essay, video games

Changing the Rules

In my own discussions with a friend of mine on Oblivion, the topic of installing mods has arisen again and again. In fact, the very reason I started playing the game in the first place on the PC was because this same friend talked me into playing the game. Even then though he kept talking about the mods he was using. Once I had beaten the game, I installed these talked about modifications in order that I could play the game as he was describing. Only, I felt, as I do now, that I was changing something about the fundamental experience of playing that game, something that smacked to me of cheating.

He doesn’t see it that way, this friend of mine. Since he sees the game experience, as it comes from the company, as broken then any corrections he can make to the game, in the vein of patches, both official and unofficial, makes the game better. That is, not as the developers intended but as he sees the game should have been. Having restarted the game on the Xbox 360 and not being able to modify the game, he has mentioned to me quite a number of times in various conversations on the game that I am “not playing it correctly”, at least according to him and the way he plays it. That possession of a correct way of playing bugs me. I keep thinking it’s probably cheating but was without a way of classifying it as such until now.

As my luck would have it, I just finished reading Bernard Suit’s book Grasshopper which, while providing a working definition of what a game is, also helps to define the various ways in which people who play a game might be breaking the “rules”. These rules, as it the case with so many framework definitions, are broken down into three concepts: prelusory goals, lusory means and lusory attitude. The goal is a very simple concept, it is just what the point of the game is. That is, if you are playing basketball for example, the goal is to have more points than the other team. The means then are the maneuvers allowed and obstacles provided. The attitude is the acceptance of the means to achieve the goal. So, using that framework, I went about trying to see if the method of modifying the game qualified as a violation against any of these three ideas.

Does modifying the game qualify as a violation of breaking the goal of the game?

That is a tricky answer. If the player is still trying to beat the game, achieve a positive end-game state, then, no, I do not think this is a violation. The player is still trying to achieve the goal, in the case of Oblivion, of saving the fantasy world. The player is still fighting off the demonic forces and attempting to save as many towns as possible. The player maintains, in this very specific case, the prelusory goal of the game.  No violation there.

Does modifying the game qualify as a violation of breaking the means of the game?

This would depend too on what was changed in order that the player play a certain way. If certain obstacles were removed, such as how the leveling system works as an example that same friend mentioned to me, then, yes, this is a clear violation of that means. The necessary obstacle of achieving certain smaller goals such gaining greater statistical values in certain skill areas is being removed from the game and an additional non-valid maneuver of experience points is being inserted in its place. The game’s design was such that a certain method, not necessary the most direct one, be used in the progression of the character within the world. In this case, and the others in which this same friend changed object and user interface designs, the means of achieving the outcome of beating the game was changed to a variation that, while more direct and easier, was not what was intended at the time of release. This is a violation.

Does modifying the game qualify as a violation of breaking the lusory attitude of the game?

This is easy to answer: yes, it absolutely does. If the player does not accept the obstacles that the game has set up then that player is cheating. Put in another context, the player, should he be boxing for example and bring a gun to the match, the use of that gun would be the same as a violation of the lusory attitude of the game of boxing. There is supposed to be an acceptance of the idea that the fight consists of just the use of fists. Using a gun to shoot the opponent and thus ‘down’ him, as an example that Bernard Suits himself uses, is the most direct way to knock out an opponent, true, but it also voids the contract the game and player make with each other. In order to play the game, the player must accept the obstacles. Therefore, my friend must not be accepting these means. In fact, he is changing them to match what he would want.

So, I have identified that he is breaking at least two of the three pillars of describing the “rules” of the game. The problem then is this: is he actually cheating? Sure, yes, he is changing the means of playing the games. He is also not accepting the obstacles that the game has set in place and is adding additional maneuvers that the base game does not provide or even allow for without the very modifications he is using. But, and I think this is why narrowing this down becomes harder, he does not void the final pillar. He is, in fact, still trying to beat the game. Despite all the changes, he is still following the narrative framework of the game. So, where does that leave him?

Thankfully, Bernard Suits saw fit to include some definitions of labels for these violations. Again, there are three variations for the person who is only partially following these pillars of a framework describing “rules” and one is which all three labels fit.

Trifler – uses rules but ignores goals
Cheaters – uses goals but ignore rules
Spoilsports – ignores goals and ignores rules
Players – uses rules and uses goals

Going back to my friend and his modified game experience, which one does he fit? Well, as I said when describing the actions of ignoring the means and correct attitude, my friend is most likely a cheater. He, as was stated, is still going after the goal of the game yet he has modified the game to a state in which he has removed the obstacles he does not like and, in the modifying of the experience directly, has rejected the attitude of the experience he is supposed to have. Basically, he is cheating.

The problem now is how to approach my friend on this issue. For him and his many hours with the game, the experience has become one that is marked by these modifications. To him , these additional rules and elimination of certain aspects are the game now. He does not remember nor even want to go back to a game experience that is not based in the use of these modifications. To change the “rules”, to go back to the normal play is for him as uncomfortable as it would be for me to adopt his changes.