Any given system–be it the human body, a community, or a game–is composed of individual self-organizing units, or subsystems. Organs make up bodies, people form communities, and sets of reactions compose game mechanics. Each subsystem can likely be broken down yet again into smaller systems of their own.
This relationship seems fairly straightforward until we watch how humans treat systems. “Housing prices are going up, so I’d better invest in the real estate market.” “That celebrity looks great and endorses this diet, so that must be her secret.” “Every good pro uses one particular strategy, so Starcraft must be broken.”
“This person on the internet doesn’t agree with me. They must be a real shitbird.”
Humans usually try to simplify systems they encounter in daily life. In each of the above cases the speaker has created a model of how a system works and how an outcome arises, but each of these statements observes results without comprehending the system’s inner workings. Models are useful for boiling down how something works in essence, but they are usually flawed, imperfect representations. We often forget that systems don’t necessarily take one input and produce one output because of one particular reason. Tiny, self-organized subsystems may be executing levels of complexity we don’t appreciate from a broad view. The miracle diet celebrity probably has a personal trainer and is airbrushed whenever she appears in glossy magazines. The housing market didn’t have to climb forever and was riding atop a system of insane loan certification.
When we are hungry for an outcome, desire can have us jumping for conclusions. Often, we are better served by considering the inner workings of a system from which a problem has arisen. These ideas about subsystems and how humans interpret them are discussed at length in Thinking in Systems, a book I would recommend as enjoyable and useful to anyone.
Running alongside these problems are the ideas presented William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition . The book’s protagonist makes her living as a “cool hunter”–someone who knows what is or will be trendy based on a gut-level understanding of culture. Her character is an extreme depiction how humans can tie together seemingly disparate concepts and interpret meaning from vague symbols.
The also novel explores a dark side of intuitive cognition: apophenia, or seeing patterns in what is actually random chaos. We see animals among the clouds, we hear ghosts in the static of a radio broadcast, and we concoct conspiracy theories. We convince ourselves that after losing so many hands of poker we’re bound to win one. We see the face of Christ on a piece of French toast. Humans are so good at finding patterns that sometimes we see meaning where there is only chaos. Gibson’s novel is not a thoroughly scientific depiction of human cognition, but it is true to life in a way only fiction can manage.
Our overactive imaginations are a source of enjoyment. We look at a Picasso painting and still see human faces. Illusions and magic shows are interesting because we know we are being tricked. The concept of an ironic circumstance relies on us believing an event should have turned out one way, but took an unfortunate turn. In truth there’s no way the world is “supposed to work.” Our survival as a species has probably hinged on seeing monsters where there were none; it’s safer to be paranoid than unwittingly surrounded. Some of these examples include thoroughly authored experiences (therefore, non-chaotic), which doesn’t really make them apophenia events. But our abilities and flaws are inexorably linked.
These features–pattern recognition and systems analysis–are absolutely required to enjoy games. We are driven to understand systems, but we design ones that we aren’t capable of “solving.” We can follow the rules of chess, but the game depends entirely on neither player fully understanding every facet of it. If either player did, it would become tic-tac-toe. We are able to interpret renderings and sprites as rooms and actors. Instead of thinking about computer code, object colliders, and triggers (all high-level abstractions in their own right), we tell ourselves that we are running around a castle shooting Nazis.
For games to really capture us, we must be flawed. We must desire understanding, but if we really obtain it the game stops being interesting. We must be willing to abstract a game’s results into a larger system of meaning, even if it skews our view of reality.
In Warren Spector’s Practice 2013 talk he claims emergence is the difference between a player expressing themselves and a designer trying to convince you they are smart. This argument comes with general problems , which I’ve kicked around before. He claims games with frustrating pre-scripted events or that ultimately force the player to fail and retry are not worth using, which is more than a little amusing.
But when Spector says developers knew all of the meaningful choices a player would make in Bioshock: Infinite or Half-Life, while they could not know a player’s goals and actions in Skyrim or Deus Ex, he is mistaking the map for the territory. Both of those games are highly designed. Guards constantly chirp out questlines. Half of every level is made of ventilation shafts. When he claims designers need to stop creating repeatable problems and instead provide “a context in which players act,” he is basically admitting, “We can’t predict player choices, and we need to bound them in a way they won’t feel.” But he doesn’t actively admit this, and his statement creates additional problems.
When he says interesting games allow players to devise plans and goals, let players execute those plans, and provide players with information and resources to do so, he is actually talking about every game in existence. Yes, even Heavy Rain. Because the player is the one creating meaning within the game space.
Spector has looked at what he enjoys and pulled out the bits he liked. He liked Mass Effect, and he liked KotOR. Both of these games do have player choices, but I feel comfortable in saying that very few indie developers would consider either a sparkling example of fostering emergent gameplay, even if they do respect the player’s choices.
The problem is that Spector has confused player choice with meaningfulness; he has erected a model in which games with different paths equate to self-expression. Deus Ex is a fantastic game that can foster emergent play, but most people laud it for well designed levels and for allowing players to sneak or shoot or talk their way out of situations. Guards and objects have behaviors in the game, but as a whole it is thoroughly composed. Sneaking instead of fighting does not count as emergent play if there are hard-coded bits in the game to specifically support that choice.
Spector has helped make great games. He knows how to make games people will enjoy; he does not know how to make every game people will enjoy. He has confused cause and effect despite his years of experience–maybe because of them.
The ghost of apophenia is visible.
Somewhere in his argument is a respect for players and of player importance. The player wants to be challenged and acknowledged as a force of change. We want to see game systems interact and be told that consequences are real and meaningful. We want to feel as though we have conquered a system without being told how, then handed a different challenge. We want to express ourselves.
We crave apophenia. We long to be fooled.
This is the heart of emergent play stories. Bronzemurder and Lost in Oblivion are exciting and hilarious in that order, but on a gameplay level there’s nothing special happening. The game’s systems react to one another as they always have, and they provide enough choice to keep players involved. Players pull together a story from these basic interactions and random chaos. We assert meaning over a combination of game systems because that’s what we like to do. The game allows enough space for players to act as they wish, and the player allows themselves to be fooled into thinking that this is the game acknowledging them.
This is the difference between choose your own adventure books and The Walking Dead. In one you make choices and are led from one page to the next. They’re fun, but even with good writing they’re not strongly immersive–the system is too transparent. The emphasis is on moment-to-moment choice, and trying to stab the troll always kills you. They aim for choice, but usually not meaning.
In The Walking Dead, information is hidden from the player. Each choice may matter in that instant, but the player is meant to worry about long-term relationships. This system is hidden enough to make the player anxious about their decisions. At the same time, most players will put themselves in Lee’s shoes while being guided and torn between morality and strategic thinking. We are promised results, aren’t told how we are doing, and are asked to make choices that affect very little. But we are allowed to express ourselves, and we crave that deception.
Humans crave meaning and patterns, and we tend to invent them when they don’t exist. If a game allows a player to construct their own meaning, they will. If a game has enough mechanics and interacts with itself or the player in interesting ways, the player will create their own meaning. If a game is fun, they might even keep playing.
If a developer does all of these things, they will trick players into having a genuine connection. That’s what virtual reality does. This usually means a very deliberate design, but that doesn’t stop players from creating their own meaning.
With all of that in mind, one more bit from Spector:
“If all you’re doing is solving a puzzle, you [have only] shown how clever the designer was. And maybe you feel a sense of triumph because you beat the designer, but you haven’t shown much about who you are as a human being…”
Wrong. And even if working through a puzzle doesn’t reflect you as a person, you have proved that you are thoroughly human just by making the attempt.