unspoken rules

He was so curious about our 3D tic-tac-toe set, I figured why not. How complicated is tic-tac-toe?


Forget strategy; forget even the concept of winning. As we played, my son gave me a step-by-step education on the numerous possibilities for invalidating a game.

It turns out board games require a host of principles we take for granted:

  • Each player uses only one set of pieces, X’s or O’s. You can’t switch pieces in the middle of a game. If you do want to switch, you need to start a new game.
  • Take turns: each player plays only once, then waits for the other to play – even if the other takes a while to decide on a move.
  • Place pieces only on designated spots on the board – not between spots, on top of other pieces, or on the board margins.
  • Leave your pieces in position once they’re placed. Do the same for the other player’s pieces.

I was amazed to discover, as my son bulldozed through them one by one, how many unspoken rules exist in even the simplest game.

I was even more amazed by how quickly and eagerly he learned them. Previously, the only rules that had ever governed his play dealt with effectiveness (get the toy to work) and conservation (don’t break it).

Unlike other toys, this one couldn’t be played with any old way. (Well, it could, but that wasn’t its point. ) With 3D tic-tac-toe he engaged in an entirely new manner of play, one that regulated behavior in multiple meticulous ways – and he delighted in that mother-may-I challenge of figuring out and abiding by what was and wasn’t allowed. Within twenty minutes we were taking regular turns.

Not to win, of course.  Strategy could wait for another day. Laying the foundation for hundreds of games to come was thrilling enough.


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