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A Reminder About Social Contracts

Posted By John Arcadian On December 22, 2008 @ 2:58 am In Gaming Trends,GMing Advice,Tools for GMs | 11 Comments

Social contracts. The concept isn’t new to gaming, nor is it a foreign entity to the great gnome stew readers. While most of us are familiar with the concept, it is one that benefits from being brought up and discussed regularly. I’m hoping that this post will outline social contracts and point people to other sources that delve much more deeply into the subject. An outline and paraphrasing as it were. So lets skim the top and get this Social Contract 101 class started.

  • Concept
    In their most simple form, social contracts are implied agreements between groups of people. They are the unspoken rules that we all agree to in certain groupings. In the field of gaming, a social contract can be considered as anything implied about the game and brought up amongst the players. The subjects can be anything about the playing situation, about the game itself or even what happens amongst the group outside of the game. By sitting down to play a particular game, everyone has agreed that they are all going to play by the same rules and work within the parameters of those rules. This is a social contract.
  • Why Social Contracts are important:
    What is the benefit that you can get by defining or taling about elements of the social contract in your group? It can help the structure of your game and can define exactly what it is that everyone wants out of the game. How much player narrative should there be? What kind of themes does the Game Master want to address in the game? What do the players think would be cool? Defining these elements can get everyone on the same page. It isn’t necessary to write any of the points of a social contract down but to bring them up so that they can be discussed by the group.
  • Samples Social Contract Subjects:
    Some sample elements of a Social Contract that relate to the game could be:
    • Are we using any house rules?
    • Where are we playing, and when?
    • What is the theme, mood or tone of the game?
    • What kind of things would the players like to do in the game?
    • Do the players provide their own snacks, or do we share?
    • Where and when do we game?
  • Where they came from (AFAIK):
    The first place I ever saw Social Contracts in relation to gaming was in a post by Chris Chinn, an incredibly talented game theorist. However, the concept and theories regarding social contracts were (probably) first discussed in relation to gaming in the forge forums. According to information from Ron Edwards, one of the people involved in these forge discussions, there were many people involved in discussions, but the original posts are no longer available and so it isn’t possible to credit everyone.
  • While I know the concepts of social contracts have been brought up many places (including here in more than a few places:
    Definition, Discussion, Mention, Another Mention) this is one of those gaming topics that every gamer should know.

So, does your group currently use social contracts? How does your definition differ from mine or others? What would you add to the social contract discussion, or what new light do you think they should be viewed in?

About  John Arcadian

John Arcadian is the head of Silvervine Games, a freelance writer and art director, a website developer, a builder of sonic screwdrivers, and a purveyor of kilted mayhem. When he isn't out causing trouble in his kilt... Well, no, that is pretty much what he does when he isn't running RPGs or or trying to take over the world.




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11 Comments To "A Reminder About Social Contracts"

#1 Comment By Swordgleam On December 22, 2008 @ 10:40 am

My group phrases them more in terms of goals. “I want to run a dark game.” “I’m trying to get your character more involved in the plot.” “I’m hoping we can game every other week.” We never talk about a ‘social contract’ per se, but we do sometimes have discussions about where the game is going and what sort of elements it should or should not have. I’m not sure if the constant complaining about how someone or other is always late counts as ‘social contract discussion.’

#2 Comment By deadlytoque On December 22, 2008 @ 10:55 am

We definitely (if not explicitly) lay out social contracts when we play games. My group tends towards short- or medium-term games (I define short as < 10 sessions, and medium as < 20) and so there’s lots of discussion before a new game begins what the parameters are.

Common amendments are our “standard packages” of house rules, plus mood/tone establishment. A common one for D&D, for example, will be “I want all the players to be from Place X, and have Connection Y”. In World of Darkness games, we have a handful of simple rule tweaks (more lethal firearms) and in an upcoming Hunter game I plan on running, I’m going to modify that a bit further.

One of the common problems we have that more explicit “social contracts” might resolve is totally off-theme characters. There are a core group of gamers in my circle that have been playing Vampire (both Masquerade and Requiem) together for nearly 10 years, so sometimes we make assumptions about the setting and the mood that we don’t explicitly share with new players, which can cause some jarring when those new players cross the invisible lines.

I don’t know a lot about the use of the concept of social contracts in gaming, but using that well-established political theory term grates me a bit, because it’s very -unclear- what it means in a political context (eg: Rousseau vs. Locke vs. Hobbes’ Leviathan). Hopefully it’s more solid in gaming circles.

#3 Comment By John Arcadian On December 22, 2008 @ 11:32 am

The actual structure of a social contract is something hard to define. It’s also something that shifts between different groups. Swordgleam, your style sounds more like the incredibly loosely defined, while DeadlyToque, yours sounds like it has more of the rigid defined elements. The beautiful thing about social contracts is the concept is malleable enough to fit multiple play styles.

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On December 22, 2008 @ 1:14 pm

Unspoken (or only tangentially covered) social contracts are tricky, but if you’re tolerant of mistakes, it’s pretty easy to get everyone used to it without long speeches or legaleese.

To me, the purely social, outside the game social contract elements are the most critical and least likely to be explicit to a newcomer. Some elements that John didn’t mention include:
- How do we decide who is in the group? Who gets to invite new people?
- Who is responsible for ordering the food? How do you pay? Can you opt out (by bringing your own food, say)?
- May we criticize other players or the GM? Do we do it in cliques, bitch directly to the GM, or blurt it out at the table?
- Do we give each other birthday or Christmas gifts? At a session or on the side? Do you bring something for everyone or just for your friends?

#5 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On December 22, 2008 @ 1:37 pm

Whew… where to begin?

I don’t like the term “social contract” either, but it’s what we’ve got. (I’m partial to “game charter”, but hey…)

Game rules: Which game, which version, which house rules? Allowed sourcebooks? How long can a discussion can go on before a decision is made? Who makes final decisions? What genre (specifically)? What power level? How “special” are the PCs? How lethal is the campaign? How “rich” or “poor” is the gameworld? How much handwaving will there be (as opposed to realism)?

Session rules: Food, drink, and “other”. Distractions, and the limits thereof. Time of arrival/departure, and how firm they are. Limits on “out of character” discussion. What happens to your character when you miss a game? How many can miss before we cancel? Whose house, and do they have any preferences? How “in charge” is the GM (if at all)?

Group rules: Who’s playing? Who can invite new players? Who is the final arbiter of new players? How do we handle bad players? How do we handle unequal distribution of work/rewards?

When you’re talking about this kind of stuff, define your terms. “High fantasy” might mean anything, as may “pulpy” or “grim and gritty”.

#6 Comment By BryanB On December 22, 2008 @ 5:42 pm

I think that I have one overriding rule that has served me well over my entire involvement in gaming. It comes from an example set to me by my parents and it is one for which I am most gratefull. Treat everyone in a manner that you would want yourself to be treated.

Gaming group ground rules and social “contracts” are important aspects of group formation, no doubt about it, but I have found that my number one rule has done more for my gaming experiences (and other relationships) than any other that I have come across.

So if I can put it plainly, my number one rule essentially is: “Don’t be a jackass. Treat others respectfully. Don’t tolerate disrespect towards anyone at the table. Solve people problems away from the gaming table – Trying to solve them in-game is a huge mistake. Remember that we do this to have FUN!

The second rule is communication. The group is going nowhere pretty quick if everyone doesn’t have some kind of idea about what they want to play and how they want to play it. Keep those lines of communication open. There are plenty of good posts on Gnomestew that cover that sort of thing. :)

#7 Comment By Patrick Benson On December 22, 2008 @ 7:21 pm

I’m another who does not like the term “social contract”, but instead call it the group’s charter as Telas mentioned earlier. To me a contract is about terms and expectations, which are important, but with a gaming group I’m more interested in where the group wants to go as a single entity. That is why I use the word charter, because it is all about the end result and how we are going to get there instead of a static agreement.

Regardless of what you call it, at the end of every session try to get feedback on what is working and what isn’t. Treat your charter, contract, whatever as a living agreement that must be attended to regularly. Like others have said, communication is the key to a good gaming group.

#8 Comment By John Arcadian On December 23, 2008 @ 9:04 am

I’ve always been surprised when I hear the reticence towards Social contract as a term. I know the concept is well received, but the term is almost universally panned. It makes sense in a way. A contract feels limiting and binding, which is true in a fashion.

@ Scott Martin: I’ve never really been sure where I like to draw the line on things I include in a social contract. You’re absolutely right that those items can be in a social contract, but to me they seem to be part of a separate contract that deals with how the players interact with each other as friends. They aren’t necessarily about the game itself, but about the structure of the group.

You’re absolutely right about those being hard for a newcomer to pick up. Like Deadlytoque had mentioned about his Vampire group, it is often hard to be the newcomer in a group and have to work to get the feel of it down. My vampire group has been playing for most of their lives and I’m the newcomer. After about a year and a half of playing with them I’m just starting to get the feel for their World Of Darkness.

@ Kurt “Telas” Schneider : Good call on the defining your terms. I know to me High Fantasy almost means steampunk and magic, while another player in my group interprets it very differently.

@ BryanB: That is definitely the rule for life.

@ Patrick Benson: You’re right, feedback and communication are also incredibly important. I know the times when we’ve more rigidly defined social contracts in our group we change them based on feedback. Often we go the route of the implied social contract with the caveat of the GM has final say over anything if there is an issue. Then we give feedback later and the GM changes rulings based on the feedback.

#9 Comment By deadlytoque On December 23, 2008 @ 10:46 am

(TLDR warning; the last two paragraphs are the key thoughts)

@John Arcadian – I think the reluctance to use the term “social contract” emerges from the fact that it means many things to many people. (Blatant generalization follows) Gamers like to have concrete definitions. It comes, I would guess, from years of memorizing rulebooks. “What does ‘Hit bonus’ mean? What does ‘skill check’ mean?”

Certainly, in a sense, applying one of the foundations of republican democratic thought — that the “governed” have to sacrifice some of their freedoms to the “social contract” in order to maintain order and cohesion — is applicable, but the problem is that social contract theory doesn’t have a definition beyond that. A social contract can range from the basic application of the “golden rule” (the do unto others rule, that is) to a complex Bill of Rights. It can be immutable (like the Spanish constitution) or innately flexible (arguably like Canada or South Africa) or somewhere in between (the USA).

Similarly in gaming, as noted, a social contract can range from general assumptions brought to the table, to basic declarations by the GM (I’m not using anything from the supplements, so core rules and Forgotten Realms core books only), to outright dissertations on specific topics (well, we use the Action Die system from Spycraft, but we use them more like Fate Points from Serenity, and the world is a steampunk-western where nobody makes a big deal out of sci-fi tech, like the comic Daisy Kutter…).

Further, as many of the commenters have noted, the “gaming social contract” needs to cover a VERY wide range of topics: player interactions, GM authority, rules usage, setting details, tone, mood, character options; basically every single thing that players do needs to be covered by one form of “social contract” or another, which makes the term very fluid and therefore not very useful.

Another problem is something you noted in your reply to Patrick Benson: that “gaming social contracts” need to be flexible to feedback; I think most people hear the term “contract” and assume something fixed and immutable.

If I were going to give a name to the phenomenon we are discussing, I think “table conventions” might be the most appropriate. In politics, a “convention” is any tradition long-standing enough to be -almost- like law, but not quite. About half of the structure of Parliamentary governments like Canada or the UK are built up from convention, rather than actual written law, and the USA has some examples as well, such as much of the operation of Cabinet, which is not spelled out in legislation.

The advantage of the term “convention” over “contract” in the context of gaming, is that it explicitly notes that something is consensus-based and flexible, and that it can be overruled by an express wish of the group.

#10 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On December 23, 2008 @ 10:58 am

How about “Gaming Convention”?

Oh, drat! That’s taken too… ;-)

(Actually, I got the term “game charter” from Patrick, but I think it does a pretty good job of explaining things.)

#11 Pingback By Night Of The Gaming Dead : Critical Hits On October 30, 2012 @ 9:00 am

[...] do, that killing the infected or turned is the way to go. If your group does not already have a social contract, now would be a great time to come up with one. The manner and circumstances of killing a member of [...]


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