Chapter two: what exactly is emergence?

Strong and Weak.

Emergence is a phenomenon whereby larger entities arise through interactions among smaller or simpler entities such that the larger entities exhibit properties the smaller/simpler entities do not exhibit…

…new properties arising in systems as a result of the interactions at an elemental level.

Economist Jeffrey Goldstein initially defined emergence as: “the arising of novel and coherent structures, patterns and properties during the process of self-organisation in complex systems”.

weak emergence is a type of emergence in which the emergent property is amenable to computer simulation.


strong emergence is a type of emergence in which the emergent property cannot be simulated by a computer.

In Dual Universe an example of emergence would be when you design a ship. You start with individual components like wings, engines a cockpit etc., add a player piloting it into the mix and you end up with a construct that is more than the sum of its parts. Individually the components have limited use, but combined they become something that goes beyond a sheet of stats. An excellent pilot may use a construct with horrible stats yet fly it with such skill that the result could not have been predicted. So does this mean that emergence is defined by its unpredictability? Yes and no.

Language for example has emergent behaviour and is a perfect example to illustrate what exactly emergence in this context is. We start with an alphabet, these are just individual letters symbolising sounds. Those sounds don’t seem to have any underlying connection between them. But you can group those letters to make a word and words can make a sentence. Sentences can make a chapter and chapters may lead to a book. This is an endless cycle of ever increasing complexity. At the level or resolution of the letters there is not much meaning to be found. But as you move up the hierarchy the letters supporting the larger entity suddenly start to carry meaning and the potential to make real changes in our lives. Does this mean language is an example of strong emergence? Or is it an example of weak emergence? Its both neither and either. While you can’t predict how the individual letters will be grouped together you can however predict the structure binding them together, given enough data.

I’m sorry Trekkies, this means no universal translator just yet.

So far so good, if I have done my job correctly we now understand the different kinds of emergence a bit better. But in the land of emergence confusion lies ahead.

Before I started writing this article I thought this would be a short standard 1400 word count article. I mean, how difficult would it be to inform and explain emergent game-play to people. Turns out emergence is a very complex topic with lively debates over definitions. Before I knew it I felt like I was back in university crunching my first year book on sociobiology. Not that I am complaining, I always found the topic fascinating. Though I quickly realised I had to split this article in 2 parts and I’m hoping for your sake part 2 will be the last part.

Having learned the difference between weak and strong emergence we start to realise why exactly Novaquark can’t make any predictions on how things will play out. Its not only about balancing the types of minerals or balancing how long it takes to get them out of the ground. Its about trying to predict something that can’t be predicted. There is no model that will tell Novaquark how players will behave. Because that’s the secret sauce of a sandbox, the players. Flexible and simple tools help in how a player can interact with the world and in turn the player uses those tools to create emergent content. However social interactions just like language, can not be predicted. I know these days there are many predictive models but as far as I know these models deal with large groups of people and mob mentality. You can’t predict a random person having a stroke of genius. And that’s what makes emergent game-play such a coveted feature for a MMO. That’s where a game like EVE gets the player retention. But lets go back to language as an example of emergence and emergent behaviour.

I finished earlier at chapters organising themselves into a book. Now these books can be organised into a collection and if we assemble this collection by a taxonomy we would call it a library. And this is where we go into the land of strong emergence. There is no telling what impact a library or a book has on our society. Lets take catcher in the rye a book with a troubled past. Little did the author know how this would impact our world. Banned or challenged in some schools, yet considered a classic to others. Not to mention the controversy about the role it played in John Lennon’s murder by Chapman. Or how about these 4 simple words; “I have a dream,” Those are all examples of how some effects can not be simulated by a computer, arguing for the existence of strong emergence.

In Dual Universe we will find strong and weak emergence all over the place. From individual traders or builders organising themselves into corporations. From individual mercenaries organizing themselves into armies for hire. And much of it won’t fit into a predictive model. Perhaps you are now wondering why I took the time to go into detail, well my friend there is a rhyme to my reason. I visit the same fora as you, I read the same debates and calls for “emergent game-play” but often the person asking for it doesn’t really understand what exactly emergent game-play is. We see feature requests for extremely complicated systems with a lot of conditionals. Often times their idea of emergence is that they can do non-scripted “stuff”. With this series of article’s I was hoping to inform people on the properties of emergence and emergent game design.

To wrap up part 1 I will end by saying that its not enough for a game to provide a blank canvas. No, its far more important in my opinion that the developers provide the player with simple but flexible tools that can be arranged in ever increasingly complex systems and this brings us to the K.I.S.S. of this 2 part article series.

Please leave a comment down below and let us know what you think.