We like to think that we are the ones who dictate the way we play a game, and to a certain extent there’s truth in this. However, just because there’s some truth to this doesn’t make the sentiment true. Indeed, the things which make the greatest impact on how we play games are the rules of those very games themselves.
Unless we’re actively deciding to play a game in a particular way, players will try to find a way to achieve the ends they seek within a game’s context. Where one game may reward a particular behaviour or attention to detail, that same behaviour can be punished in another game. These could be things like encouraging/discouraging players from exploring the environment, or giving players incentives for playing a particular way.
This is interesting, because it means that game developers are deciding how they want to make players to act. A particularly good example of this conscious manipulation can be found in interviews with the people who write the rules for HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) tournament matches. They’re constantly experimenting with different match and scoring rules in an attempt to cajole more historically accurate behaviour from tournament participants. The problem is that these fighters are looking for every way they can to game the rules and win. For example, some rulesets can reward crafty fighters for delivering afterblows in matches—this means to attack your opponent instead of defending yourself, even though your attack will hit after theirs does. So matches that follow those particular tournament rules tend to end a lot with both players being hypothetically killed.
This can even be seen in the wider combat sport scene, like in the UFC or boxing. Both of these sports have shown their impact less from a rule change, but rather from an equipment change. You see, both these combat sports were originally practiced with bare knuckles. If you look at early UFC matches, most winners tended to be grapplers rather than strikers. This is no longer true today, but how can this be chalked up to gloves?
The short answer is simply that you can’t punch somebody as hard when you have to worry about shattering your fist. The introduction of light padded gloves was enough to allow strikers to throw punches hard enough to consistently and safely achieve KOs. The introduction of lightweight padded gloves meant that strikers now had an effective way to win with the UFC scoring rules.
In boxing the gloves grew even bigger and heavier, drastically increasing the chances of concussion and TBI. In addition to making the sport more dangerous, it also heavily changed the way boxing was practiced. Post-Queensbury boxing guards are higher and tighter because of the added bulk of the gloves—they allow the boxer to shield their face far more easily with their hands. Bare-knuckle guards instead are lower and more extended in order to achieve an effective defence.
But the really interesting thing is that in the realm of video games, these rules players will try to game can become increasingly strange or obscure. Quake and other early Id Software arena shooter games accidentally created the tactic of “rocket-jumping.” Developers had no idea players would try to use explosion splash damage to help propel their jumps further and higher… But players did. The same can be said for the equally iconic emergent mechanic of bunny-hopping—due to a physics programming oversight, players could repeatedly jump during movement to bypass their movement speed limits and gain an advantage over players who didn’t know how to “bunny-hop.” Sometimes these sorts of accidental oversights became features, like in the case of skiing in the Tribes games.
So the next time you’re playing a game, think about how it might be programming your behavior, intentionally or not. How do these systems want you to interact with them? How does the game want you to approach the situations it presents you with?