Rules of the Game

The Church is often cut down for having too many rules–or for having rules at all. Jesus came to set captives free; His true Church would never hold people back like this. In her sacraments, her liturgy, her exegesis, and her morality, the Church seems to constrain us with so many rules.  Yet people have found freedom through the rules  for ages.

We do not often think in those terms, though. Rules are imposed on us. Rules stifle our creativity and freedom. Rules keep certain people in power and silence the rest. Don’t they?

As Ian Bogost points out in his article on “The Rhetoric of video games,” “Imposing rules does not suffocate play, but makes it possible in the first place.” That play might be play with words, fitting them to a poetic form; play of a tabletop or video game,  with a setting and challenge established by rules; or even the made-up rules of a spontaneous game on the playground. He describes “(t)he possibility  space of play (which) includes all of the gestures made possible by a set of rules.”

We often view rules negatively, in terms of what they prohibit. I suspect we rarely look at what the rules allow. We may disparage a rule that hurts us (stupid Go to Jail card; arrest the hotel slum lord sitting across from me!), but without those rules in place, we have no game to play.  Dozens of games in Hoyle’s Rules use a single deck of cards; the rules define which we play. Dozens of video games are called “roguelike” but the specific  rules, the nuances, make the best stand out.

“The rules do not merely create the experience of play,” Bogost goes on, “they also construct the meaning of the game.”  If I never have to freeze or be “it”, I’m not playing tag. I’m not free to play tag. If I hang on to the bat, I can guarantee I’m getting around those bases–but i’m not playing baseball anymore.

To steal an expression from Shakespeare, the rule’s the thing. It’s where we catch not just the conscience of the participant but the meaning of the act. Is baseball baseball without the rules? Are  you still playing a game if you ignore the rules? The rules set the space for the experience, and they create much of the meaning. The difference between a bank withdrawal and a bank robbery is all in the rules–and who is following them.  A surgeon and a murderer may be performing the same actions, but only the former is following rules of medicine–and rules of consent. It is likewise for a lover and a rapist.

When we are confronted with rules, especially rules that prohibit something we wish to do, we may feel an pull to resist. But we have to ask, first, of the rules not what do they disallow (we know that, usually, and dislike it) but what do they allow. What possibility space do they create?  What meaning do they give? And what possibilities, then, and what meaning do we sacrifice without them?

Copyright 2017, Joe Wetterling

Image courtesy:
Bogost, Ian. “The Rhetoric of Video Games.” The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning. Edited by Katie Salen. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008. 117–140.
doi: 10.1162/dmal.9780262693646.117

Joe Wetterling

Joe Wetterling

Joe Wetterling is a professional educator, homeschooling dad, and writer. He's appeared at national conferences, both secular and religious, speaking on education, technology, and philosophy. Joe writes online for New Evangelizers, as well as his own blogs. He's taught in the Holy Apostles MOOC program and currently teaches Natural Theology at the new Dominican Institute. He's a member of the Militia Immaculata and current President of the Catholic Writers Guild. Learn more about him at

Leave a Reply

next post: John Henry Cardinal Newman, Writer

previous post: Learning in the Vineyard