Voluntary Constraints

How Players Can Impose an Ethical Critique

In Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Video Games (2007) Mia Consalvo borrows “paratexts,” a term coined by French literary theorist Gerard Genette, to describe the array of walkthroughs, strategy guides, gaming magazines, marketing materials, and fan sites that contextualize and inform a player’s experience with a videogame. Closely associated with the production of these paratexts is a constantly changing value system that Consalvo refers to as “gaming capital,” an adaptation of Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital, “which described a system of preferences and dispositions that ultimately served to classify groups by class” (4).

Gaming Capital

The constantly-shifting boundaries that divide video game genres, aesthetics and mechanics make categorizing gamer behaviour and culture problematic. By positioning the culture of playing videogames as a sort of commodity exchange, Consalvo allows for more nuance to the delineation and description of gaming culture. Gaming capital is very loosely-defined but could be articulated as the number of views one has on a YouTube video or the number of games one owns on download services like Steam. Developers and publishers may seek to define what constitutes gaming capital through engagement with the player community, but it is the players that typically have the final word on what gaming capital is and how best to accrue it. As such, the production of more paratexts through player-authored walkthroughs, popular YouTube channels or mod communities has a sympathetic relationship with the exchange of gaming capital. Consalvo concludes the book by re-articulating the shaky definition of “cheating” in games and how that relates to “cheating” outside of games, where players that would never cheat outside of digital worlds think nothing of tapping out IDDQD for god mode in Doom. She uses this fracture to suggest that “we need a better understanding of how ethics might be expressed in gameplay situations, and how we can study the ethical frameworks that games offer to players” (187).

I’d like to extend some of Consalvo’s work on paratexts and gaming capital into the realm of voluntary or non-coded constraints that players impose upon themselves. These constraints have certain commonalities. They:

1. Artificially increase gameplay difficulty

2.  Often enact critiques of the codified ethics that underpin the video game processes

3. Challenge the ways in which we delineate “game space” by existing outside of a video game’s coded rules and systems

And perhaps most importantly, the rationale behind imposing these constraints can be boiled down to “bragging rights” or, put in Consalvo’s terms, these voluntary constraints are generative processes that inscribe player-centric paratexts that often resist monetization or being co-opted by the putative marketing machine at the heart of the mainstream video game industry, thus making them ideal methods of accruing “gaming capital.”

By using sub-optimal strategies and following these self-imposed rules, players complicate the established systems and safety nets that are typically folded into mainstream video game design. In doing so, they implement self-governed consequences for any “mistakes” they make. So these voluntary constraints hold up human error and consequence as a desirable component of game design while also reframing modern videogame design from the directed, developer-authored experience to more of an experiential tool box, which, as all of these cases suggest, also leads to the generation of paratexts that are resistant to re-integration into video game development or corporate-controlled gaming capital.

Case in Point

To give you a brief example of the kinds of voluntary constraints I’m talking about, let’s look at Pokemon Unchained. In February, game critic/designer/consultant Mattie Brice began a fascinating video game journal in which she plays through Pokémon White/Black (2011) with the following restrictions:

Rule 1: You can only catch the first Pokémon you encounter in each area.

Rule 2: When a Pokémon loses all its health, it’s dead and must be released.

Rule 3: All Pokémon must be nicknamed.

Rule 4: All instances of “Pokémon” is replaced with “slave(s)” and “Trainer” with “master.”

Rules 1-3 are core commandments of the Nuzlocke Challenge, which is a set of non-coded rules that players can follow while playing any Pokémon game. This challenge was designed to increase the difficulty of the Pokémon games while encouraging a deeper connection between the player and their captured Pokémon. There is no in-game method of keeping track of the Nuzlocke Challenge, but successfully playing the game while following these constraints entitles the player to a certain amount of bragging rights and players will often play through the game while keeping similar journals of their progress to share with their peers online. Rule 4 is Brice’s variation on the Nuzlocke Challenge and is intended to re-cast the narrative in Pokémon Black and Pokémon White as a rehearsal of slavery rhetoric. During a podcast with Experience Points released on February 13, 2013,  Brice and the show’s hosts discussed the appeal of the difficulty engendered in the Nuzlocke challenge, as well as the likelihood that following the Nuzlocke Challenge to the end of the game would likely make the battles with the Final Four effectively unwinnable. Furthermore, by restricting the ways in which players capture Pokémon, they deliberately run counter to the paratextual marketing byline-cum-game mechanic: Gotta catch ‘em all!

Brice and the hosts note that, when one plays a Pokémon game, they routinely encounter other Pokémon trainers that express a deep connection to their Pokémon. These trainers also tend to have two or three, while a dedicated player could have ten times that amount after only a few hours of playing the game. As such, the moment-to-moment gameplay runs counter to the game’s narrative: since Pokémon can be easily replaced, there is little need to have a strong connection with any of them. While the ethics of capturing what are effectively animals and gang pressing them into combat for entertainment purposes have been explored to humourous effect in a variety of internet articles, Pokémon Black and White (and the sequels) are unique in the series in that the main antagonists of the game suggest that capturing Pokémon is an unethical practice. Predictably, the games almost immediately retreat from this line of argument and Team Plasma is established as having ill-will towards Pokémon by the middle of the game. By following the Nuzlocke Challenge and adding her own “fork” to the rules, Brice animates the ethical conundrums that surround the series while defining a gameplay experience that, through its use of strict consequences and metered acquisition of new Pokémon, demands Brice have a closer connection with her “slaves.”

While these voluntary constraints are largely outside of the purview of the programmed engines and scripting of the videogames in question, some games have acknowledged that players may want to undertake these sub-optimal strategies. In particular, the “rogue-like” genre of video games descended from the ASCII dungeon crawler Rogue (1980). These games feature a high degree of difficulty, thanks in part to their commitment to enforcing permanent deaths with no chance to reload as well as implementing various occulted ways in which players can perish. Nethack (2003) is one of the most infamous roguelikes, as it began intermittent development in the mid-1980s and continued until 2003. During this time, it underwent a slow and steady “feature creep” in which various new and idiosyncratic functions were added to the game. Somewhere during this process, the concept of “Conduct” was introduced in response to numerous player-written after-action reports that detailed playthroughs with a variety of voluntary limitations. As if beating the game by descending into an increasingly hostile dungeon where even wary and well-prepared players could lose hours of progress in an instant were not difficult enough, players began completing the game while adhering to a strict vegan diet, or by completing the game as a pacifist, by not killing any monsters to gain experience points. Now, Nethack keeps track of certain player challenges and lists which challenges they managed to adhere to upon completion of the game. The purpose of this has nothing to do with the game’s programmed systems, and everything to do with “bragging rights” outside of the game, in after-action reports that have become the crux of the paratexts that surround and position the roguelike genre.

Multimedia Constraints

These sorts of practices are not unique to videogames, however. The literary movement OULIPO (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle) utilized formalized rules as a generative principle, suggesting that there was beauty in the process of writing as much as there was in the end result. In a slightly more contemporary vein, the avant-garde film movement Dogme95 was founded by Danish directors Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg in the mid-90s, roughly around the same time that digital film technology was on the rise. For Dogme95, human error and naturalized mise-en-scene is enshrined, codified really, as a filmic virtue. Where OULIPO is largely a vehicle for experimental writing, Dogme95 is a political statement, an indictment of flashy gimmicks and coddling directors that fail (or refuse) to respect their audiences. I would contend that the use of voluntary constraints in video games is a further articulation of these movements, in which some sort of desire to instantiate human-ness (in all its error-ridden, sloppy glory) in spite of the potential perfection espoused by technology, even as the creation of rules and processes that form the pulsing heart of technology are inextricably a part of human evolution.

Or, in Consalvo’s terms, these voluntary constraints drastically increase the difficulty of the games in question (in some cases making the games “unwinnable”) which in turn offers the player the opportunity to garner the ephemerally-defined “gaming capital” inherent in completing something that required significant skill or knowledge of a game’s systems. These challenges are not coded into the game, which complicates the delineation between the game space and the real world, calling attention to that fracture between cheating in the game and cheating outside of the game that Consalvo identifies as central to future studies in paratexts, gaming capital and ethics. And most explicitly, these challenges often have an ethical dimension or enact a reflexive critique of the ethics that underpin the game mechanics.

As Consalvo notes, the idea of “gaming capital” is always contested, “as players, developers, and interested third parties try to define what gaming capital should be, and how players should best acquire it” and, evoking the revolutionary underpinnings of the term “capital,” Consalvo reminds us that “commercial entities [that] have vested interests in commodifying as many elements of gaming culture as possible, to then sell those bits back to players as the most desirable forms of capital.” (184) It is through enshrining human error and significant consequence that players destabilize established game designs that prioritize mastery and elide the consequences of death. By doing so, though, players enact a form of gaming capital exchange that cannot be easily recouped by corporate videogame publishing interests. It is, I believe, the fact that these constraints invoke an ethos of gameplay that espouses a scepticism of mastery and narratives of domination that makes them so difficult to be colonized by corporate videogame interests. It is this spirit of revolt (akin to that of Dogme95) that Consalvo does not fully explore, even as she concludes her text by talking about the schism between videogame behaviour and real-world behavior.



  1. Interesting article- I’m always looking for divides/bridges between video games and board games, and I think this idea of imposed ‘sub-optimal’ play has direct correlations to ‘house rules’ many board gamers place on their own ludic experience. Yet, I’m not sure I would classify this sort of behavior as able to escape code, since the code of the video game carefully circumscribes all behavior- even that brought about by self-imposed ‘moral’ or ‘gaming’ codes (as you note, following the Nuzlocke Challenge may make the game unbeatable). While self-imposed behavior can create a sense of space outside that afforded by code, it cannot escape it, cannot circumvent the almost metaphysical presence that code projects on the playing experience. In fact, the very notion of creating self-imposed rules has to fundamentally base itself on the code presented in the game. One can’t choose to create a new Pokemon and play only with that- they have to utilize rules that follow the metaphysics of the ludic universe in which they play.

    Compare this to board games, which possess far more malleability with regards to player input. You can actually ‘cheat’ in a board game, rendering its rule-set as nothing more than a suggested guide, and this cheating may be intentional or not. If you want to create house rules for playing a board game, this is also a way to gain ‘gaming capital’ akin to the sub-optimal strategies discussed above. But whereas one has to restrict, reduce in the video game world to gain additive value, board games allow one to not only reduce but also to add in order to gain additive value.

    Loved the article! Some very interesting things to consider.

    • Jeremy,

      Thanks for your comment! I’m very interested in “house rules” and how the ludic experiences differ between video games and board games. (Likewise, adaptations of board games onto video game platforms are fertile ground for this type of discussion.) You’re absolutely right to point out the fact that video games will always subjugate the players to their coded structures. I really like your suggestion that house rules in board games are a differentiating factor in that board games enable players to add new processes and mechanics. Although I suppose it’s conceivable that these things are also possible with video games through the use of mods, something I don’t really touch on with this piece. Something like the Dune mod for Civilization IV dramatically overhauls the game’s systems while leaving it recognizably Civ.


    • Great points Jeremy. On the subject of board games and house rules, I wonder how far we can push the limits until the “originary” game disappears.

      People have modified Monopoly in all sorts of ways, but most are still constrained by certain features of the game – the board, the underlying economic system, the pieces, the dice, and so on. So it seems that there is always some hint of an underlying code we can’t escape, even in board games. But as you say, board games appear to be more malleable, at least for now. As Rob says, I think the ability to mod with greater ease is starting to counter the tyranny of code somewhat. Anyway, very interesting stuff.

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