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Thoughts (pt 5) on Rules of Play – complexity, emergence, and elegance April 2, 2007

Posted by ficial in brain dump, games, Rules of Play.

The next section of the book (Chapter 14) focuses on complexity in games. I don’t find their examples / descriptions of complexity to be especially compelling, but the underlying idea is useful to consider. They tie meaningful play (which in their terms concerns the link between player decision / action and outcome) to complexity (which concerns the way the elements of the game system relate to each other), but by the end of the chapter it feels like they’ve kind of skipped most of the meat of the subject. They end up with a sort of circular reference, where meaningful play requires complexity and complexity is something that’s there when there’s meaningful play. It’s… unsatisfying.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of just writing some kind of critique of the book, but really that inclination isn’t very useful. For one thing, other people might find depth, use, and interest in the very sections I dislike. For another, it’s irrelevant to actual game design. The point of these writings is for me to articulate and formulate my ideas, not to start an argument with someone else about theirs. Thus….

Complexity and games….. actually I don’t find complexity (in a nutshell, the space/behavior between completely predictable and completely chaotic) in itself all that interesting as a game attribute. It’s not something I try to add to a game, at least not directly. Rather, I find it tends to be a side effect of a more elusive goal, emergence. Salen and Zimmerman also spend a fair bit of time talking about emergence this chapter. In brief, emergence is the property of a system that when the system is alive / in action patterns / behaviors appear that are not directly defined by the rules of the system. For example, if you had a billiards table full of animated, programmable billiard balls, you might try these simple rules:

1) all balls start moving at the same speed from random locations and in random directions, all railings provide 100% rebound and the surface is frictionless
2) when a ball collides with a ball of the same parity (solid vs striped) the speed of both balls is halved and ricochet is otherwise normal
3) when a ball collides with a ball of the opposite parity (solid vs striped) the speed of both balls increases by 50% and ricochet is otherwise normal

then you might well end up with an emergent pattern of the balls eventually sorting themselves into clusters of the same parity.

Salen and Zimmerman discuss emergence as a property of the rules of the game, whereas I think of it as a property of the play of the game, and the patterns that emerges are called tactics and strategy (i.e. what distinguishes a possible move from a good move). But call it what you want and place it where you will, emergence is an important part of good game design. Emergence is related to complexity in that systems that exhibit emergence are usually (always?) complex (at least on some level). The real difference between how I think about complexity and emergence and how the book does in this chapter is a matter of focus. The book presents complexity as something that’s necessary in a game and emergence as a side effect of that, whereas I think of emergence as the necessity and complexity as the side effect.

This gets into what I think of as elegance (in this context). Elegance is sort of normalizing emergence by complexity. Assuming for the moment that complexity and emergence are both quantifiable, a game with complexity 5 and emergence 20 is twice as elegant as a game with complexity 5 and emergence 10 or complexity 10 and emergence 20. For a given amount of emergence, the most elegant game is the one with the LEAST complexity. When I design a game I’m not trying to make the rules complex (my co-designers can stop laughing now), my goal (vis a vis complexity and emergence) is to make the rules as elegant as possible. That is, I’m actually trying to make the game as un-complex as possible (really, stop laughing) for the amount (and kind – not by a long stretch is every emergent behavior desirable) of emergence I want.

And that, I think, is where Salen and Zimmerman and I diverge in this chapter. When designing a game, Salen and Zimmerman seem to advocate for making the rules complex because then you get some kind of emergence. I think that instead you should consider what sort of emergence you’d like to foster and then add as few and as simple rules as possible to get that effect. Complexity is a necessary evil of the rules, not something to strive for.



1. Elegance, Emergence, and Role Playing Game Design « Jeffro’s Car Wars Blog - April 4, 2007

[…] differences forced upon a game by its [designer’s] choice of scope and granularity.”  Chris Warren has similarly concluded that when he attempts to make his game designs elegant, he’s […]

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