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Emergent Stupidity

United Kingdom
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I've been threatening to write about this topic in various places for a few years now, since I wrote about emergence yesterday it seemed like a good time. When I talked about the emergent properties of games, I talked about the patterns that emerge from the interactions between rules, but the rules aren't the only thing that goes into a game. There's another element.

Game rules emerge from players as much as from the rules themselves. For instance, when I sit down to play Twilight Imperium with my friends, I do not get the same game experience that you get when you sit down with your friends. In some respects we play by the same rules, for instance I imagine that we both select a race to play and start on their home world. However I play by some rules that you do not, for instance "If Holly perceives that a player attacks her in way that prevents her from having a chance to win the game then her species no longer cares for VP, only the elimination of the offending party." Like every other rule, this has emergent properties, such as "If a player is a threat to you look for a way to imply to Holly that her most recent misfortune was their fault (especially if it was actually yours)." These rules also warp and change over time, for instance our current meta-game includes "If Holly perceives herself to have been attacked by someone as a consequence of something that Greg said then she will assume that Greg was somehow responsible for the attack." I'm sure all of the other players have similar rules about each other and about me; I try to learn them so that I can use them to my advantage. Our games can get pretty meta, but we like meta and it gives some negotiation and other funtimes in what might otherwise be a dull downtime. I know that some players hate this.

This is something that game designers need to watch out for, as the rules will interact with the behaviour of the players, causing emergent properties that were not necessarily intended. For instance, there is no rule in Munchkin which states something like "In order to win be the third player to hit ninth level" but it's true for most of our games. The game contains so many screw the leader cards that the first player to get there will be walloped by the good stuff that everyone was holding, the second gets hit by the cards in the first players hands and anything that more conservative players held back, the third is likely to win. This is true for our group, but may be different for other groups who play the game differently. It creates a problem whereby nobody is willing to be the first to have a shot at winning, causing everyone to hang back and making the game interminable.

In this case, for this game and group of players the game is rendered not fun. This sort of situation is a headache for designers everywhere, in various ways. Discussions of problems with games that cause the emergence of alpha players, kingmakers or rules lawyers (used in the negative sense) generally come down to the same thing: The rules interact with the players to create an emergent situation whereby if every player does the best that they can do nobody has any fun. The players aren't stupid; they've correctly assessed the situation and are making individually sensible moves. The game isn't stupid, the set of rules works for most players, but particular approaches to playing a game make them fall apart. Indeed these approaches are often contradictory, some games fall apart when one player isn't competitive enough and others disintegrate if a player is too competitive. The consequence is that an intelligently designed game with intelligent rules meets intelligent players who do intelligent things and the pattern that emerges is one of stupidity and loss.

I dub this concept 'emergent stupidity' and I hold it responsible for most of the evils in the world.

Let's say someone's making a decision between taking their car or riding a bus. If everyone gets the bus they have a slightly uncomfortable trip, but the roads are clear, everyone arrives on time and it's much cheaper all around. If everyone gets in their own car the roads are congested, everyone is late and they help to make a mess of the environment. If everyone gets the bus and one person gets a car, the person in the car gets to enjoy the trip and doesn't have the congestion problems. If everyone gets the car and one person gets the bus then they get the congestion and the rubbish bus seats. Clearly it'd be best for everyone to all get the bus. However, from any individual's point of view they should take the car - since regardless of whether everyone else gets a car or not that leaves them with the best experience.

Game theorists probably recognise this as the prisoners dilemna, which is a major cause of emergent stupidity in a variety of ways. These include but are not limited to having enough food for everyone without feeding everyone, moving towards a planet that is uninhabitable to humans and our species abject failure to even approach our potential (What might we have achieved if all of the industry and creativity that was poured into a $36,000,000,000 industry that's sole purpose is to make sure that more useful items are supplanted by less useful ones had instead been poured into science or the arts? I'm kidding of course, that figure is only from 36 companies, it's a massive underestimate.)

I am in no way exempt from being one of the elements from which emergent stupidity emerges. There are plenty of things that I do, which make perfect sense as an individual, but which contribute to larger patterns that I don't like. I'm sure you can think of some in your own lives too. Some instance of "I would X if everyone else would X, but there's no point in just me doing it and it'd take a lot out of me to do it" or some instance of "I Y because everyone else expects me to Y and the consequences for not doing so would be dire, but as a result people see me Ying and assume that I expect them to Y". (The latter may just be a thinly veiled reference to the fact that it's very soon going to be too damn hot for clothes and everyone is going to insist on them anyway, while wishing that people weren't insisting on them.)

I don't have solutions to the broader problems that come out of emergent stupidity. Some individual patterns get torn down and there are certainly places where people manage to identify an emergent pattern and start actively targeting the behaviours that lead to it, which is pretty cool to see and to get involved with. But I feel like we're woefully ill-equipped to project the aggregate effects of our actions along with billions of others. For each time we recognise something that we contribute to there are a dozen other effects we contribute to without noticing. In a way it's nice to recognise that the world doesn't have many moustache twirling villains, most people seem to want to do the right thing and do their best to make that happen. Evil for the sake of evil is very rare and even naked greed isn't as common as it might seem. It's more that we live in a world where a large number of people can all be pretty intelligent, switched on folks who try to do the right thing and can still make something awful happen at a system level.

Emergent stupidity is often solvable on a small group level. Four people living together can much more easily all agree to suck up some small individual losses for a big mutual gain (Read: organise a cleaning rota) than for seven billion people to solve problems that way. The issues of game design that I started the post with can also all be addressed, since the system is comparatively simple and the emergent behaviours don't involve too many people. The right groups of players automatically do this, but a designer can't count on their game only being played by people who are good at compromise. There's room to design around different types of players and the behaviours that might emerge due to the interactions between their playstyles and your rules.

Sometime I'll write about these problems and solutions that have been tried. There are some great approaches co-ops have taken to stopping the alpha player thing. Until then try to recognise when a problem is an emergent property of a situation rather than the fault of the person opposite you and for the love of all that is holy don't look too closely at the emergent properties involved in the economy.
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