Rules and Metarules



“Anything that can be done can be done meta.” – Charles Simonyi

It’s probably not necessary to explain here what “meta” means, but I’ll quote from Wikipedia anyway:

Meta- (from Greek: μετά = “after”, “beyond”, “with”, “adjacent”, “self”), is a prefix used in English (and other Greek-owing languages) to indicate a concept which is an abstraction from another concept, used to complete or add to the latter.

I’m going to discuss metarules: rules about rules. This post is not intended to be complete or comprehensive, merely to get you thinking, to use the now-hackneyed expression, “out of the box” about game rules. (Etymology note: a hackney is a taxicab, so how can an overused phrase be like a taxicab? Has it been driven back and forth until someone vomited in the back seat? Yes, that must be it.) In order to get outside a box it is first necessary to realize that there is a box. In this case, the box is the set of written or unwritten game rules governing whatever game it is the players are playing.

While the reader may be reminded of the book Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse, am not referencing it to any great extent here. This post is more about game theory as applied to the game rules themselves. It’s also informed somewhat by Timothy Leary’s approach to studying human social games. (He was a modern Galileo and is still regarded more as shunned heretic than revolutionary researcher). Here follow a few metarules:

  • In order to win, you must understand the rules.
  • That which is not forbidden is permitted.
  • Alternate, physics version: That which is not forbidden is mandatory.

Once, a friend who’d previously lived in Arizona challenged me to pick his car from a lot containing some two dozen others. I stood there and looked the lot over, and said “I can’t tell.” He chided me, saying he never said I couldn’t take a closer look at all the cars. His had a couple of stickers on it revealing membership in certain Arizona professional groups.

The moral here was that I was free to solve the problem in an almost limitless field of freedom. In theory I could have copied all the license plates and gone to the registry. I could have dusted the door handles for prints. It wasn’t forbidden.

In the natural sciences a more extreme version of this game rule seems to hold that if something can happen it will, given time, space and energy. For example, life seems to appear with near certainty where conditions permit, and NASA scientists are nearly convinced there was life on Mars.

A couple of pop-culture examples from recent movies illustrate some game metarule principles. In The Dark Knight Heath Ledger’s Joker is Homo Ludens (“Man, the player”) taken to the most nihilistic extreme. His game is to turn all society’s games inside out:

“You know… You know what I’ve noticed? Nobody panics when things go “according to plan.” Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all “part of the plan.” But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!”

The Joker has an unerring sense of the Achilles’ heel in everyone else’s game:

Batman: Where is Dent?
The Joker: You have all these rules and you think they’ll save you.
Lt. James Gordon: [Batman slams the Joker against a wall] He’s in control.
Batman: I have one rule.
The Joker: Then that’s the rule you’ll have to break to know the truth.
Batman: Which is?
The Joker: The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules. And tonight you’re gonna break your one rule.
Batman: I’m considering it.
The Joker: No, there’s only minutes left, so you’re gonna have to play my little game if you want to save one of them.

He then proceeds to feed Batman information that is almost true, but is false in one crucial particular; this is a favorite Joker tactic.

In No Country For Old Men we see the prodigiously homicidal Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) toy with a man who owns a gas station in the middle of nowhere.

Anton Chigurh: What’s the most you ever lost on a coin toss.
Gas Station Proprietor: Sir?
Anton Chigurh: The most. You ever lost. On a coin toss.
Gas Station Proprietor: I don’t know. I couldn’t say.
[Chigurh flips a quarter from the change on the counter and covers it with his hand]
Anton Chigurh: Call it.

This is an asymmetrical game: the gas station proprietor does not know he will die if he loses the toss, though he may sense it. According to Chigurh’s none too normal philosophy, this man has been playing an unworthy game for high stakes for a very long time anyway:

Gas Station Proprietor: Well, we need to know what we’re calling it for here.
Anton Chigurh: You need to call it. I can’t call it for you. It wouldn’t be fair.
Gas Station Proprietor: I didn’t put nothin’ up.
Anton Chigurh: Yes, you did. You’ve been putting it up your whole life you just didn’t know it.

Chigurh, earlier in this encounter, almost choked with laughter or disbelief when the man explained how he came to be here:

Chigurh: You live in that house behind the store?
Proprietor Yes I do.
Chigurh: You’ve lived here all your life?
Proprietor: This was my wife’s father’s place. Originally.
Chigurh: (coughs) You married into it.
Proprietor: We lived on Temple Texas for many years. Raised a family there. In Temple. We come out here about four years ago.
Chigurh: You married into it.
Proprietor: …If that’s the way you wanna put it.
Chigurh: I don’t have some way to put it. That’s the way it is.

It’s one thing, Chigurh seems to be saying, to marry the boss’s daughter and hope to gain advancement in a big business. But to do this for an empire one can almost spit across? This rouses his contempt and he chooses to telescope the man’s life wager into a single coin toss.

  • Asymmetry metarule: the players may not be playing the same game.
  • Asymmetrical knowledge metarule: The player who knows there is an asymmetry is the one who knows the rules.
  • Asymmetrical Knowledge Corollary: The player who does not know about the asymmetry does not know the rules and therefore cannot win.
  • Second Asymmetrical Knowledge Corollary: The player who does not even know he is playing a game does not know the rules and therefore cannot win.

Example: anyone who criticizes the extreme concentration of wealth in the United States will be attacked for “engaging in class warfare.” This in spite of Warren Buffett’s statement that “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” It’s important to the very rich that this war remain asymmetrical, and a key stronghold of asymmetry is that discussion of the topic should be taboo.

In a close parallel to this, I once saw one of those true-crime shows on TV in which an expert explained how John Wayne Gacy, a flabby middle-aged man and sometime party clown, could kill at least 33 young men without some of them overpowering him. According to the expert, a favorite method involved showing the prospective victim a pair of trick handcuffs which easily came undone with a a simple twist of the wrists. Gacy would escape from them in front of him, then behind. If the young man let Gacy put the cuff on his wrists in front of him, he too easily escaped.

Then Gacy set up the end game: if the youth could be convinced to don the cuffs from behind, Gacy would reach into his barber-style shirt, with its two large pockets, silently switching a real pair of cuffs. Only now would the victim learn the true nature of this asymmetrical game, and it was all downhill from there.

I mention Gacy’s game because I think the GOP’s gradual packing of the Supreme Court with ultra-conservative corporate judges was of this type. The importance of future Supreme Court nominations to every Presidential election has consistently been an (intentionally?) underreported facet of electoral coverage. The significance of this observation should be made clear by Bush v. Gore and Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

  • It is possible for both/all players to be ignorant of rules and asymmetries, which tends to create lose/lose scenarios.
  • Win/win scenarios are generally only possible when both/all players seek a win/win.
  • Barring that, if one player seeking a win/win brings other overwhelming advantages to the game, a win/win may still be possible.

This seems to be the exception in games between adults, but is the norm with raising children. Your child may not want to eat the spinach, but you’ve got more strength, wit, experience, and control. You can withold the cake until at least half the vegetables are eaten, and the child will not be able to thwart you any time soon. Especially if he won’t eat healthy food. In the end it’s a win/win because you actually want him to grow up healthy.

When adults play the I-know-better-and-this-is-for-your-own-good game against other adults, it’s much more likely to be an imposture and a defrauding. Ask yourself: does the Federal Reserve Bank really know better, and are they really doing it for your own good? How about Goldman Sachs? The CIA?

That last paragraph goes double if you’re a Third World citizen thinking about, say, The School of the Americas, now known as WHINSEC, the International Monetary Fund, or Monsanto.

It’s also important to

  • Know what you are trying to win.

Both people and governments fall into various pitfalls in which they waste time, effort and resources on ill-defined or futile games, truing to recover already sunk costs, trapped by logical fallacies. Consider the assertion “We cannot abandon Iraq now, for that would mean all the lives already lost were wasted.” Only total victory is acceptable, even though it’s not as common in the real world as stalemates and exhaustion are. So assume total victory for one side: then does not the other side have motive to keep fighting, if it can, so that its casualties were not “meaningless”? Logically either someone must accept that the struggle was futile, or all continue fighting until the end of humanity. Knowing what you are trying to win prevents you from pushing all your chips in for some false goal.
It also suggests a corollary:

  • If the other player’s goal seems absurd, perhaps it is not his true goal.

Not that it will always be easy to tell, and in any case players can have multiple goals. We can say with confidence, however, that if a foreign power occupies an oil-rich land and places the real levers of power in the hands of undemocratic, politically connected profiteers and warlords, the ostensible goal of “bringing democracy” isn’t likely to have been the real goal.

  • If rule changes are not forbidden, they are permitted.
  • Any method of changing rules which is not forbidden is permitted.

In 1947 the Austrian-born mathematician Kurt Gödel went with his friends Albert Einstein and game theory co-inventor Oskar Morgenstern to take his citizenship test, but he had to be hushed up when he asserted that there was a logical flaw in the Constitution which could allow a dictatorship. It seems likely that his problem was with Article V: that although there are procedures which must be followed to create a new amendment, there’s no limit of any sort on what that amendment can say. It could say, “All other parts of the Constitution are null and void, Glenn Beck is now King, All Hail The King.” However, Laurence Tribe and others pooh-pooh the risk; it’s hard to pass an amendment of any sort. The most recent, Amendment XXVII, which says “No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.” It was passed in 1992, having been proposed on September 25, 1789.

There are, of course, easier ways of changing the game rules.

  • If you change the rules, it becomes a different game.


  1. David Cohen says:

    Fascinating, Tom! Thanks for the post.

  2. Michael Muller says:

    Hey Tom,

    Gordon and I are sitting here drinking beers discussing how cool this post is — and how any comments we would add would just sound retarded. Don’t mistake the lack of comments for lack of appreciation.



  3. Ah, the trick is in applying this in a battlespace where the opponent doesn’t know what you are up to, or consistently getting inside his OODA Loop if he does…

  4. Tom Buckner says:

    Thanks, all!


    Good point on that. It’s worth noting that there’s an important operational difference between the GOP and the Democratic Party. WHile the Dems are “like herding cats” most of the time, the GOP and movement conservatism in general have resempled a top-down military organization (Thom Hartmann has a lot to say about this). There are a few people at the top like Roger Ailes, Matt Drudge and Rush Limbaugh who generate memes and talking points which are disseminated through the hierarchy and repeated nearly verbatim. Independent thinking is frowned upon in a military organization: “loose cannon” syndrome and insubordination are punishable offenses. As Hartmann pointed out, this was why nobody in the GOP would criticize Dubya. He was a fool, but he was President. “We salute the rank, not the man,” as Richard Winters said.

  5. Jim Reeves says:

    Apparantly you (or should I say AMERICA) cannot win until it is realized they are on the SAME TEAM, promoting the internationalists’ fascist world government, the “third way” merger of Communism and Capitalism.

  6. Doug Gibson says:

    So what was Batman’s one rule? That he wouldn’t use a gun?

    And, unlike Michael and Gordon, I have no problem with sounding retarded. Great post, Tom.

  7. Tom Buckner says:

    Apparently, from what I’ve read, Batman’s one rule was not to kill anyone (deliberately, anyway).

    It’s funny nobody seems to agree what certain words (esp. fascism) actually mean. But that’s for another post.

  8. Jim Reeves says:

    Fascism: to quote Thorndike,Barnhart dictionary “Any system of government in which property is privately owned but all industry and business is regulated by a strong national government” (soon international) sound familiar?

  9. Gordon Smith says:

    So many definitions!

    Mirriam Webster – a political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition

    Leon Trotsky – The historic function of fascism is to smash the working class, destroy its organizations, and stifle political liberties when the capitalists find themselves unable to govern and dominate with the help of democratic machinery.

    Communist Third International – Fascism in power is the open, terroristic dictatorship of the most reactionary, the most chauvinistic, the most imperialistic elements of finance capitalism

    The Market of Liberty (Libertarian definition) – Fascism is a system in which the government leaves nominal ownership of the means of production in the hands of private individuals but exercises control by means of regulatory legislation and reaps most of the profit by means of heavy taxation. In effect, fascism is simply a more subtle form of government ownership than is socialism.

    The Encyclopedia of Marxism – “right-wing, fiercely nationalist, subjectivist in philosophy, and totalitarian in practice”, and identifies it as “an extreme reactionary form of capitalist government.” However, it also goes beyond this traditional definition and lists nine fundamental characteristics of fascism:

    Right Wing: Fascists are fervently against: Marxism, Socialism, Anarchism, Communism, Environmentalism; etc – in essence, they are against the progressive left in total, including moderate lefts (social democrats, etc). Fascism is an extreme right wing ideology, though it can be opportunistic.

    Nationalism: Fascism places a very strong emphasis on patriotism and nationalism. Criticism of the nation’s main ideals, especially war, is lambasted as unpatriotic at best, and treason at worst. State propaganda consistently broadcasts threats of attack, while justifying pre-emptive war. Fascism invariably seeks to instill in its people the warrior mentality: to always be vigilant, wary of strangers and suspicious of foreigners.

    Hierarchy: Fascist society is ruled by a righteous leader, who is supported by an elite secret vanguard of capitalists. Hierarchy is prevalent throughout all aspects of society – every street, every workplace, every school, will have its local Hitler, part police-informer, part bureaucrat – and society is prepared for war at all times. The absolute power of the social hierarchy prevails over everything, and thus a totalitarian society is formed. Representative government is acceptable only if it can be controlled and regulated, direct democracy (e.g. Communism) is the greatest of all crimes. Any who oppose the social hierarchy of fascism will be imprisoned or executed.

    Anti-equality: Fascism loathes the principles of economic equality and disdains equality between immigrant and citizen. Some forms of fascism extend the fight against equality into other areas: gender, sexual, minority or religious rights, for example.

    Religious: Fascism contains a strong amount of reactionary religious beliefs, harking back to times when religion was strict, potent, and pure. Nearly all Fascist societies are Christian, and are supported by Catholic and Protestant churches.

    Capitalist: Fascism does not require revolution to exist in captialist society: fascists can be elected into office (though their disdain for elections usually means manipulation of the electoral system). They view parliamentary and congressional systems of government to be inefficient and weak, and will do their best to minimize its power over their policy agenda. Fascism exhibits the worst kind of capitalism where corporate power is absolute, and all vestiges of workers’ rights are destroyed.

    War: Fascism is capitalism at the stage of impotent imperialism. War can create markets that would not otherwise exist by wreaking massive devastation on a society, which then requires reconstruction! Fascism can thus “liberate” the survivors, provide huge loans to that society so fascist corporations can begin the process of rebuilding.

    Voluntarist Ideology: Fascism adopts a certain kind of “voluntarism;” they believe that an act of will, if sufficiently powerful, can make something true. Thus all sorts of ideas about racial inferiority, historical destiny, even physical science, are supported by means of violence, in the belief that they can be made true. It is this sense that Fascism is subjectivist.

    Anti-Modern: Fascism loathes all kinds of modernism, especially creativity in the arts, whether acting as a mirror for life (where it does not conform to the Fascist ideal), or expressing deviant or innovative points of view. Fascism invariably burns books and victimises artists, and artists which do not promote the fascists ideals are seen as “decadent.” Fascism is hostile to broad learning and interest in other cultures, since such pursuits threaten the dominance of fascist myths. The peddling of conspiracy theories is usually substituted for the objective study of history.

  10. Jim Reeves says:

    these definitions are essentially proving my point except the last, which refers to Fascists as “right wing” but the current “progressive” regime meets #2,#3,#6,#7,and #8. Soft Fascism?

  11. Tom Buckner says:

    Well, Jim, that’s the problem with the current administration, innit? They campaigned as progressives but have alienated real progressives by acting all too much like the last crew, who, ahem, fit basically all the criteria, hum ahum cough.

    As I see it, fascism was really ancien regime monarchism/feudalism with a fresh coat of paint. It merely added corporations and modern propaganda to the old pre-1789 system (those fascists who are still willing to call themselves fascists adamantly believe 1789 was when the world went wrong: when peasants rose above their natural station to behead Kings). Mussolini consciously wanted to revive the glory of the Caesars, his German pal consciously wanted to be the next Charlemagne. Fascists do horrible things because that stuff is what absolute monarchs do. It al comes back to the idea that peasants are little better than livestock. And look how we treat livestock.

    But there are other very different interpretations, and some of those are darned interesting to consider. I’ll come back to that.

  12. Doug Gibson says:

    George Orwell:

    Yet underneath all this mess there does lie a kind of buried meaning. To begin with, it is clear that there are very great differences, some of them easy to point out and not easy to explain away, between the régimes called Fascist and those called democratic. Secondly, if ‘Fascist’ means ‘in sympathy with Hitler’, some of the accusations I have listed above are obviously very much more justified than others. Thirdly, even the people who recklessly fling the word ‘Fascist’ in every direction attach at any rate an emotional significance to it. By ‘Fascism’ they mean, roughly speaking, something cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working-class. Except for the relatively small number of Fascist sympathizers, almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist’. That is about as near to a definition as this much-abused word has come.

    Emphasis mine.

  13. Matt says:


    Thanks for Fascist definition. It’s nice to see it defined on occasion. However, the actual meaning of the word isn’t important to the people who use it most. It’s just a word to insert whenever the user wants to evoke emotion.