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Implicit Rules and the “Air Bud” Defense
Me (Manga)

Originally published at Eddy Webb: Writer. Gamer. Usually Not Dead. You can comment here or there.

A Dog Cannot Play Basketball

A Dog Cannot Play Basketball

I have no idea if this scene actually exists in the movie Air Bud, but some version of it probably does.

Scene: A basketball court. A dog shows up, dressed to play.

Referee: Hey, get that dog out of here! Players only on the court!

Manager: That dog is a player!

Referee: That’s crazy! Dogs can’t play basketball.

Manager: (handing Referee a copy of the rulebook) Tell me where it says that only humans can play basketball!

Referee: (flipping through book) I’ll be darned. There’s no rule against it. The dog can play!

It’s ludicrous. It’s funny. And it neatly spells out a common conflict in game rules, especially games where the rules are constantly interpreted by people.

Most of what we commonly think of as “rules” are actually only a subsection of the rules being used. Rules that are spelled out are called explicit rules. But there are all sorts of rules that aren’t written out — gentlemen’s rules, social assumptions, and so-called “unwritten rules.” These undocumented but no less real collection of rules are called implicit rules.

The best way to showcase implicit rules in action is to use an example — preferably one a little more down-to-earth than golden retrievers playing basketball. Poker is big these days, so let’s use that. The rules for, say, Texas Hold ‘Em are well-documented. But let’s use another fictional movie scene to illustrate a point.1

Scene: A saloon table in the Wild West. The protagonist is in the middle of a long game with a number of desperate banditos. The protagonist stares as his cards, worried about how good his hand is.

Bandito #1: (staring at Protagonist) Well? Are you going to bet, or do we shoot you full of holes?

This is an implicit rule in play: “The player will make his bet in a reasonable amount of time.” It’s not a rule that’s written down, but it’s an implied rule of just about any game — you can’t just walk away from a game of Monopoly or Tic-Tac-Toe. Instead, players will either require you to return and actually make a turn, the game will go on without you, or some sort of victory will be conferred to the remaining player.

As a designer, some of these implicit rules you can anticipate, like “players should not cheat.” But a number you can’t, and sometimes these implicit rules change the experience of the whole game for the players. This can work a couple of different ways:

  • Unexpected confinement: I notice that this happens a lot to people who have played different versions of a particular game — the way it used to be done gets stuck in the heads of the players, and they confine their options in ways the current rules don’t intend. In some video games (particularly RPGs), I find that I sometimes follow the fictional logic of the world instead of “game logic,” and I end up missing parts of the game that the designers intended me to explore.
  • Exploits: On the other side, an implicit rule might blind the designer to a particular strategy that ends up providing an unfair advantage. Players find that putting rules together in a particular illogical but legal way provides a disproportionate value.

An interesting side point is that implicit rules may become explicit in certain environments. Most of the online poker games I’ve seen make the implicit rule of “bet in a reasonably amount of time” explicit by giving players a timer. Professionally competitive versions of games often incorporate a timer as well.

No matter how you look at it, though, there are always more rules to a game than the ones spelled out. As the rules gets more complex and have a larger legacy of previous games, that body of implicit rules gets larger as well, and has a greater potential to be out-of-sync between designer and player, or between players. But those rules are no less valid, even if they are harder to articulate.

So, no. Dogs cannot, in fact, play basketball.

  1. Yes, I know Texas Hold ‘Em rules weren’t around in the 19th century. I also know that no one in Hollywood actually cares about that fact. Just roll with it.

My only beef with this post is that I didn't have it to show to a particular player in our local game oh.... four or five years ago. Although, he wouldn't listen to any of us in the organization, so I can't blame you - he probably wouldn't have listened then either. ;P

Seriously, thank you for saying it. There are some people in my gaming world who won't listen if other players say it, but if I can invoke your name, well then... Great God Game Designer said it, so it Must Be Right. The fact that you seem to be a reasonable person who enjoys games, much the way I do,means that I am ahppy to use this bit of twisted logic to my favour.

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