Can we talk about the author muzzle rule?

Because I just don’t think it’s a good idea.

Right now in the Authors’ Forum there are 1543 posts across 86 topics. There are around a dozen authors writing reviews (some of whom have already made it through the entire comp) and roughly half of the games have individual discussion threads. There are also threads about trends, and theory, and favourite moments, and tons of other stuff. I don’t think I’m being hyperbolic when I say that there’s been more IF Comp activity there than there has been on the entire rest of the internet.

Now obviously not everything that’s posted in the private forum is fit for public consumption, but I’d say the majority of posts totally are. That energy could be going towards drawing in new readers and getting people to talk about the comp. As it stands we’re just sort of spinning our wheels and watching as this year passes by in relative silence.

I can’t speak for all authors – in fact I know for a fact there are some that disagree – but I think the muzzle rule hurts the comp more than it helps it.

I’ve been told the purpose of the rule is to stop people with large fanbases from having an unfair advantage, but that explanation doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Like, if the worry is someone’s going to organize a vote brigade, why have a blanket ban? Why not just have a rule that’s specifically against organizing a vote brigade? And really, do any of the authors even have a large enough fanbase to actually influence the comp this way? It seems like a totally unlikely scenario to me. Also like doesn’t the five-game rule basically deal with this exact problem anyway?

When you take away our ability to talk about the games, you also take away our ability to speak constructively, and to effectively promote the competition. Like we don’t just want to talk about our own work. There are games that I’d love to recommend to people, or quote, or discuss in public. But I can’t and that kinda sucks for all the authors. We’d all benefit from more attention like that, not just the ones with the most twitter followers.

I don’t know, I can see how the rule might have made sense when y’all were like thirty people on a usenet group or whatever, but I just don’t think it makes sense today. It certainly doesn’t match anything I’ve seen outside the interactive fiction (Literally every single non-IF person I have told about the rule has been shocked to learn how restrictive the competition is.) Ultimately it feels kinda self-sabotaging and almost disrespectful. Like you have so little faith in the ability of the authors to post responsibly that you have to ban us from doing stuff that could genuinely help the competition grow. It bums me out, man. I don’t get it.

How would you enforce such a rule?

(I’ve no strong feelings on the issue one way or the other, but I’m illustrating the inherent difficulties in organising something like this. Rules have to be enforceable)

Also, post-comp discussions and postmortems tend to crop up as soon as the comp is over. FWIW.

No they don’t. There are plenty of unenforceable rules already in the comp. “Judges must base their judgment of each game on at most the first two hours of play”, “Judges may not rate any games they have beta-tested”, “Every rating asserts that the judge who submitted it made a good-faith effort to actually play that game as intended.” We set those rules out as a code of conduct for judges and ask them to participate on the honour system. There’s no reason we can’t do the same for authors, especially when we’re talking about something that frankly I don’t think most authors would want or even be able to do.

The same way we do now? All of this is essentially occurring on the honor system as it is, and violations have to be quite flagrant. Brigading is detected on a statistical level by the software Jason uses, not by trawling the internet looking for evidence of authorial malintent. I mean, we’re allowed to talk in private about all of this. Why not just have the same rules apply? If we’re not allowed to promote our game at all, and vote-begging -brigading is illegal in private, then nothing much is lost. If anything, it’s just easier to see who’s cheating.

The real reason it’s kept in place, I believe, is to prevent the popularity of an author from overwhelming all the other entries. But:

  1. The comp is judged based on the average of entries, not the number, so it’s not like increased audience necessarily means better luck.
  2. Everyone famous enough to fit into this sort of category is already going to attract a huge number of fans regardless of promotion. In fact, the gag rule might in that case ensure that the ratio of ardent fans to semi-interested voters is actually higher in the case of the gag rule. Which seems backwards to me.

I agree that there’s a certain amount of babies being thrown out with the bathwater with the rule as it stands.

What we don’t want is people canvassing for votes. We don’t want the IFComp to look like the 2011 XYZZY Awards where Zombie Exodus swept the board because of the huge fan base voting up the game in a rent-a-mob fashion. We can still have a rule that tackles that but allows authors to promote the comp and help generate more public discussion. Something like:

Canvassing for votes is forbidden. Authors are allowed to discuss games in public so long as they do not explicitly encourage players to give their own game(s) a high score.

To be clear, in 2011, XYZZY had no rules about what authors were/weren’t allowed to say; there wasn’t even a rule against canvassing for votes. In 2012 the anti-canvass guideline went in place, and I don’t think there’s been an issue since then.

(It’s not even a rule; canvassing is just “strongly discouraged,” with a warning that canvassed votes may be discounted.)

Which should probably be a rule as it is! (In addition to a replacement to the ineffectual gag rule.) As far as I can tell, asking friends to canvas for votes isn’t explicitly against the rules, given that private communication is A-OK. Even if it might be in violation of the spirit of the rules, it’s far more difficult to detect. Plus, the friends of authors initiating/managing vote campaigns is a hugely more significant concern than individual authors doing the same. It’s not only nearly unbelievable that an author would take it upon themselves to publicly beg for reviews, regardless of whether the rule is “no talking” or “no begging,” but even if they are, the friendship paradox suggests that most if not all authors will have more popular, more liked, more visible, more influential friends than they are themselves.

The IFComp rules are very restrictive, but I’m not aware of any other game community where there’s just one or two big competitions of the year settled by popular vote.

Instead, most other game competitions have pre-selected judges/juries, so it doesn’t matter whom you tell about your competition entry. IGF, for example, even has an “Audience Award” where canvassing is welcome/encouraged; it helps to drum up publicity for the main event.

Note that you can recommend/quote/discuss the games to your heart’s delight on November 15th.

One thing that the XYZZY and IFComp organizers have been clear about over the years is that the purpose of the competitions is not to promote interactive fiction (or the competition) to newbies. It has been argued for IFComp in particular that we would not want to direct newbies to an IFComp in progress, but instead only direct them to high-scoring games after the competition had concluded.

It’s not just about brigading. In score voting, if authors with a significant following criticizes their competitors, their readers can’t help but incorporate those ideas when making their votes. In XYZZY, votes are only positive, and so a rule against canvassing can be effective.

My feeling is that the IFComp rules are now locally optimal. Small changes to the rules would hurt; big changes to the rules might be better for the community, (pre-select judges! allow commercial products! public betas! encourage canvassing!) but it’d be a completely different competition.

(Well, I would definitely tweak the “cost nothing” rule to make it clear that free-to-play commercial products are allowed. Just cut the last sentence, basically.)

Anybody with a dozen fans (or friends) could significantly influence IFComp results.

In last year’s IFComp, no game received more than 129 votes. The difference between the winning game and the second-place game was only 0.11 points, well under the standard deviation for either game. By my calculations, if just seven people had popped in and voted the second-place game a 10, it would have won the comp that year. If just two extra people had given the first-place game a 1 and the second-place game a 10, their positions would have reversed.

It’s extremely subtle to ban third-party canvassing in IFComp while allowing reviews. Instead, last year the organizers made a new rule #7 for judges to require them to vote in good faith. (Note that the rule gives the organizers the right to disqualify suspicious votes.)

I see the big issue being that the current system is heavily biased towards a more familiar style of IF. I understand not wanting to bring in complete newbies as judges, but I don’t think it’s ideal to have voting dominated by the tiny dedicated core either. There are other IF players out there who are more difficult to reach because of this restrictive rule.

As someone who can’t see the author board, I do hope some of you will consider re-posting the reviews etc. in a more public context when the comp is over. (I realize that wouldn’t entirely resolve the original point here, but it might help some this year, even in a belated way.)

FWIW, I think the intention of this was “let’s not beg newbies to come look at IF Comp while it’s in progress because they might randomly play some of the less-good games and be turned off”, not “let’s make sure that the people judging are all educated about IF / represent a particular concept of what IF should be.” I think some of the people in the old parser-game community had the sense that a lot of outreach fails when a newbie has a bad guess-the-verb experience or hits a game without much of a tutorial.

The effect of the rules may well be more conservative than we want, though. Certainly I’d love to see more connection with people writing and playing Twine games who don’t track the intfiction forum; and for that matter the sorts of people who play the Windhammer books, or VNs, or graphical adventures. (I have a small project in progress on this front, but it’s not going to solve the whole issue by itself.)

this is a slight difference, and one that’s quite vague – saying “please, play my great game” doesn’t necessarily impugn the votes that result from that with regards to good faith. the people voting could very well believe those games are great, and that they’re playing as intended. either way, i feel like the point is the same – the risk of first-party canvassing is already taken care of, and the rules against second/third canvassing are weak as it stands.

Why not FORCE the entrants to submit under aliases - or no names at all - until after the comp?
And those who publicly state which game they made during the comp gets disqualified?

Equally unenforcable and kinda stupid but… I’m just thinking out loud here. Maybe it sets off a bulb in someone’s head.

1. If you’ve got skin in the game / you stay in the game

So from the (narrow) perspective of the author’s experience – as in, “are the authors having a good experience with the comp”, the muzzle rule is a definite negative, right? It’s kind of terrible; it just produces mass anxiety and frustration among the authors. It’s basically 45 days of I have no mouth and I must scream, over here. It’s frustrating that the people with the most skin in the game can’t promote the comp very much at all, and in many ways it does feel like a giant waste of the authors’ energy that could be going towards promoting the comp and therefore IF in general.

2. If you stand for nothing / what’ll you fall for?

I think this all comes down to a basic question of what the Comp is for. Are we trying to determine with some measure of objectivity (pretend that when you click on “objectivity” it turns into the word “lol”, here) who is Best at IF?

Or are we trying to show off everything that the IF medium, and the new authors that are coming up in it can do?

If it’s the former, we probably want a clear memo to that effect. And it’ll disappoint a lot of people. A number of authors this Comp have produced weird, wonderful, experimental work that they know isn’t going to place highly in the stack ranking of games. Those games won’t show up in anyone’s front-runner lists, nor will they be in the eventual top 5; but for my money they’re doing some of the most important work. To repeat an oft-quoted Aevee Bee thesis that’s been all over my Twitter since last night: 7/10 is a cult classic, 8/10 is mediocrity. Plenty of authors have entered the comp not because they are trying to successfully guess and then meet the narrow expectations and preferences of the electoriat, but rather because they think they’ve made something new, or important, or interesting, or weird, and they want people to see it.

So from the standpoint of the latter goal: I don’t think the muzzle rule is helping. And I think that second goal is more important, and more laudable, than trying to determine who is Best at IF.

3. What comes next?

I think that if the concern is about people overtaking the comp with their popularity, using their Twitter followers (or, Gods forbid, 4chan) as their personal army to vote for their game, here’s a solution.

Instead of the single stack ranking of every single game against every other game on a 1-10 scale, do as a film festival would and have multiple prizes that are awarded by independent methods. Have a “people’s choice” award voted on by open ballot. Have awards given out by judge panels (one taken from the IF community, one taken from the broader indie games community, perthaps?). Have an award explicitly for experimental and innovative works. Have an award given out by participants who did well in previous Comps. Enshrine the Ms Congeniality contest as an actual award.

I think quite a few of the authors have resolved to do that.

I think, functionally, the comp is treated by authors as the best way of getting a lot of people to play their new game. The great thing about a public vote competition is that it really does mean quite a lot of people end up playing your game that otherwise wouldn’t have. And the more initial plays, the better there’s a multiplier effect with reviews and recommendations creating the next wave of players.

From author’s point of view, being able to perform more outreach on behalf of the comp would be great. But, I can see how even well meaning outreach can create slate voting. Let’s say I definitely want people to play and judge the comp games, well I’m going to suggest (as well as my own) a handful of the more engaging titles to recommend. A persuasive author could easily skew the votes but in ways that aren’t only to their own game’s benefit.

I’m still not seeing how the 5-vote rule doesn’t nullify most of the concerns. I have a lot of experience with drive-by voting (if you think this is bad, you should see music fans.) Most of the hypothetical people who drive-by vote are not going to be inclined to spend time on one other entry, let alone four. And the odds of whichever hypothetical friend-clique is in question here comprising at least five comp entries are low. (This isn’t, for instance, comparable to certain other vote-stuffing scenarios – you know, the sort involving certain unhappy puppies. There’s no IFcomp voting slate. If there was one, it would quickly become obvious.)

Sure, people could slap down four random or semi-random numbers, but I can think of some ways to detect that, or at least make it so that if someone wants to lie about playing what they vote for, they’ll have to put actual effort into the lie damnit.

(I have more thoughts on this, but one is a SPAG article [not by me] I am publishing soon and one, in an irony of ironies, is something I cannot talk about in the author muzzle thread due to the author muzzle. It’s an optimistic thought in the end, if that helps.)

Yeah, there’s been talk of doing of a bit of a push on the 16th and getting some of that out there. I just think it’s a shame it has to happen after the comp is already over. It would be a lot easier to get eyes on it if we could say “Hey this thing is on NOW and you can help determine who wins.”

Well I fundamentally disagree with the idea that we shouldn’t be reaching out to new players, but also don’t forget that there’s a huge number of people outside the comp who aren’t new to IF. The judging pool as it stands represents a tiny, tiny fraction of the modern audience for interactive fiction.

I fully support this. All the rules in the IFComp are on an honor system. There is no way, really, of enforcing any of them. Extend the same courtesy to the authors.

The level of publicity for the IFComp on the web at large is almost non-existent. Of the named reviewers over on IFWiki and on this board, only 8 are continuing to actively review.

IFComp is an opportunity.

I have more to say, but it will have to wait till after the competition. Because, for inexplicable legacy reasons, I can’t talk about it.


Speaking as a non-entrant…if it can be done without skewing the scores towards whichever authors have the most online friends, I think it’d just be more fun to have authors be able to talk about the games during the comp. It seems like it’d broaden the pool of reviews and reviewers, increase the odds that players will be able to find reviewers whose tastes are similar to theirs, and just spread the excitement around. It kind of dampens the experience when a bunch of community members go quiet just when you’d really like to hear their opinions.