Sunday, April 22, 2012

Introducing a group of homeschoolers to Nomic

When you have four children at your house for two hours, and only one hour of planned activities, what do you do? You play Nomic, of course!

Created in 1982 by philosopher Peter Suber, Nomic is an exercise in self-governance, quite literally. It begins with only one rule, that it takes a two-thirds majority to change the rules. Given that I was introducing it to a group of preteens who for months had been ending their weekly logic class with games like Munchkin and Pandemic, I wasn't sure if this game would fly, but it was very well received.

The game is still in its early stages of development, but it has the potential to become a major lesson in consensus-building, compromise, and parliamentary procedure -- in short, it's an interesting hands-on lesson in how government works A quick overview of the rules will reveal that the kids for the most part so far have been concerned with being fair and giving everyone a chance to be heard.

Nomic is one of those games you hear about, and tuck away for the appropriate time to play. I had heard about it in 1997 from one of my wife's classmates in college. A friend of mine ran a game on Delphi Forums several years ago, but the nature of the forum made it hard for the game to advance much. When I started homeschooling Oldest Daughter two years ago, I knew I'd have to introduce it to some other kids someday.

Someday was Friday. We played for about an hour, amid a lot of laughter and merriment, without rolling a single die, moving a single token around a board, or playing a single card.

The kids had so much fun that they want to continue the game the next time we meet. I'm wondering how long it will take them to realize that they can introduce more complex rules, and even start making deals with other players to gain support for personally favored rules; or how long it will take them to start arguing over what exactly a rule means, and trying to initiate massive reforms to simplify the rule structure.

I'm also wondering if the game will at some point progress beyond merely passing rules. One adult, after hearing about the game, immediately grasped its potential for a drinking game. (That one, at least, I hope does not occur to the kids for some time to come.)

The rules:

0. A two-thirds majority is required to change the rules.

1. A three-fifths majority is needed to change the rules. (They added this because they wanted me to participate, and thought that a simple majority would be easier than a two-thirds supermajority. Interestingly, they made the rule specify a "three-fifths majority," instead of a "simple majority," which could have implications down the road, should the group increase in size a few people.)

2. Isaac has to write the new rules. (That was my suggestion. The rule immediately passed, 4-1, with Isaac casting the lone dissenting vote.)

3. We have to discuss all rules before they are made.

4. We cannot eat Joe. (The club is about developing logic and critical thinking skills. An hour earlier, I had illustrated false connections with the statements "Pigs exist. Joe exists. Therefore, Joe is a pig." Now as I was asking the kids if they wanted anything for a snack, I mentioned that we had bacon, and let my eyes linger meaningfully over Joe.)

5. We will vote on Billy's rule first. (I had proposed a rule that we take turns suggesting rules. While this was on the table, Oldest Daughter suggested limiting the number of rules anyone could introduce to three in a row. Billy in turn suggested that we vote on my rule before Oldest Daughter's, since mine had been suggested first. Since the rules failed to specify an order for how to entertain multiple motions, it was decided we should vote first on Billy's proposal to vote on my proposed rule. Ironically, this meant that we voted on Billy's rule second, but I didn't want to muddy the waters even further, so I kept that observation to myself.)

6. We vote on the first rule that was proposed (This is where they started introducing a sense of order to how the game would work; up until this point, it had been a free-for-all.)

7. We take turns proposing new rules, going in a circle.

8. The first person to propose a rule is Billy, and we go clockwise.

9. You can change your rule that you are proposing before it is voted on.

10. Every five minutes we switch seats. (This was my idea. I wanted to show the kids that we could make the game about more than just changing rules.)

11. The writer is the person in the chair in front of the paper. (This was Isaac's idea. Poor boy had been writing down rules for about 20 minutes. He was a good sport about it, though.)

12. Whenever a rule is passed, we must clap three times. (One of the kids had started to see the potential the game has for more than just passing rules.)

13. When a rule is suggested, the person on the left calls the end of the discussion -- unless the person on the left is the writer, in which case it is the person on the right. (Here is their first effort to ensure that every proposal gets fair consideration. I plan to demonstrate the flaw in this rule next week, by calling for a vote as soon as the rule is suggested, before anyone has a chance to discuss it.)

14. All rules must be numbered.

15. If your parent has come, you can go. (One of the other parents had come to collect her son and two other boys. I pointed out that there was no provision for people to leave yet.)

16. Amend Rule 15 to say "ride." (This came after I pointed out that under our rules, only Billy could leave, since Joe and Isaac's moms hadn't come for them -- just their ride.)

17. Anyone who breaks the rules must squawk like a chicken. (We realized that no one had been clapping when rules were passed, in clear violation of Rule 12. So here we have our first attempt at enforcement with consequences.)

18. The writer will set the timer.

19. We stop the game when the first person leaves.

20. When you forget to clap, you must take the writer's seat. If multiple people forget to clap, the last one to touch their nose is the one to take the writer's seat. If you forget to clap and you are in the writer's seat, then you cannot switch when the timer goes off.

Copyright © 2012 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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