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Games and Culture

The Rules of the GameThe Rules of the Player

Anne Mette Thorhauge
Games and Culture 2013 8: 371 originally published online 31 July 2013
DOI: 10.1177/1555412013493497

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Games and Culture
8(6) 371-391
The Author(s) 2013
The Rules of the Reprints and permission:
GameThe Rules of DOI: 10.1177/1555412013493497

the Player

Anne Mette Thorhauge1

This article presents a critical view of the concept of rules in game studies on the
basis of a case study of role-playing across media. Role-playing in its traditional form
is a complex activity including a game system and a number of communicative
conventions where one player takes the role of the game manager in order to imple-
ment the rules and provide a world for the other players. In online role-playing
games, a programmed system simulates the rule system as well as part of the game
managers tasks, while the rest of the activity is up to the players to define. Some
aspects may translate more or less unproblematically across media, others are trans-
formed by the introduction of the programmed system. This reveals some important
perspectives on the sort of rules that can be simulated in a programmed system and
what this means to the concept of rules in game studies.

game rules, gameplay, communication, role-playing, media studies

As video games became a relevant object of academic studies during the end of the
nineties and the beginning of the millennium controversies regarding the nature of
the new medium appeared. Most well known is the dispute between narratologists

Department of Media, Cognition, and Communication, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen,

Corresponding Author:
Anne Mette Thorhauge, Department of Media, Cognition, and Communication, University of Copen-
hagen, Njalsgade 80, Copenhagen 2300, Denmark.

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372 Games and Culture 8(6)

(Jenkins, 2004; Murray, 1997) and ludologists (Eskelinen, 2001; Juul, 2005) focusing
on video games affinity with narrative media and games, respectively. Since then, the
positions have become somewhat more nuanced and alternative perspectives on mean-
ing in video games such as the procedural rhetoric of persuasive games (Bogost,
2007) have been proposed. However, while the narrative perspective has been moder-
ated and reconceptualized to make sense with regard to video games, the concept of
rules, put forth by the ludologists as a defining characteristic of video games (Frasca,
2003), still rests on a rather simplistic understanding. Often a direct similarity between
rules in analog and digital games is taken for granted (Juul, 2005) and often the rules of
video games are considered a function of their programmed systems (Frasca, 2003).
Furthermore, this has led to a widespread understanding of the mechanics as a
primary source of meaning in the game (Bogost, 2008; Swain, 2010). In the current
article, I will argue that this understanding misses the complexity of rules in video
games and fails to account for the role of the player. I will do this on the basis of a
case study comparing role-playing in classic and online role-playing games (RPGs)
with a particular focus on the way certain elements of the traditional RPG are simu-
lated by a programmed system and how this transforms the entire activity. On this
background, I will argue that what we ordinarily refer to as the rules of the game
are communicative conventions applied to the game by the players, while the pro-
grammed behavior of the video game represent another type of rule phenomenon.

The Concept of Rules in Game Studies

As mentioned above, the concept of rules has a special status in game studies. During
the dispute between narratologists and ludologists, the rules and mechanics of games
were emphasized as some of those distinguishing characteristics of video games that
should be studied by game scholars (Frasca, 2003, p. 222). Accordingly, much liter-
ature in video game studies has a particular focus on the concept of rules as a crucial
aspect of video game design and video game analysis. Salen and Zimmermans (2003)
authoritative handbook on game design fundamentals is quite symptomatically titled
Rules of Play (Salen & Zimmerman, 2003) and defines rules as that formal schema
or perspective on games that deals with their intrinsic mathematical structures (pp.
102104). Similarly, rules make up a core component of Jesper Juuls classic game
model and his general conceptualization of games as rule systems (Juul, 2005). Other
aspects of games such as their mechanics are often defined in relation to game rules
(Jarvinen, 2008; Lundgren & Staffan, 2003) and attempts have even been made at
integrating the concept of gameplay and narrative from the point of view of rules
(Ang, 2006). And, more recently, this has led to a widespread interest in the way video
games convey meaning by way of their programmed features (Bogost, 2008; Swain,
2010). Common to these approaches is the concept of game form in general and game
rules in particular as something that has been worked out by a game designer and
which can be located in the video game as an object. In this way, the aim and scope
of game studies becomes the identification and conceptualization of rules as they

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Thorhauge 373

appear in video games as artifacts. Of course, this point of view has also been chal-
lenged as the actual use and appropriation of video games has shown the shortcomings
of this approach. For instance, Mia Consalvo has shown how video game players may
practice different types of cheating (Consalvo, 2007) and David Myers (2009) points
out that the game rules may very well be turned into objects of play as they are
being avoided, transformed, or contravened during gameplay. Thus, a tension may
exist between game rule and gameplay which has often been resolved by distinguish-
ing between good and bad players, but which may . . . reveal more of the fundamental
than the exceptional nature of video game play (Myers, 2009, p. 49). Similarly, Miguel
Sicart has questioned the predominant focus on the games as a structure demanding
studies that account for the role of the player (Sicart, 2011). In a similar vein, I will
deal with the concept of rule in the current article, not as an aspect of the game as
an object but rather as an aspect of gameplay as an activity. I will do this on the basis
of a qualitative case study described below.

The empirical basis of the current article is a qualitative case study carried out as part
of my PhD project. Due to its qualitative scope, it aims at theory development rather
than empirical generalizations. As pointed out by Yin (Yin, 2003), case study
research combines several types of methods and data in order to describe a phenom-
enon in detail. In the current study, this implies the combination of survey, qualita-
tive content analysis, participant observation, and group interviews. These methods
serve different functions in the overall study such as qualifying my choice of players
and player groups, describing the games systematically as an outset for interaction,
watching interaction as it unfolds, and getting to know the players own understand-
ing of what is taking place.
On the basis of an initial survey involving participants in the Danish role-playing
community (N 111), Dungeons and Dragons 3,5 (D&D 3.5) and World of Warcraft
(WoW) were chosen at the outset for analysis. This was not due to any particular pre-
ference but rather due to the sheer possibility of locating players who would play both
types of games. As regards the choice of specific player groups, this was also informed
by the survey. That is, age and degree of social integration within the player groups
seemed to be important factors with regard to playing patterns in the traditional RPGs
and for that reason I chose to compare a group of role-players who had been playing
together for years with a group of role-players who were hanging out in the same role-
playing context but who had only superficial knowledge of each other. Both groups
counted five players and in the former the average age was about 40 while in the latter
it was about 20. These differences allowed me to compare playing practices across
contexts in order to define some common themes. As regards playing practices in
WoW, it was not possible to find any groups where all members were playing
traditional online RPGs on a regular basis. However, five players across the two
groups were playing WoW and actually in a wide array of styles that allowed me to

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explore in detail how the analytical themes identified in the traditional role-playing
situations would unfold in the online RPG sessions. In addition to the initial observa-
tions and ethnographic interviews I made while taking contact to the field, I observed
and recorded two D&D 3,5 role-playing sessions as well as five gameplay sessions in
WoW. After an initial analysis, I conducted a follow-up interview with each group that
was recorded as well. Altogether, this gave me approximately 13 hr of material that
was analyzed with a special emphasis on the way D&D 3,5 and WoW were integrated
into the respective activities.
This entire course of action puts great emphasis on the traditional RPG as the
outset of analysis. That is, online RPGs are analyzed in the perspective of traditional
RPGs emphasizing particular aspects of the online experience. In this way, the
analysis brings forth a new set of analytical and theoretical perspectives that have
largely been overlooked due to the general focus on games-as-programmed-systems
in contemporary game studies. It allows for a focus on gameplay as a category of
action rather than as an object and it allows for a more explicit formulation of the func-
tion of the programmed system as one among many factors defining gameplay.
In the following, I will describe the individual components of D&D 3,5 as a game
system. On this basis, I will describe how it is turned into gameplay by the two
role-playing groups and the sort of gameplay practices this involves. In the following
section, I will describe how the programmed systems of WoW corresponds with that
of D&D 3,5 and on this basis I will describe how the various playing styles do or do
not copy the gameplay practice of the traditional RPGs. Finally, I will discuss how
the role of the rulebooks and the programmed systems, respectively, challenge our
conception of rules in video games.

D&D 3.5
D&D is the first commercially distributed RPG, and it has retained a central position in
the role-playing environment. The original game was created and launched by Gygax
and Arneson in 1974 (Fine, 1983, p. 14) and since then, it has been revised several times.
The latest version is known as D&D 3.5 and is based on three decades of experience with
classical RPG comprised in three rulebooks that represent the core of the game. They do
so by defining the natural laws of a fictional universe in the form of parameters and pro-
cedures to be described below. Obviously, these rules alone cannot create the role-
playing experience; it takes more than that. However, the rulebooks represent a set of
building blocks included in the activity and thus deserve to be described in more detail.
The three basic rulebooks of D&D 3,5 are called Players Handbook (PH),
Dungeon Masters Guide (DMG), and Monster Manual (MM). The titles alone give
some clues regarding the division of roles in the game. PH comprises a detailed
review of all the parameters the player will need to create a character. This involves
static characteristics such as race and class and changeable characteristics such as
skills and abilities that may be added and changed over time. These parameters are
turned into action through the use of certain procedures. For instance, there is a basic

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Thorhauge 375

procedure to determine the outcome of action in the game that implies that the play-
ers throw a 20-sided cube, modify the result in accordance with the relevant para-
meters, and compare it with the difficulty level of the desired action. Imagine, for
instance, that a player wants his character to jump over a ravine. Based on the dif-
ficulty level of the action, the probability of success might, for example, be set at .5,
and the final result be determined by a dice roll. At a 20-sided cube, the results from
1 to 10 will indicate various degrees of failure, and 11 to 20 will indicate various
degrees of success. In this situation, the characters attributes and possessions can
pull the results in different directions: 1 might be deducted from the result because
of a heavy armor, but this is offset by a 1 because of extra strength. In return, the
character gains a further 2 bonus because of its race. This adds a total of 2 to
the result, so that the probability becomes .7, which implies that any results from
6 to 20 will indicate success. Thus, it is conceivable that the character fails in his
attempt, but the probability of success is greater.
On the other hand, DMG equips the game manager with the parameters and
procedures relating to the game world. This involves additional parameters and pro-
cedures for how to settle the action in the individual encounter, determine movement
in three-dimensional space, decide the impact of weapon size, and so on. It also gives
advice on the organization of action into adventures, that is, storylines or scenarios
that frame the action. Finally, it presents relevant components involved in the con-
struction of entire game worlds such as physical conditions and social sectors
included in any average-sized community. Overall, the descriptions outline a mythi-
cal, medieval Europe populated with fantasy creatures. The rest of DMG and its
appendix; the MM, is a detailed listing of the items that may be included in this over-
all structure, such as residents, magic items and, not least, an impressive gallery of
mysterious creatures that may be attacked and destroyed in a number of ways.
In this way, PH, DMG, and MM provide players and the game manager, respec-
tively, with a number of elements from which they can assemble their characters and
worlds as summarized in the Table 1.
This introduction to the procedures and parameters of D&D 3,5 may seem trivial
to experienced players and unnecessarily dense to outsiders, but it is important
because it reveals two aspects of the rulebooks in traditional RPGs that are crucial
for online RPGs. First of all, these procedures and parameters in their original form
represent a fantasy toolkit rather than a world in themselves. They define the
building blocks from which the game manager may construct any sort of world or
scenario. Although the rules do point toward a specific sort of world, a medieval
Europe with mythical characteristics, the game manager may choose to bend the
system to create any sort of fantasy construction he may have in mind. Second, the
parameters and procedures lend themselves to a simulation as they are algorithmic in
nature, so turning them into actual code seems natural. However, as I will explain
later, turning them into code profoundly changes their nature and function in the
overall role-playing activity. Before I deal with this in more detail, I will describe
how the rulebooks are translated into gameplay in the traditional RPG.

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376 Games and Culture 8(6)

Table 1. Parameters and Procedures in D&D 3.5.

Character Example World Example

Parameter: Category: race Category: matter permeability

Definition of category and Variation: Dwarf, elf, human Variation: stone, earth, metal . . .
its possible variations ...
Procedure: Creation of character: Determining whether a character
Clarification of clarification of the will penetrate matter:
parameters and method parameters (race, class, etc.) clarification of the parameters
for determination of and the type/number of dice (difficulty, strength, etc.) and
outcome type/number of dice

Frames of Communication in the Classic RPG

In their respective role-playings sessions, the two groups of players transform the
rule system into a shared experience in different ways and with varying degrees
of success. In doing so, they adhere to a set of communicative conventions that are
crucial to the ongoing construction and development of the fictional world. The two
most important communicative conventions in this regard are the distinction
between different communicative frames and the different communicative roles held
by the game manager and the individual players. Furthermore, this communicative
practice integrates the rule system in a very specific way, defining a specific
relationship between the parameters and procedures of the rule system and the infor-
mation generated by player interaction during gameplay.
As regards the communicative conventions, communication in the classic RPG is
characterized by the distinction between different frames of communication. This
aspect of the traditional RPG has been defined in detail elsewhere (Bowman,
2010; Fine, 1983; Mackay, 2001). For the current purpose, Fines distinction
between three fundamental communicative frames in relation to the RPG: the
primary framework, the role-playing context, and the fictive context are very useful.
A player may take on the role of a specific character, and in this case, the statements
should be interpreted within the communicative frame of the games fiction. How-
ever, he may also choose to deal with the fiction as a fiction, and in this case, the
statements should be interpreted within the frame of the role-playing context. The
example below illustrates the continuous shifts between contexts.

Player 1: Did we have a map, so that we could . . . ?

GM: Oh, Im not sure I brought it. Actually, I dont think I did. I isnt that important,
though, since I didnt make (the adventure) from the map.

Player 1: Well, but thats ok.

(Player 2 flips through the notes, takes a sheet out but puts it back again). The rest of
the players have also started to flip through their notes.

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Player 2: Was it this one you where thinking of? (holds up a sheet).

Player 3: I think that was the one (player 1) was thinking of ( . . . ).

GM: Yes, thats the one, but you know, I havent used the map. I didnt have it, when
I made (the adventure).

Player 1: No. We just assume the things are connected (player 2 holds up the sheet; the
rest of the players study it).

Player 2: We know that Oldkeep is there. We are down here somewhere, so we have to
go through, and then up to Oldkeep. And there is some huge canyon, so its gonna be
interesting if . . . (Player 1 takes the map).

Player 3: We can just climb up and down. Hey, how hard can that be?

The older role-players commence their role-playing session by establishing an over-

view of the geographical surroundings: Where they are and where they are going. For
this purpose, they use a small sketch of the landscape that Player 2 digs out of the pile.
The sketch has an ambiguous status. It seems to come from an earlier role-playing ses-
sion; and in this regard, it is an overview of the fictive landscape that has been created as
a result of the players interactions. For the same reason, the actual journey will have to
take place off in accordance with this map despite the fact that the game manager did not
use it in the planning of that particular session. As Player 1 says, in order to keep the
fictional world coherent, they must assume that things are connected. In this way, the
sketch serves as a collective memory of the fictive world, but it is also a liminal object
balancing on the border between the fiction and the role-playing context (see Walton,
1990, for a further description of this phenomenon). As Player 2 studies the map more
thoroughly, the situation gradually shifts from being a role-playing group starting up
another role-playing session to a small motley crew discussing how they most easily
traverse the landscape. Player 3s slightly contemptuous remark at the end of the citation
marks an important transition since it does not belong to the player but rather the char-
acter: A small arrogant squirrel for whom climbing up and down canyons is easy.
The distinction between the fictional context and the role-playing contexts is also
important to the way the players relate to their characters. That is, the players have to
keep their own and their characters knowledge apart in the same way as they have
to keep the role-playing context and the fictional context apart. Fine describes this
separation as pretense awareness (Fine, 1983, p. 188): The player knows about the char-
acter, but the character does not know about the player. Accordingly, the player pretends
that the character identity is unaware of his player identity. A point in case is the distinc-
tion between different languages in the RPG. D&D 3,5 includes several languages, such
as Elvish or Dwarfish and Common. Languages may be attached to specific races or

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378 Games and Culture 8(6)

classes, and some come with the race and class whereas others are acquired. However,
this does not mean that the players memorize irregular verbs as part of their role-playing
activity. The languages in D&D 3,5 rather indicate whether or not a player has access to
given information. For instance, an inscription may have been written in a certain
language that only clerics at a certain level are able to understand and if so, only char-
acters with these characteristics will be able to decode it, irrespective of the actual lan-
guage which might still be written in the players mother tongue. One of the young
players participated in a live action RPG as a character who spoke Elvish which implied
that he was not in principle able to understand . . .

. . . two other players that I was playing with and who were speaking ill of me right in
front of me. It was like, aarrgh (makes gesticulations) and then I have to (pretend) that
I actually understand nothing of whats going on and just role-play in accordance with
the tone of their voice . . .

In this way, the distinction between the role-playing context and the fictional con-
text implies a difference between the players and the characters knowledge, so that
one of them might at certain times know more than the other. The continuous main-
tenance of this distinction is one of the main principles of the role-playing activity
and, importantly, this principle cannot be simulated by a programmed system. It is a
communicative convention upheld by the players during the role-playing activity.
Before I deal more thoroughly with this issue, however, I will describe another
important aspect of communication in classic role-playing; the communicative roles
of player and game manager.
Apart from the distinction between the role-playing context and the fictional
context, the communication roles of the players and the game manager are important
to the way the role-playing activity unfolds. While the game manager defines the
fictional context, the individual player defines his characters actions within this
context. In this way, the conversation alternates between the game managers
description of the fiction frame and the players asking clarifying questions or
describing their own actions illustrated in the example below:
GM: Its a rather old fortress that has been vandalised considerably by now. There also
seems to be the remnants of a city but it is all ravaged. It seems like someone has
been having a good time turning over the walls, jumping on the roofs and the like . . .

Player 3: Does it look like there have been any explosions?

GM: Well, it doesnt, but it looks like someone has been throwing big items.

The players continue asking clarifying questions about the place. Last time they
entered an abandoned village, it turned out to be the hideout of a gang of undeads, so
they have good reason to be cautious:

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Player 1: We begin . . . I think, I suggest that we begin circling the area and size it up.

Player 2: . . . Ill make an overflight ( . . . ) and see if there is something ( . . . ) that

moves in there.

Player 1: Good idea.

Player 4: Im drawing my bow.

Player: 3: So am I.

In this way, the game manager describes the surroundings of the abandoned fortress,
while the players describe how their respective characters respond to this scenario. In
this way, they define different aspects of the fictional world that continuously evolves
in the interplay between their perspectives. This exchange of information is regulated by
means of the game system as defined by the rulebooks.

The Function of the System in D&D 3,5

The distinction between the role-playing context and the fictional contexts as well as
the communicative roles of game manager and role-players represent two important
conventions with regard to the exchange of information in the game. In contrast, the
game system specifies how much information can be exchanged in specific situa-
tions. Earlier on, I described the rulebooks of D&D 3,5 as a fantasy toolkit, that
is, a set of parameters and procedures with which the players can define their world
and their characters. The majority of these parameters and procedures regulate the
act of fighting but some of them deal more specifically with the acquisition of
The game system regulates the exchange of information in two basic ways. First
of all, the accessibility of certain information may depend on the specific character-
istics of the character. For instance, a certain piece of information may only be avail-
able to characters speaking a certain language. Other relevant parameters in this
regard could be the ability to read or the ability to detect whether a creature is good
or evil. In this way, the game system specifies, by means of the character sheet, the
sort of information the character is able to access in principle and what the game
manager can pass on to the specific player. At the same time, the throwing of dice
introduces an element of chance to the acquisition of knowledge. The results of the
throw will define whether a player manages to get possession of certain information.
A less favorable outcome will provide the player with common knowledge, that
is, information that any character irrespective of characteristics will be able to
acquire. A more favorable outcome will provide him with more elaborate knowledge
about a given issue. In this way, the game system in some cases defines accessibility

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380 Games and Culture 8(6)

of information and in other cases, different degrees of information and whether the
player will be able to obtain it. The throwing of dice is not always involved in the
acquisition of information. It seems to happen mainly in cases of critical or specia-
lized information. One of the role-players uses knowledge about astronomy as an

I dont know one jot about this, but if I have a character that does, then I can say ( . . . )
ok, I have astronomy, so I have to know something about this phenomenon on the sky;
I will throw some dice for this, and then it is the game manager who is telling the story
who says, well, ( . . . ) there is this or that constellation and now you suddenly see that
stars are placed differently . . .

By giving his character the system-defined knowledge parameter called astron-

omy instead of, say, history or religion, the player decides that his character
will have privileged access to this type of information in particular. By throwing his
dice, he finds out whether his character will also be able to make use of this access,
and if this is the case, the game manager will provide him with the relevant informa-
tion. Importantly, the information itself is not created by the parameters and proce-
dures of the game system. It is something that the game manager has either prepared
from home or makes up on the spot. The parameters and procedures of D&D 3,5
specify the relevant domains of knowledge and decide whether a particular bit of
knowledge can be distributed, but the information itself is produced by the players
and the game manager.
In other words, the game system does not make up the contents of the fiction. The
fiction is the product of the game managers preparations and the players interac-
tion, whereas the parameters and procedures of D&D 3,5 mainly define the relevant
knowledge domains involved in this activity and the distribution of information in
specific situations. At this point, the game system of traditional RPGs differs
considerably from the programmed system of online RPGs. In the online RPG, the
parameters and procedures of the programmed system take the shape of actual
characters and landscapes reacting in specific ways to the players actions. They are
no longer just a tool with which to describe a world of choice; they incarnate a spe-
cific world, and for this reason, they have an entirely different status in the

The system of WoW is quite comparable to that of D&D 3,5 and could be defined as
a simulation of the parameters and procedures of a traditional rule system, such as
the D&D 3,5. However, the online RPG simulates more than the rulebooks. Rather
than regulating the production and exchange of information about the fictional game
world, it incarnates the game world as such, and in so doing, it takes over much of
the game managers role. At the same time, WoW enables a wide array of possible

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gameplay practices made possible by the communication and interaction possibili-

ties offered by the game system. Because of these important differences, the system
of WoW has quite another status in the overall gameplay activity.
As regards the similarities between the two game systems, the characters
attributes and development in WoW are defined by the same type of parameters as
those found in the rulebooks of D&D 3,5. They are defined at their starting point
according to race and a class and a set of characteristics such as strength, intelli-
gence, and agility. The character is born with certain parameter values, and as the
characters move through the landscape and fights opponents, these values will
increase and new parameters will appear very much in the same way as D&D 3,5.
Similarly, WoW includes an exotic fauna of animals and supernatural creatures that
can to some extent be defined as a programmed version of the monster manual:
D&D 3,5s encyclopedia of possible opponents. In contrast to D&D 3,5, however,
these characters have been integrated in a particular game world; they are pro-
grammed audiovisual objects that wander the game world in areas where the game
designers have chosen to place them.
This basic difference renders one of the communicative conventions of the
traditional RPG obsolete, that is, the game world is no longer the domain of the game
manager. This role has been taken over by the system. Furthermore, the communi-
cation functionalities in the game allow for a broad range of communication contexts
and communities going well beyond the small player groups of traditional RPGs.
Apart from the conflict between the horde and the alliance, that places a basic
restriction on communication between players, there are several functionalities in
the game enabling different sorts of social and communicative relations, such as
parties, raids, or guilds. These differ with regard to number of players, continuity,
formalization, and what is shared among the players and on this basis they frame
communication in WoW by defining who is included in the communication and who
is not. That is, the number of players in the exchange of particular chat messages
depends on the type of group the players choose to send to such as the party, the
guild, all players nearby, or just one specific player. In this way, the chat log com-
prises communication across several contexts that are defined, among other things,
by the parties, raids, and guilds the individual player may be involved in. Player
communication is of course not limited to the chat log, and it is rather common to
include third-party software, such as team speak to support player communication
during gameplay. However, this only emphasizes the fact that player communication
within WoW is not restricted to the small, intimate group of the traditional RPG. It
takes place simultaneously across several contexts and technologies and is defined
partly by in-game player communities and partly by external factors, such a friend-
ship or nationality (see Taylor, 2006a)
By dissolving the small, intimate group of the traditional role-playing with a wide
array of communicational contexts WoW allows for a broad range of gameplay prac-
tices beyond that of the traditional RPG. This may include strategies such as quest-
ing, grinding, raiding, or fighting in battlegrounds. The characteristics of these

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382 Games and Culture 8(6)

Table 2. System, World, and Gameplay in Classic and Online Role-Playing Games.

Classic RPG/D&D 3.5 Online RPG/WoW

System Fantasy tool kit Programmed system

World Product of the players Product of the programmed system
Gameplay The game world emerges as a product The players actions, strategies, and
of the players actions, strategies, motives are performed in a world
and motives that is defined in advance
Note. D&D Dungeons and Dragons 3,5; WoW World of Warcraft.

gameplay practices are rather well described in the existing literature (see, for
instance, Aarseth, 2004; Christopher, 2010; Tosca, 2003) and there is no need to
describe them in further detail in the current context. The point to be made is rather
that the gameplay practice characteristic of the traditional RPG has been designated
to particular servers, role-playing servers, as while the overall gameplay activity add
a multitude of alternatives with more or less likeness to the historical origin. Further-
more, while the game system might have been design for a generic set of gameplay
practices such as quests, raids, and battlegrounds, players may also choose to focus
on secondary aspects of the game and invent their own practices, as will be described
Thus, although the system of WoW may have certain similarities with the rule
system of the classic RPG, it represents a broad space of possible actions and
gameplay strategies with different degrees of similarity to the classic RPG. Some
may be interpreted as an attempt at simulating the classic RPG; others are distinct
to the online RPG and players may indeed invent totally new strategies that go
beyond the game designers intentions. The differences are summarized in Table 2.
In the following section, I will examine more closely how the different players in
my study deal with this change.

WoW: From Rulebooks to Programmed Systems

In the previous sections, I have described how a set of established roles and conven-
tions shape the communication in the classical RPG and define how the parameters
and procedures of the rulebooks are integrated into the role-playing activity. The
online RPG differs in significant ways from this situation by simulating not only the
parameters and procedures of the rulebooks but also other aspects of the role-playing
activity, such as the role of the game manager and the game world. Furthermore, the
system not only replaces the game manager but also the role-playing group as such
as a precondition for the role-playing activity. Players may naturally choose to estab-
lish alliances with other players, and they do so to a considerable extent. However, in
these cases, the player group represents a particular aspect of gameplay and not a

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Thorhauge 383

prerequisite for the gameplay as such. In this way, the introduction of a programmed
system implies a change in the relationship between the different elements of the
As mentioned in the Method section, the games and player groups were chosen
with the specific aim of comparing classic and online RPGs. That is, I wanted to
observe and interview players who were playing both classic and online games in
order to include their perspectives in my analysis. For this reason, I specifically
chose role-playing groups that also included WoW players, and the following part
of the analysis is based on these members. Interestingly enough, these players
represent a relatively broad spectrum of playing styles, ranging from the beginner,
the power gamer, and the sociable type to a couple of experienced raiders. Obvi-
ously, this tiny sample cannot be seen as representative of the general population
of WoW players, but due to their relative differences, they allow for an analytical and
theoretical reflection on the character of communication and the role of the
programmed system in online RPGs.

Frames of Communication in WoW

In my analysis of the traditional role-playing situation, I described two basic
communicative conventions: the distinction between the fictional context and the
role-playing context and the distinction between the communicative domains of
player and game manager. In WoW, the programmed system has taken over part
of the game managers functions, and for this reason, there are no domains of com-
munication reserved for particular players. However, players may still in principle
distinguish between the roleplaying context and the game as a fictional world, thus
somewhat approximating the distinction between fictional context and role-playing
context as it appears in the traditional RPG. As I have argued elsewhere, players
ability to interpret and deal with the multilayered text of the online game world may
indeed depend on their ability to move back and forth between different frames of
communication (Thorhauge, 2003). However, in the current study, the tendency to
support and sustain the fiction of the game depends very much on the players and
their various playing styles. For instance, the power gamer tends to focus more or
less solely on the game as a programmed system to be mastered, whereas the more
sociable type tends to interpret the game as a fictional world to be explored and
inhabited. In this way, the distinction between fiction and context is not a prerequi-
site for playing WoW but rather an aspect of particular playing styles.
An obvious example is the way players deal with their character in the game. As
described above, the character is created by combining a set of basic parameters
comparable to that of the classic RPG, and it defines the range of actions and experi-
ences available to the player in the game. However, the existence of the character in
the classic RPG depends not only on the combination of parameters but also on the
players ability to uphold a distinction between himself and the character; to keep his
own knowledge and the characters knowledge in the game apart. At a technical

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384 Games and Culture 8(6)

level, this difference is also present in the online RPG with the players knowledge
of the game in some respects far exceeding that of the characters, and, on the other
hand, the character being the true and knowledgeable inhabitant of the online game
world. An example of the first situation is the multitude of fora and homepages
where players may gain additional knowledge about strategies, quests, and items
in the game that go far beyond the characters possible domain of knowledge. The
other way around, the character can be seen as the one truly inhabiting and acting
within the game world while the player is limited to giving orders. As one of the
players sarcastically points out: I can make my character draw one arrow and turn
it into five arrows that hit this monster. I would really like to know how I do that . . .
The player only has to push a key on the keyboard; the action performed by the char-
acter and represented on the screen. This bears close similarity to speaking different
kinds of languages in the classic RPG. According to the same player, the WoW
character does not have the same independent existence as his characters in the
traditional RPG:

He (the character from the classic role-playing game) has his own ways ( . . . ) my char-
acter in WoW, if I tell him to walk right, he will walk right, and this is even if there is a
mountain in the way.

This player tends to deal with his traditional role-playing character as a unique
personality with a mind of its own whereas he deals with his WoW character as
an interface to the game world, a spectrum of technical possibilities with which
he can interact with the system. However, he points out that he would deal with the
WoW character very differently if it was integrated into some sort of social network.
This is the case regarding the two experienced raiders who have a radically dif-
ferent conception of their characters. They have even chosen to get married through
their two main characters in WoW, and due to their strong integration into a guild
membership, they talk about them quite differently:

People have had so much fun with (the character); she is the sweetest little gnome, and
we have measured her and she is the smallest gnome I could possibly make and yet
people think she hits really hard . . .

This description includes peoples judgments: people have fun, we have

measured her, people think . . . The unique qualities of the character are founded
on other players recognition, which turns the character into more than a spectrum
of possible actions in the game system. In this way, the world of the online RPG may
very well achieve the same status as that of the classic RPG, but it depends on the
players willingness to grant it this status. The unique personality of the charac-
ters is not a product of the specific medium (D&D 3,5 vs. WoW) but rather a reflec-
tion of hours spent playing with that particular character and its relations to other
characters in the game.

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Thorhauge 385

In conclusion, the programmed system can only simulate parts of the traditional
RPG. It may simulate a rule system, a game world, and a set of characters, but the
communicative conventions that define the traditional RPG do not emerge as a nat-
ural consequence of this. It rather seems to work the other way around. The fictive
world is a consequence of the players willingness to distinguish between the
fictional context and the gameplay context irrespective of the medium in question;
and judging from the players included in this study, it seems to be a characteristic of
certain gameplay strategies rather than a general characteristic of playing WoW.
While the traditional RPG is primarily defined as a gameplay situation defined by
a specific set of communicative conventions, the game system of WoW sets the
frame for a multitude of communicative conventions that only have the programmed
system in common. In this way, the introduction of the programmed system involves
a new relationship between game system and communicative conventions, which
will now be described a little further.

The Function of the System in WoW

As described in the analysis of the traditional RPG, the rule system mainly serves to
regulate information and action in the game while information and action in itself is
defined by the players. The transition from traditional to online RPGs involves a new
relationship between the game system and the communicative conventions. On one
hand, the parameters and procedures attain a new status in the gameplay activity; on
the other hand, the communicative conventions no longer define the gameplay
activity at a general level.
With regard to the first issue, WoWs programmed system has a somewhat differ-
ent status than the parameters and procedures of D&D 3,5. As I pointed out earlier,
D&D 3,5 is similar to a fantasy tool kit that the players can use for creating their own
game worlds. In WoW, these parameters and procedures have been turned into a
specific fictional world. All actions are defined within the frame of this world and
restricted to it. As one of the older role-players put it:

In video games, you have to program everything that is allowed. In many role-playing
groups, we work with (the conception that) everything that is not directly forbidden is
allowed. You cannot do that in video games . . .

You cannot do anything in videogames if it does not comply with the possibility
space defined by the programmed system. That is, you cannot invent new types of
actions. Players can naturally moderate their interface or install add-ons written in
Lua (an xml library installed by Blizzard), and these may indeed alter the commu-
nication and interaction between players (see Taylor, 2006a). However, the player
cannot invent entirely new actions or attributes in the game, and he may be sus-
pended or have his account deleted if he uses unapproved third-party software
in order to do so. In this way, the possibility of altering the programmed system

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386 Games and Culture 8(6)

is rather restricted. However, the players are free to ignore the game designers inten-
tions and interpret the programmed system in new ways by introducing alternative
gameplay practices. Players may find different ways of getting around the division
between the horde and the alliance. For instance, the two raiders in the study were
members of a guild on the alliance side that had a sister guild on the horde side:

And we met at some point in a town called booty bay, and it was all about taking a
group photo; totally, everyone got in line and then we took a group photo ( . . . ) and
it all ended up with a pool party where humans and gnomes and dwarfs and elves and
taurons and orcs and undead all took off their clothes and jumped in.

The players in question mainly play alliance but also have a sister guild in the
horde that they meet up with in order to have pool parties. This obviously goes
against the game designers intentions as the conflict between the horde and the
alliance is an important dynamic factor in the game world. However, it only breaks
with the intention, not with the programmed system, and in this way the programmed
system gives way to a multitude of possible gameplay practices in spite of its
A closer look at the players in the study reveals at least two axes along which
these gameplay strategies differ: the explicitness of goal setting and the degree of
orientation toward other players. Some of the players engage in very explicit and
dynamic goal setting somewhat matching the category of the power gamer as
described by Taylor (2006b, pp. 7576), while others approach the game world with
much more diffuse aims, seemingly scanning the world for possible activities to
engage in. Similarly, some of the gameplay practices are primarily individual and
easily performed without the presence of other players, whereas others presuppose
coplayers in order to work. It is noticeable that the collective gameplay practices
presupposing fellow players turn the negotiation and coordination of gameplay
activities into an important and rather time-consuming element of the overall activ-
ity. Obviously, these axes do not cover the possible range of player behavior within
the game world of WoW, and the literature on player motivations offers a broad
spectrum of alternative concepts such as advancement, mechanics, competition,
socializing, relationships, and teamwork (Yee, 2006). These concepts have mainly
been used to describe player types, that is, preferences of individual players, while
it is my argument that they should rather be seen as a range of gameplay practices the
players may choose to engage in at will. Thus, as the communication conventions
and small player groups of the traditional RPGs cease to define the activity, players
are free to invent new ways of engaging with the system.
If we go back to the original aim of this study, that is, to compare RPGs across
media, this allows for a new understanding of the relationship between the two.
Compared to traditional role-playing, which is mainly defined as an activity follow-
ing a set of communication conventions and involving a number of rulebooks, online
RPGs are more accurately defined as a broad spectrum of activities and gameplay

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Thorhauge 387

Table 3. Communicative Conventions and System in D&D 3.5 and WoW.

D&D 3.5 WoW

Communicative Defining Not defining

System Regulates exchange of Simulates rulebooks and game
information world

Integrated to varying degrees Prerequisite of the activity

Note. D&D Dungeons and Dragons 3,5; WoW World of Warcraft.

strategies having only the programmed system in common. The differences are
summarized in the Table 3.
Apart from explaining how activities as diverse as traditional and online RPGs
may share their name and origin, this analysis also has wider implications for the
way we deal with game rules in video games. Ludologists often proclaim that
studying video games is a question of studying their rules, but the ontological status
of these rules is rarely questioned. There often seems to be an implicit coupling
between game rules and program code in video games. However, as this analysis
shows, it is important to distinguish between rules as an aspect of the (programmed)
system and rules and an aspect of player communication and interaction. This will be
the subject of my final discussion.

Discussion: The Rules of the GameThe Rules of the Player?

As mentioned in the introduction, the concept of rules has often been put forth as that
distinguishing characteristic that turns video games into video games and makes
them different from other media. For instance, Gonzalo Frasca defines ludology
as a formalist discipline that should focus on video games . . . structure and
elementsparticularly its rulesas well as creating typologies and models for
explaining the mechanics of games (Frasca, 2003, p. 222). Jesper Juul similarly
stresses the importance of game rules and establishes a direct link between game
rules and programmed systems by defining games as state machines and game rules
as state transition functions (Juul, 2005, p. 60). In this way, the understanding of
games as rule systems and video games as programmed systems seem to bring about
a more or less implicit equation between game rules and the programmed behavior
of video games which is also evident in the tendency link game mechanics and game
rules (Hunicke, Leblanc, & Zubek, 2009; Jarvinen, 2008).
However, as pointed out in my case study, games include a variety of rule phe-
nomena of which some can be translated into programmed behavior, such as the
rulebooks, while others depend on the specific social and communicative context,
such as the distinction between the fictional context and the role-playing context,

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388 Games and Culture 8(6)

and cannot be simulated by a programmed system. This is the case with regard to
RPGs because they combine a range of phenomena into a rather complex activity,
but it might also be the case with regard to games in general. For instance, Juul
recognizes that games may imply other rule phenomena such as the concept of
sportsmanship, which fall outside his initial definition (Juul, 2005, pp. 6667). He
solves this issue in a rather circular manner by stating that since they fall outside his
definition they are not really rules. However, video games span a wide array of rule
phenomena such as programmed behavior, abstract principles, social norms, and law
that are all shaping the gameplay activity. When rules that are not interpretable in the
context of the programmed system are deemed irrelevant to the definition of the
game, we risk taking away the very identity of the gameplay we are describing. This
is a crucial point in Sicart (2011) critical reading of the proceduralists (Bogost, 2007,
2008). Sicart argues that the emphasis on meaning as something that ultimately
depends on the rules of the game supports a designer-dominant perspective and leaves
out the experience of the player: The meaning of a game, its essence, is not determined
by the rules, but by the way players engage with those rules. However, as appears from
the citation, Sicart still seems to define the rules as an aspect of the game as an artifact.
His main point is that players may deal with these rules in unexpected ways. The
current analysis takes the critique one step further by questioning the very concept
of rules as it has been employed in game studies. It brings about at least three perspec-
tives that call for further scrutiny: the changing status of rules as they are translated
into programmed systems, the existence of rules that cannot be simulated by a
programmed system, and the importance of player cultures as a defining aspect of
gameplay beyond the designed features of games as programmed systems.
As regards the first perspective, my analysis has shown that the translation of the
rulebooks into a programmed system does not leave them untouched. On one hand, it
is not only the rules that are simulated abut also other aspects of the activity such as
the game world. On the other hand, the very status of the rulebooks in the activity is
transformed, as they are longer tools that are integrated and tweaked in accordance
with the needs and personality of players; they become a platform for the gameplay
activity as such. This is important since the declaration of game studies as an indi-
vidual field has involved an emphasis on video games kinship with nondigital games.
Theorists such as Huizinga (1955) and Caillois (1958) have been proclaimed to be the
true fathers of the field and quite often analog and digital games are treated as two
sides of the same coin. While it is certainly true to some extent, this perspective tends
to obscure the different types of rule phenomena in physical and digital contexts cre-
ating false amenities. For instance, the rules of soccer in the physical field and the
designed features of Fifa are not necessarily the same type of rule phenomena and
a closer look at their differences may indeed reveal important aspects of both.
As regards the second perspective, my analysis shows that the defining rules of
the role-play activity cannot be simulated by a programmed system. That is, they are
not to be found in the rulebooks, they are communicative conventions depending on
the players will to follow them. In this way, not the most detailed and old school

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Thorhauge 389

digital simulation of the traditional RPG will manage to copy the role-play experience
unless it is combined with a set of players willing to fulfill the simulation by way of
their attitude and communication practices. Studying the game as programmed system
in search for the characteristics of the activity equals studying the ball in search for the
characteristics of soccer, handball, basketball, and so on. Indeed, the physical charac-
teristics of the ball put certain limitations on its use, but it is still the actions of the
players that define the game.
This leads to the final perspective involving the player culture as a defining aspect
of gameplay. While ludology has generally been approached as a formalist
structuralism (Frasca, 2003) focusing on video games as programmed system, the
current analysis emphasizes the importance of the player culture as the origin of
gameplay. The player culture is not just something taking place on top of the
game, it rather defines the game as a product of the continuous communication and
negotiation among players. While some gameplay activities may be highly idiosyn-
cratic and short-lived, others represent more stable patterns repeating themselves
across several contexts. This makes it tempting to ascribe it to the game as a pro-
grammed system, but certain cases show that it may rather be the result of a player
culture continuously reproducing it. For instance, if a majority of players use cheat
codes as an ongoing and integrated part of the gameplay activity as seems to be the
case in The Sims does it still count as cheating? Or is it rather an alternative game-
play activity overriding the management strategy gameplay that was originally
intended by the game designer? In accordance with this example and the case study
presented in this article, it makes more sense to study the gameplay as a product of
player activities. The rules of the game are actually the rules of the player/players.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, author-
ship, and/or publication of this article.

The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of
this article.

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Author Biography
Anne Mette Thorhauge is an associate professor in communication and IT at the Department
of Media, Cognition, and Communication at the University of Copenhagen. She has a back-
ground in media studies and is doing research in a broad range of fields from organizational
communication to game studies.

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