Saturday, July 24, 2004

Other Things I Do Sometimes: Nomic

That's Mel Brooks as Moses. You know, from "History of the World, Part I;" the bit where he presents the Fifteen—Oy!—the Ten Commandments, as they became known after Moses dropped the third tablet. It all makes sense, really it does, because it's sort of about the law, while retaining the "joker" theme of the image at the beginning of my posts.

Nomic is a game that was invented in 1980 by Peter Suber, a professor at Earlham College in Indiana. He intended it as an illustration of a point for his book, The Paradox of Self-Amendment, which, coming from a professor at an Indiana college, nobody would be seriously expected to ever actually read. (It was finally published in 1990.)

But one of his correspondents was Douglas Hofstadter, who wrote a column called "Metamagical Themas" for Scientific American. Hofstadter seemed more interested in the possibilities the game presented than in actually playing it, but he published the game, along with some of Suber's notes and suggestions.

The game turned out to be a hit, of sorts. On college campuses and across the ARPAnet that would become the Internet, games were started. Two of particular note are Agora Nomic, which started in 1993 after an earlier Nomic self-destructed and is still ongoing, and Ackanomic, which burned brightly for several years before self-destructing in 1999. It was Ackanomic which first came to my attention in 1996; I had read Hofstadter's article and had played one or two pen-and-paper games with some of my compatriots (this was during my political days), but I wasn't aware that the game was being played over the internet. I joined, but I was only a player for a few months; the game at that time generated a lot of comment and discussion and I was having difficulty keeping up. When I Google-search myself, about half of the hits that are actually me, are related to Ackanomic, despite the game ending five years ago.

In essence, Nomic is a game in which changing the rules of the game is a move in the game. It's as if Calvinball was being played by lawyers. Although games have gone in a number of directions, to me the most interesting periods of a Nomic (and there are several) are when the game appears to break, when the inevitable, often unforeseen, exceptions arise to a rule. Can the game be returned to a state of normality without breaking the rules? Other people see these periods as interregna in the smooth-flowing of the game. These are often people who see Nomic as a framework for consensually developing a real game, a card game or board game or economic game or political game. There is nothing wrong with this.

Unfortunately, the Nomic community on the internet, while small, is so old, that much of the web material about the game is full of broken links, to games that played from a few weeks to a few months, or that went away years ago. Peter Suber's own Nomic page has a lot of broken links to games that were ongoing at the time he last updated the site, including one of my own. The Nomic section of his book is on the web, though, with an interesting presentation of the game, even if it is a little bit laced with academia-speak. This page also has his Initial Set of rules, which is the game as well (and as briefly) as it can be presented.

I'm being encouraged to start, or at least to participate in, a new Nomic game. I'd like to invite this poker community to join in. I don't have discussion fora set up yet; in the short term (before the game starts) the comment field of this post can serve. I'd like to suggest three options for this.

First, we could use the original Suber set of rules. This is maybe the most authentic way to play, and both Agora Nomic and Ackanomic started with rulesets that were very similar to this ruleset. One of the features of this ruleset is that it contains a lot of things which are vague, unclear, or strangely worded, although that usually only becomes apparent with actual play. This may seem like a disadvantage, and in one sense it is, but in another sense the early game can be spent in "fixing" the rules, and in the meantime other things will be happening as well.

Second, we could use a heavily modified Suber set, basically a Suber set rewritten so that a lot of the vagueness is written out of it. I found one I wrote once (it's dated 1996), but haven't looked closely at it; if we do decide to use this set I'll want to look over it again. I'll put it up here, but it's a Word document, not HTML; if we go this route I'll of course have to HTML-ize the rules. The advantages and disadvantages to a ruleset of this type are the opposite of a true Suber set; most of the necessary procedural rule-changes are already made, so we could proceed to whatever sort of game we wish ours to become.

Third, we could use a ruleset which is geared toward a specific purpose. This is usually done in order to model something from the real world, most commonly some other game. I created a ruleset at one time called Legislative Nomic, which was designed to model the workings of a real legislature. This was originally my preference, and as such I spent some time HTML-izing the rules (here), but now I'm not sure: Fixing the problems of the Suber set might get people more into the swing of things than jumping in with a relatively stable ruleset and having to decide what the game is actually for.

In any case, let me know in comments or by Email if you're interested in playing; let me know too which of the options you'd be most interested in (or if there's an option I don't see).

Lawyers playing Calvinball ... what could be better?


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