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The Culture Beneath The Stairs

The Gaming Contract: Part I

by Conan McKegg
Jul 30,2004


The Culture Beneath the Stairs

By Conan McKegg

The Gaming Contract: Part I

Why the gaming group isn't a social contract.


Something that is often bandied around internet forums and roleplaying essays is the concept that a gaming group creates a social contract when they agree to play. The problem I have with this concept is that for a contract to work, it needs an authority to uphold it. Over the next three columns I'll be discussing the issues of the gaming contract and why this form of gaming theory is faulty. Next column I'll be discussing how the RPGA is an example of a true social contract in action and finally, in the third part of this segment, I'll look at the alternatives to coming to an accord with your fellow gamers.

The Gaming Contract

In certain circles of the gaming community there is the notion that all groups form a sort of unspoken contract. Often referred to as the Social Gaming Contract, or Gaming Contract; it is essentially the view that there are a number of key agreed assumptions between the players and GM at the onset of a game.

Often when a GM runs a Q&A session prior to starting a new campaign, this is seen as the drawing up of the contract prior to play. Now the gaming contract is built mostly on a once popular social/ethical theory in philosophy known as Social Contract Theory. Now, this has since moved into the realm of politics - as many social theories do once philosophers have stopped arguing about it and moved on to something else - where it is still enjoying a heated lifestyle of debate and counter-argument.

Social Contract Theory

Most social contract theory in philosophy begins with a study of Thomas Hobbes and his work, Leviathan. Hobbes posited a theory known as the state of nature which suggested that at some point in the past there was a time when there were no human societies at all. Hobbes then proceeded to try and show how society formed and why it was that we needed to have authority figures.

Hobbes' state of nature claimed that there would have been a situation where everyone was living in a savage survivalist state in which there were limited resources and unlimited needs. According to Hobbes, in this state no matter how pure or "good" someone was, he or she would still be a violent, selfish human being.

So the problem was then raised about how could a society ever be formed from such a state. Hobbes basically posited that eventually a social contract needed to be formed - one that would hold back this natural state of violent anarchy. But the problem was that for the contract to hold, somewhere along the line a singular authority figure was created.

The social contract, according to Hobbes, is essentially an unspoken agreement among the members of society that is upheld and watched over by a Sovereign figure. Essentially the Sovereign makes sure that everyone sticks to the contract.

Now this is a gross generalisation of Hobbes' theory - but I'm really looking at gaming contract theory, which has taken a lot of its basis from the works of such social philosophers as Hobbes and John Locke. The reason I'm doing this is because the very faults of social contract theory also apply to the concept of the gaming contract.

Contracts and Authority

One of the key elements of any contract is authority. For a contract to be upheld it must have some objective authority figure to essentially ensure that the contract is honoured. Simply signing a piece of paper and making an agreement with someone else is not enough.

While Locke did claim that humans naturally fall in to social groups - this doesn't prove that there is a contract agreement between members. One of the greatest flaws in Hobbes' argument is that he finds it difficult to explain how humans moved from his state of nature into creating a social contract.

Locke's problem arises when one asks, what if someone born into the society doesn't agree with the contract? Or more urgently - where is this contract?

This is part of the reason why most modern supporters of social contract theory have moved into the area of political philosophy as opposed to general social philosophy. We have plenty of examples of politically generated social contracts - America's Constitution and New Zealand's Treaty of Waitangi are both good examples of social contracts, and yet they are also showing some of the flaws with them as well.

How Social Contracts work.

At the basis of a social contract is the idea that by being a part of a given society we are agreeing to follow certain rules. Although these rules are not necessarily written down, everyone within the society knows what these rules are due to socialisation.

Now, in the original view of social contract theory it is believed that society itself polices these rules. However, in reality, society is drawn to creating positions of authority that uphold the rules of society. In Hobbes' time this was the crown, and his work is politically motivated to justify monarchy as the authority that will uphold the contract.

At the core of the theory though is the idea that society itself agrees to the contract and follows it.

Why they don't work

It really comes down to the four-year old's question. Why? Why do we agree? Because in actuality most of us very rarely are asked if we agree to follow a set of unspoken, unwritten rules that are meant to just be followed. Once again the idea of an authority comes to the fore.

Every social contract theorist ends up having to admit that there needs to be a third party who can adjudicate over any possible conflicts. Then there is the problem of those who decide they don't like the "contract" or even challenge its existence. Here theorists have to do a lot of fancy arguing to show that a contract does indeed exist.

It is easier when one looks at actual political social contracts - but even then we see that these don't work as well as we'd like. Yet again it also comes down to that nasty concept of authority. The Constitution is strong - but it is only as strong as those who are willing to follow it. The Treaty of Waitangi is built on the understanding that it applies to all New Zealanders - but a google search will soon show you that many people are not happy about it and there is much debate in this country over the relevance of this contract and even if it is a contract at all.

Why Social Contracts don't work in Gaming.

So to come to the point of this column - gaming contracts. It's all about authority. Who, in the gaming group upholds any disputes about a game and its operation? The Game Master might seem to be the perfect example. Except that the GM is one of the members of the contract and naturally has a bias. The same argument applies to the players.

A contract cannot be considered an agreement if nobody agreed. Most gaming groups tend to just make decisions on the spot - it is very rare for a gaming group to actually draft up a contract before play. In fact, they shouldn't be expected to.

The concept of there being a gaming contract is, at the core, faulted for very much the same reason that social contract theory remains hotly disputed. There is no authority to police breaches of the contract, and without any authority what you have is a non-binding agreement between players the relies on the goodwill of those who have agreed to it.

So what is the solution?

Over the next two columns I'll discuss a case of true gaming contract and also look at its shortfalls. Then I'll discuss what I feel is a better definition of how to keep disputes in gaming under control. It works very much like the gaming contract theory - but admits that it isn't a contract.

Until then, I look forward to observing the debate on forums. Take care and have a good week! TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

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TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg