Play, writing, and the pleasures of complex dynamic systems

Writer and game designer Andrea Phillips, who I interviewed in this space a few years back, recently wrote a blog post about the evolution of her writing process, describing “the way that my creation of stories and my creation of games have come to use the same general process.” The gist of the post is something like this: developing stories amounts to something very similar to developing games in terms of the way that both forms demand striking a kind of systemic balance. An unbalanced game will be exploited by its players, or, as in the example Phillips uses of a game which over-incentivizes certain play actions through its point system, will bring about undesired behaviors that detract from the core experience. Similarly, narrative figures fail to generate their intended effects unless they are finely “balanced” toward specific ends. This could be illustrated by the canonical example of how showing a ticking time bomb hidden beneath a table at the beginning of a sequence will generate suspense, but if it is shown only right before it explodes, the result will be mere shock. In both cases — games and narratives — simple changes in sequence, tone, and fact can have enormous impact on the system as a whole.

Some of my own first inklings of this sort of systems thinking came about when I was learning how to write JavaScript. One of the first projects I did was a kind of “random log line generator” that put together snippets of beginnings, middles, and ends to create surprising (and often absurd) pseudo-random stories. As I worked to make the program do more sophisticated things — things like check if there had been a car mentioned in an earlier part of the story, and if there had, bring it back in later in the story — I began to see more clearly how traditional fixed linear stories (at the time I was working on various screenplay projects) were in fact complex dynamic systems (at least in terms of the development process — though of course as far as their relationship to spectators goes, they remain so long after they are “finished”). Making a change in one part of the text has cascading effects throughout the whole, changing meanings, altering stakes, and opening (or closing) lines of possibility. It seems obvious now, but for me it also felt like a breakthrough.

Maybe that discovery was part of why I became interested in participatory and environmental media broadly and game design more specifically. The thrill of watching those possibilities open and close and those changes ripple through the system was something I wanted to design for. Why should authors have all the fun playing with the pieces and seeing how things shake out differently as the constituent elements of a story environment are changed? As Phillips puts it, it’s a wonderful game to imagine “how else we might have assembled the same cogs and gears to make [the clockwork machine of a story] run faster or quieter or keep time better.”

This pleasure, I think, is at the heart of game play, not just game design. It’s a unique kind of pleasure that comes from a feeling of real agency, of having one’s actions effect tangible consequences upon a system, and of discovering the new and unforeseen challenges associated with those consequences — and it’s what keeps me passionate about writing, designing, and playing alike.

3 thoughts on “Play, writing, and the pleasures of complex dynamic systems

  1. I think you’re on to something here.

    Actually, this playing-a-game-to-understand-the-system angle would explain why I tire of games so easily; I reach a point where I’ve learned everything I will about it, and so I’m not tempted to go back.

  2. I get to that point really fast with single player games. With multiplayer games, I find I can often endlessly replay because of the richness generated by playing with/against real humans. I almost exclusively play these kinds of games now — closed systems and AI end up getting stale too fast.

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