The game is the rules

To win the game Nomic, you need to change the rules so that you can win the game Nomic.

Blind justice
James Cridland from Brisbane, AU / CC BY

If politics is a game, then it is a game in which changing the rules is a part of the game. This is the premise of the game Nomic, created by the philosopher Peter Suber. One version of this game has been played for twenty-seven years straight.

To begin, let’s talk about voting manipulation. Consider gerrymandering – when the boundaries of political districts are strategically reorganised to the advantage of one political party and the disadvantage of others – or voter suppression tactics like requiring a literacy test before people are allowed to vote. Essentially, officials in power change the rules to ensure that they or their party stay in power. This creates a vicious circle: the powerful become more powerful, the powerless become more powerless. And it drives home an important point: one way to win is to change the rules.

Nomic begins with a simple set of rules and a clear objective: be the first player to have 100 points. You get points by rolling a die: roll a 6, get 6 points. So far, so boring. But players can also propose a change to the rules, and all players get a vote. If your change is voted down, you lose 10 points. If you vote against a change and it wins through anyway, you get 10 points. And if at any time the rules create a paradox (e.g. a player cannot make a move, or a player’s move is both illegal and legal at the same time), then that player wins!

Every rule in Nomic can be changed: you can change the points system, the voting system, the rules creation system… in most games people get rid of the points and the dice pretty quickly, because they’re pretty boring. The true purpose of the game is to arrange the rules in a way that your victory is inevitable.

As you can imagine, lawyers and political philosophers love this game.

One online game of Nomic, called Agora, has been running continuously since 1993. It has been won, of course, several times – I assume that someone changed the rules so that winning does not cause the game to end. You can read more, and see its complete history, in the third link below.

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