Patch Updates for Law; Words for Evil

Making a good game is surprisingly difficult. A good game needs to be balanced. It needs to be equally fair to play as any team, or have reasonable opportunities to overcome challenges and obstacles. Some games aren’t as concerned with balance issues, but many competitive multiplayer games have extensive metagame discussions about balance. Developers try to balance the game as carefully as possible before release. However, patches are inevitable and expected.

Making a good law is surprisingly difficult, as well, and one of the biggest issues is also balance. Laws exist to protect the rights and interests of multiple parties, often in situations where they may be competing with each other. The legislative process, like the game development process, tries to make the law as balanced and complete as possible. However, there is often a need for additional clarity or balancing after the law is enacted. In a common law system, this is usually done by appellate judges.

Both games and law have to balance carefully, thoughtfully, and slowly. Neither wants to make a quick change, only to undo the change in the next iteration. Competitive games and law both benefit from stability and predictability, and participants often react strongly to new balancing effort: both types of updates, if they make major changes, are likely to incite passionate debate.

For a game, updates and balance patches come up as the game company observes data from gameplay and theory crafting to identify and analyze imbalances within the game. Balance patches for law are also the result of identified problems that come before courts as disputes or complaints. However, for a game, the balancing is done as some function of the data within the game: numerical values of some kind are changed (distance, damage, time, etc). In law, the update is often a function of how a piece of language is understood. Language is for law what code is for a game. (There is good reason the different approaches to code are often called “programming languages.”)

Many parts of the law are collections of terms whose meanings are subject to a multitude of organic, unstable factors. Technological advancements challenge the meaning of what is “reasonable” equipment for a commercial ship, to how private citizens might understand their “right to privacy.” Ever-changing cultural norms will determine what “community standards” are applied in determining whether something is obscene.

I realized before writing this that a lot of my posts end up talking about language. I knew this post was heading there again, and I went ahead with it anyway. Part of my obsession is a bit idiosyncratic: a lot of my studies focus is on intellectual property, and the roles of language and meaning are even more pronounced in that area than most. Though any contract, will, corporate bylaw, lien, or criminal confession is ultimately about the words and meaning we draw from (or ascribe to) that glob of language. As foundational as language is to law, I think my interest in it goes beyond my studies. Language has to do with the human experience: how we think, how we know, how we connect, how we perceive reality and understand our fellow humans and ourselves.

“Words for Evil” is a simple game; the central mechanic is basically “Boggle.” You advance through the game by creating words using adjoining letters in a randomized grid. As you find words, your character will fight monsters or unlock treasure chests or evade traps. The underlying message of the game is the language, itself, moves you through the world. Just as in our daily lives, there can be problems in using language to affect the world around us. I have tried to input several strings of letters into the game which were rejected as words; I also made random, desperate guesses as to what might be accepted as language and was rewarded with success. We have the first experience in our lives fairly often: we say something but are misunderstood. The analogy of the second experience, I think, is more suggestive of some of the understanding of what language is and what it means to know language. I do not think we often make random, desperate noises and find that someone will understand them as a coherent expression and aid us according to our will. But if that has happened, I want to hear about it.