Friday, June 21, 2013

The spirit vs the letter

As a long time player and enthusiast of all sorts of games, from board games to roleplaying games to wargames using dozens of miniature soldiers, I've spent more than my fair share of time reading various rule sets. Some are simple affairs, designed simply as a framework for people to have fun. Others are more complex, designed to be a simulation of some aspect of real life. And yet others fill multiple volumes of books spanning hundreds of pages.

In the case of miniature games, many sets of popular rules start out as slim, simple affairs, and as they grow more popular, they also grow in size and complexity - especially if the rules become popular among a crowd who play them competitively in tournaments. The reason these rule sets get so complex is because as the rules become more popular, the people playing them become more removed from the rules designers. And the more removed they become, the harder it is for these players to distinguish the spirit of the rules from the letter of the rules.

In games, determining the spirit of the rules shouldn't be that difficult. After all, the primary purpose of a game is to have fun. So whenever a situation occurs in a game that isn't clearly defined by the letter of the rules, it should be pretty easy to determine the designers intent, right? After all, the intent is to have fun.

Or so one would think. The problem is that not everyone's idea of fun is 100% the same. Plus, in a game, the way a rule is interpreted can make the difference between who wins and loses. So sometimes even the simplest rule can cause discussions and even arguments among players. In most regular gaming groups, the outcomes of these discussions and arguments usually evolve into sets of house rules.Informal rules that resolve these disputes to everyone's satisfaction.

Each group tends to create it's own set of house rules. In some cases, these house rules are fairly common among groups for any given game. Particularly where there is good access to the rules designer and/or their designer notes.  Designers notes in particular outline the thought processes of those who wrote the rules, and quite often give a good insight as to their intent - or the spirit the rules are intended in.

That's just the natural evolution of friendly disagreements about the rules.  Exasperating the situation are those players who actively seek out and exploit the letter of the rules. They will use every ambiguity, every bit of semantics to twist things to their advantage. The adhere to the absolute letter of the rules, while often blatantly in violation of the spirit of the rules.

And so, between that, and the times when those house rules aren't so close between different groups, the rules tend expand to clarify those situations.  Especially for officially sponsored games and tournaments. The letter of the rules become more restrictive to reinforce the spirit of the rules.

The reason I mention all this is the same thing applies to the law. The legislative branch writes the laws with a certain intent.  The executive branch is supposed to uphold those laws in accordance with that intent. And the judicial branch is supposed to make sure both of the other branches stick to the intent of the Constitution.

The reality is, though, that the legislature will write the law, and the executive branch will follow that law to the letter. Fortunately, the legislature expects that to some degree, and tries to write the law specific to their intent.  But no matter how well they do write it, there will always be some exploit, something the judicial will have to clarify.

Recently, the original author of the Patriot Act, Wisconsin Representative Jim Sensenbrenner expressed his concern over the revelation that the NSA had been using the Patriot Act as a means of sweeping up the phone records of millions of Americans, as it was "never the intent" of the law.

This is really the problem of certain laws - their intent may be pure, but someone, somewhere in the executive branch will push past the spirit of the law into the letter of the law. And maybe even beyond it - like has been done with the Patriot Act.

This is why it's important to look at every law in how it could be abused, not with just what the intent is. Because a lot of people operate with the belief that rules were meant to be bent, if not outright broken.

Remember that...

No comments:

Post a Comment