Possibility in Emergence

In my own work, I am trying to wrap my head around materiality, ontologies and the intersections between philosophy and rhetoric that explore these matters of being, and the relationships within networks of human and nonhuman actors. Perhaps I am biased by this way of seeing, but it seemed inescapable in thinking about games as emergent systems in reading “Unit 2: Rules” of Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman’s Rules of Play. To summarize/locate:

games are: a system in which players engage in artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome

complex systems are: systems that exhibit patterns that are more complex that periodic systems and more ordered than chaotic systems—its patterns are not fixed (periodic) but they are discernable as patterns instead of random occurrence (chaotic)

emergent systems are: systems that generate unpredictable patterns of complexity from a limited set of rules—the rules cannot account for all of the possible actions that can take place (rules establish what can|cannot happen in play but cannot predict what can happen in play as possibility)

complexity is: unpredictable but patterned behavior within a system

meaningful play is: the process by which a player takes action within the designed system of a game and the response of the system to the action—meaning is in the relationship between (player) action and (system) outcome

When a game lacks complexity, it also lacks meaningful play. When meaningful play is present in a game, some aspect of the game has achieved complexity. Complexity ensures that the space of possibility of a game is large enough to support meaningful play. (170)

It is within the space of possibility that I remain fixed. At a definitional level, this seems a concept simple enough to wrap my head around, but then I think back to “Unit 1: Core Concepts” in which Salen and Zimmerman describe systems as complex wholes of interrelated parts. They state that all systems share four elements:

objects: parts, elements, or variables within the system

attributes: the qualities or properties of the system and its objects

internal relationships: relations among the objects

environment: context that surrounds the system

Suddenly, systems as spaces of possibility seem less bounded. I realize that this is what emergence is and that this is what game designers work to create because it rewards players for exploring the number of possible ways to play the game. Again, at the level of definition I can comprehend what this is; perhaps where I venture into my own knowledge is to understand what emergence looks like|does not look like. I am curious if there are intersections with game design and emergent systems and complex systems with ooo/p/r (with Ian Bogost as a point of connection between object oriented study and game study, I am inclined to think there has to be possibility) and actor-network theory. Can systems (games) align with networks in that they are dynamic spaces of connectivity between objects by ways of relationships between them—the relationships or lack thereof between objects create the environment in play/action? If object ontologies are attentiveness to the existence or current being of things based on the relationships among them, could they be a way of thinking about possibility within a system?

Or is this more a matter of being conceptually stuck as a novice to games, gaming, and game studies, that there is difference because design is intentional? What are the ontological bo(a)rders of games?

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