. Since then, whenever the game’s name or rules mistakes in general are mentioned, I am told that we should try to play the game “for real” one day. I am not convinced that’s necessary. The mistake wasn’t trivial, sure; like starting a game of Monopoly with $50 extra would be. But it also wasn’t so fundamental, that it turned the experience on its head. Like a game of Monopoly in which players get to freely choose to move between 2-12 spaces each round.
The severity of our mistakes was somewhere in-between the two. It stretched the game out some turns, which took pressure off of some tactical decisions. Instead of committing to one goal, you had the luxury of waiting a few more turns. Admittedly, this put a different weight on the tactical and strategical dimension of the game. When we do play the game again and „by the rules as written“, we will likely approach the game’s challenges differently. But the basic shape of the game, its turn structure, decision points and interlocking mechanisms, remained unchanged. In other words: even if it wasn’t set up by the design as intended, our experience of the game was coherent and enjoyable.
This planted a thought in my head which is pretty straight-forward: rules mistakes aren’t a big deal. It doesn’t devalue the experience, if we understood and applied the rules incorrectly. Even the quality of the experience isn’t necessarily changed, when we are especially fussy about sticking to the rules.
It is, of course, ridiculous to play a game with the wrong rules on purpose. That should go without saying. But I consider it similarly misguided to treat „rules-as-written“ as the highest virtue when we play. Too often this approach draws our attention to the scaffolding of the game, as opposed to the experience itself. Too often we spend more time questioning or double-checking a rule instead of making sure that everybody is actively engaged.
It’s only when we’re not having fun and even frustrated, that it makes sense to pay close attention to the rules we apply to play. Maybe the reason we’re not enjoying ourselves is actually one massive rules mistake. But until then, we can give ourselves permission to play a game wrong.