Linguist Ferdinand de Saussure famously stated that language is composed of hidden rules that we use but don’t articulate. This is structuralism. The statement also defines how video games are both made and played. Whatever code is used in a game has those rules that define usage. This vocabulary, grammar, and syntax yields complex behavior, making a video game an emergent artifact.
Complexity scientist John Holland helped define complexity as its own discipline, and the lessons learned from his work can help further define the creation of video games, and of the immaterial environments contained within game media. Games are both physically and adaptively complex. Holland defines these to branches of complexity as geometric arrays of elements/parts (physically complex), and as agents that learn/adapt in response to interactions with other agents-entanglements and feedback loops (adaptively complex). The games are performance-artifacts that are interacted with by players in real-time. The performance utilizes signals to determine how to distribute action in-game and to explore possibilities for future adaptation. These code-loops generate a kind of community of rules in the system of the game, creating a hierarchy of what came before, leading to what is happening now in a game, followed by what could happen next. These code routines are communities within the network. As the player interacts with the game, various routines are set in motion to react, and to predict. Holland called this mechanism for generating non-linear interaction between complex adaptive systems/agents “co-evolution” as the game adapts to what is happening in real-time to preserve and promote its goal(s), something done more efficiently in parallel, than in a linear way. Signal-processing lies at the heart of all complex systems. Recombination of tags yields new routings and procedures. These new recombinations, routings, and procedures make for good AI and for either a rewarding or frustrating gameplay experience. The game is not just in the lines of code; it gains dimensionality through how and when that code is executed with other routines during play. Complexity depends on time: when is as important as where things happen in a game. Holland calls this a “time-step”, which corresponds to a specified time in the world, and the model’s laws transform its state so that the resulting state matches the detector readings after the specified time has elapsed in the world.
To simplify, we don’t die before getting shot in Halo by members of the Covenant. Master Chief enters a room, is noticed by the enemy who then draws a bead and fires, hitting an unprepared player. The code dictates how fast the enemy’s projectile travels in a given environment, calculates the location of the player, direction and speed of travel, and then executes the shot. If the player is quick enough, Master Chief can step out of harm’s way. The complexity lies in how the action of the shot is executed, and is dependent on the player’s (in)action. As the shot is taken, other enemies in the room are alerted to the noise, the presence of the player, and begin to act according to their coded subroutines, always a little differently based on how a player chooses to move, hide, or return fire. The game and player create an event, which leads to other events as the narrative unfolds, driven by these smaller elements. A simple gunshot can end a player’s campaign, or can inspire a counter-attack utilizing time and geometry to deadly effect. In a sufficiently complex game like Halo, the system can already display sufficiently emergent behavior. The gameplay is an artifact of the complexity of code that is itself the artifact of human and/or machine creation.
Within the context of digital games, the archaeologist must deal with action-as-artifact, a physical, kinetic manifestation of static code. An event becomes a thing. A verb becomes a noun.
—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming