Feature Article

Unwritten Rules
by Stephen Sniderman

Regardless of what game you're playing,
you cannot know all the rules

Whether the "game" is tic-tac-toe, chess, baseball, language, etiquette, education, science, religion, law, business, politics or war, the entire set of rules governing the system cannot be spelled out. No matter how hard we try to indicate what is required, allowed, and proscribed, some of the most fundamental principles of playing the game will always elude us. And yet, paradoxically, we can still play the game—some deeper rules are always operating (i.e., affecting the players' behavior) without the players' being aware of them.

What do we mean by a game?

A game is a play activity that consists of an object (a goal or goals that the players are trying to accomplish) and constraints on the players' behavior (what they must do and/or what they may not do in attempting to achieve the game's object). To play a game is to pursue that game's object while adhering (more or less) to its constraints. Some of these constraints (the "recorded rules") are explicitly spelled out and are what we generally understand to be "the rules of the game," but every game is also governed by constraints that are rarely if ever made explicit. Some of these "unrecorded rules" are literally unstatable.

An example with Tic-Tac-Toe

Suppose I challenge you to a game of tic-tac-toe. Could anything be more straightforward? But just to be sure, we review the rules. We'll play on a 3x3 grid, we'll alternate turns, we'll play only in empty squares, I'll play X's, you play O's, I'll play first, and the first player to get three of his/her symbol in a row, column, or diagonal wins the game. Aren't these all the rules of tic-tac-toe?

Well, for one thing, nothing has been said about time. Is there a time limit between moves? Normally, we both "understand" that there is, and we both "know" that our moves should be made within a "reasonable" time, say 20 seconds. If one of us takes longer, the other starts to fidget or act bored, may even make not-so-subtle comments, and eventually threaten to quit. Without having stated it, we have accepted a tacit time limit. And because we haven't stated it, it is fairly flexible and very functional.

Is it a rule, or isn't it?

Suppose it is my turn and, no matter what I do, you will win on your next move. Couldn't I prevent that from happening, within the rules stated, by simply refusing to play? Nothing in the rules forces me to move within a particular amount of time, so I simply do not make my next move. Haven't I followed the rules and avoided losing? And yet, if you've ever played a game, you know that this strategy is almost never employed and would be completely unacceptable. Anybody who seriously resorted to such a tactic would be considered childish or unsportsmanlike or socially undesirable and would probably not be asked to play in the future. This behavior seems to violate some fundamental but rarely stated principle of the game without any of us ever having to discuss it.

Self-defeating rules

But can't we state the principle it violates? Can't we just make that principle one of the rules of tic-tac-toe and other games? The answer is— yes, of course we can, but we will not eliminate the problem. Suppose we add the following rule:  Players will make their moves within a reasonable amount of time. Have we solved anything? What is a "reasonable" amount of time? One minute? Five? 30? A million? And who determines what is reasonable—the player whose turn it is or the other player?

Such a rule is actually self-defeating because it calls attention to the fact that we cannot spell out what "reasonable" means.

So why not just specify a time limit for each move? Because we would just create even more perplexing problems for ourselves. For one thing, we would have to indicate when a player's time is running and when it is not. If one player had to answer the phone, for example, would we count that time or wouldn't we? To state the rule fully, we would have to list every life situation that could possibly interrupt a player's turn and state whether it should count against that player's time limit. Obviously, we could never complete such a list.

Practical solutions

A far more practical "solution," the one most of us have used all our lives in "friendly" games, is to say nothing about time limits and rely on our opponent's intuitive understanding of a "reasonable" time for a move and his/her desire to keep the game moving and therefore enjoyable. In other words, we depend on unstated—and probably unstatable—"rules" (really just expectations) when we play a game for fun.

In tournament or professional games, of course, we cannot leave things so loose, and various methods have been employed to solve the time dilemma. Generally, specific time limits are spelled out, as are specific penalties, including forfeit, for exceeding them. Official devices are employed for timing moves—chess clocks, the shot-clock in college and pro basketball, stopwatches in baseball games and tennis tournaments, and so on. But once we move beyond "reasonable" to "official" time, we create a whole new set of problems, problems that can no longer be solved with a simple agreement between or among players.

Rulings versus rules

As any sports fan knows, the difficulties that arise with "official" rules and "officials" to interpret them are often more intractable than those we face in friendly games. Since no set of rules can list every possible situation that might come up during tournament play, someone in charge, rather than the players themselves, must decide if a player has violated a rule (such as exceeding a time limit) and what penalty should be invoked.

Suppose, for instance, that a fire alarm sounds during a chess tournament and players are forced to evacuate the room. Someone in charge of the tournament must determine whether or not the time spent out of the room should be counted against the players whose clocks were running. It is doubtful that the tournament rules will help them. Or suppose the shot-clock in an NBA game stops functioning temporarily. When it is fixed, the officials must decide how much time to put on the clock. How could any rule specify the precise amount of time that would be appropriate? Or suppose a professional tennis player complains of cramps. A human being, not a rule book, must determine whether the player's complaint is legitimate and decide whether to grant the player additional time to recover.

Presumably, the officials' decisions in these situations would be based on the notions of fairness, sportsmanship, and practicality, notions that have never been—and almost certainly cannot be—fully codified and agreed upon. Therefore, no matter how exhaustive and specific we try to make the rules about time limits (or anything else) in a game, we will always have to rely on other people's acceptance of a set of principles that neither they nor we can put into words. That's the nature of any human system—the most important aspects of it are unstatable and unknowable.

In The Celebrant, Eric Rolfe Greenberg cogently illustrates this little-recognized truth. He depicts the famous incident in baseball lore that got Bonehead Merkle his nickname. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning and the score tied, Merkle is on first and a teammate is on third. The next batter hits the ball cleanly into right field for a single which drives in the apparent game-winning run. Fans pour out onto the field in celebration. Merkle, afraid for his safety, heads directly to the dugout without touching second base. The fielding team calls for an appeal play at second and attempts to retrieve the ball and touch second for the third out, ending the inning and negating the tie-breaking run.

But where is the ball? No one is sure because the field is swarming with fans. Nevertheless, one of the fielders, holding a ball, touches second base and claims that Merkle has been forced out and that the game is still tied. The question arises, is the ball he retrieved the one that was actually hit? By this time, the umpire has left the field and must be summoned from his dressing room, which he adamantly refuses to leave—until his life is threatened. When he does finally stick his head out, he refuses to change his ruling. Naturally, the losing team appeals to the commissioner of baseball to settle the matter. This worthy stalls as long as he can and finally declares the game null and void and orders that it be replayed.

Greenberg makes it clear that the commissioner's decision is influenced by political and social considerations that have little to do with any rule book. The game of baseball has spilled over into real life and the depth of the "rules" governing the sport can be glimpsed.

"Unwritten Rules" by Stephen Sniderman—2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7

The Life of Games
No. 1 (October 1999)
©1999 Kadon Enterprises, Inc.