RFC: Relaxing IFComp's "hush rule"

(For reference, you can find the current IFComp rules here: ifcomp.org/rules/ )

Hello friends,

I would like to propose an experimental rules-change for the 2016 Annual Interactive Fiction Competition that would relax author rule #4 (a.k.a “the hush rule” or “the muzzle rule”). Even seen as an experiment, it still represents a significant enough change that I would like to invite comments and questions from the IF community prior to the organizers taking any official actions to this year’s rule-set.

This rule, which has been in place since the third IFComp in 1997, precludes contestants from almost all public discussion about the competition or any of its entries during the six-week judging period. It was instituted, and has since been maintained, in order to help provide a level playing field for all entrants. It encodes the principle of “let the work speak for itself” into an enforceable rule, reducing the impact of authors’ self-promotion abilities, for example, from their entries’ final scores.

However, the medium over which IFComp takes place has changed a great deal over the last two decades. The web has grown past its nineties-and-aughts infancy, and we now find ourselves on a public internet driven in large part by social media. Releasing artwork — which in IF’s case often takes months to build and represents a great deal of personal sacrifice — and then feeling obliged to stay silent about it for six weeks has always presented IFComp authors with a challenge. Today, however, it must seem to many creators as completely unnatural, totally anathema to how making and sharing art on the modern internet happens. I have felt great sympathy for the authors who have expressed great frustration about the rule during the 2014 and 2015 competitions, and have felt little joy myself in enforcing it during the last two years.

In a sense, the hush rule is one of IFComp’s defining features — I am not aware of any other contemporary amateur game jam or competition with a similar restriction. However, since no other game jam or competition is as successfully long-lived as IFComp, I do not desire to lightly treat the modification or deactivation of any of its core rules. My guiding principle as competition organizer is to balance the maintenance of an amazing annual event with the need to keep it fresh and relevant in a living and ever-evolving artistic community. As such, it seems most appropriate to float the idea past the larger community here, and invite thoughts on it.

Under the change I propose, rule #4 in 2016 would remove all the language forbidding all public discussion, replacing it with a specific admonition against authors publicly encouraging judges to bend or break the rules that apply to them. This has judge rule #7 in mind, which begins “Every rating asserts that the judge who submitted it made a good-faith effort to actually play that game as intended.” Thus, under the revised rule, an author could not instruct people to rate an entry as “10” regardless of their actual feelings about it (or whether they even bothered to play it). This would, in my mind, continue to address the notion of vote-canvassing, which author rule #4 has always forbidden.

The rewording would allow just about everything else, in terms of public author communication. During the judging period, authors could write or say in public pretty much anything they wish about their own games, others’ games, or the competition in general. I would consider adding some guidelines about technically legal actions which would likely only lead to regret during the judging period (e.g. publicly responding to negative criticism, or harshly criticizing the work of fellow contestants). Speech that goes over the line into harassment of other competition participants would violate the separate code-of-conduct rule, which will stay in place. But all else becomes fair game.

This would be a one-year experiment, with an option to make it permanent for future years if the IFComp organizers agree that its presence improved the 2016 competition. The amendment would hold for the entirety of this year’s judging period. Furthermore, we would continue to make available the private, entrants-only sub-forum here on intfiction.org.

I would very much appreciate all comments about this proposal through May 9, 2016, at which point the organizers will come to a final decision about it. Please feel free to share your thoughts on this forum thread, or communicate them to us privately at ifcomp@ifcomp.org.

I don’t think it’ll surprise anyone to hear that I’m in favour of this change. (I don’t intend to enter a game this year, so I’m speaking as both a past entrant and future judge.)

I specifically like that the new rule would be centred around the idea of not encouraging judges to bend or break the rules. That seems like a flexible concept that would stop most of the potential problem behaviour that people had identified. Although I would make sure that the prohibition against vote-canvassing is specifically spelled out in the rule, since that’s the biggest concern. I also think the “inadvisable activities” section is a good idea, and it would definitely help this go as smoothly as possible.

Another voice in favour of the change. It’s working fine in Spring Thing.

I’d go as far as “unless the IFComp organisers agree that its presence made the 2016 competition worse.”

I’m in favour of the gag rule, but I am more in favour of having experimental evidence to base this opinion on. Let’s see what happens.

I’m in favor of maintaining the gag rule. Authors should compete on their ability to write IF, not on their ability to self-promote.

Maga has a good point. The ifcomp is a long running competition, and a one-year experiment will be just a blip in the long run.

I am planning on entering this year, and I worry about authors with many followers affecting the results, or, if I place high, that it will be regarded as ‘not the same as a regular year’. But I feel that these concerns are much less important to me than experimenting with a new ruleset that could benefit authors for another couple of decades.

Might the rule benefit from specific explanation of what can and cannot be discussed by participating authors?
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If it’s being done as an experiment, it might be a good idea to be proactive about gathering data, e.g. asking authors to estimate (or actually keep track of) how often they’re promoting, and on what social media, how they’re wording said promotions, and whether they’re linking to specific games or to the complete list of games; including some sort of question on the ballot like “Have you voted in IFComp before” or “How did you find out about IFComp” or whatever info is deemed to be helpful; automatically randomizing the sequence of entries listed on the IFComp site to make the info about number of votes per entry more useful (rather than having the entries that are listed first alphabetically get the most votes). Not sure if all these ideas are practical, but something to think about.

I am, obviously, favorable towards this. I think most of the 2015 class of authors is, which is telling. Regardless of the overall competition, I think there is a good case to be made that the gag rule makes the author experience worse.

Furthermore: I think that the competition aspect is going to necessarily become less central to the IFComp’s identity as it progresses. Last year we had a surge in quantity and quality of games. I think on an earlier, weaker year, any of the games that rated 1-4 in last year’s comp could have easily been a winner, and any of the games rated 1-30 or so would have been in the top 10 or better. Given the growth of the competition, the rewards for authors have to detach from winning and placing well; making the experience of being an author better should be a goal.

Furthermore: As I’ve publicly said before, I think the different segments of IF and altgames don’t talk to each other enough, and the traditional IF community (ie, this particular community) could do with a better relationship to, say, the Twine community or the Choicescript community. Every year the ifcomp gets authors who come from those communities, but the gag rule all but bars them from acting as evangelists or ambassadors for the comp where they come from; I don’t think this is productive.

Also, note that this rule never forbade people from simply stating facts or promoting the comp as a whole. If someone with a hundred thousand Twitter followers had been an author last year, they could have drawn as many as twelve people primed to respond positively to their name to the competition page. (Spoiler alert: conversion rates on Twitter are abysmal).

It’s promoting the competition, not self-promoting. The audience is still too small.

It is, in practice, very difficult to separate the two. (IF Comp’s design is somewhat insulated against this, however. The 5-games-to-vote rule is a big deal.)

Authors are already allowed to promote the competition itself. Here’s the current rule, with emphasis added:

Without wanting to totally rehash the previous thread, I will say that not being able to talk specifically about any of the games kind of makes that type of promotion pointless. “There are 50+ games here that I can’t tell you anything about” is much much weaker pitch than “If you like thing X, check out games Y and Z” or “There are a whole bunch of games experimenting with this particular kind of mechanic this year.”

Who’s going to police all of those fine distinctions? It’s much easier to have the blanket rule.

One of the two major comps has already become a “festival”. Maybe we can leave the other one alone?

Also, “read this devlog about my artistic struggle creating this game” sounds awfully like “vote for this game.”

The promotion thing, as I recall, was the biggest issue in the previous thread where this was discussed. Authors were unable to promote their game especially to people outside of the comp, or even to promote other games. They felt that a proper full-sized post-comp release with all the promotion done then (post-comp) was too late.

Like maga, I’m all for “try it out and see what happens” - I’m quite curious myself! I’m not sure if relaxing the rule is the best way to address the issue promotion issue (I totally agree with vlaviano, there already is a festival; however I also agree with jmac in that times change and some things should adapt accordingly. The Spring Thing did!), but it’s A way to do it. People are asking for it. Might as well give it a go.

EDIT - A concern I have is that authors talking about their games may point out certain features and aspects of their games, or of the making of their games. This will probably influence voting - if I play the game and choose a path and as a result see 10% of the whole work, and the game didn’t clue me in that there was another path (or heck, even if it did), I’d judge the game based on what it offered and would not appreciate the author taking pains to tell me I was unfair; the author should take that lesson and integrate it into a post-comp version (or, meh, a comp update, which I still find a bizarre idea).

Take Pillage Makane, for instance. If that game had been in the comp, I would have judged it for what it played as. Subsequently a post-mortem here revealed that a lot of thought went into the game, that it has a philosophical agenda, and reading that certainly improvied my opinion of the game. But the game itself is the same. Bam - up goes the rating. Meanwhile, other authors who neglect to talk about their works, let them speak for itself, may not see the same boost. Is this fair? I’m not sure that it is. This is what I’m most concerned with.

Even if there ISN’T a full-fledged post like in Pillage Makane, there will be all sorts of details. If the author talks about their game, they’ll naturally be talking about what they want the players to experience. They’re already leading. The game needs to have a chance to lead the players, or fail to lead them, without the author jumping in and telling you what to look for in the game that’ll make it more enjoyable (if that isn’t promotion, what is?) and maybe get a higher rating.

EDIT 2 - Basically, like with the comp updates, I think the games should be entered into the competition and judged. Period. The updates-allowed-rule muddles this by allowing the authors to fix the bugs which they should have fixed before the comp. Relaxing the gag rule will allow the authors to point out to players how nifty their game is, and even if they didn’t quite see how nifty it was before they sure did now and will probably want to consider it when rating.

All of this is socially very nice, very pretty, very friendly. It’s also totally outside the spirit of a comp. Methinks.

EDIT 3 - Believe it or not, this was supposed to have been short and mostly in cautious agreement. [emote]:P[/emote] Then I started editing things in…

Like maga, I’m not sure this will be an improvement but I am pleased to see it tried in real life rather than eternal post-comp theorizing.

I don’t think we need to (or should) spell out specific parameters for what can be said. Pre-drawn lines can always be finessed. The existing judging rules are about intent: make a good-faith effort to play a bunch of games and rate them honestly. This new rules enjoins authors to not encourage other people to not do that.

Past comp discussion – at least, past public comp discussion – has had a good sense of what that means. That is: I can’t remember any voters trying to encourage dishonest voting. Mostly voters post links to their reviews. Now I expect we’ll see authors posting links to their reviews too. So that’ll be fine.

I wont be joining the Comp this year but I’ll be very interested to see how this works out. The muzzle rule was kind of a drag and the reason I always did the Comp was to have fun. I think that’s why most of us authors did it: to have fun and (most importantly) to get feedback. Not to get some sort of strange high-score bragging right that no one outside of the teeny-tiny IF corner of the internet gives a flip about. I don’t think that any of the authors are realistically going to be making asses out of themselves fighting over the top prizes which are usually less than $200. I’m also sure that if anyone tries to push the limits of good sportsmanship too much that their peers and reviewers will report it asap.

I think relaxing the rule is a somewhere-between-bad-to-awful idea, but I’m often wrong and this issue will never rest without trying it out. I’m with maga. Let’s give it a try and see.

Like others, I don’t think that trying to finesse the precise terms of the rule is wise; why set up a fuzzier boundary to police? It was hard enough when it was relatively cut-and-dried. If the consensus is to drop it, just drop it. Then take solid data and be honest as to the outcome, both good and bad.

This. There is also a chilling effect on authors - you would rather not say anything at all lest you accidentally step over some line.

If anyone remembers, the primary reason I tried to create the IF Library Competition, it was mostly this one particular rule that I hate. Granted there are larger stakes involved these days, but even so, the more people know about a story, the more likely it will rise or fall by its merits.

The other rule I had was that all stories had to actually work and have a playable walk through.