“Sooner or later, all our games turn into Calvinball” – Calvin
The only thing that could be compared with the love I feel for Mafalda, is the love I feel for Calvin & Hobbes; and maybe, just maybe, it is that way only because Mafalda made it first into my life (Spanish is my native tongue after all).
Mafalda is a rebellious child that aims to be a cartoon metaphor of the rebel youth spirit of the 60’s. Calvin is just a child.
I see Mafalda and I recognize much of what I am now. I see Calvin, and I recognize myself 20 years ago. You are probably that old too, don’t laugh.
It was a matter of time to write about Calvin & Hobbes in this blog. I just wanted to do it the best possible way I could for the first time I did it. So, let me try it.
Among a pile of stuff I love about Calvin & Hobbes, both the characters and the comic itself, there is one directly related to game design: the Calvinball. I’m assuming all my readers are awesome people who know what Calvinball is, so I really hope that this will only be a stupid reminder: Calvinball rule, as described by Bill Watterson, “It’s pretty simple: you make up the rules as you go”.
Which can be fun to play (if you are 7 years old) or to read in the comic (if you too played it when you were 7), but in practice would seem pointless, hard to play but moreover, boring.
Well, that isn’t the case.
Let me tell you why.
As most of the things from our childhoold, Calviball isn’t exactly what Calvin says. First of all, the description gave by Bill Watterson is consequential; the actual rule as described by Calvin himself is that the game can’t be played the same way twice; it is clear, from a 7 years old child perspective, that the only imaginable way to fullfil that requiremente is to set the rules on the fly. But more than that, Calvinball actually has a minimun, but certainly bigger, set of rules, as you can easily infer from the comic by watching carefully and look for patterns. Some (boring adult for sure) have broke down those rules for us here. So, a set of rules, or at least a set of repetitive gameplay behaviors that can be stated as such, actually do exist. By this point the obvious question arises: is such a thing possible, a not-for-7-years old actually playable, not boring game where the rules can be set, defined and changed on the fly?.
The answer is yes.
And actually, that game has a well known name: it is called society. More specifically, a democratic society.
It sounds crazy when I said it, but if a philosopher would, it probably wouldn’t sound that crazy. That’s what philosopher Peter Suber thought when he created Nomic, a self-modifying game. That is exactly a game where the rules can be set on the fly. What happens with Nomic is that it’s somehow modeled after a democratic government: the rules are often changed by voting or open discussions and debates. The philosophical purpose of the invention of the game is to prove that in such games, where rules can be changed, there is some point when the resulting rules, or laws for that matter, are insufficient to determine what is legal or in fact, can be directly contradictory.
Nomic is described in The Paradox of Self-Amendment:A Study of Law, Logic, Omnipotence, and Change, a book by Suber published in 1990 (but the game was created 8 year earlier by other philosopher). I haven’t read the book yet (but I will, the link re-directs you to the content), but it can be summarized as the study of self-reference paradoxes in law, and how they affect our nowadays way of life seen from the law point of view.
The initial rule of Nomic states that the winning condition is that a player reaches 100 points just by rolling a dice. That rule is intentionally boring in order to encourage the players to change it. So far, under Suber’s perspective, Calviball isn’t a self-modifying game, because Calvin’s rule can not be changed: it is forbidden (in the “never” kind of way) to play in the same way twice. Of course, changing the game rules all the time makes almost impossible to play the game the same way twice, but a particular set of rules can’t be applied again even if the players find it fun (which sounds as the common definition of a game: playing under some set of fixed rules that can be fun). Calvin’s rule is fixed, it isn’t transmutable in the sense Nomic is defined. Calviball is not a self-modifying game as the comic tells us, But it still is in my mind, and it also is the coolest one.
Besides society itself, there are a certain number of actual self-modifying games out there: Agora, Blognomic and others that are web-based and, as Nomic, can be easily stated. Click on the second image of this post to read a forum based version of Calviball. In fact, some (real life) RPG and ARG games could be considered Nomic games. The question by now is: is there any Nomic videogame out there ?.
I don’t know the answer for sure. Please, help me with that. It would be cool not only to know if such a videogame exists, but find the way to create one.
Before that, we can write a few thougths about it.
The programmed nature of a videogame makes hard to think in one that can be compared with Nomic. I believe that it actually makes impossible to create a Nomic videogame, so you can only think in Nomic approximations, how much Nomic-like a videogame is. We are looking for a Nomic-like videogame.
The obvious examples got out of the way pretty easy. Minecraft or Sim City?, not by far. Even when Wright describes his creations as toys instead of games, the underlying programming rules are there and the player can’t change that fact. Left 4 Dead, Diablo, Spelunky or any game with procedural content creation?, the game adjusts the rules (the AI, environment rules) on the fly, but it doesn’t change them. Most MMORPG’s have some kind of codes stated and respected by the players, but they aren’t actual rules, the rules can’t be changed, neither those codes, players got really mad when someone doesn’t follow those codes. Almost any multiplayer game gives you the chance of voting, but no to change the rules, just (almost always) to kick out a player from the court.
Strategy, or game Dynamics under the MDA Framework, can’t be confused with rule changing.
Looking for a Nomic-like videogame doesn’t seem like an easy task. Creating one, just by first impression, looks like a big programming puzzle.
What is so important about a Nomic-like videogame?. Only considering a game design point of view (but it isn’t restricted to it), I think one of the biggest consequence of a Nomic game is what game designers call Player-Driven Stories (or narrative) and replayability. In the first case, open world games like GTA or Fallout try to give the player a level of influence on how the story of the game could be told using game design. A Nomic-like video game is, by definition, a player-driven story. The latest can be achieved by multiplayer games, puzzle games or titles like Left 4 Dead or Diablo, but again, the nature of a Nomic game gives replayability as direct result. (Notice that I’m mentioning AAA games as most of the examples, that isn’t a coincidence, I would like to think in a AAA Nomic-like game).
On the other hand, can be modding be considered a videogame?, and if it is the case, when it can be considered a Nomic-like videogame. In fact, the designing and creation of a game can be easily considered as a game by itself (think on things like a Game Jam); can those activities be considered as videogames?, and if it the case, under which circunstances can we talk of Nomic-like videogames.
One thing that makes Calviball directly related to Nomic, is that Calvin created the game because he thought by not having fixed rules at all he can win the game easily, which proves to be false when Hobbes (repeteadly) and Rosalyn outwin the game, by making the rules Calvin imposed contradictory. Contradictions isn’t a word that can be used often in programming. Why it is that way?. It is a rhetorical question, I know why, but I mean, how much contradiction can be involved in a developing of a game in order to make it Nomic-like.
Another thing Calvinball brings to the table is chaos. How chaotic can a videogame be?. That’s a discussion for another post, but think about it, a game can be as frantic as you want, but when can we talk about being chaotic?. Been governed by a set of rules doesn’t contradict the chaotic nature of a phenomena; from the mathematical point of view, chaos theory (in all of its manifestations) is a consequence of a very strict set of knowledge: non-linear differential equations, stochastic processes, a lot of optimization algorithms etc. And actually, the non-existence of a fixed set of rules doesn’t necessarily derive in such a chaotic scenario (as Agora or Blognomic show).
Regarding all of that, how much true is there in the quote Sooner or later, all our games turn into Calvinball?.
By this paragraph I think, after all, Calvin & Hobbes in its own and unique way, is as deep and rebellious as Mafalda is, which in a personal level is a big deal to me.