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Emergence You Can See

Recently, I've mentioned emergence a lot. Emergence works with dynamics to create highly interconnected gameplay interactions. Emergence allows for an incredibly large range of possibilities without the need for more than a handful of complexities. Many of these possibilities are what we might consider normal gameplay. Some of these possibilities are discovered years after a game's release and are unknown to develops and playtesters. And there will be emergent possibilities for even the most popular games with millions of devoted players putting in hundreds of hours of playtime that will never be uncovered. Emergence can allow each of millions of players to have their own unique style and personality within game rules. Emergence allows for many strategy games and puzzle games to exist by obscuring the dominant strategy or even creating multiple top strategies that are hard to weigh against each other. Emergence is far more than just glitches or game breaking techniques. 

Do you really understand emergence? It's much easier to grasp when you program video games. When a single misplaced parenthesis allows a player character to execute super, glowing, EX combos that you never intended, it's obvious that in the grand artifice that are video games the way rules are organize is the start of emergent possibilities. And as you're testing you game you may wonder, "how is this even possible?" As I said in my previous post, game complexities (game rules) are in every line of gameplay code. The computer system reads through this code simply and consistently. So even if your code has an obvious "mistake" and you intended for the game to work a certain way, the computer will read the code blindly and govern the gameplay accordingly. 

For everyone else who's curious, interested, or studying game design, it's important to grasp emergence in a way that you can understand. 



Behold, John Conway's Game of Life! Though it's not a game, this program is perfect for illustrating emergence. "It is a 'cellular automaton', and was invented by Cambridge mathematician John Conway. It consists of a collection of cells which, based on a few mathematical rules, can live, die or multiply. Depending on the initial conditions, the cells form various patterns..."

There are only 5 complexities that govern the emergence. The less obvious rule is that the edge of the environment is a wall and therefore typically halts all growth against it. The four main rules are as follows...


For a space that is 'populated':
Each cell with one or no neighbors dies, as if by loneliness.
Each cell with four or more neighbors dies, as if by overpopulation.
Each cell with two or three neighbors survives.
For a space that is 'empty' or 'unpopulated'
Each cell with three neighbors becomes populated.


That's it! Play around with the interactive program on the site linked to above, and you'll see how many different patterns will emerge. Out of the "random chaos" comes stable groups, oscillating patterns, and more complex "life forms." Check out this wiki page for excellent examples of patterns and other discoveries. Or, watch the video below. So many interesting outcomes from so few rules! 



If you want a challenge, play this indie game based on the game of life

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Reader Comments (2)

Speaking of emergence, you might be interested in this talk on how designers can craft emergent experiences that was given by Harvey and Randy Smith at a past GDC conference:


March 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKaz


Thanks for the link.

Aside from a few uneven terminology, the talk is pretty straight forward.

I think the loose use of "mechanics" and "dynamics" doesn't help his talk. Dynamics are the interconnected relations between game variables. And I use mechanics to solely mean player actions. The rest of the interactions are just gameplay interactions whether dynamic or not.

Grouping dynamics is much easier to grasp conceptually than individual branches or even a stimulus system like was described.

Dynamics makes emergence more emergent. Though the definitions included normal gameplay into emergence, I think the talk still didn't move away from the "ooo look how crazy and surprising emergence is in all these crazy situations." It's much more common than that. I feel the need to demystify emergence so people can really understand that it's simply how the rules play out. The more ways the rules can interact and influence each other (dynamics), the more emergent the system.

This is why I also use Super Mario Bros. as an example in nearly everything that I talk about. Citing only "modern" games to talk about emergence shows a possible limited understanding to what it is.

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