We all play games for multiple reasons. No matter what the reason, we agree to a certain set of rules and expectations of play. Some of this involves us entering the “magic circle” of games. We have to suspend our disbelief to become fully enveloped in the game world.
However, there is another agreement that we have to make when playing a game. That is the lusory agreement and the adoption of the lusory attitude in game play. But what is this lusory attitude? What does it include and how we encourage it as designers and maintain it as a fellow player?
This article will review the lusory attitude of games. It includes a review of play in games as well as an overview of the “lusory agreement.” Part of this agreement includes players adhering to the rules of the game. While rules are important formal structures of games they aren’t the only thing that is involved in the lusory agreement. Players’ attitudes and mindsets also impact their agreement. This agreement should prevent and discourage players from acting in “bad faith” when making decisions in games. The article closes on the social contract and social agreement of games as part of the lusory attitude.
Play composes the basic level of activity in games. That’s because play represents players’ intrinsic motivations to engage with the game, each other, and the environment.
Play is involved in all games. Play in general is something of a socio-cultural manifestation for what we want, experience, and achieve while playing games. When we play we engage without direction. But when playing games we often have a clear goal, outcome, or achievement that we aim for.
Both play and games require that we enter a specific and special place called the “magic circle” that requires use to suspend our disbelief. We want to become an entity that is inside the game as well as someone who is experiencing it in real time. Playing means that we don’t always have to come away with something physical and tangible. Most of us don’t play games for money. We play games because we enjoy them. We don’t play for some sort of external reward.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway that we get from games is that we become engrossed in them. This represents a perfect harmony between player and the game where we’re engaging at the top of our abilities. This is called the “flow state” and is exists right between being bored and frustrated in games. In the flow state we are challenged to achieve more than we thought we could.
This flow state represents something that is part of play that isn’t always linked to a biological need to play games. Nor is it something that we feel compelled to routinely seek out and experience. But when we’re in the flow state we feel entranced. We want to keep playing the game. We don’t’ want to leave.
However, sometimes that “trance” of the flow state is broken when we lose, fail, or otherwise upset the balance in the game. These failures from players come about when we are defeated by our adversaries; when we run out of time; resources; or sometimes even patience. But these failures are often part of what makes the game engaging. We accept these failures as consequences for our continued desire to continue playing the game.
So we have to make a decision to continue playing. But we have to play by the game’s rules. Those rules state that we have to achieve, accomplish, or satisfy the objective of the game using the means provided to us. Often those are “inefficient means.” Why should I have to hit the baseball in order to run around the diamond? Can’t I just tap home plate once and score a run?
Of course any player could do this. But that wouldn’t follow any of the rules of the game. Would that even be fun? Pursing these “inefficient means” of accomplishing the game goals is the next choice that players make in the “magic circle” of games. This includes our tacit approval of the “lusory agreement.”
“The Lusory Agreement”
The lusory attitude of players is informed and shaped by their lusory agreement in the game. That lusory agreement is based on players’ decision to play the game by its established and socialized set of rules. This is based on the Latin word “ludus” meaning game. The agreement comes from players understanding (and acknowledgement) that they will play the game according to its rules and to the best of their abilities.
The lusory agreement begins with players acknowledging that they will play the game according to its established rule set. It further acknowledges that players accept these rules as the inefficient means of achieving the game’s objectives. For example in golf the objective of the game is to drive the ball from the tee into the hole. Players agree to drive using a set of clubs. They do this instead of throwing the ball or walking directly to the hole and placing it there by hand. Golfers acknowledge that they will pursue the objective of the game by following these rules.
However, those are the established rules for the game that players must abide by. But everything else is up to the players. They are free to play the game – and thus – create meaningful opportunities to make decisions that affect their status and outcome of the game. Players can develop their own tactics and strategies. If you’re like me you can begin trash talking the other mini-golf players in your group (it’s part of the game – trust me).
Frustration is inevitable when it comes to playing really challenging games – especially if you’re playing against very skilled opponents. But the lusory agreement of the game and its accompanying magic circle; make is so that the actions contained within the game and the results of those actions are limited. Those consequences are constrained to the game and aren’t supposed to leave it. Just like the results of playing within the magic circle.
Video games take the lusory attitude one step further by codifying players’ adherence to the rules through a series of automations. Players of course can cheat with enough know-how; gumption; and drive. But doing so violates the lusory attitude of the game.
That means that even with the lusory attitude on players’ agreements there remains a wide void between players’ meaningful choices and what they can (and will do) within the game. Player behavior is a complex concept. It’s made up of choices; constraints; and their own driving factors influenced by their player type. However, all player behaviors begin with the first choice: choosing to play the game by the game’s rules.
Those rules form the first formal structure of games. The rules are the construct and the structure for how players adhere to the lusory agreement in order to achieve the game’s end goals and objectives.
The rules are the formal constraint of games. They are the aspect that often make the game challenging, non-trivial, and require some degree of effort or thinking in order to achieve the game’s objectives. The lusory attitude that players adopt acknowledges that players abide by these rules.
However these rules aren’t always clear between what is expected of the designer and what is expected to play the game from the other players. That means that rules can be broken down into two separate categories. Explicit rules are part of the formal elements of the game. The implicit rules are part of the social contract and the lusory attitude of game that players adhere to when playing.
Often there is a gray area that emerges from both the explicit and implicit rules of games. That’s when judgments need to be made by other players on edge cases or other interpretations between the explicit rules and players’ choices. Often these are handled by impartial third parties. We see these in sports with referees, umpires, and other officials who mitigate these rules interpretations and apply rulings that are supposed to support the integrity of the game.
However, in other arenas like in table top games, the inclusion of an impartial third party isn’t always an option. That means that players themselves need to police their own behavior and the behaviors of their fellow players. This often gives birth to “house rules” or other forms of implicit social agreements that players adopt that arise from these cases.
These house rules aren’t necessarily a bad thing. In reality they provide additional cultural flavor and influence that players have over a game. The combination of which affects one of the most influential areas of the lusory attitude: the mindset of each player.
Attitude & Mindset
The lusory attitude is one of the first decisions that players make when deciding to play the game. As such their altitude at the time of the agreement is what influences and flavors their play.
However, this decision doesn’t exist in a vacuum and isn’t binary. A player can’t decide to adhere to the rules of the game and immediately have fun. Instead, players also bring a playful attitude with them when they agree to play. That in turn affects the decision of other players and ultimately the player experience from which everyone benefits.
There are many ways to exhibit and demonstrate this playful attitude. One of the best ways is understanding that the game’s rules form an artificial (but necessary) boundary between efficiency and challenge when accomplishing the game’s objectives. This “voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles” by Bernard Suits greatly influences this playful attitude of players in the game.
This playful attitude is also what contextualizes players’ decisions within the game. Without the lusory attitude, players decisions become objective actions without any motivation or connection. Games aren’t just about the actions that individual players take. Game dynamics come from those decisions by players, with players, and inside the game.
These game dynamics inform and affect the game play for other players. Often this comes when all players “take the game seriously.” That doesn’t mean that they have to play competitively or that they play aggressively. Rather, they look at the game as a serious commitment to accomplishing the objectives of the game within its constraints.
Because of this it’s important that games encourage, engage, and embolden players to want to “win” at the game. But the importance ultimately is not that players win. It’s that they adhere to the common goal of winning. Through their lusory attitude they determine that the serious goal of winning is part of their agreement and desire to play.
The lusory agreement in games is the first really meaningful decisions that players make when they decide to play the game. The lusory attitude on the other hand is much more transient and can shift and change according to the player’s behavior, feelings, and connection to other players and the game.
The lusory attitude is then subject to “bad faith” move by players. Some of these can be more objective than others. That’s when players want to maximize “efficiency” of actions in their attempt to adhere to the rules, but not necessarily the spirit, of the game.
Otherwise, players can take on a more subjective approach. This can include taking “sub-optimal” actions that would put them in a worse or non-optimal position than their opponents. Sometimes this could be done out of frustration: if players don’t feel that they have the ability or agency to affect or influence the game in their favor.
Sometimes these can be done out of spite. Players don’t feel that their actions can help them. However, they can still act to negatively affect other players. This can happen in table top games when “king-making” becomes an action. A player may not be able to win; but they can influence who of the remaining players can win.
This bad faith convention in the lusory attitude affects all who play the game. This can come from more tangible outcomes such as having the game end early, prematurely, or before a really satisfying resolution. Otherwise, players could take advantage of loopholes within the game or house rules of the game to exploit an advantage that would compromise the lusory agreement.
At face value these “bad faith” decisions are at the heart trust issues. The lusory attitude is based on players trusting one another to pursue the goals of the game within its defined boundaries. If all players cannot adhere to that then the game’s integrity is at stake. And why place the integrity at stake if we cannot even enjoy the process of succeeding through “inefficient means?”
At the most extreme end of the spectrum these “bad faith” decisions result in cheating. Players completely, purposefully, and willfully subvert the rules of the game for their own benefit. Most gamers cannot stand cheaters because of their violation of the integrity of the game. However, all gamers shouldn’t tolerate cheaters because they haven’t even said yes to the most basic decision of the game: the option to play fairly with others.
Social Agreement & Social Contract
At its heart the lusory attitude and agreement is a social contract. It’s an agreement made between the players and the game. Its’ a decision to follow the rules and put one’s best effort forward into winning by accomplishing the objectives of the game. This could be through competition against one another or cooperation in order to achieve a common goal.
The lusory attitude is contentious for players because this is often a social construct of games. There are no rules books which state that players MUST abide by their decision to play and engage with one another. That is already understood when they picked up the controller, the board game, or their tablet.
This doesn’t mean that every game, match, or interaction of the activity will be enjoyable. But we commit ourselves to experiencing this, and a range of other emotions, after we’ve decided to play.
However, after we’ve made the decision to play we have to continuously ask ourselves if we want to continue to play. We are often provided ways for us to continually “opt-in” to the game. Each time we agree to continue playing we objectively and socially dedicate ourselves to the pursuit of the lusory attitude.
We have to make that decision every time we want to cross into the magic circle of games. We make that decision in order to distinguish and separate ourselves from what we are here in our own reality and what we could become in the game. Each game has its own set of rules and expectations. By agreeing to play we become ambassadors from the real world to the game world.
By agreeing to play we create personal and social meaning between us, the game, and our fellow players.
This article reviewed the lusory attitude and agreement in games. It included an overview of play in games as well as how play informs the “lusory agreement.” Game rules as well as player behaviors and attitudes were discussed. Specifically how they inform players’ agreement to play the game according to established rules. Player mindset also affects the lusory agreement. This can most negatively affect players making “bad faith” decisions in games. The article closed on the social contract and social agreement of games and how players’ choices affect their lusory attitude.
This article was originally published by Dave in his blog What is the Lusory Attitude?
Dave Eng, EdD is an intellectual and creative educator, designer, and researcher who combines games, theory, and technology. He has extensive higher education experience working in both the administration and the faculty. Dave is a prolific speaker and presenter making appearances at over 20 different academic and professional conferences. Dave serves as a faculty member & educational technologist at New York University’s School of Professional Studies. Dave hosts the podcast Experience Points and consults at University XP on games-based learning. His interests include professional development, learning theory, technology, and games. Find out more at www.davengdesign.comor contact Dave at email@example.com
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