Rules and Practices

When you open up a board game or look online for the explanation of a card game, you are liable to find a rulebook. Nevertheless, games and similar activities cannot be defined entirely by their rules. There’s a lot more to them than that.

Ludwig Wittgenstein observed in his Philosophical Investigations that rules cannot tell us what to do deterministically. “A rule stands there like a sign-post,” he writes in section 85. “Does the sign-post leave no doubt open about the way I have to go? Does it show which direction I am to take when I have passed it; whether along the road or the footpath or cross-country? But where is it said which way I am to follow it; whether in the direction of its finger or (e.g.) in the opposite one?”  The rule could be further clarified with the addition of another rule, like “Signs point in the direction of their arrows,” but that rule itself could be interpreted multiple ways. In the end, there is no end to the chain of rules that would be necessary to convey a specific course of action with complete certainty. We understand rules not because they are exhaustively explained but for other reasons. Cats, for example, do not understand pointing. If you point at something, a cat will most likely look at your finger rather in the indicated direction. Pointing is not self-evident; we just happen to have the necessary tools for understanding it.


Of course, just because rules cannot tell us exactly what to do does not mean they are useless.  If I want to learn how to play a game, my first step will be to learn the rules, either through a rulebook or by having someone explain them to me. The actual content of the explanation will combine with my expectations and preconceived notions to give me a picture of how the game is played. This picture could be wrong, in which case I will correct it as I see how the game is actually played. All those elements that determine how the game is played but that are not part of the actual rules as defined in the rulebook (or a hypothetical but possible rule book) can be called practices.

When people play by the rules but do not observe the practices, things can go wrong. For example, there is a game called Boggle wherein players try to find words in a grid of randomized letters within a time limit. Players write down all the words they can find and then, once the time is up, everyone reads out their list of words and crosses off those words that other people found also. The goal is to find unique words (words no one else found), the longer the better. The rules of Boggle say nothing about knowing the meaning of the words you find, which suggests the possibility of abuse; after recording all the actual words you can find, you could write down all the combinations of letters that conform at least roughly to English phonology and claim them all as words. The rules provide for challenging words, and admissible words must be found in standard English-language dictionaries, but by chance those random combinations would probably yield one or two obscure words now and then, especially if the Oxford English Dictionary was chosen as the “standard” English-language dictionary. A competitive player, then, would probably adopt this “brute force” strategy for its marginal benefits, which would make games last forever and suck all the fun out of them.

It is impossible to modify the rules to prohibit this strategy without changing the rest of the game. For example, let’s say players were required to give a definition for all words they had found; this would be an attempt to change the prohibition on the brute force strategy from a practice to a rule. The game would then change to favor a deeper (as opposed to broader) vocabulary than it currently favors. If I found the word “tort,” for example (which appears in standard dictionaries like Random House and American Heritage), I would get credit for it under normal Boggle, but since I couldn’t provide a definition (I just know it has something to do with the law) I would not get credit under altered Boggle. Furthermore, the fact that I would get credit for “tort” in normal Boggle seems to be in keeping with the game as defined in both its rules and its practices, so this would not be a case of a practice being codified as a rule.

Work-to-rule strikes

In normal gameplay, of course, no one uses a brute force strategy. What reason would they have for doing so? There is generally no incentive, in games like Boggle, to ignore the practices and focus solely on the rules(1), but in non-game activities that are governed by rules and practices such an incentive can appear. In labor disputes, this incentive can lead to what’s called a work-to-rule strike. In this kind of strike, also known as an “Italian strike,” workers obey the rules of the workplace down to the letter; they do exactly what their job description requires them to do, and no more. Workers or unions might choose this kind of an industrial action if they want something less drastic than an actual work stoppage, or if they are legally prohibited from striking (for example, if they work in a nationalized industry).

Work-to-rule strikes, of course, cannot be prohibited, since you cannot write a rule saying “employees must follow all the normal practices.” Work-to-rule strikes might include employees refusing to work overtime, showing up exactly at the beginning of their shift and leaving exactly at the end of it, taking many bathroom breaks and the maximum allowed coffee and lunch breaks, exercising undue caution, running unnecessary quality assurance checks, and especially following all applicable safety regulations. Wikipedia notes that work-to-rule strikes can be considered malicious compliance, which is a wonderful phrase that perfectly captures the idea behind this type of strike. Its use in legal contexts is a clear sign of an attempt to give practices the force of rules.

Though not as disruptive (or dramatic) as work-stoppage strikes, work-to-rule strikes are impossible to fully prevent, in the same way that the brute force strategy is a possibility inherent in the game of Boggle. Rules are the letter of the law, and practices are the spirit. Neither can exist without the other.

Rules and practices

Is it even possible, one might ask, for a practice to be made into a rule or vice versa? At first glance the answer might appear to be yes, but I don’t think I can think of an example. For example, in Boggle words must be of at least a certain length to count. On a normal 4 x 4 grid the lower limit is 3 letters, while on the 5 x 5 grid the lower limit is 4 letters. Even on the former grid, players can choose to set the lower limit at 4 letters for a more challenging game. Is this lower limit a rule, or a practice? It happens to be in the rulebook, but what if it weren’t? What if the rulebook didn’t mention a lower limit, but a group of players decided to only count words of at least 4 letters? It seems to me that this would still be a rule, not a practice, since it can be clearly and unambiguously stated and always followed, although I am not claiming that these are necessary or sufficient characteristics for rules to have.

Different games and non-game activities have different mixes of rules and practices. For example, I do not think there is an equivalent of the brute force strategy in chess. Chess has its own practices as well as rules, but perhaps its balance is tilted more towards rules as compared to Boggle. Perhaps this is one reason why chess is played in high-stakes situations, like in tournaments and against Death personified, more often than Boggle.

Questions for commenters: Do you think there are any games whose rules can be made into practices or vice versa without changing the game? If you were an employer, how might you attempt to fight the possibility of work-to-rule strikes or mitigate their effects?

(1) This is because everyone playing a game usually has the same ultimate motive (having fun) and games generally function best (and therefore are the most fun) when the practices are observed. Perhaps practices should be distinguished from something I’ll call habits. People may often observe habits while playing, but no one would cry foul if a habit was not observed, or if they did they would be shouted down by other reasonable people. An unorthodox but legal move in chess would break a habit, but not a rule or a practice.

Cross-posted from Empire Avenue.


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