Insomnia | Commentary

On "Emergent" Game Behavior and other Miracles

By Alex Kierkegaard / September 4, 2009

And is there really any possibility of discovering something in cyberspace? The Internet merely simulates a free mental space, [...] it merely offers a multiple but conventional space, in which the operator interacts with known elements, pre-existent sites, established codes. Nothing exists beyond its search parameters. Every question has an anticipated response assigned to it. You are the questioner and, at the same time, the automatic answering device of the machine. Both coder and decoder -- you are, in fact, your own terminal. That is the ecstasy of communication. There is no "Other" out there and no final destination. It's any old destination -- and any old interactor will do. And so the system goes on, without end and without finality, and its only possibility is that of infinite involution. Hence the comfortable vertige of this electronic, computer interaction, which acts like a drug. You can spend your whole life at this, without a break. Drugs themselves are only ever the perfect example of a crazed, closed-circuit interactivity.

Jean Baudrillard

What a profound passage this is. How complex and multifaceted, how pregnant with meaning -- terse, compact, without a single sentence going to waste. There's more insight here than can be found in entire libraries -- let alone in the unconscionable daily scribblings of egghead journalists or assorted academic shallow-pates. You could take every sentence in that passage and devote an entire book to analyzing it: all the principles on which it is based, all the consequences which follow and must be drawn from it -- that's how rich this text is, that's how far its range extends, centuries in the past (even if this is not immediately apparent) and most certainly whole millennia in the future. And none of this should really be surprising, coming as it does from the same man who once claimed that "the real joy of writing lies in the opportunity of being able to sacrifice a whole chapter for a single sentence, a complete sentence for a single word".

So that is what we should be doing: exhaustively analyzing the above passage; carefully studying its prerequisites, taking to the limit all its consequences. Anything less, any approach other than this, would simply be a symptom of laziness, idiocy, cowardice -- and therefore only fit for lazy people, idiots and cowards.

But no, in line with my decision to never analyze anything truly important on this website, what I will deal with once again are the abortive attempts at reasoning of monkeys disguising themselves as men. I have voluntarily, and after much deliberation, decided to limit my online writings within the sphere of videogame analysis -- all the while fully conscious of the fact that, for a thinker, every limitation, self-imposed or otherwise, is tantamount to intellectual castration. One becomes stupid when one limits oneself to a single area of study -- because every area is intimately connected with every other, and the ultimate answers to the most important questions in each discipline cannot be reached without first traversing all the rest. How, then, could they ever be reached by academics, who have eyes and ears only for whatever lies within the confines of their asphyxiatingly narrow fields of expertise -- let alone by journalists, who do not even have a field of expertise! (Or, to be more precise, they do indeed have one, the same one as little gossiping women: that of chattering, but this field is an exception among fields -- it is the only entirely useless one.)

Still, though limitation of any kind is ultimately extremely harmful, it does have its uses for young people and beginners of all kinds -- as part of a training regime. When practiced consciously and voluntarily, for a brief period only and with a view to accomplishing specific goals, it can prove extremely beneficial, much in the same way as someone playing a dungeon crawler will systematically clear all enemies in a dungeon's first level, before proceeding to the second. Rushing ahead is never a good strategy in such cases: this is the intelligent, the prudent way to proceed. You allow yourself sufficient time to grow stronger in this way, by limiting yourself for a time to a single area; all the killing, even of much inferior creatures, is never a waste as long as you feel that you still have something to gain, still have something to learn.

So let us then get on with the training task of disposing of inferior creatures and of the bullshit they have made it their business to regularly spew out: the fallacy du jour will be the whole "emergence" nonsense. What lies really at the bottom of all this fagotry? Let us approach this problem by turning first to Wikipedia, the bible of the retard generation and grand repository for ludicrous definitions and absurd theories of all kinds:

Emergent gameplay is the creative use of a video game in ways unexpected by the game designer's original intent.

This, of course, is in internet English, and must first be rendered into non-retard English before we can begin analyzing it. For what is this "creative use" of a videogame that the definition's authors speak of? "Creative" as opposed to what? Destructive? There is only one kind of use for a videogame and the adjectives "creative" and "destructive" have nothing to do with it -- it is in fact glaringly obvious that no creation or destruction ever takes place in a videogame, since these are processes which by definition can only occur in the real world -- not in virtual ones. And then there is the hilarity of the latter part of the definition, which implies that the designer's "intent" is something altogether separate from him: an autonomous sentient being which can expect or not expect things! So what we get after removing the most flagrant retardations from Wikipedia's definition is this little beautiful piece of absurdity:

Emergent play is the use of a videogame in ways unexpected by its designers.

So the criterion of "emergence", the sole criterion of whether a game exhibits "emergent" behavior or nor, is whether or not its designers expected it! Listen to this shit: it's absolutely hilarious! Assuming, then, that this "emergent" behavior is something positive, something desirable, something that we want to get more of, what we need to do in order to increase it is to find MORE STUPID GAME DESIGNERS! The internet simply does not have lols big enough! The sole criterion of this "emergent" fagotry is the designer's stupidity! The more stupid he is, THE MORE EMERGENT BEHAVIOR HIS GAME WILL EXHIBIT!

"Uhhhh, I didn't know no nuthin'! I'd a thunk the player would 'ave just sat there and stared at the start screen! Therefore everything that happened afterwards is BRAULAEMERGENTED!, because I did not expect it! MY GAME IS A MASTERPIECE OF EMERGENT-O-RAMATISTIC GAMEPLAY ART!"

I mean I don't know what more there is to say about this. This is basically a nearly inexhaustible joke; even if all the other jokes -- the lameplays, the values for monies, the artfagotries, the "RPGs", the playabilities, the replayabilities, the re-replayabilities -- were exhausted, this one would still provide us with material for laughter for at least a few more decades. The word "emergent" itself should be placed right at the top of the list of stupidest words in videogames, and whoever used it within this context should be immediately given makeup and a clown's uniform, so that even the more dense would laugh with his shenanigans and not feel left out of the joke.

But let us put an end to this inanity -- first principle of videogame theory: A game's code always includes a response, an output, for every possible input -- moreover the range of allowable inputs is also dictated by the code and has nothing whatsoever to do with the player, consequently all permissible interactions, situations, possibilities (all these words being synonymous in this context) are always already inscribed inside the code -- none can be discovered later, none can at some later point miraculously appear. Whether this or that designer possessed the required intelligence, analytical tools and/or processing power (not to mention the patience!) to completely map out all of these possibilities beforehand is a matter of indifference -- no one cares what some random moron "predicted" or did not manage to "predict". LOOK! HE SHOT THE BLUE SHIP FIRST INSTEAD OF THE RED SHIP! I NEVER WOULD HAVE PREDICTED THAT! WHAT AN INNOVATIVELY ARTISTIC GAMEPLAY EMERGENCE! -- Even Spacewar players devised maneuvers and strategies that its designers (who were also its first players) had not predicted, probably because they did not bother trying to predict them -- this has happened in every game ever made, there is nothing new nor revolutionary about the fact that a game's designer has not sat down to map out every single fucking possibility down to the last pixel before releasing his game to the world -- it is the normal, universal condition -- anything other than that would be entirely abnormal; it would mean that someone had a little bit too much time on their hands and would perhaps do better to leave their room now and then and go out and get some fucking air.

Bottom line is that, once the game has been released, the intentions or lack of intentions of its designers have absolutely no bearing on our analysis or evaluation. For one thing: how would anyone even know what the designers intended? Asking them would be pointless, since there is no way of verifying the veracity of their claims -- they could simply be lying, and it is indeed quite clear to anyone who has read even a few interviews with these people that they quite often are. And even when they are not consciously lying, they could still be lying unconsciously, out of, say, forgetfulness or perhaps vanity, simply deceiving themselves (and of course also everyone else in the process) like most human beings when they attempt to speak. And what if a designer suffered, say, a massive stroke and died sometime after finishing his game, but before anyone managed to ask him about his stupid intentions? It would then be impossible to even ask him what the fuck he intended (-- notwithstanding the fact that, as I just explained, his answer to this question would not bring us a single step closer to the truth...), so how would the journalistic and academic cabbage-heads then be able to determine which parts of his game were "emergent" or not, according to their retarded definition? And what about games made by large teams of people, one or two of whom might have been farsighted enough to predict things that the rest of the designers not only failed to predict, but did not even agree could possibly happen even after they had been explained to them? So what then? Would these behaviors be considered "emergent" then or not, given that only some of the game's designers predicted them? Personally, if I was a designer, I'd be ashamed to admit that I hadn't intended this or that aspect of my game -- I'd always be like "Fuck yeah I intended that! I intended everything, because I am a fucking genius! Combos in Street Fighter II? Rocket jumping in Quake? Currency trading in Ultima Online? -- it was all me, baby. Hell, dude, I even intended things in games I didn't even make! Beat that, motherfucker!" -- And again, all this is beside the point, because regardless of what the designers intended or did not intend the finished game is the finished game, all its rules and possibilities can be found on the disc, and the intentions of random people have no effect whatsoever on the (simulated) experiences that that disc can provide. Any analysis which relies to any extent on alleged intentions or lack of intentions will simply be weak, naive, superficial, stupid, and ultimately inferior.

And not only are these claims of intentions and lack of intentions always unverifiable, but also, objectively, completely unimportant -- because it is the player who will be the end user of the software, and of course for him everything will be unexpected, regardless of what the designer knew, or thought he knew, or saw in a dream, or divined from an omen, or hallucinated. It is always from the perspective of the user of the software, of the player, that a game should be analyzed, and from his perspective the entire experience is "emergent" -- as long as by "emergent" one understands the stupid, the NGJ, the academic shallow-pate, the videogame artfag definition of the word, i.e. "unexpected".

And what about the intelligent, adult definition?

Arising and existing only as a phenomenon of independent parts working together, and not predictable on the basis of their properties.

In the world of intelligent, educated adults, therefore, the criterion of emergence is "predictability"; whether a behavior is predictable or not, whether it is possible to predict it -- not whether this or that person bothered to predict it! Whether it is calculable or not, whether it is possible to calculate it -- not whether any random idiot off the street bothered to calculate it! And in a videogame, whose behavior is governed entirely by a collection of algorithms, everything is predictable, everything is ultimately calculable, consequently nothing that happens in it is emergent -- nothing in it can ever be emergent! You are given the entire range of possible, of allowable inputs, as well as all the preprogrammed corresponding outputs: they are right there in front of you, in the lines of the code; calculating all possibilities is therefore a trivial matter of number-crunching. That is how Chess and Go were completely mapped, and that is how every videogame ever can be completely mapped (given, of course, the required time and processing power). This is why Baudrillard calls videogames "the horizon of programmed reality", the word "programmed" here finally assuming its full weight and meaning.

"On the screen of real time, by way of a simple digital manipulation, all possibilities are potentially realized -- which puts an end to their possibility. Via electronics and cybernetics, every desire, every game of identity and every potential interactivity is programmed in and self-programmed. The fact that everything here is realized from the outset prevents the emergence of some singular event."

To put this another way, because people will have trouble understanding it, and I guess it's my job to try and help as many of them as I reasonably can, all of a game's possibilities are always to be found inside its code. A proper examination of the code from the outside will give you all of them, so that when you go inside the code (i.e. when you play the game) there'll be nothing left to discover. The player himself could perform this outside examination with no need for the designer -- let the designer choke on his caviar and drop dead if he should -- the prospective player could still easily discover all of the game's possibilities without ever actually playing it. They are all there on the disc -- give it to a genuine programmer, instead of to some fagot "designer", who probably can't even program his DVD player, and he will work them out for you. This is what puts the final nail in the coffin of this "emergence" fagotry -- for if a videogame could ever really exhibit genuine emergence, it would have been impossible to figure out all of its possibilities without actually playing it. But no such game exists, or could ever possibly be made. This is because videogames are coded in the language of digital computers, which is the language of algorithms, which is the language of calculation par excellence!

And what about people like Peter Molyneux, one might ask, people who are (or at least used to be) genuine programmers, but who still keep on yapping about "emergence this" and "emergence that" at every opportunity? How come those people do not understand the nature of algorithms and computer languages to the extent that philosophers like me and Baudrillard do? Well, because you see, one can still be a world-class chef without having any understanding of the chemical and biological changes that the various food ingredients undergo when mixed and heated, or an Olympic-level swimmer without any knowledge of hydrodynamics. One can even be a top physicist without realizing that there are no laws in nature, or that, for example, the so-called elementary particles are ultimately little more than mere fictions. Indeed, it would seem that a certain degree of ignorance and narrow-mindedness is even necessary if one is to achieve excellence in any given field. The only field in which ignorance and narrow-mindedness are everywhere and always harmful is the field of fields: philosophy itself (-- which, by the way, is open neither to world-class chefs or swimmers, nor to mere physicists or programmers). -- Having said all that, I've no doubt that the world's top computer scientists, people like, say, the late Edsger Dijkstra; serious scientists with a profound understanding of the theory on which their field was built -- i.e. not mere coding monkeys, like the vast majority of videogame programmers -- would have absolutely no trouble understanding everything I've been saying here, and would simply laugh at the childish nonsense that Molyneux and the rest of the talking heads on the vidyageam interview circuit (or circus, to be more precise) are all too happy to spew out in the general direction of whoever shoves a microphone under their constantly yapping pieholes.

Moreover, and so as to deliver a few more blows to the by now hopefully dead "emergence" horse, just to make sure it stays dead, let me point out that, strictly speaking, according to the retarded definition of emergence, all behavior in a videogame can be seen as "emergent", because without performing an exhaustive analysis of their code the programmers have merely a vague notion of the different kinds of interactions it will allow, with the exact parameters of each of the millions of individual possible playing sessions simply remaining unknown to them. The truth of this becomes even more obvious when one considers how hastily and haphazardly professional code is put together, to the point where often enough the programmers have barely a clue of what will happen before they actually test run their code -- not because their code is special in any way -- magical, miraculous, "emergent" -- but because they never take the time to meticulously plan its design and construction before they slap it together and execute it (not to mention the nowadays almost universal use of middleware, all of which comes with its own reams of haphazardly designed and poorly tested code, which naturally gives rise to its own "emergent" properties: i.e. countless bugs and weird behaviors of which the final game's programmers are not even aware, let alone in any way responsible for. And again I am not saying here anything new to genuine computer scientists, many of whom can often enough be heard lambasting the professionals for their poor coding methods).

So let us finally then realize that in any game there will be not merely one or two but many aspects the designers will not have predicted, or at least exactly predicted -- everyone who knows how code is written understands this (which group, unfortunately, does not seem to include any other videogame commentators besides me). And this has been true from the very beginning: it has been true since Spacewar, whose most effective competitive strategies were entirely unknown to its designers before people started playing the game and devising them. Of course the pseudocritics would like to make it seem as if this "emergent" fagotry was something new, and preferably something that only their shitty artfagotry games will allow -- in this of course they are simply lying, as in more or less every other thing they say. Whether they are lying consciously or unconsciously is another matter, and one of complete indifference to us; if consciously they are hypocrites, if unconsciously merely stupid.

But let's get back to our spastic-autistic friends on Wikipedia, for there is yet more amusement to be drawn from their floundering attempts at theorizing. A mere paragraph after their retarded definition of "emergent gameplay" they have already forgotten all about it, and blithely set about distinguishing between two kinds of "emergence": the "intentional" kind and the "unintentional". And lo and behold their definitions:

Intentional emergence occurs when some creative uses of the video game are intended by the game designers.

Unintentional emergence occurs when creative uses of the video game were not intended by the game designers.

So "intentional emergence", we are now told, is when a videogame is used in some way that its designers intentionally did not intend. -- Yes, laugh it up, laugh all you want dear reader, but perhaps afterwards you'll also spare some tears for a mankind that delegates the instruction of its youth to the kinds of brain-dead dingbats who edit Wikipedia. And this of course is not merely the Wikipedians talking -- far from it. The disease may have perhaps started there, or not -- it's too hard to tell, or at any rate not worth the effort -- but, like all highly contagious diseases, once unleashed it quickly spread through the entire population, instantly infecting all of its weakest members. And that is how we now come to find this kind of mindless pap regurgitated ad nauseam in pseudo-wannabe "Game Studies" textbooks, delivered with pomp and ostentation in pseudo-academic conferences, and afterwards plagiarized or plain simply copy-pasted in rubbish publications like Gamasutra or Game Developer. -- "Emergence in Videogames", like, say, "Religion in Science", or "Equality in Difference": how much more drivel are we going to have to tolerate being written on a subject whose very title is a blatant contradictio in adjecto?

At this point I think it becomes obligatory to explain why all the shallow, pretentious people in the gaming industry are clinging with such obstinacy to this absurd concept, refusing to relinquish it under any circumstances. It is essentially a metaphysical, a religious need that's driving them, and this should come as no surprise since these have always been the kinds of needs that drive all stupid people. A videogame is manifestly nothing more than a collection of ones and zeros, a barren, dead piece of code, a relatively shallow and fundamentally empty playground in which beings tired of the depth, of the profundity and challenge of reality may occasionally seek refuge in order to rest and rejuvenate. But that is how strong, intelligent, healthy natures look at videogames; the sick, the weak, the pretentious and the pseudo-intellectual adopt a necessarily inverted perspective: for them it is the game that's supposed to possess the depth, or at least that should possess it, if not now then at some future time, whilst reality the shallowness ("artistically" minded people do the same, by the way, when they look for more meaning in art than in life, and are equally mistaken). All this is of course manifestly false, manifestly ridiculous and absurd even to the most feebleminded, in exactly the same way that the bedtime stories of religions are manifestly ridiculous to everyone -- and that is where the miracle comes in. The miracle, the faith in the coming miracle, is what the stupids need in order to sustain their pathetic hopes for a better future. Just as the Christian bears the wretchedness of his current existence by looking forward to the Second Coming and the Last Judgement, which are supposed to inaugurate the Kingdom of Heaven (-- that is to say his kingdom), so the pretentious pseudo-intellectual videogame commentator looks forward to the moment when something will happen in a game that no one (not even God perhaps) had expected -- a miraculous moment which will justify his own wretched existence as a little journalistic or academic videogame scribbler and peddler of nonsense. What sustains him in the sheer misery and drudgery of his pitiful life is the phantasmagoria of the moment when he will be able to exclaim, "Praised be the Lord Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary! IT IS ALIVE! The utterly unexpected has emerged out of our vidyageam!"

But let's get back on track with a few more serious points. The swampgrounds of the inferior minds may be fun and/or instructive to occasionally wade in, but the excursions should be kept brief otherwise one could become gloomy. What we shall now examine is the concept of emergence as it occurs in real science. We will try to understand what genuine emergence is, and we shall do this to an extent that as far as I know no one else has yet done -- not even real scientists. Here, for example, goes one of them:

"The ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws does not imply the ability to start from those laws and reconstruct the universe... The constructionist hypothesis breaks down when confronted with the twin difficulties of scale and complexity. At each level of complexity entirely new properties appear. Psychology is not applied biology, nor is biology applied chemistry. We can now see that the whole becomes not merely more, but very different from the sum of its parts." (Anderson 1972)

This, however, is because the parts he is referring to are not the real parts, but the parts as they arise out of the model of them that he himself has constructed. This man, this scientist, has somehow managed to forget that science in its theories never actually deals with real things, because it is forever incapable of grasping them; indeed at the most microscopic level one simply ends up creating the event that one observes -- this is one of the fundamental lessons of quantum mechanics. Scientific theories, therefore, such as those of psychology, biology or chemistry, are mere models which, however closely they may correspond to this ever-elusive "objective reality" that is science's Holy Grail, never actually mirror it. If one could create a perfect model, then the properties of the whole would indeed correspond to those of the sum of its parts, and there would be no emergence -- but such a model is impossible, for it would not then be a model but a double of the world, which would be a logical contradiction, since it would imply that the world was something that could contain itself. -- Every scientific model of reality, therefore -- at every level: micro-molecular, chemical, biological, psychological, cosmological, and so on -- is necessarily false, and when we attempt to calculate the properties of a higher level by adding up those of a lower one we always miscalculate. This "miscalculation" (-- or, to be more precise, this discrepancy between the calculated results and the observed ones --) is then solemnly dubbed by the poor mystified scientists as "emergence", and thereafter mulled over as something strange, uncanny, inexplicable -- if not indeed even magical:

"Although strong emergence is logically possible, it is uncomfortably like magic." (Bedau 1997)

Unfortunately for Bedau's credibility as a scientist, emergence, as we've seen, whether strong or weak, is not merely logically possible but downright necessary and unavoidable: it is the most natural thing in the world, and that is why we are in no danger of having to accept the existence of magic. There is nothing magical about the observed results differing from the calculated ones: this is science's entire story. There has never been an observation that fitted perfectly the theory, and there never will be -- it is only a scientist who has forgotten how science works and what a scientific model is (or who perhaps never bothered learning these little details in the first place) who can be fooled into thinking that a discrepancy between theory and observation has anything at all in common with the concept of magic. The whole is indeed, everywhere and always, "the sum of its parts" -- this is in fact science's inaugural inference: the complete rejection of any "outside" causality -- for if it were not we would indeed be forced to the conclusion of some sort of miracle or magic to account for the discrepancy. The parts that we have in our possession, however, to say it again; the parts that we fully understand and know inside and out, are not the real parts -- they are approximate, ultimately fictitious ones -- and once summed over will quite naturally yield approximate, ultimately fictitious results. If the disparity between these and reality is great, as in the case of so-called "strong emergence", it only means that our model is too crude to adequately account for the subtlety and complexity of the real processes which we are using it in order to predict, and will either have to be revised or altogether scrapped and replaced with a better one. It is this disparity between theory and reality at any given level from which the "magical", the "miraculous", the "emergent" property appears in the higher one.

And can you now finally see, you fucking dumb, uneducated cunts, that since in videogames there's no difference between theory and "reality", for the game's code serves simultaneously as both "reality" and model, any notion of emergence must be ludicrous! Put another way: videogames are objects we have made, literally bit by bit, from the ground up: we possess the very code that defines them -- reality, on the other hand, we have not made, no one has made it, therefore not only do we not possess its "code" but we can never possess it! No one can!

To get back to the talking heads who run this little industry, Peter Molyneux (of whom it's worth mentioning, by the way, that much like Will Wright and all the other vidyageam evangelists, hasn't made a decent game in well over a decade), has been quoted as saying that "emergent gameplay is where game development is headed in the future". Translated into English, and according to Molyneux's own retarded definition of emergence, this means that "game development is in the future headed towards games which will behave in ways increasingly unintended by their designers". How will these games be created then? How can game design intentionally move in a direction of increasing unintentionality? Or will it move there unintentionally? Will game designers unintentionally design more and more games which function in ways increasingly unintended by them? What sort of being could pull off such a miraculous feat? Are these games going to be coded by somnambulists? perhaps in a state of trance while their fingers are working by an act of God? -- What this little man is trying (and miserably failing) to say is that games in the future will become increasingly more complex, which means that they will have more complex physics engines, which means that they will allow for a wider range of interactions/situations/possibilities. What Molyneux is calling "emergent" is simply the fact that, given the wide range of possibilities in such games, players will be expected to fool around and find or make their own fun in them -- this fooling around the shallow-pates have basically decided to dub as "emergent" because it makes their vapid commentary seem more profound to the feebleminded. That's all there is to it. Some dumb gamer dude came across Wikipedia's "Emergence" page one day and thought "Wow! That's Deep! I'll adopt that, like I adopt any other sightly complicated-sounding word without spending even a single moment thinking about its actual meaning!"

Any way you look at it (and we've just looked at it from every conceivable perspective) there's absolutely nothing in the whole emergence nonsense -- it is a total red herring whose only purpose is to spice up the countless worthless, vapid commentaries that are being published every year across the journalistic and pseudo-academic gaming world. As a result, countless people whose level of education and powers of thought and imagination do not allow them to straightaway see through all this nonsense, as I did, are being mentally trapped in some fantastic wishful-thinking la-la-land of magic and miracles, which henceforth absorbs all their mental energies and prevents them from spending any time thinking about real issues. And this is in fact the purpose of all spuriously created concepts: to hide the fact that the people who use them are completely incapable of analyzing whatever the hell it is they happen to be looking at. And that, in the end, is how these retards "communicate" between themselves: by bouncing stupid buzzwords off each other. You can get brain cancer from their drivel, and this is no exaggeration -- Gamasutra and Game Developer can give you not merely migraines but brain cancer, with their "emergent this", "art that", and "lameplay the other" bullshit. The contest now in all those rubbish publications is to see who can fit more stupid buzzwords (a pleonasm -- all buzzwords are stupid) in a single sentence.


Fucking retards.