What are games? Any dictionary definition you’ll find will include at least one reference to them being a competition governed by a set of pre-determined rules. This only shows how dead paper can’t keep pace with what it means to play games in a world that’s been emancipated by the microchip. It fails to understand that when a gamer comes to a game, they come to /play/ – which includes everything up to and including the rules.

This is a tendency as old as videogames which offered sufficient freedom to disobey them. As soon as a racing game existed in a real 3D world, the first thing players did was to turn around and drive the wrong way around the track. This, like many activities of this sort, both breaks the rules of the game and the rules of society, so giving a dual subversive thrill. Developers understand this. It’s arguable that the success of Rockstar North’s Grand Theft Auto games is due to it marrying the “Murder-simulator” transgressive kick of law-breaking with a design which leaves enough room for a player to express themselves in ways of their own devising (For example, seeing how large a multi-car pile up they can create).

The move of games into an online space full of thousands of interacting players has only intensified this. Much of this sort of game-defying behaviour becomes more interesting (for the thrill-seekers) or worthwhile (for those trying a little agitprop) when you have an audience more responsive than a silent games machine. For an example of the latter, take Associate professor at the University of Nevada Reno Joseph DeLappe’s riposte to America’s Army. The game was developed as a recruitment tool for the US military, and takes the form of a militaristic online multiplayer shooter. When he logs on, rather than playing, he just types in the names of the latest US casualties in the Iraq occupation into the public chat channel in effective counter-propaganda to the inherent propaganda of the game itself.

Then there’s always sex. In the same way as when you walk through the streets of your hometown, someone is almost certainly having sex behind those closed curtains, as you run across the countryside of Azeroth in the body of an Orc in World of Warcraft that immobile Paladin you’re passing could be exchanging furtive and provocative private messages with someone else. Perhaps even for cash. Since in-game currency for all the major online games are traded on Ebay for real money, we’ve seen the rise of cyber-prostitution: players exchanging sexual favours for in-game currency. In games where many players are under-age and playing characters of genders other than their real one, the list of real world transgressions accumulates rapidly.

But some of the more interesting conflicts are based around the conflict between what are game and realworld transgressions. Take the recent furore over a funeral in World of Warcraft. Online memorials for the real-life death of players are nothing new, and have happened as long as communities have formed through these new means – though they are of course, in themselves, an emergent event that breaks the strict game rules. However, this particular one was raided by the Serenity Now clan of the opposing Horde alliance, disturbing the mourning by slaughtering all the defenceless characters.

This precipitated a wide scale debate. The Funeralorganisers argued that while it wasn’t part of the game, the second you deal with people it becomes human and people reacting to a genuine urge to pay tribute to a friend is entirely natural. Serenity Now’s supporters argued that the game environment was just that – a game environment, and any attempt to bring any other considerations into it was tasteless and cheapening to the deceased, and so they deserved to receive such an attack as education. What Serenity Now’s argument misses is that their urges to deliver this discipline is as much of an out-of-game consideration as their target’s grief. It’s based on their disgust at what they considered unwarranted sentimentalism. If pure in-game motivation was the issue, they’d have never had done it due to the lack of in-game rewards for trekking half-way across a continent to kill a group of undefended targets. They’re as guilty of exactly the same crimes as those they wished to punish.

The popularisation of the internet has also expanded the possibilities of single-player transgression, leading to player devised meta-games and activities. For example, take the phenomena of “Speed Runs” where players post a video-recording of the quickest time they can get through an entire game for the admiration of the disbelieving masses. These break all a game’s illusions, exploiting glitches to circumvent huge parts of the level and ignore the game’s created purpose in favour of treating it as the users own obstacle course. When something as expansive as the hundred-hoursplus fantasy role-playing game Morrowind have been cut down to an acrobatic short-cut of ten minutes, it’s clear that the games gamers play are always of their own devising and the choice of playing according to a designer’s desires is in fact a choice like any other. The rule of rules is over.