Nomic is a game created in 1982 by philosopher Peter Suber in which the rules of the game include mechanisms for the players to change those rules, usually beginning through a system of democratic voting. According to Suber, the primary activity of Nomic is proposing changes in the rules, debating the wisdom of changing them in that way, voting on the changes, deciding what can and cannot be done afterwards, and doing it. Even this core of the game, of course, can be changed.’

The term ‘nomic’ actually refers to a large number of games based on the initial ruleset laid out by Suber in his book ‘The Paradox of Self-Amendment. The game is in some ways modeled on modern government systems. It demonstrates that in any system where rule changes are possible, a situation may arise in which the resulting laws are contradictory or insufficient to determine what is in fact legal. Because the game models (and exposes conceptual questions about) a legal system and the problems of legal interpretation, it is named after ‘nomos,’ the Greek word for ‘law.’

While the victory condition in Suber’s initial ruleset is the accumulation of 100 points by the roll of dice, he once said that ‘this rule is deliberately boring so that players will quickly amend it to please themselves.’ Players can change the rules to such a degree that points can become irrelevant in favor of a true currency, or make victory an unimportant concern. Any rule in the game, including the rules specifying the criteria for winning and even the rule that rules must be obeyed, can be changed. Any loophole in the ruleset, however, may allow the first player to discover it the chance to pull a ‘scam’ and modify the rules to win the game. Complicating this process is the fact that Suber’s initial ruleset allows for the appointment of judges to preside over issues of rule interpretation.

The game can be played face-to-face with as many written notes as are required, or through any of a number of Internet media (usually an archived mailing list or internet forum). Initially, gameplay occurs in clockwise order, with each player taking a turn. In that turn, they propose a change in rules that all the other players vote on, and then roll a die to determine the number of points they add to their score. If this rule change is passed, it comes into effect at the end of their round. Any rule can be changed with varying degrees of difficulty, including the core rules of the game itself. As such, the gameplay may quickly change.

Under Suber’s initial ruleset, rules are divided into two types: mutable and immutable. The main difference between these is that immutable rules must be changed into mutable rules (called transmuting) before they can be modified or removed. Immutable rules also take precedence over mutable ones. A rule change may be: the addition of a new mutable rule, an amendment to a mutable rule, the repeal of a mutable rule, the transmutation of a rule from mutable to immutable, or the transmutation of a rule from immutable to mutable. Alternative starting rulesets exist for Internet and mail games, wherein gameplay occurs in alphabetical order by surname, and points added to the score are based on the success of a proposed rule change rather than random dice rolls.

Not only can every aspect of the rules be altered in some way over the course of a game of Nomic, but myriad variants also exist: some that have themes, begin with a single rule, or begin with a dictator instead of a democratic process to validate rules. Others combine Nomic with an existing game (such as Monopoly, chess, or in one humorously paradoxical attempt, Mornington Crescent). There is even a version in which the players are games of Nomic themselves. Even more unusual variants include a ruleset in which the rules are hidden from players’ view, and a game which, instead of allowing voting on rules, splits into two sub-games, one with the rule, and one without it.

Online versions often have initial rulesets where play is not turn-based; typically, players in such games may propose rule changes at any time, rather than having to wait for their turn. The game is particularly suited to being played online, where all proposals and rules can be shared in web pages or email archives for ease of reference. Such games of Nomic sometimes last for a very long time – ‘Agora’ has been running since 1993. The longevity of nomic games can pose a serious problem, in that the rulesets can grow so complex that current players do not fully understand them and prospective players are deterred from joining. One currently active game, ‘BlogNomic,’ gets around this problem by dividing the game into ‘dynasties’; every time someone wins, a new dynasty begins, and all the rules except a privileged few are repealed. This keeps the game relatively simple and accessible.

Another facet of Nomic is the way in which the implementation of the rules affects the way the game of Nomic itself works. ‘ThermodyNomic,’ for example, had a ruleset in which rule changes were carefully considered before implementation, and rules were rarely introduced which provide loopholes for the players to exploit. ‘B Nomic,’ by contrast, was once described by one of its players as ‘the equivalent of throwing logical hand grenades.’ This is essentially part of the differentiation between ‘procedural’ games, where the aim (acknowledged or otherwise) is to tie the entire ruleset into a paradoxical condition during each turn (a player who has no legal move available wins), and ‘substantive’ games, which try to avoid paradox and reward winning by achieving certain goals, such as attaining a given number of points.

While Nomic is traditionally capitalized as the proper name of the game it describes, it has also sometimes been used in a more informal way as a lowercased generic term, nomic, referring to anything with Nomic-like characteristics, including games where the rules may be changed during play as well as non-gaming situations where it can be alleged that ‘rules lawyers’ are tinkering with the process used to amend rules and policies (in an organization or community) in a manner akin to a game of Nomic.


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