Interpretation and rules interact in many games, not just RPGs
When analyzing systems that operate on information it’s often valuable to consider how that information matters to the control flow of the system, and games definitely fall into this category of system. One big distinction between types of information is discrete vs. continuous, or digital vs. analog. A continuous “variable” can be any value within a range: think of something like temperature, distance, or time. A discrete variable can only be in one of several mutually exclusive states: on/off, in-bounds/out-of-bounds, too-big/too-small/just-right, etc. Continuous variables are really useful because that’s how almost everything in the actual world we live in works. Discrete variables are really useful because it’s possible to build simple procedures around them: if A do X, but if B do Y.
As a simple but nontrivial example think of a thermostat. It has three continuous inputs: the current temperature, the low set-point and the high set-point. The thermostat is in charge of the heater and knows and controls whether it’s currently on or off. Internally it doesn’t really do anything with the temperature directly, it uses a comparison to create a discrete variable from two of it’s continuous ones: “is it currently hotter than the high set-point?” and “is it currently colder than the low set-point?”. Operating on these discrete concepts lets it make a decision that’s simple enough for it to apply to the binary world of “should the heater be burning right now?”: if it’s hotter than the high set-point and the heater is on, turn it off, but if it’s colder than the low set-point and the heater is off, turn it on.
Lots of games have things like this, too. In soccer, the ball is somewhere in the three-dimensional space where the game is being played, and this feeds into discrete categorical concepts like “is the ball currently in-bounds?” that are used by the game procedures to control the flow of play. In baseball, whether a pitch counts as a “ball” or “strike” corresponds to where it travels through the strike-zone of the batter. In the UFC mixed-martial-arts organization some moves are legal and others, such as punches to the back of the opponent’s head, are illegal. When you look at these distinctions from the digital side of the analog/digital divide there are obvious and categorical differences between them: the difference between an in-bounds ball and an out-of-bounds ball are night and day! From the analog side it can be fuzzier: what if the ball is right on the edge of the line? What about a pitch that’s just grazing the edge of the strike-zone? Heads are kind of round, so the distinction between side and back is not always obvious, right?
In games, translating from the continuous/analog domain to the discrete/digital domain of the rules and procedures of the game usually involves human interpretation or judgment. Oftentimes games will give one participant, such as a referee, a special privilege of having authoritative judgments or interpretations, but even in games like that all of the participants need to understand how those interpretations and judgments will be made and make their own. Soccer players don’t want to play on a field where the lines are invisible to everybody but the refs, they need to be able to predict the rules-consequences of their interactions with the ball in order to play. They may not be able to exactly predict how the ref will make the call in edge-cases, but they can reasonably expect that their own interpretation will be similar to the “official” interpretation, so they can use their own interpretation as a good proxy for evaluating what kind of move they want to make in the game. (And plenty of casual sports are played without an officially designated ref, the players just use some other process, sometimes ad hoc, to resolve edge-cases if there’s no widespread consensus interpretation). Similarly, the intention of the “no strikes to the back of the head” rule in the UFC isn’t to give penalty points to inaccurate punchers but to discourage fighters from engaging in behavior that the UFC has decided is too dangerous: the ref makes the authoritative call in the octagon, but the most important impact of the rule is on the fighter when he decides whether or not to throw a punch based on where he thinks his opponent’s head will be when the punch lands.
Many RPG rules operate on things happening in the analog world of “the fiction” so they have lots of these interpretation elements cooked into them, so looking at the nuances of these interpretative processes is obviously very important in RPG Theory. But we shouldn’t mistake the importance of this concept to RPGs for the idea that interpreting or translating from continuous to discrete concepts is something unique to RPGs. The interplay between the interpretations and judgments of different participants in an RPG is an interesting and important topic if you’re trying to understand RPGs. The interplay between the interpretations and judgments of different participants in a pitcher/batter interaction is an interesting and important topic if you’re trying to understand that part of a baseball game.
(Also, I’ve tried to use simple examples in this blog post in order to write with clarity, not to deny the existence of subtlety. My claim here is that both “is that really Go Aggro?” and “is the ball really in-bounds?” are both examples of interpretation that feed into rules. It can be easy to get distracted by the simple one-dimensionality of the in-bounds/out-of-bounds thing because we can easily imagine constructing a simple mechanical or electronic device that we could rely on for official in-bounds/out-of-bounds rulings while the only thing currently known that can do the Go Aggro thing is a human brain. That’s an important difference worth thinking and talking about! But it’s also worth realizing that “how hard would it be to build a robot referee?” is a different question from “how are the players interacting with this game?”.)