Complexity From Simplicity pt.4
Tuesday, July 17, 2012 at 10:40PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Depth & Complexity, Language

So we know that we can translate information and therefore meaning from one language to another. Though increasingly complex ideas tend to translate less and less directly between any two languages, for art getting close is still good. We're not exactly converting concrete, measurable values from one system to another. That is to say, this isn't rocket science.  We're concerned with translating and conveying ideas, emotions, and experiences. And the key is we can take a complex message using a language with a rich vocabulary and translate the message into a simple language.


The Key to Unlocking Everything

As I described in part 3, the simpler the vocabulary of a language the more the grammar, which governs the spelling out process, takes on the complexity. And in doing so the message shifts the complexity of the message from the referenced ideas (vocabulary) to the presentation itself (grammar). Put another way, instead of relying mainly on concepts and associations, messages are communicated via rules. This gives spelled out messages an abstract quality and a universality that makes them easier to translate and understand. This is huge! Being able to translate ideas from a complex language to a simple-universal language and then back out to a different complex language is like the Rosetta Stone of art. Furthermore, we now have a bridge to read messages of even the most abstract and simple languages for complex ideas, emotions, experiences, and stories. 


I theorize that patterns and repetition are inherent in the results of rule based systems. These patterns and repetitions create distinct rhythms that can build upon each other to create larger patterns especially presented in a linear fashion). The larger patterns convey more complex meanings and a richer context. 


Example of an audio timeline mapping the repetition and grammar of music. If you haven't watch this Ted Talk by Ardon Shorr


There's meaning simply in the rhythm and flow of a spelled out message. Though the meaning may be a bit abstract, it's still very consistent. This consistency exists because of the grammar rules. And in a general sense, rules are what govern cause-and-effect interactivity, create predictability, and therefore a kind of distinct meaning. In the video on part 3, John Nash simply found a pattern in the numbers. But this pattern didn't really mean anything by itself. It's too abstract. However, because he was told that the military believed coordinates were embedded in the numbers, with the aid of a map Nash was able to translate the abstract number language into concrete meaning. It's important to understand that if they didn't have the map or the hint, the numbers would still contain meaning. It's just that the meaning wouldn't have had the same impact. 


Now we have two major ways to embrace complexity in messages: in the content (vocabulary) and the telling (grammar). By recognizing the congruent patterns (isomorphisms) in the messages between different language systems (complex or simple) we can connect ideas and uncover meaning in new ways. And by translating ideas into simpler languages, we can switch into a more universal mode of thinking to find even more patterns. Don't worry if this sounds like a lot of work. It is, but we do this so quickly and naturally that we don't even think about it. This basic process is how we relate to the world around us (which includes art). We break down information into simpler systems and compare the results to information we already have from other lived experiences. When the two sets of information share patterns, they resonate. This is my best explanation for thematic resonance in art. 

Everything that I've explained about language systems and meaning applies to metaphors too. Metaphors are simply a comparison of two unlike things. We find richness in metaphors when we can find similarities and interesting points of comparisons between the two subjects. If such richness of communication and language comes from a simple grouping or juxtaposition of concepts, then surely simple language systems can use their linear presentation to juxtapose many different ideas and experiences. When you start to think of metaphors in this way, you see how prevalent, powerful, and naturally they are to how we think; which is why one of the conclusions from my article series Metaphor Meaning Matriculation stated that many elements in a video game experience are like metaphors. 


Previously, I described experiencing linear presentations as being "locked in for the ride." Likewise, simple languages use linear presentations to help organize their messages that are inherently loaded with repetition. Merely communicating ideas in a linear sequence implies a progression of time, cause-and-effect relationships, and therefore a story. So when simple, more abstracted languages are presented as linear sequences, we can't help but understand them like we do stories. This is why classical music (and music in general) is so powerful. Music is so abstract, yet the linear structure of music creates something like stories filled with rich meaning that's hard to put into words. Just from the repetition in the presentation (which is necessary with simple languages) messages naturally create the kinds of highs and lows in addition to moments of building up, reflection, and familiarity that make stories wonderful. If we can extract stories out of music, then it's possible to convey very complex, rich ideas and experiences with simple languages and simple video games.  (read more about how stories are integral to our self concept here). 



Conclusion, Quotes, & Comments

The conclusion is that simple, straightforward games can convey complex ideas. Being "locked in for the ride" of the straightforward and possibly linear presentation of gameplay challenges can be compared to being locked into the flow of music. Even if the melody is simple, as the song progresses the message, the journey, or the story of the message can begin to develop complexity. 

Everything I explained in this series about language systems and formal systems is just a cursory examination. I didn't think it was necessary to go into any more detail explaining these ideas. As is my custom, I like to present illustrations with gaming examples and even provide some playable experiences for you to try and draw strong conclusions for yourself. Seeing how these last two parts were light on examples, the new few articles I write will provide such examples.

Before I close this part, I want to respond to a few quotes. It never hurts to echo great thinkers like Douglas Hofstadter, writer of Godel, Escher, Bach. The following are a few quotes from his book and a few comments on how they relate to the idea of complexity from simplicity. 



"If-- and this is usually the case-- it happens that a formal derivation is extremely lengthy compared with the corresponding "natural" proof, that is just too bad. It is the price one pays for making each step so simple. What often happens is that a derivation and a proof are "simple" in complementary senses of the word. The proof is simple in that each step "sounds right", even though one may not know just why; the derivation is simple in that each of its myriad steps is considered so trivial that it is beyond reproach, and since the whole derivation consists just of such trivial steps, it is supposedly error-free. Each type of simplicity, however, brings along a characteristic type of complexity. In the case of proofs, it is the complexity of the underlying system on which they rest -- namely, human language; and in the case of derivations, it is their astronomical size, which makes them almost impossible to grasp." p. 195

This quote outlines how similar complexity and simplicity are. When attempting to convey a complex idea, if you use a complex language with a rich vocabulary you simplify the message or spelling out process by relying on pre-established complex terms. If you use a simple language and spell everything out, you load the complexity on to the grammar. Put another way, lots of simplicity is it's own kind of complexity. No matter how you convey a message, it will retain its complexity one way or another. I call this property the complexity constant.  


Even if you do not follow this derivation in detail, it is important to realize that, like a piece of music, it has its own natural "rhythm". It is not just a random walk that happens to have landed on the desired last line. p.227

Hofstadter draws an analogy between the steps of a derivation (or the spelling out of a message) with rhythm and music. He stresses that the sequence of steps are not random and that they have a definite feel to them, a pattern unto themselves. These patterns are like music to my ears. 


The seeing where things are going sets up an "inner tension" p. 227

This quote was written in reference to the process of "spelling out"  an derivation. Like most stories we consume and enjoy, when approaching the end the derivation it becomes easier and easier to see the end coming. When I say that patterns in a linear presentation creates "stories" I mean it in the most literal sense. Even without characters or setting, ideas presented in a linear timeline and the mere juxtaposition of ideas creates a very story like structure. This structure in a rule based system naturally allows us to see where "things are going." It's this simple act of pattern recognition and anticipation that creates tension and resolution and all kinds of effects that make stories interesting and effective. 


"This is why the right-hand column has a "dual nature":... Stepping out of one purely typographical system into another isomorphic typographical system is not a very exciting thing to do; whereas stepping clear out of the typographical domain into an isomorphic part of number theory has some kind of unexplored potential. It is as if somebody had known musical scores all of his life, but purely visually--and then, all of a sudden, someone introduced him to the mapping between sounds and musical scores. What a rich new world!" p263

As Hofstadter explains, simply being able to translate a message from one simple, somewhat abstract language to another isn't really a big deal. So what if I can write the number sixteen as 16 or as 1*11111? The true power of being able to translate and find similarities between systems is when the connections highlight new ideas and experiences between the two systems. Hofstadter describes this experiences as finding a "rich new world." I find this analogy very familiar to the new world of possibilities that's only reachable after enduring the squeeze as I describe here. For the video game equivalent, this rich new world is a world of complex ideas, experiences, emotions, and stories expressed through even simple gameplay interactions. 


In part 5 I close with a few final comments and a recap. 

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