For many people, rules just seem to get in the way of their enjoyment of activities, and there is little purpose seen to rules that set boundaries for what is acceptable behavior, boundaries that contain sanctions. What purpose is there for rules in our activities? Clearly such a topic is beyond the scope of a modest entry like this one, but at the same time it is useful to at least ponder briefly such a matter so that we are able to understand a little bit about the value of rules and how they are designed to shape conduct to increase enjoyment and safety in a given task. All too often people slander rules as unnecessary without recognizing the beneficial effects of them.
For one, as was ironically pointed out in a song titled “Games Without Frontiers” by Peter Gabriel (featuring Kate Bush), it is entirely vain and futile to expect a game without rules. It is the boundaries that help us see what sort of game we are dealing with. Even very violent tasks–like wars or mixed martial arts–contain rules that seek to constrain the conduct of people engaged in these tasks. Why would someone attempt to regulate combat (or even combat sports)? The reason is that we are civilized people–or at least we aspire to be. Our rules and restrictions on conduct demonstrate our commitment to the well-being of all, the recognition that conduct needs regulation even in dangerous tasks, and the fact that there are limits to what is acceptable to do to someone else even when we are trying to kill them. Obviously, one wants rules that do several things at once–protect noncombatants, allow for fair play on the battlefield or in the ring/octagon, preserve a sense of honor for what could easily be unmitigated slaughter or violence. Following and enforcing rules allows us to think of ourselves as beings possessed of civilization and decency as opposed to mere brutal beasts. Likewise, those people who reject rules over their conduct show themselves to be uncivilized in their own dealings, which legitimizes harsher conduct taken against them.
Besides a demonstration of our own civility, rules also serve major fair play interests. Many rules are input as a result of a desire to see competitive balance by those who run the games. These interests are generally to be found in what fans find enjoyable–so those rule changes that will increase scoring will often be seen as desirable from an entertainment and profit perspective, at the expense of defenses. Consistent rule changes to this effect, for example, have been seen in American football, limiting hits. Other rules seek to improve competitive balance by removing judgment calls through the institution of instant replay to correct human error or the removal of rules that force an official to make a guess (like the force out rule in football). Designers and enforcers of games often face dilemmas in seeking to preserve the human element of the game while introducing technologies that are designed to reduce the error that naturally results from the human element of the game.
Besides fair play, rules often involve questions of safety. When we appreciate gladiatorial sports, it is easy to forget that the people who play them (and who make a wide variance in standard of living doing so) often sacrifice decades of life and health for our entertainment. Their pay is not merely a sign of our intense interest, but also a recognition of the fact that their service for us is often at direct harm to themselves. Concussions and other injuries often lead players to decades of struggling with brain difficulties, arthritis, and other incurable long-term health problems that rob enjoyment out of life, not only in relationships but even in the simple matters of day-to-day existence. To the extent that we enjoy competitive sports, we share some culpability through our patronage in the fate of those often-forgotten people who have entertained us at great cost to themselves in times past. So a concern for the safety of these people, to allow them to go about their task with minimum long-term damages, is in the interests of justice as well as decency. After all, we want games that allow for amusement and competition without destroying the lives of those who participate in them, at least if we are civilized people.
And so we come full circle. Our games have rules and deserve to be enforced fairly because our rules tell us what kind of people we are. If we are people who are civilized and decent, and if we value fair play and the safety of those involved in competition, we will wish for fair and just rules equitably enforced. To the extent that we deviate from this standard we show ourselves to be less than fair and just, or less than civilized, or less concerned than we ought to be about the well-being of others. Our attitude to rules is one of the aspects that helps us to see what kind of people we are, and that is an instructive lesson, even if it can be a humbling one at the same time.