Games need rules. Without them, they aren't games at all, just a bunch of a*****es running around with a ball throwing Monopoly money and darts at each other.
Without rules, we'd have to deal with bulls**t like Connect Two.
Along with the written, formalized rules we all know and are familiar with, every game also has a big list of unwritten rules that everyone knows to follow. Violating these unwritten rules often isn't illegal, but in the big outside-the-game picture, this often results in very real repercussions whose very existence has obvious influences on the game world. This makes the study of unwritten rules a useful tool to understanding how games really work, or at the very minimum a helpful explanation as to how you became such an unwelcome presence in other people's homes.
It's because you f**ked the Connect Four board.
I take approximately 2,000 swings during every round of golf, and yet at the end of each round, my scorecard shows a mere 500. What's happened here? And more importantly, why don't my golfing buddies complain?
It's not because they can't count.
It's because we're playing golf with a pretty generous allowance of "do-overs." Golf is more fun if you can play the ball off the grass, instead of the mall parking lot you originally hit it in. Many amateur golfers don't force their friends to play their worst shots, looking the other way if someone needs to kick their ball back out onto the fairway. The do-overs make the game more fun for everyone, which is why we use them despite the fact that "fun" isn't mentioned once in Ye Olde and Ancient Official Rules Booke for Golph.
Which is a little surprising, considering the Scots are no strangers to good times.
You can see the same principle at work with beginning chess players when they make colossally bad, game-ending plays. Why suffer through that when allowing a do-over makes the game more fun, and not incidentally speeds up the learning process? This gives a bit of a hint as to when do-overs are considered acceptable: It depends on what's at stake. If the game's being played for fun or to learn, then the fun or learning opportunity is most important, so do-over away! But if money's at stake? Well, consider Tiger Woods, whose many requests for mulligans in the last few years have been repeatedly denied.
Junko Kimura/Getty Images News
Wait. You're not the real Tiger Woods at all, are you?
So why is this so important? Well, if you know roughly how acceptable do-overs are in your game, you can adapt your strategy to take advantage of it. If it's golf, then maybe you'll play riskier shots. If it's chess, then maybe you'll take riskier chess shots (I've basically forgotten how to do chess). And even though you're obviously playing more for fun than money, you can still win if you take advantage of the do-over rule appropriately.
Which was secretly the point the whole time.
If a guy puts a $20 bill down on the edge of a pool table, you know what's going on.
Roel Smart/iStock/Getty Images
This fellow thinks you have a pretty mouth and wants you to follow him to his car.
Or, perhaps more likely, it means this game is being played for money. It also means, if you play pool like me, that you're about to lose $20. Or find out what a pool cue tastes like.
Woody, I'm guessing.
But if someone slaps a $20 bill down on the side of the board during a game of Sorry! -- what the hell does that mean? How badass can an 8-year-old be? Board games are just totally the wrong venue for wagering, and this act is really inappropriate, and not a little intimidating. And in games that are the right venue, like poker or U-12 coed soccer, there are a lot of unspoken rules around the size of the bets. Bets in the single- or double-digit range can be fun among friends. Mortgage payment-size bets, or the wagering of entire children, might be less fun.
So why is that important? Well, as mentioned, bets are a great way to intimidate a less-confident opponent, providing all the varied advantages that intimidation sometimes offers. And more simply, if you're trying to maximize the amount of your winnings, it's helpful to know what everyone's comfort level is with wagering. Too low a bet obviously minimizes your income, but bet too high and no one bets (or plays) at all.
Meaning all your Hungry Hungry Hippos training and the hippopotamus-themed trash talk
you rehearsed were for nothing.
Many rules are open to interpretation or rely on judgment calls that are made with limited knowledge. Some examples include balls and strikes in baseball, ins and outs in volleyball, and elbows to the throat and other debatable fouls in basketball. Even a few board games, especially "party" games, have rules like these. Consider the decision charades players have to make when deciding whether an answer is "close enough" or whether an opponent's gesture is legal.
"We rule that it was legal but sexually confusing."
Every time there's a call that's open to judgment, there's room for arguing. But there are a lot of unwritten rules about how much arguing is permissible. If you're playing with friends, anything beyond good-natured disagreement is likely to get you banned from all future Scattergories nights. But in some professional sports, arguing the calls isn't just common, it's expected, even necessary. Look at baseball managers: In the entire history of baseball, not a single call has ever been overturned, and yet about once a week, a baseball manager somewhere will completely flip his s**t and start beaking off in an umpire's face. Whether it's to influence later calls or to fire up his players, no one really knows. Maybe he's just tired of watching baseball that day.
"Sometimes I just want a bath."
Professional sports have all sorts of complicated rules about when play can legally take place. But amateur sports, lacking referees and clocks and such, have to rely on unwritten rules that generally state that everyone has to be "ready" first. You don't serve in tennis when your opponent is tying her shoes, you don't shoot in hockey if their goalie is still strapping on his pads, and you don't snap the ball in football when your opponents are still slapping each other on the ass after the last play.
Crystal Chatham/iStock/Getty Images
You just slap your teammates' asses some more until everyone's ready.
The whole intent of these rules is for the next play to be fair and, by being fair, more fulfilling. Multiplayer video games have similar rules; in the old-school kind where you sat on the same couch, there was a lot of etiquette that revolved around the use of the pause button. Using it to disrupt another player while they were doing something was considered poor form. Unpausing while an opponent was in the bathroom was considered hilarious, but also poor form.
Leading to many players finding out what controllers tasted like.
Even in cases where everyone is present and not urinating, there might be unwritten rules designed to make sure everyone is "really" ready. In the Battle Mode of Mario Kart 64 (and probably others), when a player takes a hit, they not only lose a balloon, but also spin out and come to a complete stop. Although invincible during that spin, they're badly vulnerable after, as being stopped is basically the worst thing to be in this game. It was a trivial matter for a well-armed player to brutalize their opponent after getting a single hit, thus quickly ending the match.
A showcase of Nintendo's famously bloodthirsty opinion of mankind's tendencies.
Which is why, whenever I played Mario Kart 64 with my friends, without really discussing it, we agreed to retreat to the far side of the map after each hit, giving our opponent time to regroup. That made each match longer-lasting, and presumably more fun.
Although in retrospect, if the matches had been shorter, I might not have nearly failed out of college
because of this stupid f**king game.
Understanding when play can and cannot begin is useful to know. If you've spotted a winning strategy that relies on surprise, don't waste it when the opponent can credibly claim that they weren't ready. Let them get nice and set up before crushing them. And if you're a terrible, terrible person, keep a stock of "I wasn't ready" excuses in your pocket, to be broken out as needed.
"We've got to do that over. I had a rock in my shoe. What? Fuck me? Fuck you, f**k me."
So you know Monopoly, I'm sure.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News/Getty Images
It's the reason you're no longer friends with eight people now.
The object of Monopoly is simple: to take all of your opponents' money. And if you step back for a moment and consider the game board, its layout, and the physical arrangement of the players, it soon becomes clear that the fastest way to win Monopoly is to throw Mountain Dew in your opponent's face and just reach across and take their money. It's sitting right there.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News/Getty Images
And now it's the reason you don't talk to nine people.
The amount of physical violence that's acceptable in a game is probably the biggest unwritten rule of all. It might seem so obvious what is and isn't acceptable that it doesn't need mentioning, but when you consider the edge cases, where the threat of physical violence is non-trivial, you can see how much it matters. Consider a poker game you're playing with people you don't know too well, where halfway through one of your opponents drops several hints that he's an incredibly dangerous person. Maybe he bets a severed foot or something. Tell me that the threat of physical violence doesn't affect the way you play. Tell me that he isn't expecting the threat of physical violence to affect the way you play.
Hemera Technologies/PhotoObjects.net/Getty Images
"No, that's not a threat. Just my lucky Rabbit's foot. Got it from a dude named Rabbit. No, I suppose it wasn't lucky for him,
now that you mention it. You're funny! I like you! I'm going to call you Rabbit."
In sports, the lines become all sorts of blurry. A big dude playing amateur soccer might leave a little more in his tackles than the smaller dude he's playing against. Professional hockey has a long, unwritten code of conduct about how "illegal" fighting is to be conducted. And stupid, s**tty baseball has the "beanball," a totally common and accepted tactic where you can throw a fastball at another player's head under various circ*mstances. Like if you don't like him. It's assault in any other context -- hell, it's assault even in that context -- but it's a widely accepted part of the game.
Just that game, though.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News/jocic/iStock/Getty Images
"AGHHM, MA FATH! WHU TH FUCKH, JEFF?"
So what? Should you physically threaten everyone you play games with to gain a competitive edge? No. But you should at least have an idea of what level of physicality is acceptable to guide your strategy. Because you can bet it will drive your opponent's strategy, and it will give you a much better idea of the level of trash talk and posturing you'll be able to get away with.
"Is that supposed to scare us, Jeff?"