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Is Emergence the Nature of Games?
by Altug Isigan on 01/15/12 02:40:00 pm

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.



Almost 50 years ago, just around the times when engineer Stephen Russell created and ran the game Spacewar! on a car-sized PDP-1 computer at the MIT labs (Juul, 2001), Umberto Eco published his book The Open Work (1962). In this book, Eco defines "open works" as narratives that manifest themselves as the reader interferes with them. They invite readers not only to interprete the text, but to play an active role in their configuration as texts. They provide the readers with a set of rules and elements that may be combined randomly to yield a large number of text variations. We speak of emergent yet coherent narratives here. A large number of variations come to life. Yet each one of them individually makes sense as an aesthetic experience. Two examples of such permutative narratives are George Perec's Life: A Manual, and Raymond Queneau's A Hundred Billion Poems.

Raymond Queneau

Ludology seems to be convinced that only games possess this quality of emergence. To many ludologists, “narrative” (which they perceive as being of a “scripted” nature) is against the emergent nature of games. Jesper Juul for example says that when you apply narrative to games, you destroy their emergent character and they turn into games of progession (2002). However, Eco’s work, and the literature examples above, clearly show that narrativity and emergence aren’t mutually exclusive. This urges me to rethink the notion of “emergence”: Can we speak of emergence as being the nature of only certain media, but not others? Can we safely assume that there is a type of medium that renders “emergent” every instance of its use?

I believe that Ludologists come to a too hasty conclusion in regard to games being emergent by their very nature. Interactivity seems to be enough to convince Ludology that game system are truly non-linear. I see two problems here:

1) The need to explain patterns in emergent behavior.
2) A theorethical challenge: Could it be that emergence needs to be crafted artificially rather than being the nature of games?

In this article I will elaborate on these two problems.

Emergent Behavior and the Necessity Cap

There is a famous quote of Berthold Brecht: “The shortest line between two points –if there’s an obstacle inbetween- is a curve.”

The shortest line between two points is a curve, when there's an obstacle inbewteen.

This is actually a very good definition of the notion of conflict in classical drama theory. Technically speaking, any character who is trying to solve a conflict is subject to necessity. Necessity addresses the fact that there is a force at play that keeps the character on search for  a optimal solution to the conflict  that she is facing. In other words, necessity renders “logical” and meaningful only certain types of actions. In the light of necessity, only a limited part of the available possibility space is of use; the useless parts will probably never be discovered. This means that even if we could, we do not simply roam freely in the open world: Our actions are rather motivated and telic. This goal-orientedness causes patterns to emerge in the ongoing emergent behavior.

Drama theory addresses these issues under the topic of motivation and asks the following questions: “Why can the character not simply walk away and ignore the challenge? When arriving at decision nodes, why does the character chose what is good for the story?" To illustrate the point, let’s have a look at a formal game with emergent qualities: Tetris.

Game over screen in Tetris

Doing nothing results in a straight line from A to B.

Tetris screen shot during play

But if we attempt to change this algorithmic fate, we draw a curve!

Lotsa A-->B curves

The more we try, the more curves we create!

This may still look like we have a lot of emergence and non-linearity here. Yet to me the non-linearity that emerges here is rather limited. I see in all this some quite linear drama! While every playing session may vary considerably, we basically push ourselves through the same A --> B sequence over and over again. In other words, the system is quite deterministic, and player behavior is quite patterned.

But why? Because we are motivated by necessity. This doesn’t leave much space for the type of deviation and free-roaming we credit non-linearity for. Necessity puts an invisible cap on experimentations; a cap which I call the Necessity Cap.

Chaos theory would probably consider these types of games as examples of aperiodic behavior, something that is slightly less linear than linearity. In each “free” iteration similar behavior emerges due to the forces that are at play. In aperodic behavior, there is a single attractor that structures emergent behavior so that it takes similar shapes while on its way to a predictable end.

A water whirl

We could say that in most video games, necessity works like an attractor. Hence emergent player behavior in these games tends to display a pattern. In his On Certainty, Wittgenstein uses a metaphor for player moves that fits the attractor notion perfectly:  "I do not explicitly learn the propositions that stand fast for me. I can discover them subsequently like the axis around which a body rotates. This axis is not fixed in the sense that anything holds it fast, but the movement around it determines its immobility" [emphasis is mine] (1969: 22). Necessity forces us to find a solution, and as we move and try, our actions help a goal to crystalize.

Strange Attractor, again!

The overall narrative construct that we face here then can be said to be quite predictable, linear, and closed. Hence I dare to call these kind of "emergent" games pseudo-non-linear: Despite their openness, these games are built around  relatively narrow possibility space and an essentially linear premise. They are much more a repetition of the same sequence of events as of being truly open-ended and non-linear.

Whirly whirly

Controlled Emergence as a Design Achievement

My second question was asking whether we can safely assume that the game medium renders every instance of its use emergent. Looking at the relationship between game difficulty and possibility space may give us an idea. Have a look at the diagram below:

A somewhat complex diagram

Considering the diagram, we may claim that under certain conditions a non-linear system may turn linear, and vice versa. This situation seems to put a dent to claims that emergence is the “nature” of the game medium. Actually, we could say that under certain conditions games resist to ambitions of emergence. In other words, the designer has to craft and maintain the conditions of emergence.For example using save-points and extra-lives is a way to artificially overcome problems of insufficient possibility space under hard difficulty settings.

My conclusion here is that neither games nor narratives have a “nature” that by default allows us to label them as open or closed. Maybe we are just making the mistake of seeing the aesthetic conventions of a certain historical mode of production in a particular medium as the nature of that medium. [1]


Both linearity and non-linearity are design achievements, depending on authorial skill and intention. The medium won’t do the work for us, because it does not recognize linearity or non-linearity. It just makes itself available to our vision and it’s up to us to realize that vision by bending the medium as to serve our needs. If we manage to keep it linear, it will be linear. If we manage to keep it non-linear, it will be non-linear. And if we manage to do so, it will start out emergent, but collapse into a state in which nothing can emerge anymore.


Similarily, Raph Koster in a recent interview with gamasutra's Leigh Alexander and on his own blog  put forward the idea that immersion was a style of the past, thereby connecting the notion of immersion to a certain historical mode of production, and breaking the naturalization around it.


Eco U. (1987) Açık Yapıt. (trans. Yakup Şahan). İstanbul: Kabalcı.

Juul J. (2002). “The Open and the Closed: Games of Emergence and Games of Progression”.

Juul J. (2001). “A History of the Computer Game”.

Sardar Z. and Abrams I. (2010). Kaos: Düzensizlikteki Düzeni Anlamak İçin Çizgibilim. (trans. Deniz Guliyeva). İstanbul: NTV Yayınları.

Wittgenstein L. (1969). On Certainty. (trans. Denis Paul and G.E.M. Anscombe). New York: Harper Torchbooks.

[This article is based on my talk "The Open and the Closed: Notes on Game Narrativity" presented at the International Symposium of Electronic Arts, İstanbul, September 16, 2011. You can download the presentation slides here.]

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Darren Tomlyn
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Is emergence the nature of games?

The answer to that is yes, BUT... And that's a very big but, which this article doesn't touch - (and it really should), and one of the main reasons for that, is the use of language which isn't really suitable to describe what is going on, how and why...

Words such as emergence, interaction, choice - (and narrative in this context - first paragraph in the OP) - etc., are not truly suitable to describe what games are, or how they function without such context to begin with.

The reason the word emergence is not suitable in itself, is because the behaviour it represents is TOO general, and is not anchored in any way to anything specific to games. Other similar activities can also involve similar behaviour - such as competitions, art, or work and play, even if it's not suitable for defining what such words represent.

Unfortunately, the perspective given by the use of such a word, isn't helping you to understand and recognise the different types of behaviour, even of different people, in relation to each other - which is one of the problems this word brings.

As I said, emergence isn't specific enough, because we need to understand and recognise games for what they are, and what makes them important:

The behaviour of the player(s), (in conjunction with it's application).

And players do not "emerge" anything, which is why such a word is ultimately unsuitable for recognising what games are in itself. Once we understand what games are, both in isolation and in relation to other activities, the word emergence might have a place to be used within such a specific context - but I'd argue that by that time - we'd have far better, more precise, descriptive words to use, instead... (Interaction has similar problems, and choice has a place, but only within such context, not in isolation).

So the question then becomes - if the word emergence isn't suitable for describing what games are and how/why they function, then what is?

For the answer to that - I ask you to read my blog:

(Mind the space it always adds to urls).

Altug Isigan
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I think our answers to the question are fundamentally different. As my article tries to point out, I see it in first place as a design achievement, not something that comes naturally (all by itself, just because it is a game). Some game designs simply won't have any type of "emergence" if you wouldn't add things to the design that open up that kind of "space" for variations. How far could one go in certain games if there wouldn't be extra lives or save points? Or what if enemies would be ultra-fast or have ultra-firepower? It looks like a player couldn't really make it far, and he couldn't try much variations as well. This clearly tells me that not only the ludic space itself is artificial, but that the space for "emergence" must also be created, and that it is not necessarily there at the moment you have invented a core mechanic.

Seeing it from the other angle, how much emergence is desired? The space needs to broadened, yes, but how much is too far? What if the playground of Tetris had more breadth, say twice much as it is? It would probably give the player too much space as to be game that is challenging, or it would take many levels to play until it gets really challenging.

So it looks to me that there is a lot of design work necessary until one manages to make emergence look natural.

Darren Tomlyn
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Sorry it's taken me a while to reply to this - I've not been very well recently - (my health seems to follow the (outside) temperature, unfortunately :( ) - so I'm not sure if you'll read this?

Behaviour is either emergent or it's not - there is no half-way house.

The word game represents an application of behaviour, and the word emergence describes a property such behaviour naturally possesses, regardless of such an application. Getting confused between such a property and the actual behaviour itself, is therefore going to cause problems - especially since such a property can only be fully regarded and understood within such a context.

Recognising and understanding games is not about understanding or recognising 'emergence' - it's about recognising and understanding the difference and relationship between things people do (especially for themselves, but also for others), and things that happen to people - (stories that are written, (which is what the word game represents an application of), and told) - the setting within which they take place, (including rules), and the competition used to both enable and promote such behaviour.

Emergence is simply the by-product of writing a story. It is NOT, however, necessarily a by-product of TELLING a story, (a narrative), which is why puzzles, in general, are not emergent in total. Games are, competitions can (should?) be, as can work and play etc..

Emergence is merely an effect - what you need to fully understand, is its cause.

As I'm trying to explain - your use of the word emergence is not suitable for what you are trying to describe, and I don't think it's having a good effect on your perception of what is happening, how and why - (it's like trying to describe and understand the colour blue, by only using the word sight - yes one causes the other, but without being more specific about how individual colours are created in the first place - (different frequencies of photons hitting the retina) - let alone contrast/brightness etc., we're going to have trouble understanding the colour blue in relation to all the others, which matters for us to be able to isolate such a thing in the first place, and truly understand the full definition of, and cause and effect related to, the colour blue).

What you're trying to describe in your reply, here, has nothing to do with any behaviour merely being 'emergent' - but the very nature of how the setting and structure of a game is used to enable such behaviour to take place - the written story, itself, and the use/application of competition to enable/promote it.

You're therefore getting confused between cause and effect, which is, unfortunately, one of the side effects we currently have, due to the language being used to describe what games represent not being suitable (in isolation, yet used as such).

(P.s. since games (primarily their rules) are naturally of our creation, they are, by their nature, artificial).

(Oh, and if we want to be really pedantic, Tetris can also be subjectively perceived as a competition, (competing to be told whether or not you've won or lost), not just a game, but that has nothing to do with it merely being 'emergent').

The ONLY reason the question 'is emergence the nature of games?' is necessary to ask, is because the language we use to try and describe the behaviour the word game represents (an application of) - (assuming it's even recognised to represent such a concept!) - isn't doing it's job!

Unfortunately, such a question then creates more problems, because the answer to the question - (yes) - can only ever be fully and truly understood within the context of such a consistent/accurate description in the first place!

Without such context, we're going to have problems - which is what I see in your posts...

Your OP is about three things - and emergence is merely the side effect of the other two - things a person does in order to compete - the nature of the stories that can be written.

All you've done is figured out that:

a) games are about people competing by writing a story, (though without the benefits of such specific language to describe and perceive such a thing) - and written stories, by their very nature, possess this thing you call 'emergence'.

b) if there is no written story, then there's a story being told to the player, instead, (a narrative), which then doesn't directly involve such 'emergence' on behalf of the activity in general.

It's the behaviour I describe by the words 'written story' that is what truly matters for games, especially on behalf of it's player(s) - (again, something the word emergence doesn't really help with) - but only because of its relationship with stories being told, as-well as its application (competition, structure). Understanding such behaviour in such a context is something I feel you need to truly understand and recognise before you go any further...

(I just realised it's no longer adding a space to url's - yay?).

Robert Chang
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This is pretty interesting. Although the idea that state A leads to state B doesn't always apply to every game, meaning that some games state B is really not pre-determined.

The tetris example pretty much defined state A as beginning of the game and state B as the end of the game, and if that's the definition of a game, then yes, almost every game has a beginning state and an end game. But what about Minecraft?

It really doesn't have an ending state B. The game doesn't really end. There's no real goals other than to survive each round. Perhaps state A is beginning of the round and state B is the end of the round, but really that's just saying for each game, time passes. Now will lead to later, and that's inevitable.

But what if it isn't? What about the city building games like Caesar 3. After completing a mission, the player continues to play, building their city into infinity time. There's no real state B. The game begins just as it never ends. Other building games are similar, like Roller Coaster Tycoon. There really is no state B, and emergent play continues indefinitely.

Altug Isigan
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Hi Robert, thanks for the comment! You ask some good questions there.

What is a bit less clear in my article is that A stands for conflict, and B for resolution. When thinking of them as game states, we run the risk to forget that we talk of the two major turning points in drama, one of which (conflict) sets up the forces (also called necessity) that motivate us into our actions, and the other (resolution) which brings an end to such motivation. A-->B is not just sequential, but consequential!

So, technically, surviving each round in Minecraft is the conflict, A; and succeeding or failing in it are B, since they both bring a resolution to the initial question: whether you will survive this round or not.

But, it is always possible to frame a seemingly infinite number of narrower A-->B runs with broader A-->B's. Such a broader A-->B may be for example "survive as many as possible out of x rounds", which would introduce yet another rule that defines a conflict, and when it is considered as resolved. A broader A-->B frame would create a hierarchy between goals vs objectives, or what is sometimes being called short-term versus long-term goals. Since a causal relationship is established between the performances in rounds and the overall performance, an A-->B on the objective level would always matter at the level of the A-->B that sets the overall goal. You see such broader frames being applied in many such repetitive games: Tetris, Counter-Strike, Unreal Tournament, Diablo etc. In a lot of persistent worlds it is rankings that function as such a frame.

In games like Ceasar 3, Rollercoaster Tycoon, Sim City, I do believe that the games are still motivated, even if they don't seem to have a clear rule that clarifies what the resolution is. We still deal with an A here at least, because our desire to build is always put against some sort of scarcity, or a condition that brings and end to our struggling: Not to run into bankruptcy, or to maintain a level of population in order to get things actually done. These games are open in terms of allowing players to set their "own" goals, but these goals are still achieved under the pressure of a certain type of necessity. To me, a goal put against obstacles, be that a goal set by the player or by the game, is still conflict, an A. If the player is successful to stand firm against A, he will be successful in reaching what he considers his own "resolution", so again we have a B, but one defined by the player. However, we must not forget that if you fail to overcome the initial pressures, you will often be hit by a B decided by the game: for example in Sim City (as far as I remember), you have "1 year" to turn financial deficit into the positives, or the game will put an end to your operations. So just because you play good and it doesn't happen often, doesn't mean these games do not have a pre-defined B.

By the way, a while ago I wrote an article about games that can't be won, and I think it brings an answer to particular A-->B situations, especially how loosing often is not perceived as an end, but as open-endedness, and I discuss there why that view is wrong. You might find that article interesting too, since you seem to be concerned with the ending issue. Here's the link:

Thanks again for reading, and for sharing your thoughts!

Robert Chang
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I see what you mean, and A being conflict and B the resolution does clear this up a lot for me.

I've been reading a lot of your articles, although I don't comment all that much, but I just want to say that I'm a huge fan of your articles. I may not always understand them, but I enjoy the things that you'd brought up in your writing.

Altug Isigan
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Hey :) Good that I could make it a bit clearer, that's nice to hear. And also thanks a lot for your very kind words, i am very happy to hear this. Great encouragment really, and also very kind to let me know about it, good motivation for me to try harder and write better. thanks! :)