The past couple years has seen a rise in using the term emergent behavior to describe new and novel ways to interact with technology. Most of my exposure to the term relates to video games and social media.
My first experience with the term or the concept at least dealt with a later play thru of a game called Deus Ex. Someone had figured out that you could place a (land) mine on a wall, disarm it, and jump on it in order to scale the wall. This was not something the designers envisioned when creating the game but creative players soon found ways to take advantage of the game world to do the unexpected.
One could use the word ‘exploit’ to describe what was done in the above situation but I tend to think of exploit as a noticeable cheat whereas this was more of a skill and didn’t unbalance things. Now, we could sit here till the monkeys come home and discuss the variations between exploit and cheating and just being creative and where these lines intersect and curve but no. I think cheating/exploit removes fun from an involved party. That’s going to be my flawed definition.
I’ve felt that emergent behaviors have a lot in common with viral concepts in that trying to specifically create one is often difficult and not a guarantee. Not to mention that artificially attempting to coopt people often goes poorly as well. By placing building blocks into a system that allows customization and strong user created narratives one can hope that someone will come along and run with it. But will it necessarily be good?
When Little Big Planet was released it allowed custom worlds to be created with no oversight. I remember reading about some tasteless creations and I have to imagine that the hub is culled to prevent recurring abuses. My search of google listed common items that incurred bans and I am making the assumption that it is user reported because that is easier than paying someone. But is this emergent behavior or just furthering an already existing idea. I think this is more of an idea.
Does the inclusion of the ability to mod the game rise to this vaunted concept? Once again, I’d say no unless it truly becomes something that was not thought of. Which is a fuzzy line, I admit.
Now, the reason I wrote this article and explored my thoughts on the matter was because of this post I saw on reddit about Skyrim. Skyrim is an open world single player role-playing game. It allows users to install mods, if desired, to augment gameplay in certain ways: new towns, new quests, skills, items and so on. The story started when a user told the interwebz that since his brother passed away, he sometimes logs into his account to just see the last place he was. Look around and feel a little of that connection which is now so different. This struck a chord with readers who soon asked for the exact coordinates of the brother’s last place. And then a mod was created that had an altar at the spot. And users the world over went to the spot, in game, to pay their respects. They took screenshots of the event and posted them in the thread. Now, to make this clear to the non-familiar reading this, these actions were all experienced in a single player fashion, there is only the one user involved.
No one knew this brother and none of us can actually visit his world and see the world as he saw it but in that moment, everyone could visit that singular spot in their own way and say hi.
And no one thought that this was the story we would tell when this game came out. When we design, we design for the users and hope that they can make a story for themselves. Sometimes the stories are too much for us and we have to share them with the world.