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The Culture Beneath The Stairs

The Gaming Contract: Part III - Contracts, Friends, Respect

by Conan McKegg
Aug 27,2004


The Culture Beneath the Stairs

By Conan McKegg

The Gaming Contract: Part III - Contracts, Friends, Respect


Wow, there has been quite a heated debate formed from this discussion. Which, of course, was my stated goal. I feel that it is important to reiterate here that the point of this column is to spark discussion and debate. In no way am I intending to state the ultimate truth! Rather, I am trying to get people to stop and really think about certain views they may hold.

Last week I discussed the RPGA and how it could be considered a model of a true Gaming Contract. At the time of writing this article, the RPGA segment has yet to be printed up on the RPGnet site. I would like to point out - prior to the debate that (hopefully) will ensue, that I have since had a change of heart on the matter.

I have spent a considerable amount of time thinking on the matter of social contracts and gaming, and it seems to me that RPGA really is a good example of a gaming contract in action. See, I can admit when I'm wrong. *chuckle*

Today I intend to close with a bit of a twist to what I initially claimed. Part of the point of this entire exercise has been to challenge the concept of the gaming contract. Because it seems to me that while a lot of people discuss it and mention it... nobody seems to be in complete agreement about how or what it actually is.

The same goes for Social Contract Theory. When I wrote the first article, I didn't intend to go into SCT too much, as it is a topic all in its own right. I merely drew upon the key points of a Social Contract to show how it differs from the most popular concept of the Gaming Contract.

Of course a lot of people took umbrage with my take on SCT and attempted to argue that I was not familiar enough with it. The problem has been that they in turn have not clearly grasped the basics of how a SCT is formed, for what reasons it is formed, and what it essentially creates. So I will first clarify what a Social Contract is. This process is the same regardless of whose theory you adhere to.

The main differences between theories are the exact description of the State of Nature, whether the governing authority needs to be separate from the society or if it even needs to be impartial. I am not about to go into a debate about the pros and cons of SCT - that is not the purpose of these articles. I am merely clarifying this so as to be able to point out why a Gaming Contract does not truly fit into this model.


The first thing that needs to be clarified regarding SCT is the understanding that the impetus for creating a social contract is that there is initially a state of nature. This is the point prior to the contract's formation and it is vital to understand what is happening in a SoN that causes people to form social contracts.

The State of Nature is essentially a point where everybody is free to do as they please. While in this state individuals still have rights, but these rights are not protected. So if someone infringes upon an individual's right, that individual has the authority to punish the transgressor. In a SoN everybody has the right to authority, and they may all punish transgressors whenever they feel that their individual rights have been breached.

Essentially everybody has a duty to respect everyone else's rights - but they have to act upon these rights themselves. If they cannot uphold their own rights - nobody else is required to step in for them.

A social contract is formed primarily when a group of individuals decide that they want to collectively protect their rights. The contract forms a community or society. In the process of this formation, the members of the community/society transmit their right to authority over to a governing body. This is the case with every social contract.

Now, what constitutes a governing body is different in each case. It can be a council, a parliament, a single ruler, even a tribal gathering where each member has a vote. But the key thing to remember is that it is not the individuals who uphold the rights of the society. It is a governing body of some form. In any social contract, breaches are punished by whoever has been given authority. This can be the entire society - but the society is acting as a single entity, not as a group of individuals.

This is the key element that I needed to clarify - that there is always a governing authority in some form. Ideally, the authority should be impartial - because biased authorities can lead to collapse. Furthermore the governing authority can, in turn, create a legislative group. This is separate from the social contract - because only the authority needs to decide the details of the legislative branch.

This is a very general, simplified example, but it is the core of what a social contract is. Many people do claim other types of agreement as social contracts - but unless it fits this model in some form, it is not really a social contract.

Now there are a multitude of arguments and debates that can spawn from this example, but that is not the point of this article. Suffice to know that this is the currently agreed form of a social contract - although whether it actually works or not is still a hotly debated subject. It can work in a microcosmic example - like RPGA.

But as you will soon see, it isn't the best model for describing a standard gaming group...

What really is happening in a gaming group?

Why do we roleplay? This is a question that could fill an entire article in and of itself. I'll leave the details to really be debated in the forums, and maybe I'll return to it in another article for greater analysis. For now, I'll state the rather contentious comment that when a gaming group gathers, it is not solely to play a game.

This is an important thing to remember when discussing something like the gaming contract, because we need to understand what the contract is meant to be protecting, and whether this is why the people are playing the game.

One of the major problems I have with the concept of a hypothetical agreement that exists between gamers, is that not every gaming group operates under the same rules. In fact, not every player or GM in a single group has the same expectations or goals when roleplaying.

People roleplay for a variety of reasons other than for the game alone. Most roleplaying groups consist of friends who may only get to see each other that one single time a week. It is not only because they enjoy the hobby, but also because it is a chance to spend time with friends and socialise.

Other groups play because it is a chance to practice acting skills, storytelling skills, a chance to escape from a dull lifestyle, the list goes on and on.

My point here is that the interaction in roleplaying is not based on some hypothetical gaming contract. There is a different situation in play depending on the group. While I will accept that some groups can actually have a true blue gaming contract, it is because they have actively chosen to have one. Not because it is implicit in gaming.


One person on the forums stated that roleplaying is built on constant negotiation. Yet this is not what a social contract involves. The rules are set down and then the society ticks away, with the authority occasionally changing the rules if it decides that they need to be changed. Note, the authority doesn't negotiate - the initial contract has moved all rights of decision and authority to the governing force. In a true democracy, everybody votes - but it is a democracy itself that is making the decision - not individuals.

To further answer this claim, not all groups are built on continual negotiation. Some groups just experiment constantly with different styles of gaming, different techniques and rules each session.

Again - there is something else happening here that isn't directly connected to the game.

Respecting each other

A successful game has less to do with rules or contracts and more to do with how much the players respect each other. This is pretty much the crux of the matter for me. Most roleplaying groups don't do the twenty questions at the beginning of a new campaign. Most of them don't agree all the time on how a game should be played.

In a way, gaming theory can be seen to be closer to the concepts of structuralism and post-structuralism - any unspoken rules are the result of many different games with many different players more than to do with a hypothetical contract. Any given gaming group can be seen as the culmination of all the gaming groups the individual players have been a part of since they first started gaming.

This plays into my idea of the cosmopolitan gamer a bit - the more variety the groups different players have been in, the more varied their current group will become in regards to playing styles.

If you were to ask a typical gaming group what the unspoken rules were - you'd get a variety of different answers. This is because each player will have different expectations from the game caused by their own individual exposure to different gaming experiences. This means that most games are formed in a loose consensus, but not anything formal enough to be called a social contract. It is more a case of synchronicity than any implicit unspoken agreement.

Gaming Contracts - Not for everyone

Having said all this, I agree that there is a possibility that there are some groups that do fit the model of a social contract. But to carry this over to all gaming groups strikes me as a serious fallacy.

Any form of social contract in effect will have more to do with the nature of the people's relationships to each other, and nothing to do with the game in and of itself.

To put it another way - an implicit gaming contract is likely to be in effect in a convention game or RPGA game. But in a personal roleplaying game between friends, this will not be the case. Because any implicit agreement in this situation exists prior to the game being played.

Too many people talk about the Gaming Contract as if it is the same for every group. But some groups don't have a gaming contract - so it seems false to claim The Gaming Contract as a singular over-riding theory. It most definitely is not a social contract.

There can be a gaming contract - but this is not something that is implicit or required for a game. Nor is it necessary for a game to be successful - many gaming groups break the rules and change the terms on the spot if it means they will have fun together.

The Alternative

So at the beginning of this all, I said that I'd be presenting an alternative. What I also said was that it would be unlikely to change the way most people play. So what is my alternative?

Just enjoy each other's company and simply respect your friends. It's really that simple. A game is successful because everybody in the game works together to enjoy it. Usually this is because they are friends. If you wish, you can ask each player what his or her goals and expectations are from a game - in which case you have a better idea of what will cause everyone to enjoy the game. In this process you will be forming a loose form of gaming contract.

But before anyone leaps up and says "you've just turned 180, Conan!" I wish to assert this one important mantra - Enjoy the game and the company you are with. Forget rules, forget agreements, just play the damn game. I have played with serious game contract people who took it to a true social contract level - with votes, elections, pitches, agreements, the whole thing. Nothing leeches fun from a game more than creating silly restrictions over friends.

If you like the idea of a game contract - then write one up. Otherwise you may be the only one in the group who sees any contract and you'll come into strife if you react to a perceived breach when the rest of your group doesn't see it as so. This is VITALLY important.

So there you have it. Probably not the world shattering theory or counter argument you may have hoped for. But that was never my goal. The goal was to challenge the view that there just is an implicit gaming contract. If you want to believe that there is a social contract in action, you need to be able to prove that it is in all actuality a social contract. Many people here have argued definitions, some even claimed to know more about social contracts - but most cases presented have shown that many of us do just accept the popular view rather than think if the popular view is reasonable or not.

I hope that I got you all to think about what a gaming contract is. It doesn't matter if you agree with me or not. But as long as you stopped and really, honestly thought about it then this article has been a success.

Next Week I will be covering something a little tamer: Cinema and its effect on roleplaying. If there are any issues of gaming culture you'd like to see discussed, feel free to email me with your ideas. I have a schedule written up of various ideas I will be covering, but I also want to make sure that I cover topics that you are interested in!

Over the next few weeks I'll be also looking at habits in character creation and how responsibility is meted out in gaming.

Remember - you can always contact me at Culture Beneath The Stairs if you would like to discuss any of the ideas I mention, or have any other questions relating to this column.

Until next week! Have a good week and take care of yourselves!

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