Emergence in Board Games

Emergence is above all a product of coupled, context-dependent interactions. Technically these interactions, and the resulting system, are nonlinear: The behavior of the overall system cannot be obtained by summing the behaviors of its constituent parts. We can no more truly understand strategies in a board game by compiling statistics of the movements of its pieces than we can understand the behavior of an ant colony in terms of averages. Under these conditions, the whole is indeed more than the sum of its parts.[5]

This selection from computer scientist John Holland contains an extremely rich cluster of ideas about emergence. Because Holland moves from the specific to the general, we are going to interpret the text line by line, working from the final statement back to the beginning. In the last sentence Holland tells us that when emergence is in operation, "the whole is indeed more than the sum of its parts." This fits into our general understanding of systems, in which the parts interrelate to form a whole. In an emergent system, there is a special relationship between the parts and the whole. Because an emergent system will play out in unpredictable ways, the whole of the game is more than the sum of the parts.


The striking thing about The Game of Life is that its coupled and context-dependent interactions emerge from a very simple set of rules. Look at how simply we can summarize the behavior of the cells:

· A living cell will be alive in the next generation if two or three of its neighbors are alive. · A dead cell will be alive in the next generation if three of its neighbors are alive. · Otherwise, a cell will be dead.

The fact that these simple rules can produce everything from glider guns to working calculators is astonishing. Glider guns are nowhere described in the three rules listed above. But paradoxically, they do exist in the space of possibility defined by the three rules. All of the possible patterns of cells, all of the virtual machines that have ever been built on the Life grid, all of the many forms of "life" that have been discovered in The Game of Life exist somehow, embedded within those three rules.


Many studies of emergence look at systems such as The Game of Life, which are autonomous and do not require active human participation in order to function. But Life is not really a game. Not only does it lack a quantifiable goal, but it is not a system of conflict in which one or more players participate. It is true that a user can set up the initial set of cells, which are either on or off. But once the game begins, Life runs all by itself. The behavior of Life, once the program is in motion, is divorced from human interaction.

Games are not like this at all. Games require players, and those players make decisions that move the game forward. The concept of meaningful play, for example, is premised on the idea that there are perceivable relationships between player action and game outcome. The participatory nature of games makes them tricky systems to examine, because unlike the "game" of Life, a true game will always include one or more players inside the system making decisions. In games, emergence arises through the interaction of the formal game system and decisions made by players. A wonderful example of this kind of emergence is bluffing in Poker. The strategy of bluffing—pre-tending to have a better hand than you actually do—is a key component of the game. But it is not explicitly described in the game rules. Bluffing is simply an emergent behavior that occurs in the game, facilitated by the betting procedure, the fact that players' hands are hidden, and the desire for players to win the conflict of the game. Bluffing is like the glider guns in The Game of Life, present in the space of possibility, though never explicitly stated in the rules.


Complexity is intrinsically linked to meaningful play. Playing a game is synonymous with exploring a game's space of possibility. If a system is fixed, periodic, or chaotic, it does not provide a space of possibility large or flexible enough for players to inhabit and explore through meaningful play. On the other hand, if a system is emergent, exploring possible relationships among game elements is continually engaging. Players will play a game again and again if something about the experience continues to engage them with "variety, novelty, and surprise." In the business of online content development, it is well-known that a good game is the "stickiest" kind of content available. A fan of an animated web series might watch the latest episode two or three times, but someone addicted to a game will play it dozens, hundreds, or thousands of times. The infinite possibility that arises out of an emergent system is a key design strategy to encourage repeat play. A successfully emergent game system will continue to offer new experiences, as players explore the permutations of the system's behavior.


Designing an emergent game system that generates meaningful complexity from a simple set of rules is challenging. Why is it so difficult? As a game designer, you are never directly designing the behavior of your players. Instead, you are only designing the rules of the system. Because games are emergent, it is not always possible to anticipate how the rules will play out. As a game designer, you are tackling a second-order design prob-lem. The goal of successful game design is meaningful play, but play is something that emerges from the functioning of the rules. As a game designer, you can never directly design play. You can only design the rules that give rise to it. Game designers create experience, but only indirectly.


Folksonomies: emergence board games

 Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book:  Salen, Katie (2003925), Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, Retrieved on 2018-07-27
Folksonomies: games game design gameplay