How to Play XML: Markup Technologies as Nomic Game

Wendell Piez

Copyright 2009 by the author.

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How to Play XML: Markup Technologies as Nomic Game

Balisage: The Markup Conference 2009
August 11 - 14, 2009

What is a game?

Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his Philosophical Investigations, famously describes language as a game with words, and then contextualizes and complicates the suggestion by demonstrating how the term game itself (Spiel in the original German text) does not admit of a simple, clearcut definition. As he demonstrates, there is no single definition that can be used, in any abstract analytical way, to distinguish those things we call games from other things we do not. While games frequently or generally have players, rules, equipment, scores, plays or moves or tricks or turns or timing, none of these is present in all things we call games, or serves to distinguish a game as such from other things that are not games. Solitaire is a game, if only in a loose sense; so are catch, tag, or (when playing with a cat), string. The first definition given under game in a dictionary will tend to be something like A diversion or amusement (American Heritage, although there are many diversions or amusements we do not ordinarily call games), or Sport or amusement of any kind; fun (Webster's). Yet we can all think of diversions or amusements that we would not call games.

The mathematical field of game theory is, similarly, both a help and a hindrance. While game theory sets out to describe game-like situations, these correspond only somewhat to those things we call games outside mathematics. Intriguingly, this limitation of game theory is necessary to its greater project as a universal language for the unification of the behavioral sciences (H. Ginnis as quoted by Don Ross), which it achieves by means of a generalized application of its terms well beyond those of the social and cultural phenomena we call games. Accordingly, while game theory is by no means irrelevant to the analogy proposed by this paper (and the application of game theory as such to markup languages would by no means be without interest), it is also somewhat tangential to the argument here.

The reason for this is fairly simple, but subtle. What this paper shares with game theory is a recognition that games can, in general, be characterized as rules-based systems; that is, as systems in which the relation and interaction of parts or participants are regular in ways that are susceptible to formal definition and even prescription. But while game theory considers what happens – what patterns emerge, how outcomes are or are not determined, how strategies interact – within such systems, it necessarily treats each such system as closed. The allowance that a system may not be fully defined or definable in formal terms – something that is, for better or worse, characteristic of many games and gamelike activities – will tend to frustrate any straightforwardly mathematical approach. Accordingly, any consideration by game theory of systems whose rules are not fully determined or known by the theorist – which are thus, in a crucial sense, undefined – will be, at best, by analogy.[1]

This analogy (certain formal systems of interest to us shall be called games, and games as we call them are like systems we can observe) is less the focus of this paper than another one, closer to home at least for some of us: markup technologies, and the forms of media based on them, which have formal aspects, are like games, like chess, Scrabble or (with apologies) tag, which also have formal aspects, though they may not always be fully definable in merely formal terms (that is, without any reference to social context or occasion). In view of this, it turns out that game theory is interesting for this treatment at least as much for its showing what games (or markup technologies) are not as for its theorizing what they are, casting into relief the vital distinction between formal systems as such, and systems as we encounter them as part of social, cultural and economic life. For example, one consequence of its deliberate definition of scope – a game is a system subject to formal definition of options and outcomes in interaction – is that game theory can make no provision for cheating (as distinguished from defecting: the distinction is important[2]). This is because when a game is identified with a given set of constraints on play and dispositions of rewards, to break these rules is simply to end or invalidate the game as defined (even if play continues), and to play a game outside its rules is a logical impossibility (while one might well continue on to play something else). Similarly and by extension, if allowances are made in the definition of a game for breaking a set of nominal rules (since game theory does not require that all participants in a game know all the rules or agree on them), then to break them is merely to demonstrate that the game nominally being played is not the game actually being played. Accordingly, cheating from the point of game theory does not mean what it ordinarily means, that is to break the rules while continuing to play. Instead, it amounts to a particular kind of subterfuge, i.e., to pretend to be playing one game while actually playing another.[3]

But cheating at sports and games (and gaming them, an interesting and illuminating variation) has a long and illustrious history, as long as that of games themselves. And it happens all the time – yet somehow games continue, maintaining some sort of identity and integrity even if only as a premise. If a football coach cheats by reading the other team's signals, or a baseball player cheats by corking a bat or spitting on a ball, we do not usually say they have stopped playing football or baseball, even when this might be a vivid and cogent formulation of our complaint against them. More generally, a game as defined mathematically makes no provision for creativity or improvisation outside the choices between more or less obvious or innovative selections of strategy, for moves that change the game. This is not to say that creativity within constraints is not creative (on the contrary), nor that the mathematics are therefore uninteresting. Yet the constraints themselves, the rules of the game, are sometimes themselves most at issue; and how and by whom they are decided is precisely what game theory must leave aside.

This being the case, this treatment proceeds with a much rougher definition of game, which will nonetheless prove to be serviceable, inasmuch as it does not contradict a mathematical accounting, if one should be wanted, but also looks beyond the formal mathematical definition of any particular game, real or notional: a game is an agreement to play. This is broad enough to capture most or all real games; but it entails a couple of important ideas. First, in order to have an agreement, we need to agree with someone – if only with ourselves, as in solitaire. Second, an agreement to play consists often of more particulars than the simple act of playing. We can agree to all kinds of rules and requirements. And it is this set of rules and requirements that constitutes the game.

In other words, we might be less concerned with what constitutes games in general, as games, as what constitutes a particular game, as a game. And indeed we are in rich territory as soon as we bring attention to the social and material contexts of any agreement to play, and to the constitution of such an agreement, both implicit and explicit. While this all varies greatly from one situation to another, whenever we find such an agreement, and to whatever extent we can find the agreement to be stable and to consist of particular provisions governing play, we usually find we can say there is a game there.[4]

Rules and rule systems

While it is very difficult to generalize meaningfully about the context and nature of such agreements, if we are to try to extend an argument like mine – markup technologies are games or are like games, or at least provide occasion for games – it is necessary to do so at least in a rough way. Along these lines, I would like to propose several categories or terms of art, which we might use to distinguish the outlines of any agreement to play.

Constraint space

If a game is defined by its boundaries, those boundaries can be considered to define a constraint space. A constraint space comprises all the lawful states of a game. Something that happens inside the constraint space may be part of the game; outside the space it necessarily is not. If the state of the game exits the given constraint space, the game must either be modified to extend into the new space, or come to an end.

Generally a game comes to an end either when it comes to a steady state and its players decide to stop (thereby ending the agreement to play), or when the constraint space itself is dissolved. For example, a number of points is acquired or a clock runs out, thereby bringing the game, as defined by its own rules, to an end state, or bringing to an end a condition on which the game depends (we'll play until it gets dark).

For purposes of this discussion, constraint spaces may be further distinguished into three kinds: terrain, rule space and regulation space. Terrain is the most general; rule space appears or occurs within or on the terrain; regulation space is a further refinement on rule space.


A game always takes place within some medium, which I will call its terrain. The terrain may be identified with the material conditions of the game: its playing field, apparatus or equipment. Every game has a terrain at least implicitly, although the terrain may shift in the course of the game.

The rules of play may specify or designate a terrain, but they do not constitute it. Nevertheless, the notion that a terrain is relatively stable, distinct from the rules of play, and nonetheless introduces its own constraints, is important. Not only may the terrain shift while the rules stay constant; also the rules may shift while play continues on the same terrain.

Rule space

While the terrain bounds the set of possible game states given its material conditions, rule space comprises a set of lawful states. It is possible, for certain kinds of loose or informal games, that rule space covers the entire terrain. In other words, the agreement to play consists only of we'll play here or we'll play with this, and all states given this agreement are legal. Generally speaking, however, for play to remain play, at least some rules are followed at least implicitly. Even animals at play together will handicap themselves so the stronger does not entirely dominate the weaker. The existence of such implicit rules seems to be part of what makes tug or chase a game.

Importantly, rules do not only define legal states within the terrain. Typically they also define legal transitions between those states: tactical alternatives, moves or plays, some of these being legal, while others are not. This further restriction also opens a further possibility of cheating, which can include not simply a move or play that exits rule space (the set of lawful states), but also a move or play that advances the game to another state – even one that might otherwise be lawful – by means of an unlawful transition.

Regulation space

Given the possibility, or even the likelihood, that either game states or the transitions between them may be unlawful – balls do go out of bounds, and players do attempt to cheat – many games also include rules to govern rule space. Mechanisms of resolution or adjudication are introduced in order that the agreement to play may continue by a restoration of rule space when it has been violated. Regulation space may introduce agents of its own (such as umpires or referees) and its own apparatus (a referee's whistle). In any case, there are rules to be followed for enforcing the rules (when the referee blows the whistle, play must stop). Such mechanisms, which we can generally call regulators, occupy a middle space between the rule space and terrain, one where an unlawful state (or the immanence of one) is recognized, but instead of forcing an end to the game, a kind of meta-rule, a regulation, is applied to restore lawfulness. This ensures that the game remain within rule space. (Usually this is accomplished by changing the game state. It can also be accomplished by altering rule space itself to accommodate the state in question.) As long as this happens in a way acceptable to the players, the agreement to play can be sustained. More often than not, prior agreements on how this agreement is to be secured help to validate such rulings.

Because they add new constraints and restrictions to a wider rules space, a game that is regulated is actually a formal subset of the same game when unregulated (that is, when regulated only informally, by its players in the course of play) – not because it always makes some otherwise lawful game states unlawful, but because it clarifies and manages the boundaries between lawful and unlawful. It narrows the class of lawfulness from anything the players accept as lawful to anything determined to be lawful by regulation.

For example, Scrabble™ is a game played on a terrain consisting of a board and tiles; the rules entail players taking turns, placing tiles on the board to spell words, and drawing new tiles to replace the ones played. Commonly, a dictionary is used as a neutral arbiter (a regulating device) to determine whether a disputed word is allowable.

But the National Scrabble Association also publishes a set of Official Tournament Rules, which specify a particular reference book (not just any dictionary agreed to by the players), along with many additional rules governing tournament play. Since the rules of Scrabble as printed on the box and played at home in your living room comprise only a subset of these rules, Official Tournament Scrabble is a subset or profile of Scrabble in general. (More rules define a narrower rule space.)

Figure 1: Rule spaces and regulation spaces

image ../../../vol3/graphics/Piez01/Piez01-001.png
image ../../../vol3/graphics/Piez01/Piez01-002.png
image ../../../vol3/graphics/Piez01/Piez01-003.png

Figure 2: Lawful and unlawful states in Scrabble™

Although all of these represent states on the terrain, only one of them represents a lawful game state according to conventional rules. (According to the Official Tournament Rules, another one is legal if no player chooses to challenge it before another move is made.)

image ../../../vol3/graphics/Piez01/Piez01-004.png

How are markup technologies like games?

Markup technologies, considered generally (that is, including HTML/CSS and wiki markup as well as XML/XSLT) have a number of game-like characteristics:

  • An apparatus (the computer, the software, the network) constituting a terrain.

  • Rules (syntactic rules, tagging rules, usage and best practice), procedures (editing, validating, executing stylesheets), styles of play.

  • Regulators (rules enforcement mechanisms), working on several levels. For example, we have XML with its rules (well-formedness constraints over the syntax and the usage of particular mechanisms such as namespaces) enforced by parsers; we have applications of XML using particular tag sets, with schemas to validate instances intended for these applications; and we have profiles of these applications entailing even further constraints over both the construction of markup instances and how they are deployed and used.

    Much of the regulation occurring in markup technologies is achieved informally by players monitoring and providing feedback to one another. Regulation mechanisms are also frequently formalized, codified and automated. Sometimes regulations conflict, requiring (usually informal) arbitration.

  • Social networks and roles.

  • Opportunities for interaction, feedback, and cooperation among players.

  • Payoffs or victory.

Notably, competition is excluded from this list. While competition is clearly part of activities related to markup technologies, it is not obviously necessary to them: win/lose outcomes are not inevitable at least within the straightforward practice of markup. While one might allow that successfully validating or publishing a markup instance is winning in some sense, such a victory would not ordinarily require anyone else to lose.

Figure 3: Markup technologies as game

Just as games come in more or less strict and regulated forms, so do markup language applications.

image ../../../vol3/graphics/Piez01/Piez01-005.png

Yet beyond those just listed, there is a more striking similarity. Markup technologies show the same systematic elaborations as games do between games-as-rules (rule spaces) and games-as-regulated-rules (regulation spaces). Just as we have board games (games played, usually in turns, on a board at a table), Scrabble (a particular such game, whose terrain is a board with a grid and tiles carrying letters with point values), and then NSA Official Tournament Scrabble™, we have text-based markup, then XML, then an application of XML such as TEI or Docbook, then an application profile of one of these (or of some other common tag set, or a private tag set) in use by a particular publishing system or organization, and so on.

Moreover, the regulatory systems that are deployed to manage and support markup applications, including schemas, documentation, stylesheets and so on, are themselves subject to a kind of game play. Certainly, proponents of TEI, Docbook and other widely-used tag sets have been known to feel themselves in competition, as if to be widely used is to win. Browsers and commercial toolkits compete with one another over who gets to define the rules of how markup is to be handled, as a guarantor, in their case, of commercial viability; this is a reflection and an outgrowth of the fact that even proprietary applications may be used as regulators (sometimes the only regulator) to manage the rule space of even a supposedly non-proprietary, standards-based technology such as HTML or CSS. At a higher level still, standards organizations and industry consortia are enlisted as regulators of this competition; then standards bodies themselves compete over markets. Evidently there is plenty of zero-sum (or at least the players behave this way) and plenty of competition.

However, the fact that markup technologies are not inevitably or inherently competitive is only one instance of a more general distinction, namely that markup technologies as a whole, for all their rules and rigidities in some respects, do not make for the same kind of stable bounded system that a game is, even when this is true of particular markup-based applications. Markup technologies are more complex than games, even complex ones, and more specifically situated within (less isolable from) particular economic and cultural projects or endeavors.

Also, participants in markup technologies usually have less clearly defined tasks or roles than players of games do; indeed our work commonly mixes together the roles of player (someone who acts within game play to achieve aims within the game) and regulator (with responsibilities to monitor and maintain the game play as such). Nor is this because the game is simple enough not to require external regulation; on the contrary, markup technologies are also characterized by the opportunity to make and change the rules of play. All this makes them less like games, and more like nomic games.

Nomic games

In some ways, nomic games are the most gamelike of games, in that they afford the greatest opportunity for self-structured play: they are agreements to play in their most essential form. Yet they are also un-games, in the sense that they cannot be defined in terms of particular sets of rules. That is their point. To the extent that a game most closely approaches the mathematical ideal of a closed system in which moves, tactics, payoffs and their interactions are fully defined (and hence, at least in principle, fully intelligible), it is not a nomic game – even as the outcome of those interactions becomes too complex to be predictable. A nomic game is a system that is gamelike in one crucial respect – there are rules governing play – but critically ungamelike in another: those rules are not fixed, but instead are themselves in play.

Figure 4: Games and nomic games.

image ../../../vol3/graphics/Piez01/Piez01-006.png

The term nomic game was coined by Peter Suber in 1982, in reference to legal and constitutional systems, to designate precisely the sort of game or gamelike system in which the players have scope to change the rules.[5] Beyond this, it is necessarily somewhat difficult to generalize how nomic games work (as indeed this is up to the players) without resorting to group psychology or social dynamics. Although accounts of nomic games are not hard to locate on the Internet, they are nevertheless difficult to research, since as actually played they typically become highly introspective, self-involved, encumbered or elaborated with peculiar terminology (as nomic games are inevitably language and logic games, as well as opportunities for the display of linguistic prowess), and apparently all-consuming for their players (since they lack firm boundaries between game play and activities not within the game). Consequently, actual nomic games, even when their proceedings are archived in public, have a way of becoming insular and opaque.[6]

But many activities or endeavors we do not ordinarily consider to be games are nomic in the sense Suber describes (which of course is what motivates his proposal). Indeed, the capability of defining their own boundaries by their rule-making activities might be an essential characteristic of cultural activities in general, considered as such, whether they be political and economic, artistic or creative, or technological. Herein lies much of the fascination of nomic games. Public institutions such as the law or commerce, which proceed in and by agreements among their participants, public and private institutions such as governments, clubs, corporations, and universities, are all characterized by the way their participants and stakeholders make and remake the rules of play, and sometimes challenge or avoid them. Art and poetry can be similarly identified with rules-making, to rhetorical and aesthetic ends. And so can technology, where the ends are practical and task- or (and) market-oriented. These various activities can be distinguished from one another by their various terrains – their material, social and economic contexts – as well as by the rules they follow and regulatory frameworks they enact. When we distinguish them in this way, we might almost be talking about games – a fact that has not escaped the notice of structuralist anthropologists.

Figure 5: Human culture and nomic games.

Many of the activities most distinctive of human culture and civilization, including law, technology, the arts, and various economic activities, may be thought of as nomic games. This etching by Blake both illustrates and exemplifies the principle of rule-making.

image ../../../vol3/graphics/Piez01/Piez01-007.png

Yet even casual observation suggests some properties of such activities that distinguish them from more conventional games. Beyond the fact that we do not call them games or identify them as such except metaphorically (which we may do often), nomic games differ from conventional games in several respects, all of which have to do with how their boundaries are defined and maintained. For example, while ordinarily games are temporally ordered – either they proceed until a given conclusive state of play has been reached, at which point they end, or play continues for a definite and determined period until a score determines the outcome – nomic games, precisely since any rules governing time or sequence can be changed, tend to be temporally open-ended (even while there may be rules stipulating terms or rounds), and either unsustainable and short-lived, or interminable, sometimes making no provision at all for their own cessation. Also, conventional games are allogenic in the sense that they are motivated and staged by something outside them, whereas nomic games will be autogenic and even autopoietic (the term Maturana and Varela use to distinguish living systems as such), which accounts for their self-obsessed, self-consuming nature: nomic games frequently descend into rules lawyering. Perhaps most intriguingly, nomic games also tend to spin off or spawn other nomic games: they are replicative of themselves as well as mutable.

Finally, just as it is difficult (for reasons discussed earlier) to apply the idea of cheating in game theory, the notion of cheating only applies with difficulty to a nomic game, but for the opposite reason: the rules of a nomic game are mutable and always at issue, so nothing is by definition out of bounds. A nomic game may, at one moment, define a rule space (in the sense of a set of lawful states), and at the next, redefine it. It may enter into a paradoxical state in which the nominal rule space has been violated, but the agreement to play has not been suspended, so the game continues. And it may retroactively change the rules to make earlier moves (transitions) or conditions (states) legal or illegal, in order to invoke or to avoid invoking regulatory action as part of the game play.

To the extent that any game allows this (like professional bicycle racing, with its doping scandals) it is revealed as more nomic and less gamelike: players (a category which for these purposes will include the game's regulators, for example race officials and organizers) can take the rules into their own hands, and alter or break them, without ending the game. As long as as the agreement to play is sustained, even while the integrity of the game as a game (a transparent and fair competition) is compromised, as a nomic game (a self-sustaining but only relatively rules-bound activity), it may be reinforced. Thus, nomic games alter and stretch the notion of a game away from general principles of formal definition and into more socially located, problematic and provisional contexts. This helps account for why both games and nomic games, as actually played, are interesting, as each is always in the midst of becoming the other, in a Yin/Yang dynamic relation, in which cheating delineates precisely the in-between space where a game goes nomic (at the risk of collapse, if the agreement to play should become unsustainable), and where, conversely, an accusation of cheating may be a ploy that seeks to circumscribe a game-going-nomic back within the parameters of the game it is assumed or claimed to be – to regulate it.

Indeed, to recognize this is to come some distance to understanding of why thinking about games is useful for understanding phenomena and problems in the real world, a place where mathematical regularity is as often the exception as it is the rule. We might say that the reason we can so easily compare real-world activities (such as real estate speculation or international relations) to games (such as Monopoly or Diplomacy) is that the purpose of games is precisely to offer and encourage such analogies. As rules-bound and regulated systems, games are like the real world, only more so, with the special advantage of being more clearly bounded, delineated and self-contained, and hence more observable and intelligible – which makes them suitable occasions for practicing skills and abilities that may be useful outside them. Yet paradoxically, part of their resemblance to real-world activities is in their capacity to fly off, to become something other than themselves. And it is when games become more serious, when the stakes go up, that they have this tendency most strongly.

Yet just as games become more like nomic games as they become more serious and their players seek to take control of the rule space and shift it to their advantage, real-world nomic activities such as legal and political systems become more gamelike, more regular and rules-bound, as their participants find common interests in preventing ad hoc nomic redefinition on the part of other players, and in thwarting and punishing those who engage in it. That is, regulation spaces, both in games and in ostensibly more serious activities, are attempts to manage and control their nomic tendencies, to regularize and reduce complexity and seeming arbitrariness and instead offer systematic control or some sense of it. Intriguingly, such rules and regulations are what make game theory useful and relevant – at any rate, the kind of game theory we compulsively engage in as social animals, which is to say our more or less systematic reasoning about motives, options, objectives, tradeoffs, strategies and tactics. Within such systems (again, think of constitutional governance), although they remain nomic at their core, not just anyone is permitted to change the rules at any time, and there are complex rules, built-in checks, and regulation of regulations for determining who may engage in rules making, by what mechanisms, with whose participation or acquiescence, and within how wide a scope.

Again, for our purposes (and at the risk of anticlimax), it hardly needs to be stressed how markup technologies fit into this description of things, as both a technological and a cultural and economic phenomenon. A successful markup practitioner will soon have the opportunity to participate in rules-making activities, whether that be defining a schema, implementing a production or processing framework (where we frequently discover a fine line between interpreting presumed rules and making new ones), or merely developing ad-hoc conventions to systematize identifiers and taxonomies. Even writing stylesheets for presentation (to say nothing of code that converts from one markup format to another) will entail making new rules and, sometimes, ignoring or breaking old ones, if only to handle anomalies and edge cases. Successful schema designers and software developers will be pulled into standards work, to help define standards by which systems may be specified and which conformant applications and implementations of a technology must reference. And so on.

Figure 6: Entailment between states and rule spaces in nomic games

In a nomic game, every game state also implies a rule space, since no game state can be fully specified without also specifying the rules at that point in the game.

image ../../../vol3/graphics/Piez01/Piez01-008.png

Making rules for markup

To turn from the very abstract to the very concrete, three illustrations serve to demonstrate how applicable these concepts are when considering actual problems in and with markup technologies. The examples are all close to home. The reader can probably provide many more.

Valid, but not useful

Here is a valid fragment from a Balisage paper, valid being defined as conformant to the rules expressed in the Balisage DTD:

A DTD can validate that an element is present, but not that it contains actual content. Even a schema language that can constrain the content to prohibit empty string values, such as XSD, cannot solve the general problem of ensuring that such content is correct or useful: XXX will usually suffice. In other words, schema validation is rather severely restricted in what kind of validation it can support.

This much is evident to any XML veteran – so evident that we may have stopped noticing. And the boundary between the rules enforced by a schema, and the rules that remain the concern of authors and editors (the human kind), is one of the first things newcomers to XML must get used to. Even if it never becomes entirely clear exactly where this boundary is placed – and it does vary from one application and one validation technology to another (which makes things worse for the learner) – the simple fact that the boundary is there (and indeed may move) is an important one. The XMLer who never catches on that the machine can check some things, but not others, will always remain at a loss.

What is at issue here is the authority and reliability of a schema as a regulator of rules. As such, practice shows that for a system to be sustainable, schemas – in addition to being well-fitted to the application(s) of the data, which should go without saying – must be consistent and as transparent as possible; hence the importance of documentation. Where they do not, in fact, enforce any meaningful constraints (such as the constraint that an author's biography should give some account of who the author is), users who are not experts in schema validation need to be helped to understand this. The differences between rules that are being validated, rules that might be validated but are not, and rules that cannot be validated by automated means, are often subtle.

One of the most difficult myths to dispel among newcomers to markup has to do with this authority, and to what extent a schema can or should be relied on as a warrant for correctness or fitness. The notion that a schema, as a regulator, performs some sort of punitive function – a validation error being construed to be some kind of warning that a document is wrong, which it is only in a fairly narrow and entirely convenient sense (inasmuch as the rules enforced by a schema may be motivated only by the need for the system to ensure a certain level of predictability in the data) – is probably less accurate than an alternative idea that a schema is just a piece of equipment that helps make game play feasible, by supporting (encoding) the specifics of the agreement to play. In the game of tennis, the rules require a racket to be used, and kicking or throwing the ball is not allowed; this is not because there is anything wrong with kicking, but because this game (on this court, with this ball) is more fun for players and spectators when played with rackets. Maybe we should be teaching that schemas in XML are like tennis rackets for users, helping them get the ball over the net, rather than bludgeons used by developers to keep users in line.

So, what is a document creator saying when he creates a personblurb element containing a para element with no content? Leaving aside the possibility that an empty para, particularly inside a personblurb, should be taken positively and frankly to assert there is nothing to say about this person, it is hard not to see this as a play of resistance (if that possibility does not in itself represent such a play). The schema says there must be an element here, and implies by the element's stated semantics (implicit in its name and perhaps explicit in documentation, as at that its data content should constitute some meaningful account of the document's author. But the document's actual tagging says, in effect, I see your personblurb element and choose to ignore it. The document is formally valid and enters the system. A warrant is made implicitly that information is given, which is missing. If, following the formulation of Sperberg-McQueen, Huitfeld and Renear, an element's semantics constitute the set of inferences licensed by the markup Sperberg-McQueen, et al. 2001, in the case of an element that is present with no meaningful content, an incorrect inference (there is a bio here) is being licensed; moreover, the more general capability to make such an inference when it needs to be made is confounded. And indeed, this much might be said of any case of tag abuse.

The system maintainers then have a choice: either they redefine processing logic to allow for this information to be missing (by changing the schema, and perhaps introducing defensive processing logic that tests whether personblurb has any content before doing anything with it), which is as much to concede tag abuse as normal. Or they can validate the document further through some means other than the schema, such as a Schematron or an old-fashioned editorial process, and use this as the basis of a counter-move, returning the document to its originator for correction. Or they can do neither, and allow the system subtly to degrade.

Sometimes system maintainers or process designers have no control over the data, and the third option is the only viable one. (One only needs to think of the history of HTML.) In this case, there may be system-wide changes in markup semantics as players (including document creators, publishers, systems developers, and tools vendors) learn how much (or rather, how little) they can trust, and make moves in response to one another.

Look ma, no hands

This problem of the role of the schema is also apparent, in a different way, here:

<!-- <!DOCTYPE HTML PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.01 Transitional//EN"
                           ""> -->

Is this document valid? According to both SGML and XML, validity requires an associated document type declaration, and this document has none.

Yet frequently, especially when working with other schema technologies, we work with documents that are not formally valid, but that would be when associated with their schema and validated, like the example above. Perhaps we might, in order to be clear, call such a document validable, to stress that it follows all the rules stipulated by its (presumed, but unassociated) schema, but actually has no formal association given, and can therefore not be valid in the strict sense.

At this point, readers who are experts in XML-based systems probably want to introduce qualifications, arguments and counter-arguments. For example, the schema language RelaxNG stipulates no formal mechanism by which an association such as that not made by this fragment should be made. Does this mean that documents cannot actually be valid to RelaxNG schemas? Presumably, in the context of RelaxNG, the definition of valid must be taken to be more like validable in the sense just given. (W3C XML Schema Definition Language takes something of a middle course: it offers a mechanism for documents to invoke schemas but does not require that it be respected, saying it might be just a hint.)

A similar problem arises when using XML catalogs, which can be used to intercept references to normative copies of schemas or DTDs and replace them at validation time with local copies. This is convenient because it reduces network traffic, but it introduces a source of potential error, in that if a local copy goes out of sync with a normative schema, local instances valid to it are not only not valid to the normative version (that is, to the schema actually named), they may not even be validable.

This much would be merely an academic argument, were it not common practice for XML developers to remove or comment out references to schemas as in the case above (where in fact, the schema named in the comment is an SGML DTD). This might indeed be considered a hazardous practice, like riding a bicycle without a helmet, except that it appears to be mandated by XML itself, which does not require a DTD or schema for processing.

At issue, again, is the question of who gets to make the rules – although this time, what we see is not the kind of power struggle within the game that is represented by tag abuse, but rather, a more fundamental difference in the way game regulators (in this case, schemas) are deployed on the game's terrain (the processing platform, which may be the entire network). The shift from SGML to XML, in which validation need not be performed, represents a highly significant shift in responsibility, from schema and system designers to local users and developers, who now get to determine whether and when to be valid at all, and (or) when to continue processing without schema validation (or any validation at all over and above syntactic well-formedness). This shift was possible for a number of reasons (including a number of syntactic restrictions and adjustments in XML to ensure that a non-validating parse would always be possible) and may have been intended primarily not as a way to increase options for users so much as for tool and application developers (since XML processing can, without a schema, be so much more lightweight). Yet it is highly consequential.

Generally, any time code in the document is commented out, the intended audience for the document is bifurcated between those who can see and make us of the commented information (whoever works directly with the raw code, including the developer who makes the comment) and those who cannot (any downstream users who cannot see the comments, but more importantly, the processing system itself). Again, this is a play of evasion, although different from the case of an empty personblurb or title element, in that it is not the spirit of the rules that is being evaded or faked out, but the processing system itself.

In this particular case (as long as the example is taken at face value), it is document validation that is being suspended. This may be a good or a bad idea; to determine which, we would have to know more. Either way, to allow (or require) documents themselves to carry the information that permits or implicitly requires them to be validated is itself a design decision on a meta-architectural level (a fact that RelaxNG and W3C XML Schema both recognize). Given XML's design, there is nothing here that actually prevents system designers from performing validation in any case, to any schema they choose. This single difference between SGML, where to comment out a DOCTYPE declaration would have been a futile gesture (preventing a fully conformant system from parsing the document), and XML, where it may (or may not) be a useful gambit, is one of the most important single reasons why XML can actually work on the web, a much wider, more open-ended, less well controlled and more resource-rich terrain than the systems for which SGML processing was developed.

And what do we have here

A final example is not an instance of game play in quite the same way as the previous two, but rather points to an issue in game design. Here's some code, valid to the NLM/NCBI schema (the text is from Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes of May 27, 1990):

  <speech><speaker>Calvin</speaker><p>I don't have to sing the song!
    I was in the "No Song" Zone!</p></speech>
  <speech><speaker>Hobbes</speaker><p>No you weren't. I touched the
    "Opposite Pole", so the "No Song Zone" is now a "Song Zone".</p></speech>
  <speech><speaker>Calvin</speaker><p><bold>I</bold> didn't see you 
    touch the Opposite Pole! You have to declare it!</p></speech>

The interesting thing here (at least as far as the markup is concerned) is the boxed-text element. The semantics of this element are arguably underspecified. The text named by the element is presumably its data content, as is generally the case with descriptive markup. But this appears to be less descriptive, in the sense that it identifies the kind or type of text it marks, than presentational, asserting how it would appear in rendition. Yet it is also not clear whether it should be taken to be retrospective (the text appeared in a box in an earlier version) or prospective (the text should be placed in a box in a rendition generated from this markup). For the moment, we leave aside the possibility that boxed should mean something other than appears displayed in a box.

Yet perhaps not. The formal element description given in the NLM/NCBI version 3.0 Tag Library is somewhat more specific but also problematic. It offers examples of what kinds of thing might be tagged as boxed-text, but directly answers none of the questions just posed:

Textual material that is part of the body of text but outside the flow of the narrative text, for example, a sidebar, marginalia [sic], text insert (whether enclosed in a box or not), caution, tip, note box, etc.

Interestingly, this definition rejects the single thing we thought we knew about a boxed text, that it should appear in a box. Apparently the box is not a renditional box but some kind of abstract rhetorical artifact: we know only that this text is outside the flow of the narrative.

What does this kind of markup say about itself; what licenses does it inference? Perhaps not much. Yet this is nevertheless more, I submit, than certain other escape hatch kinds of encoding, such as a TEI ab (abstract block), or an HTML blockquote. About these one cannot even say whether they are inside or outside the narrative flow. (In other respects these are of course not perfect analogues to boxed-text, for which either TEI or HTML might give better alternatives, but the point stands.)

I would describe semantics such as NLM/NCBI boxed-text as soft, as distinct from (say) XSL-FO block[@border='thin sold black'][@padding='2em'], which is hard by virtue of being bound to certain application semantics. And yet the element semantics of boxed-text are not as soft as those of ab or blockquote (which indeed might have harder semantics if it had not been subject to widespread tag abuse: the more blockquote has been used for things other than block quotes, the less useful the element has become for marking block quotes as opposed to other things that look like them). Maybe the meaning of boxed-text ought to be considered pliable: hard enough to mean something in application, but soft enough to be flexible in use and indeed capable, in consonance with its application semantics, of expressing more than one meaning.

How well this works is a matter of whether it sustains its semantics (such as they are) within its application domain. And since the purpose of the NLM/NCBI tag set, primarily, is to support the normalized aggregation into a single repository of data already marked up (typically by journal publishers), many or most of whose markup schemes have harder semantics of their own (usually but not necessarily display semantics), it has to establish a balance. When aggregating disparate data, to try to capture every detail of source encoding means risking both over-elaboration, and a failure in its goal of providing unified access and processing (a goal that is frustrated whenever there are many ways to do any given thing). But to erase the details of source encoding means, potentially, to lose information. The balance is in erasing incidental, insignificant differences and capturing meaningful ones. But ordinarily, the design of a tag set to do this has to be established up front, which is to say before the proper unification of data from disparate sources can be established (when this is even possible, which it may not be when source document types are themselves mutable and open-ended). The solution to this problem, as to many others related to it, appears to be in deploying a mix of element types, some of which are hard in the sense just described, and some of which are pliable or even soft, to serve as a kind of spackle or carpenter's putty (or the blank tiles in Scrabble or wild cards in poker). Indeed this is the case of all the tag sets mentioned here. HTML in particular is noteworthy for having taken on, in its history, both elements with harder semantics, such as b or i or the elements out of which browser forms are built, and softer ones such as div and span.

That is, rules are given, but latitude is also given to the players of the game to interpret how to apply the rules within their own situations. If this balance is found, then play can continue, since players can adapt. If this balance is missed, then either an overly rigid scheme is the result, in which individual publishers and projects are unable to achieve local goals (and eventually have to shift or adapt their schema, contrive workarounds, or stop playing entirely), or we have chaos, a markup free-for-all in which people pretend to be working together but meaningful aggregation or interchange is impossible.

What's the point?

There are actually three sets of conclusions one might draw from this comparison, if not conclusively. That is, all these are directions for further thought and examination.

The ethics of play

All of the examples explored above serve as examples of a more general point, having to do with the way we make judgments, as we approach both large-scale and minute problems working with markup technologies – that is, as we face both strategic and tactical decisions. What is useful and interesting about a game is that it is both isolable and insulated from the world, and yet at the same time, a mirror or model of it. This makes a game a kind of a microcosm within which moves and manners have their own significance in relation to one another, making for a kind of ethical laboratory. To consider right and wrong in a game is not to consider right and wrong in the abstract: a game defines its own ethical universe, wherein (as long as the game itself is respected) virtue, if it is to be virtuous, is always aligned with some sort of victory – if only of the moral sort. (The very notion of a moral victory points to the paradox that even in defeat can be a kind of success.) In other words, we are interested in games because they are arenas for the display and recognition not of abstract goodness, but of virtue in something more like the Latin sense than the modern one – that is, of particular virtues, of strengths such as persistence, fidelity, ingenuity, generosity, prudence, integrity, imagination, versatility, elegance or what have you. Some of these virtues, of course, may contradict others, and on occasion they may even stand in the way of victory – which is exactly why they become interesting when demonstrated in game play. The way games serve not only as training grounds but as arenas for the demonstration of such virtues goes a long way to explaining why we find them so compelling. Nor is this unimportant. Different games will foster different kinds of behavior in their players, depending on what sorts of strategies and tactics lead to better outcomes within the game.

Interestingly, to consider markup technologies in this light allows us to set aside from our consideration of markup-based systems, which as technologies, are social and economic and even political, rather than simply (like spectator sports) entertaining, the reflexive ethical judgements that so often seem to accompany them. For example, to prefer openly specified, standards-based technologies to proprietary alternatives, or to choose one tag set over another, is often if not usually characterized as a kind of ethical imperative. To use standard X or Y, in a standard way – or to be valid to a particular schema, or to use a particular schema language, or to prefer a certain processing platform, or a certain company's product – is considered good, and not to do so is condemned, stigmatized or derided as bad, without much reflection on why that should be. To see such a choice as a strategic or tactical decision within game play is both to relieve, and to resituate this ethical component. At one level, to prefer one schema (or schema language or naming convention or coding style or software product)`over another often seems to reduce to a kind of tribalism, the way the fans of one team or club must always show contempt for the fans of another; as such, a preference of this sort requires no explanation or apology beyond the play itself. Yet at another level, we can see that all such alignments have consequences in terms of strategy and the goals of a strategy, and as strategic choices, can make success in the game easier or harder to achieve – and not only because to make such a choice is to adopt the colors of one team and set oneself in opposition to others. One schema (to pursue that example) may actually be better suited than another to the task at hand. And yet, even when it is not, to forge a serviceable alliance with others who might help fit a particular schema to your purposes, may be to turn a tactical misstep into a strategic advantage. To understand such maneuvers as game play, rather than simply as conflicts of interest (although they are that), is to see how we can (and must) make sense of such complex considerations. In short, considering markup technologies as games can be a way of reframing our assessments and choices – this editing tool, that schema, even one pattern of tag usage versus another – within the assumptions, predispositions and prior commitments that otherwise drive them, to see how they might be more carefully considered and deliberate, less reflexive and driven by the demands of constituencies, audiences or authorities, even while those commitments remain real.

This is important because it allows us to discriminate real ethical imperatives – here, real means outside the game, and has to do with conduct in the world – from fictive and factional ones that have only to do with the play. These are easily fused, and their fusion is easily recognized by anyone who does not have a stake in the game, but the very essence of play – to play with commitment, with heart – is to fail to recognize this distinction. Perhaps the best players make this commitment, identifying the good of their cause with the Good in the abstract; this helps motivate them. But the very best players might ultimately be those who are able to step away from it again, having won or lost, motivated only by love of the game itself, and having done what they could to make the game itself worth the playing, whatever the outcome.

Lessons for practitioners

Another reason the analogy is important is that it enables us, as practitioners of markup, to look to game design and game play for ideas about how to go about our work. There are three general characteristics of games, in particular, which might be considered by users and especially designers of technology. All of them, I submit, have been at the root of the success of the SGML family of markup technologies (including HTML and all XML-related technologies) over the last twenty years, and in particular of the most successful application built on this platform, namely the web itself.

Figure 7: Markup technologies on the web

A successful nomic game is one that both grows and spins off variations.

image ../../../vol3/graphics/Piez01/Piez01-009.png


An important element of a game is that it be transparent. We know who has done what – which players have performed which feats of strength, dexterity or cunning – and the game itself offers the frame within which we can interpret their motives. Of course this transparency need not be complete while the game is ongoing, inasmuch as a game can involve misdirection and subterfuge; but ideally, everything becomes clear by the game's conclusion. (Games like poker, where this is not always the case, demonstrate this principle by showing its limits.) To the extent a game is both complete (that is, well-defined) and transparent, it becomes a kind of self-contained demonstration of prowess that becomes worth playing, or worth watching, despite and because of its isolation from the larger world.

As such, transparency is one of the main differentiators between games and real life. And it is by no means similarly necessary in the design of technology. Indeed, a technology might be defined as a process that is made deliberately opaque, at least some of the time, to at least some of its users or beneficiaries. (As Arthur C. Clarke famously suggested, Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Motorists do not need to know how an internal combustion engine works in order to drive their cars.) Because markup-based information processing systems are ultimately not games, but technologies with application to real-world tasks, a requirement for transparency is perhaps not fundamental to them in the same way as it is in game design.

Nevertheless it is an important consideration, especially when designing loosely coupled systems that are meant to be, by their adaptability and extensibility, the basis of positive-sum outcomes (that is, games where for one player to win does not mean others must lose). When hands are not hidden, participants have a better idea of whose interests are being served by decisions at all levels, and so they can be made with more consideration of all the tradeoffs. A more transparent game is one that is less about deception, guile, and intrigue (and perhaps assertiveness, knowledge and discretion), and more about consistent and plain dealing (at the risk of rigidity and insensitivity). Again, it is a matter of what kinds of virtue one wishes to cultivate.

Even more basically, a game that is not transparent is one that will tend not to attract attention or interest from either audiences or potential players. This is related to the next point.


Similarly, the world defined by a game must be complex enough to be interesting but simple enough not to be simply bewildering. It may have a terminology or a language of its own (part of what makes a game both fun and learnable may be its distinctiveness), but it must be intelligible. The rules for beginners must be simple enough to follow even as beginners, even while our interactions with more elaborated rules, as game play continues, might also be part of the fun.

We must not suppose that simple rules make for a simple game. Even straightforward combinatorial possibilities make a game like Go or chess imponderably complex and endlessly variable (that is, humanly endless if not mathematically infinite), despite rules that can be learned in minutes. And this is to say nothing of the possibilities that are opened when direct human interaction and negotiation are made part of game play.

XML has become more complex since it was first sprung on an unsuspecting world, even in its core standards (schema languages, namespaces, APIs and data models, query and transformation languages), to say nothing of its applications. In itself, this is not necessary indicative of a problem. Such complexity in the standards (elaborations in the rules of the game), if it is a reflection of complexity in the problems they address, can serve, by reducing the need for purely local solutions to common problems, to reduce complexity in the system at large, and thereby open the game. Assuming a standard solution to a problem is a reasonably good one, everyone benefits by being able to use the standard. At the same time, complex problems are often best addressed by layering them, a fact that XML in its proliferation of different initiatives has taken advantage of. For example (as described above), by distinguishing markup syntax from tagging semantics more discretely than SGML had done, XML was simplified for the marketplace, where parser developers can now work without being directly concerned with application semantics. By separating these two games (following rules to interpret a character stream, vs. following rules for applying markup structures to solve problems in publishing or data processing), XML lowered the costs of adopting markup technologies for everyone.

Yet even when it is moved to the system at large, such an elaboration of complexity becomes a barrier to play. XML is easier to use, but harder to understand, when every developer has to learn when and how to distinguish processing from parsing. (Indeed, there remain situations where the cost imposed by this distinction is too high and benefits accrue by ignoring it.) On the other hand, insofar as the game allows players to work such rules and principles out themselves, it also becomes a nomic one and this problem may paradoxically be exacerbated in the other direction, as players elaborate their own local solutions and speciation occurs. (Nomic games beget nomic games, games within the game, spin-offs, knock-offs, games in exile.) Either way, the capacity of the game to build upon and elaborate itself creates negative feedback, dampening play by increasing its costs to players, and sending prospective players away before they can even get started. Eventually, the casual player stands no chance, and only devotees may participate.

In short, balance is called for. It is a truism of both mathematics and engineering that parsimony is a virtue, as in the quote attributed to Albert Einstein (mainly, it seems, because it is simplest to do so), that things should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.[7]


Another factor related to both of these is how much pleasure a game provides to its players and spectators. One characteristic of play in general (or so reports Stuart Brown) is that it is self-sustaining: play begets play, exercising us until we tire. And then when we have recuperated ourselves, we want to play again. In the cultural marketplace, what makes a successful game is that it is both fun for its players, and attractive enough to win new players.

Of course, fun is impossible to define or even really characterize without delving into psychology or cognitive science. On the other hand, we can probably agree on two things: we can all look at our own experience to recognize what is fun; and whatever that is, we can also observe how it is not the same for everyone. Just as people have different learning styles, they find different things and different kinds of things to be fun. One important aspect of games as social phenomena is that they enable people who find similar things to be fun to have fun together, while those who don't find a particular activity to be fun can opt out of playing, or play a different sort of game.

Technology, similarly, might be fun, and sometimes it is; or at any rate, there are people who have fun with it. (Those who find technology to be interesting and entertaining are also, evidently, the same people who enjoy certain sorts of games.) At the same time, there are others who would rather not think about technology, or a particular technology, at all. Of course, this brings us back to the transparency issue: technologies are fun when they help us think about what we enjoy thinking about, and don't demand we think about what we would rather not think about.

Designers of markup technologies and their applications need to consider, like all designers, what kinds of problems their audience, stakeholders, and users want to have solved for them, and what kinds of problems they would rather (and might better) solve for themselves. A good technology will be one that is both fun (or satisfying) and useful to its users. This is a different design goal from simply solving a problem. Indeed, if technology designers find solving problems to be interesting and fun, why should they deny this satisfaction to others? We need to avoid situations where, in order to help, we have designed all the fun out.

The big picture

At Balisage 2008, Eduardo Gutentag drew attention to a paradox at the heart of XML. Its proponents have proposed as its raison d'être the principle that the encoding of an electronic document, inasmuch as it secures the document's intellectual content, must be accessible to the document's creator and indeed owned by the document's owner. Standards – which is to say, externally specified, published sets of rules that provide the basis for commodity markets in technologies and toolsets, so that the rules of the game are not absolutely controlled by proprietary interests, and anyone, at least in principle, can play – are critical to this accessibility. Yet the networked media that have been built on the foundation of open text encoding (that is, on XML and its sister, HTML, along with their associated specifications), allow and in fact foster a radically open-ended exchange of data that undermines the very premise that information may be owned. To be accessible to anyone is, in a certain respect, to be owned by no one, at least insofar as gaining access means gaining control, just as a ball, once the game has begun, belongs to anyone holding it. Given this tension, what will be the rules of this new information economy? Gutentag was not able to offer any definite prognostications.

If space, time and materials are no longer factors (once the platform is in place, the cost of copying a document declines to nil), and technical barriers (such as copy-protection schemes or opaque, binary formats) are not interposed between users of information and the technical and material infrastructure within which that information is created, maintained, transmitted and manipulated, then seemingly only social and legal barriers remain to prevent me from appropriating your data however I see fit. And even if such social and legal means are introduced, they may not suffice, at least for the purposes of those who have depended in the past on maintaining some measure of exclusive control over information they have managed. More deeply and more problematically, however, if the rules of the game are part of the play, the game is a nomic one, and runs the risk of all nomic games, that in the process of self-reinvention it becomes unsustainable, collapsing in on itself. Then there can be no winners, at least until a new game emerges with new rules. These and related anxieties are at the heart of why, for example, Open Access policies, such as those now being developed at major universities, are so controversial.[8] On the one hand, producers of knowledge, such as researchers and scholars offered the opportunity (and perhaps the requirement) to make their work available through open access channels, have new and more powerful means of fulfilling their purpose of making their work available. On the other, to the extent that old institutional arrangements are imperiled (including implicit or explicit exchanges of value), so also are the securities offered by those arrangements.

As legitimate as these concerns are, however, there is a deeper issue that may prove to be a critical determinant. The basis of the new information economy, if it proves sustainable (and it seems fair to expect that some sort of sustainable model will emerge), is and will be largely in non-proprietary technologies; sooner or later, this would seem to be necessary for a system that is truly global. Yet if the technologies grow so complex that to play XML, or to work with markup, means you have to devote a career to it despite its openness in principle, then the removal of merely legal encumbrances counts for less, and it is also up to us technocrats: our loyalties will determine what masters XML will serve. In that case, even in an open-access world, where theoretically anyone can play the game of publishing, not everyone will be able to play the game of technology that underlies and supports it (to say nothing of kindred activities such as data interchange, curation and archiving, aggregation and analysis), and a corporate oligarchy based on property rights will at best be replaced by a technological meritocracy based on access, education and knowhow. More likely, an uneasy hybrid between these two alternatives will emerge, at least until a new set of standards emerges to attract new players with new rules, more open to the self-taught. In any case, much depends on how markup technologies are promulgated: who teaches them, and who learns them, and for what purposes.

Figure 8: Markup technologies: stages of play.

Win a round, and you may be asked to help make the rules for the next one.

image ../../../vol3/graphics/Piez01/Piez01-010.png

Since this is a game, in short, that is played for keeps, within a larger world with larger stakes, XML, the design of markup technologies and applications, and the promotion of digital literacy in general, will all matter, at every level. Whether you are designing a document, a tag set, a transformation, a publishing system, a schema language, a processing language, a standard, a standards organization or a corporate strategy, keep this in mind. It is up to you and how you play that will determine the character, if not always the outcome, of the game.


This paper started as a page of notes scribbled in response to Eduardo Gutentag's 2008 Balisage paper Gutentag 2008. In nomic fashion, one Balisage paper begets another.

I am especially grateful to Matthew Kirschenbaum and his colleagues at the Maryland Institute of Technology in the Humanities, who offered essentially useful feedback to an early version.

Additionally, credit is due to the Balisage peer reviewers for several invaluable suggestions, especially to one annoyed, anonymous reader, whose objections to a number of points led to many important refinements.


Anonymous. home of nomic stuff.

Brown, M.D., Stuart, and Christopher Vaughan. 2009. Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. Avery, March 5.

Carse, James P. 1987. Finite and Infinite Games. Ballantine Books, August 12.

Fisher, Len. 2008. Rock, Paper, Scissors: Game Theory in Everyday Life. Basic Books, November 3.

Gutentag, Eduardo. 2008. XML: It was not televised after all.... Balisage: The Markup Conference. 12 - 15 August. Abstract at

Koster, Raph. 2004. Theory of Fun for Game Design. 1st ed. Paraglyph, November 6.

Maturana, Humberto R., and Francisco Varela. 1992. Tree of Knowledge. Rev Sub. Shambhala, March 31.

National Scrabble Association. NSA Official Tournament Rules.

National Center for Biomedical Informatics, National Institutes of Health (NCBI/NIH). Journal Publishing Tag Set Tag Library version 3.0.

Ross, Don. Game Theory.

Shermer, Michael. 2008. “The Doping Dilemma.” Scientific American: April.

Sperberg-McQueen, C. M., Claus Huitfeldt, and Allen Renear. 2001. “Meaning and interpretation of markup.” Markup Languages: Theory & Practice 2.3: 215-234.

Suber, Peter. The Paradox of Self-Amendment.

Watterson, Bill. 2005. The Complete Calvin and Hobbes. 3 vols. Andrews McMeel Publishing: October 4.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1991. Philosophical Investigations: The German Text, with a Revised English Translation 50th Anniversary Commemorative Edition. G. E. M. Anscombe and Elizabeth Anscombe, trans. 3rd ed. Wiley-Blackwell, January 15.

[1] This necessary limitation tends to be obscured by definitions of "game" offered by practitioners of game theory. For example: All situations in which at least one agent can only act to maximize his utility through anticipating (either consciously, or just implicitly in his behavior) the responses to his actions by one or more other agents is called a game Ross, Stanford Encyclopedia. This would certainly allow the treatment of open-ended systems within game theory; but when it comes to describing them, open-ended systems are always considered by game theory in terms of closed (definable) systems to which they are likened. That is, the claims of game theory to relevance are asserted by its comparison, implicit or explicit, of the well defined (what it calls the game) to the less well defined (what it calls the world). Accordingly and incidentally, game theory fails to distinguish what in common parlance we call games from just about any other activity in a social context, including markup technologies, because it is simply not interested in this distinction.

The game designer Raph Koster puts his finger on this somewhat pointedly: game theory . . . has something to do with games, a lot to do with psychology, even more to do with math, and not a lot to do with game design. Game theory is about how competitors make optimal choices, and it's mostly used in politics and economics, where it is frequently proven wrong Koster 2004, p. 12.

[2] To defect, in game theory terms, is to choose not to cooperate, which may include adopting a strategy in opposition to the presumed terms of the game as a whole as well as to other participants.

[3] A recent Scientific American article on doping in bicycle racing makes this point nicely when it treats cheating as a special kind of defecting Shermer, 2008. Indeed, by failing to account adequately for the possibility of doping in its actual incentive structure, professional bicycle racing nicely makes the point that game theory fits only awkwardly with games as they are commonly understood, since in order to apply game theory to bicycle racing (which it does fairly successfully), this article must distinguish between the sport that players pretend they are playing, and the sport as it is actually played. To describe the actual phenomenon and even, by extension, to prompt strategies for addressing it, game theory can be applied, as it can to many complex situations in economics and social life. But you will not find the rules of this game, as actually played, written up in any regulation manual. That is, the game of bicycle racing, which players pretend they are playing and which forbids the use of performance-enhancing drugs, exists only as a fiction and an ideal, and the actual game of interest to the analyst is a competition between racers, who wish to win races, and organizers, who wish to restrict the means by which racers may do so.

[4] I am aware that an important question is begged, namely how we should define play. I leave this aside deliberately, not because it is not important but because it is.

[5] The name is derived from the Greek nomos, for law, custom or convention, as in agronomy, astronomy or economy, and as distinguished from both Greek gnomê (a saying or something known) and Latin nomen (name).

[6] To make matters worse, many of the archives of nomic games played on line in the past are no longer available, and links to them are dead. It may be that nomic games of the purer sort, as represented on line, were an outgrowth of a particular historical moment. In the mid-to-late 1990s, several circumstances including the emergence of a viable terrain (platform) for game play (namely the Internet itself) seem to have combined to stimulate a growth in interest in nomic games, which subsequently died back when the games themselves proved to be too insular, obscure and self-involved to be interesting to many for very long.

It is perhaps to play theorists (a loose group that includes animal behaviorists, anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, and educators) that one must turn for a wider understanding, since most play has nomic aspects. But here, researchers are generally interested not in nomic games as such, but rather in the contexts within which games occur and the purposes to which they are put. Hence they are not likely to make firm distinctions between nomic games and the fixed sort.

[7] As described at, the attribution is apocryphal and the principle itself is widely expressed; but whoever did put it this way first is apparently not memorable enough to give the line any authority.

[8] See, for example, Split Over Open Access in Inside Higher Ed (June 4 2009), at