Nomic: Interactive Gaming Online and Off

Peter Suber in Golm bei Potsdam

Peter Suber in Golm bei Potsdam (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am looking at games that can be used in online classes that are interactive, engaging and promote collaboration. In online classes, the research says that there is a direct correlation between interactivity in an online class and student success and retention. Games are one way to address the student success and retention issue. Nomic, a game I used in my English classes, is definitely one of those games that are very engaging. The game is very useful at the beginning of the semester because students learn a lot about one another, how to work together in groups, self-organization, and what skills one needs to work effectively in groups. They also learn a little bit about politics and creating decision making processes. There are Nomic games that start out with a lot of rules and there are those that start out with a minimal set.

Peter Suber, the inventor of Nomic, wrote “If law-making is a game, then it is a game in which changing the rules is a move.” (This is from the appendix to his book The Paradox of Self-Amendment: A Study of Law, Logic, Omnipotence, and Change (1990).) A version also appears in Douglas Hofstader’s excellent book Metamagical Themas.  Nomic attempts to model the self-amending character of a legal system. Self-amendment is only a small part of any set of laws, but capturing it in a game can create a useful model of a functional legal system.

Rules are made by a rule-governed process that itself is governed by rules. The process of making and changing rules can effect some of the rules that govern the process rule-changing itself. Peter Suber calls this the “paradox of self-amendment.”

In a legislative body, like the U.S. Congress, most of the rules that govern the making of laws are constitutional and beyond the reach of the power they govern. Congress can change its parliamentary rules, committee structure, and irrevocably bind its future action by its past action, but through mere statutes it cannot override a presidential veto, abolish one of its houses, start a tax bill in the Senate, or even delegate too much of its power to experts.

When a conflict exists between different laws, the constitutional rules always prevail. This logical difference is matched by a political difference: the logically prior (constitutional) rules are more difficult to amend than the logically posterior (statutory) rules. That these two differences occur together is not accidental. One purpose of making some rules more difficult to change than others is to prevent a brief wave of fanaticism from undoing decades or centuries of refined structure. It is self-paternalism, our chosen insurance against our anticipated weak moments.

Below is an example of how we played Nomic in class. It was meant to take place in a single class meeting face-to-face (hence the short version of the rules) but it tended to go on longer, especially hybrid courses where students could resume the game online in a discussion forum. You will want to read Peter Suber’s appendix to his book (actually the whole book is great) and decide for yourself what should be included in a minimal set of rules. I printed everything below this for the class:

Playing the Game

You should have three or more players. More players is better. Players may use paper and pencil, note cards, e-mail, or any method of recording and managing information. Players suggest and vote on proposed rule changes. Assigning points can be based on a set amount of points given to participants for each rule passed or any other method voted on (rolling of a die, for instance). Each player should have a copy of the Initial Set of Rules to consult. The set includes Immuntable Rules (unchangeable) and Mutable Rules (changeable). New proposals for rule-changes can be written on index cards or on scratch paper. For a blog, rules can be emailed to the moderator or posted as comments, and then he or she can post updated rules to the blog as they are voted in. The participants can also vote on the proposed rules via comments.


Play one game. Ironically, you may need to make meta-rules beforehand (choose a scribe and/or a judge, how long should the game be, how shall it be played, etc.). Afterwards, write a short essay describing the experience. What did you learn about the rule-making process? What kinds of rules were useful? How well did your group work together?

Nomic: A Minimal Set of Initial Rules

 Immutable Rules

101. The purpose of the game is to change the rules. A rule-change is any of the following:

  • the enactment, repeal, or amendment of a mutable rule;
  • the enactment, repeal, or amendment of an amendment of a mutable rule; or
  • the transmutation of an immutable rule into a mutable rule or vice versa.

102. Initially rules in the 100’s are immutable and rules in the 200’s are mutable. In a conflict between a mutable and an immutable rule, the immutable rule takes precedence and the mutable rule shall be entirely void. For the purposes of this rule a proposal to transmute an immutable rule does not “conflict” with that immutable rule.

103. Each proposed rule-change shall be given a number for reference. The numbers shall begin with 301, and each rule-change proposed in the proper way shall receive the next successive integer, whether or not the proposal is adopted. A note at the end of the rule entry will record the vote for or against adoption

104. Every player is an eligible voter. Every eligible voter must participate in every vote on rule-changes. Each player always has exactly one vote.

105. All proposed rule-changes shall be written down before they are voted on. If they are adopted, they shall guide play in the form in which they were voted on.

106. There must always be at least one mutable rule. The adoption of rule-changes must never become completely impermissible.

107. Whatever is not prohibited or regulated by a rule is permitted and unregulated, with the sole exception of changing the rules, which is permitted only when a rule or set of rules explicitly or implicitly permits it.

108. An adopted rule-change takes full effect at the moment of the completion of the vote that adopted it. No rule-change may take effect earlier than the moment of the completion of the vote that adopted it, even if its wording explicitly states otherwise. No rule-change may have retroactive application.

109. Adding or changing mutable rules requires a simple majority vote. Changing immutable rules to mutable requires a unanimous vote.

110. If a rule-change as proposed is unclear, ambiguous, paradoxical, or destructive of play, or if it arguably consists of two or more rule-changes compounded or is an amendment that makes no difference, or if it is otherwise of questionable value, then the other players may suggest amendments or argue against the proposal before the vote. A reasonable time must be allowed for this debate. The proponent decides the final form in which the proposal is to be voted on and, unless a Judge has been asked to do so, also decides the time to end debate and vote.

Mutable Rules

201. Players shall alternate in clockwise order, taking one whole turn apiece. Turns may not be skipped or passed, and parts of turns may not be omitted. All players begin with zero points. In email and computer games, players shall alternate in alphabetical order by surname.

202. Players shall chose a Judge by simple majority vote. The Judge shall also record rules and votes.

203. One turn consists of proposing one rule-change and having it voted on.

204. When a proposed rule-change is adopted, the player who proposed it gains n points.

205. If a rule-change does not pass a vote, the player who proposed it loses n points.

206. The winner is the first player to achieve n (positive) points wins.

207. At no time may there be more than n mutable rules.

208. If the rules are changed so that further play is impossible, or if the legality of a move cannot be determined with finality, or if by a judge’s best reasoning, not overruled, a move appears equally legal and illegal, then the player with the most points at that turn wins.

209. If two or more mutable rules conflict with one another, or immutable rules conflict with one another, then the rule with the lowest ordinal number takes precedence.

210. If players disagree about the legality of a move or the interpretation or application of a rule, then players may invoke Judgment. When Judgment has been invoked, the next player may not begin his or her turn without the consent of a majority of the other players.

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