In Praise of Spoilsports

Preface: This was written for a seminar that Jesper Juul was hosting at the NYU Game Center on the ‘ludic contract’, and was done mostly with the idea of simply presenting some of the ideas I’ve had knocking around in my head about the nature of games. As such it’s not terribly persuasive and is somewhat scattershot (especially at the end), so I’m not really happy with the structure overall. Nevertheless I decided to post it because I think that there are good ideas presented and I’m always interested in getting people’s responses. I also think the piece goes some way in explaining the thought behind some of my tendencies; for instance, the hope is that after reading this one might better understand my being somewhat dismissive of the importance of some thematic elements in some games, my skepticism about ‘meaning’ in games, and my belief that video games are not fundamentally different from other types of games.


In 1978 the philosopher Bernard Suits wrote about what he called the ‘lusory attitude’. In his book The Grasshopper he described how players in games submit themselves to rules for no other reason than that the behaviors and activities that result from this submission are pleasurable. Indeed without this attitude a game is not even possible. Here we have a sense of the more traditional definition of the ludic contract: it is an agreement on the part of players that they will forgo some of their agency in order to experience an activity that they enjoy.

30 years later the concept of the ludic contract is similar but different in important ways. Writing about the game BioShock, Clint Hocking, a Creative Director at UbiSoft, describes its ludic contract as “seek power and you will progress”. This is still recognizable as the lusory attitude suggested by Suits, though it’s about adopting an ideology more than a set of abstract rules. Recently Steve Swink wrote a more divergent take on the ludic contract. Writing about ‘skill’ in his book Game Feel, Swink creates another version of the ludic contract. When describing a hypothetical conversation between a game designer and a player, Swink has the player saying “If I take the time to learn this and agree to suffer through some frustration… you [the game developer] agree to give me some great experiences later.” This version of the ludic contract is no longer a disposition on the part of the player, but a deal that is struck between the player and the maker of the game.

Now, with the ascendancy of the single-player game it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the concept of the ludic contract has changed from being a literal agreement a player has with themselves, to a tacit agreement between a player and the developer of the game they’re playing.

With that in mind I think it’s worth asking just what kind of deal is being made between the developers of a game and its players. Who is bringing what to the table and what are they taking away from it? On the developer’s side they are providing the structure of the game, its rules and sometimes the props needed for play. For our purposes we’ll assume that what they’re getting out of it is the satisfaction of seeing something they helped create appreciated and enjoyed. Traditionally, in most forms of entertainment, be it film or painting or literature, the patron is expected to provide at minimum their time and attention. However, in a game something else is explicitly required: proactive obedience. A player, unlike a viewer or a reader, must act in accordance with certain customs determined by another person. As both Suits and Swink suggest, they do this in games with the expectation that their adopted behaviors will produce pleasurable sensations or interesting occurrences. Of course, not everyone is going to abide by the deal, or even accept it in the first place.

In his book Homo Ludens, the cultural historian Johann Huizinga talks about how the most dangerous thing for a game’s integrity, its continued cohesion, is not the cheater, but the spoilsport. Cheaters, by his argument, respect the rules of a game even as they try to get around them. On the other hand, spoilsports do not acknowledge or respect the jurisdiction of a game’s ruleset. In our parlance the cheater is one who signs the ludic contract and then violates its tenets, hoping that they won’t be enforced. A spoilsport not only refuses to sign, but tears the contract to pieces.

A lot has changed since Huizinga was writing about games. The Digital Renaissance has made it possible for game developers to craft ludic contracts that are a little more ironclad. Cheaters in most games these days have it a bit harder than when they just had to make sure the ref wasn’t looking. Cheating in a video game isn’t punished because, barring a certain level of expertise, it isn’t even possible! Modern games, to borrow McKenzie Wark’s analogy, are more like highways; you can go anywhere you want as long as it’s where the road already goes. I want to make clear however that what’s changed in the years since Homo Ludens was written is not the nature of games, but rather their complexion.

To that point I would like to like to suggest that there are two ways through which rules can be enforced, through which the ludic contract can be maintained: conventionally and materially. Traditionally the majority of rules in a game were enforced through conventions that were recognized and honored by the players themselves. For instance, the rules that govern the behavior of the different pieces in a board game like Chess are agreed upon and enforced by the two players. In major sporting events rule enforcement is usually passed to a disinterested third party, but it’s still expected that the referee will be following the conventions with which the players are, or should be, familiar.

The other way that rules can be enforced is through the materials of the game. Earlier, when I said that part of the exchange in the ludic contract was that the developers provided the rules and the props for a game I was being a bit disingenuous; sometimes the rules of a game are embedded in its props. Think of a Baseball bat used in a professional game. There are very specific rules that govern the length, shape, and type of wood of the bat. The player swinging the bat doesn’t need to know any of these rules because they are all materially enforced by the bat itself.

What has changed so dramatically in the past several decades is the shift from traditional games where most of the rules were enforced conventionally, to digital games where the vast majority of their rules are governed materially; by the code and hardware used to play the game. This shift has not fundamentally changed the nature of games. A Chess set and a Chess program can still be used to play a game of Chess, but with players enforcing the rules in the former case and the computer enforcing the rules in the latter. What has changed is the balance of power in the ludic contract. A Super Mario Bros. cartridge plugged into an NES is going to allow only a certain range of behaviors on the part of the player. There’s really no way to ‘cheat’ at Super Mario Bros. There’s no way to subvert the rules while still acknowledging their authority.

So if the switch from mostly conventionally ruled games to overwhelmingly materially ruled games has driven the cheater to the edge of extinction, what is the fate of Huizinga’s spoilsport? Actually, the spoilsport is alive and well, it just typically goes by a few different names these days. Today a spoilsport is more likely to be called a ‘speed runner’ or an ‘iron man’. While the spoilsport has new aliases its role is actually much the same: to highlight the fragility and ephemerality of the things that we call ‘games’.

To understand why the current game ecology might be hostile to cheaters but leave spoilsports untouched, or even thriving, there must be an appreciation for which aspects of games can be materially enforced and which cannot. It’s possible to imagine a game where 100% of its rules are materially enforced. In fact, it’s trivially simple, as you could just pick almost any video game ever made. For our purposes I’d like to look at the classic Nintendo game Super Metroid. Let’s be generous with our terms and include in the ruleset of Super Metroid not just those sitting on its cartridge, but in the spirit of Ian Bogost and Nick Montefort’s project ‘Platform Studies’, also the eccentricities of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System and a CRT television. Going even further we could include the shape of the controller used and the layout of the buttons on its face. Looking at this complicated, but very specific, network of hardware and software it’s easy to see that the range of its possible behaviors has been determined long before any player has switched anything on.

However, at this point it’s important to ask a simple question: how do you know how to play Super Metroid? While it’s easy through simple trial and error to figure out what you’re able to do, there’s an important element that’s missing: the barometer by which a player judges actions and events to be better or worse. It’s the final element that makes Super Metroid a game. What I’m talking about is, of course, the game’s goal.

There are two senses to the word ‘goal’. One is as an ‘end condition’; a predefined event which returns the game to its initial state. The second sense is ‘motivation’, the reason that the player is playing the game in the first place; what Jesper Juul might call the ‘valorized outcome’. I’d argue that the first sense, the ‘goal as end condition’, should be dropped from our definition and that a game’s goal should refer exclusively to the player’s motivation. This proposal is based on the fact that most games actually have many end conditions. In multi-player games certain players can be eliminated before the ultimate end condition is reached. In single-player video games it’s common for there to be several ways a player can lose and be sent back to the beginning (though this is becoming rarer). Also, while an end condition defines one aspect of a game’s possibility space, an end point on a branch, a player’s motivation informs how they move through the possibility space itself. In this light it seems fair to say that end conditions are part of a game’s rules, while motivations and goals are something entirely different.

The simple question that I asked earlier, “How do you know how to play Super Metroid?” has a simple answer: we know what to do because Super Metroid tells us what to do. Video games are constantly telling players what their goal should be, through non-diegetic and diegetic text, giant glowing arrows, or even in their instruction booklets. Digital games go through all this trouble to communicate a goal to the player because while developers might be able to lock down all of the behaviors of a system, its rules and therefore its possibility space, they cannot materially enforce the player’s motivation, and therefore the player’s behavior within that system.

The fact that goals can only be conventionally enforced is the reason that even in the age of digital games the ludic contract is still important. The ludic contract is still the tacit agreement between players and developers, and in the case of multi-player games between all participants, that a game is going to be played the way it’s ‘supposed’ to be played. In other words, everyone in the game is going to have the same, or at least sufficiently overlapping, goals that drive their behavior. That goals are conventionally enforced is also the reason that, while Huizinga’s cheater is disappearing, the spoilsport is doing just fine. In fact, spoilsports might now be more important than ever!

In 2009 the blogger Ben Abraham decided to do an ‘iron man’ run of the first-person shooter Far Cry 2. An iron man run of a game simply means that a player will restart the game from the beginning every time their avatar ‘dies’. This is significant because in most video games ‘dying’ means little more than being sent back a few steps. This type of run has the interesting effect, especially in a long game like Far Cry 2, of increasing the pressure on the player over time, since the longer they’ve played the more they have to lose. Far Cry 2 is also a significant game to iron man because the player can make non-trivial decisions about the unfolding of the game’s narrative that cannot be reversed if they aren’t allowed to restart and load an older save file.

Along the same lines Mikael Jakobsson describes, in his paper Playing with Rules: Social and Cultural Aspects of Game Rules in a Console Game Club, a similar situation to Mr. Abraham’s practice in a group that organizes tournaments for the Nintendo GameCube game Super Smash Bros. Melee. These tournaments are set up with the express purpose of making the outcome of any individual match or even the entire tournament as random as possible. To do this the organizers structure their tournament around a number of rules, such as dice roles to determine win conditions and sometimes even matches, with a game of Musical Chairs being played each time a player is knocked out. While the larger goal of any individual game of Melee remains the same, to eliminate your opponents, an additional goal has been added: you must win without the application of any innate or developed skill you might possess.

What the Melee tournament organizers and Ben Abraham have in common is that they are spoilsports. They examined the ludic contracts presented to them through their respective games by the developers and/or other players and decided that they didn’t want to sign. However, instead of abandoning the rulesets of these games they decided to appropriate them for games of their own. In Ben Abraham’s case he felt that the stakes in Far Cry 2 weren’t high enough and so he created a goal for himself that demanded more of his skill to accomplish. The opposite of this was true for the Melee players, who felt that the game they were playing rewarded skill far too well, and so they added a caveat to the game’s goal and created rules that would make it possible to achieve.

For the world that Huizinga was writing in, where the majority of a game’s rules were maintained conventionally through the implicit agreement of its players, spoilsports were a destructive and dangerous presence. When the ludic contract was exclusively between players, rather than with unseen developers, the spoilsport signaled a rejection of the community by questioning the legitimacy of their game. Currently, when the conventions of a community are giving way to material constraints on behavior, the spoilsport serves to remind us of the still potent control that players have over the way they experience their games. Spoilsports are both tricksters and guides that upset our sensibilities while pointing out the true, ephemeral nature of games.

To the spoilsport a game is not a product that you pluck off a shelf and bring home to place in a machine. A game is rather a social confluence of motivations and practices. Returning to our simple question, a spoilsport would answer that you know how to play Super Metroid most probably because of the way your friends are playing it, or more cynically because an ad campaign has told you how everyone else it playing it. The popular debate over whether the software developed under the supervision of Will Wright, such as SimCity or The Sims, should be considered ‘games’ is moot to the spoilsport. Neither The Sims contained on a CD-ROM or Super Metroid as it exists inside a cartridge is any more a game than is a Tennis ball. The Sims, Super Metroid, and a Tennis ball are all simply tools with materially determined potentialities that can be incorporated into the play of a number of games. Some of these games are going to be popular, and some will be more obscure.

Now, before I close I want to touch upon what I think is an important ramification of adopting a spoilsport’s view of games. Recently there has been an influx of methods for interpreting games. Ian Bogost has argued that the ‘procedural rhetoric’ of a game can be unpacked by a careful examination of its rules. Miguel Sicart has suggested that we can think of games as objects with ethics embedded in their design. Finally, Brenda Brathwaite has put it most succinctly in stating her belief that “mechanics are the message.” What each of these positions fails to take into account are the actions and motivations of the player. As I said before, the rules might determine the bounds of possibility for a player, but the player’s goal is what determines their path. If it’s going to be asserted that a game has a possible interpretation outside of any individual instance of play, then it seems fair to ask if the idea of a ‘game’ even needs to be brought into the conversation. On the other hand, if players are vital to any ‘meaning’ that a game might produce then it’s worth asking “what players?” and “when?” in response to any interpretation of a game that’s presented.

So, if the status of spoilsports has been raised in the era of material enforcement, then maybe we can cast a kinder light on the spoilsports of the past. Rather than the nose-thumbing, voluntary exiles presented by Huizinga we can guess that some of them were actually tinkerers and inventors. The games that have been passed down to us through the ages, games like Chess and Go and Soccer and Golf, owe a great deal to the mostly anonymous players who decided that there was something wrong with the ludic contract they had signed. These players rejected the conventionally recognized rules and presented ideas of their own, promising that their ludic contract was a much better deal. Based on this behavior it seems appropriate to call these players ‘spoilsports’, though of course now we just call them ‘game designers’.


Addendum: As a result of my conversation with Adam Parrish, which took place after I gave this talk, I’ve changed one aspect of my position. I’m now convinced that books, movies, paintings, etc., are also more like Tennis balls than we usually like to think.

Also, glancing through Homo Ludens I realized that I had unintentionally plagiarized and mischaracterized Johan Huizinga’s view of spoilsports. He, in fact, did see that they could be a generative, as well as destructive, force:

“It sometimes happens, however, that the spoil-sports in their turn make a new community with rules of its own.”