How do you keep a playerbase in line? Is it with the carrot, or is it with the stick? How do you even define what ‘in line’ actually means? If you buy into the premise that it’s your job, as a game admin, to create an environment where people enjoy themselves, then how strict do you need to be with the rules if people are having fun?

When it comes to setting policies with regards to behaviour, there are an awful lot of moving parts, and some of those parts are located firmly in your head. Your own political viewpoints will invariably flavour the rules on which you decide – if you tend towards the libertarian, you’ll have a softly-softly approach when it comes to fixed rules. If you’re authoritarian, then your rules will similarly tend towards the strict and inviolable. Whatever your political or philosophical bent, the rules that you put in place will texture the community that emerges around them. People will behave, on the whole, in a way that is harmonious with the guidance you have laid down for them.

People who run MUDs are generally not lawyers, and I suspect most of them don’t really enjoy the ‘wrath of god’ aspect of the job[1] – it’s a thing you have to do, not a thing you want to do. Having decided that it’s time to punish someone for breaking a rule, the last thing you want is someone arguing that technically, TECHNICALLY, they didn’t break any rules because of your inelegant phrasing, or because of some super subtle loophole. The spirit of the rules is tremendously important if you want to avoid endless rules-lawyering and the drama that comes from that. You have to set your line in the sand and say ‘It’s obvious the behaviour that I want to encourage here – if you violate the spirit of these rules, you will be punished even if technically, TECHNICALLY, you didn’t break the rule as it is phrased here’

I think all of that is generally well understood, and most players will even appreciate the intention behind a reliance on the spirit, rather than the letter, of the rules. However, there is a huge danger here if the spirit of the rules is the only guiding factor, because it is an inherently ambiguous and subjective thing. If you can’t codify it, you are left with having people interpret it – and people will interpret things in their own ways according to their own whims and opinions. The end result of that is the worst kind of community – one which is judged by personalities and where people are held in breach of secret, uncommunicable rules. Worse still, the arbitrary nature of punishments in such a community can serve a darker purpose – plausible deniability as a cover.

Imagine the follow scenario, if you can. An unpleasant and unpopular player has done something that has everyone up in arms – he, or she, has broken implicit and explicit bonds of trust, and has profited from some game system in a way that is entirely legal (within the game rules), but is in extremely bad spirit. The rules were never broken, but let’s be honest, the guy has been a bit of a dick and it would be nice if we could punish that player for what they’ve done. It would be really handy then if that player had committed another crime so you could nail them for that and, you know, just come down on them a lot harder than the infraction justifies. That way you nail them for both things, and still come out looking like the champion of justice.

The FBI understood the value of that when they went after Al Capone, and those responsible for arbitrating the rules in online games can similarly be tempted. The end result is that the player in question has to serve time for committing two crimes (one of which wasn’t actually a crime), while those in charge claim publicly that ‘this was entirely based on the breach of the rules’. It’s horribly unethical to do that, and is symptomatic of a deep rot in the moral standing of those responsible for arbitrating the rules. However, it’s also inevitable in a community where the letter of the rules have no real value, and where punishment is entirely up to the individuals who subjectively enforce the spirit.

Rules are only useful when they can be understood for what they are (an attempt to guide people into the right kinds of behaviour), are consistent, and enforceable. They are supposed to be useful to two groups of people – people who are supposed to obey them, and people who are supposed to enforce them. For the former, they have to be able to look at the rules and say ‘No, this thing I want to do is not permissible. The worst case for a coherent rules strategy is when people have to assess that by the context of who happens to be wielding the rulebook at the present time. ‘If X was online, that would be fine. But Y is online and he/she interprets this rule entirely differently’. Inconsistent enforcement of rules violates the basic intention of rule-making – rules cease to be useful in terms of guidance.

When you have a community where rules enforcement is entirely subjective, then you create opportunities for the enforcers to essentially disregard the rules as they are presented – you get to punish people for the things you don’t like, rather than the things that are problematic for a community. Whenever anyone objects, you get to roll your eyes and say ‘Duh, it’s the SPIRIT of the rules, dumbass’. You know that you’ve got a broken system when you can ask the people responsible for setting the rules ‘would this thing here be out of line’, and they say ‘Uh, I don’t know, it depends on who is listening’, or ‘It depends on who is involved’.

Rules have to be consistent to be useful to a community, rather than just to those who have the role of enforcers. If they’re not, people are constantly being assessed against the secret, unknowable criteria of a handful of enforcement elites – that’s great if you’re one of those elites and have no other outlet for your authoritarian fantasies, but it’s terrible for a community. Relying entirely on the spirit of the rules then is a cop-out, and often a cover for the desire of individuals in positions of authority to act without limitations. The letter of the rules matter also, and if you want rules to fulfil their role in your administration toolkit, you need people to understand why the rule is in place (the spirit), the kind of things that are or are not permissible (the letter), and the likely outcome of breach of those rules (the punishments).

[1] Some do, and I suspect in most cases that is due to a lack of authority in the real world.