Learning about emergence from games

A game of Go

I’m still try­ing to get a grip on why I think games are such a good ref­er­ence point for IAs and IxDs. I’ll try to take anoth­er stab at it in this post. Pre­vi­ous­ly I wrote about how games might be a good way to ‘sell’ algo­rith­mic archi­tec­tures to your client. Even if you’re not active­ly push­ing your clients to adopt ideas such as on-the-fly cre­ation of site nav­i­ga­tion, soon­er or lat­er I’m con­vinced you’ll find your­self con­front­ed with a project where you’re not asked to devel­op a defin­i­tive infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture. Instead you’ll be charged with the task to come up with mech­a­nisms to gen­er­ate these pro­ce­du­ral­ly. When this is this case, you’re tru­ly fac­ing a sec­ond-order design prob­lem. How can games help here?

One of the defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of games are their com­plex­i­ty. A few years ago Ben Cer­ve­ny gave a bril­liant talk on play (MP3) at Reboot 7.0 and men­tioned this specif­i­cal­ly — that much of the plea­sure derived from game-play is the result of the play­er com­ing to terms with com­plex pat­terns. This com­plex­i­ty is some­thing dif­fer­ent from pure ran­dom­ness and most cer­tain­ly dif­fer­ent from a ‘mere’ state machine. In oth­er words, games show emer­gence.

There are many exam­ples of emer­gent sys­tems. The Game of Life springs to mind. This sys­tem isn’t real­ly a game but shows a remark­able rich­ness in pat­terns, despite (or maybe because of) the fact that it is based on a set of decep­tive­ly sim­ple rules (which appar­ent­ly took its cre­ator, John Con­way, over 2 years to per­fect!) The thing is though, The Game of Life is not inter­ac­tive.

A won­der­ful exam­ple of a com­plex emer­gent sys­tem that is inter­ac­tive is the real game Go. It has a set of very sim­ple rules, but play­ing it well takes a huge amount of prac­tice. The joy of play­ing Go for me (an absolute begin­ner) is large­ly due to dis­cov­er­ing the many dif­fer­ent per­mu­ta­tions play can go through.

So get­ting back to my ear­li­er remark: If you’re con­vinced you’ll need to get a bet­ter han­dle on solv­ing the sec­ond-order design prob­lems pre­sent­ed by the design of com­plex emer­gent sys­tems, games are an excel­lent place to start learn­ing. They are emer­gent first and inter­ac­tive sec­ond, the per­fect twin to the web envi­ron­ments we’ll be shap­ing in the future.

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Kars Alfrink

Kars is a designer, researcher and educator focused on emerging technologies, social progress and the built environment.

7 thoughts on “Learning about emergence from games”

  1. It’s hard to effec­tive­ly sum­ma­rize or even form the­o­ry around how the mag­ic that makes games great ties into inter­face design. My cur­rent favourite exam­ples of games that are very “emer­gent” are SCEE’s Lit­tleBig­Plan­et for PS3 and obvi­ous­ly Will Wright’s Spore. Nei­ther are out yet, how­ev­er, so it’s hard to real­ly imple­ment any inter­faces based direct­ly on what we learn from games like that. And the only oth­er exam­ple I have is World of War­craft, but as I explained before, that didn’t real­ly work out the way I had hoped…

  2. Inter­est­ing thoughts again! I total­ly agree with you that the ‘web­sites’ of the future will be emerg­ing sys­tems, which lack any designed struc­ture as we know them now (in the sense of IA). Espe­cial­ly in the vision that online ser­vices will evolve to a set of ser­vices over dif­fer­ent func­tions and out­lets, and where the con­tact points with the user will be in places you don’t have any direct con­trol at all as com­pa­ny.

    Sites will be sys­tems based on rules, agree. The designed struc­tures will often dis­ap­pear. I won­der in what way gam­ing can learn us the right dia­log we offer the user to flow through the infor­ma­tion­base. Adap­tive sto­ries that devel­op be using. I believe that sim­ple rules offers the most flex­i­bil­i­ty for the desired rel­e­vant sys­tems. Just like the Go game indeed.

    You could think of design­ers who cre­ate a plat­form and a bunch of inde­pen­dent and inter­act­ing com­po­nents that will evolve in the valu­able ser­vices by using. The work of the design­er does not stop with the first release. He will be part of the user group and tune on the fly the sto­ries in order to meet the tar­gets.

    For infor­ma­tion archi­tects and old skool design­ers this will be a real chal­lenge. The quest for the best answer for struc­tur­ing a pile of infor­ma­tion is not the pur­pose any­more, but think­ing in pos­si­ble sto­ries and scripts, design­ing for assem­bly by the user.

  3. Thanks for all the thought­ful com­ments guys. This, as I said before, real­ly helps to shape my thoughts for the upcom­ing pre­sen­ta­tion. I’ll be sure to men­tion you in the cred­its. ;-)

    To Rahul: I’ve replied to your pre­vi­ous com­ment and also men­tioned there that the best exam­ples to use with lay­men of game design might be sim­ple non-dig­i­tal games. I’ve noticed that the excel­lent book Rules of Play (from which I’m tak­ing huge amounts of inspi­ra­tion for all of this) does this quite often (even the dig­i­tal games they use are often old arcade titles). I sus­pect they do this for the same rea­son, to make it eas­i­er to zoom in on the core mechan­ics that make them tick.

    To Iskan­der: Your descrip­tion of the web ‘envi­ron­ments’ (for lack of a bet­ter word) of the future is exact­ly what I have in mind when talk­ing about algo­rith­mic archi­tec­tures and such. Read­ing your com­ment I can under­stand why all these ideas sound scary to ‘old school’ design­ers (not to men­tion many clients!) Sce­nario-based design is cer­tain­ly one way to han­dle the flu­id nature of these ‘spaces’ but I most cer­tain­ly think we need new tools in our belt as well. For instance, game design­ers use state-charts to mod­el the ways game AI responds to play­er actions. Per­haps we can reap­pro­pri­ate this for the design of web envi­ron­ments?

  4. It would be cool to get in touch with the design­ers behind some of these games to see how they feel about trans­lat­ing their work to a web envi­ron­ment. Too bad some­one like Will Wright is way too “super­star” to talk to just like that ;)

  5. Yeah, that would be fun. One game design­er who has tak­en the ini­tia­tive of apply­ing his thoughts to inter­ac­tion design is Chris Craw­ford (who’s doing excit­ing work in inter­ac­tive sto­ry­telling now). He’s writ­ten an enter­tain­ing book titled The Art of Inter­ac­tive Design, which I can rec­om­mend if you’re look­ing for an unortho­dox approach to inter­ac­tion design think­ing.

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