Games and Drama

In my article “Emergence and Chaos in Games”, I suggested that emergence is not recognised by the universe, only by humans. I stand by that assertion, but I would like to add an interesting footnote. As stated, that assertion implies that there is nothing which is irreducible, aside from the fundamental laws that govern the universe. Again, from the perspective of the universe itself, this is true. From the perspective of a human, however, there may be things which are irreducible. Take a concept like beauty, for example. We can break it down and look at its constituents, but it only functions in its entirety, because of its level of complexity and our own level of complexity. No single part of a beautiful object possesses the beauty of the whole, and we recognise and appreciate the wholeness of things.

The things that matter to us, matter because of what we are. This mattering disappears when reducing the complexity of either the subject or the object. Nothing “matters” to my central nervous system. Nothing “matters” to my corpus callosum, or to my cerebellum. Things only matter to me given the entirety of my being. Similarly, what matters to me would be different if my cerebellum were in some way different. From my own perspective, which is a construction that sits atop all of the complexity of my entire being, what matters to me is irreducible. I think of such high level constructs as “human-level concerns”.

Humans are complex, emergent systems, and so the things that matter to us are complex and emergent. Like a key that fits a lock, or an enzyme that interlocks with a protein, the things that matter to us possess complex shapes that fit the contours of our minds. A key is not irreducible in the physical sense, but a smaller part of a key is meaningless to the lock.

Again, none of this is to directly contradict efforts to reduce things down to their constituents, and thereby gain some understanding of them. It is only to say that, in the end, some parts of our experience are irreducible. Reducing things down also inevitably ignores human-level concerns to some degree.

There is an odd fractal nature or symmetry here which may be hard to convey. In the past I have mainly focused on explaining my own interest in games, and tried to grasp its origins and constituents. My interest in games mostly stems from the fact that they are systems, and are therefore amenable to deconstruction and comprehension. So my interest in games, which is a human-level concern, is a result of the fact that I can somewhat eschew human-level concerns in my interactions with them. For me, they are merely interconnected little worlds to be explored and understood mechanistically. This exploration is the result of human drives, but the undertaking itself eschews humanity and seeks to embody pure, impersonal rationality.

Drama and Experience
In the past I have simply regarded the interests of others in games as misplaced or incoherent. I had assumed that everyone who didn’t share my particular interest someday would, when they realised that deep down, this was the value they had always been seeking. Now however, I feel that this idea of human-level concerns provides me with some insight into alternative perspectives.

The main concern that I have been considering lately is drama. I think this represents a valuable insight for myself, and those of a similar perspective, because it affects us all. Even those of us who are most concerned with systems, and objective and rational thought, and the way in which games offer us opportunities to engage in that kind of thought, must realise the role that drama inevitably plays. There is always the excitement of victory, the disappointment of loss, the surprise of an event we had not foreseen. Even the most impersonal and rigourously logical pursuits are a source of drama – the unconventional maneuvering of the master chess player that leads to an unexpected turnaround, the mathematician who finds a surprising regularity in some formula and describes it as “beautiful”. Even our most abstract intellectual pursuits affect us emotionally, experientially.

I can see now how important drama is to many gamers. One need only look at competitive games, at the e-sports scene, and I think at fighting games in particular, to see how powerful drama can be. There are other reasons one might watch someone else play a game – maybe to learn from them, but the main reason one might do this is for the entertainment, for the drama. Drama itself can perhaps be broken down and considered – we invariably learn something from drama, and it provides us with a narrative to frame certain events. But our interest in and response to drama is a very human thing.


Fighting games are almost entirely about human drama. The systems within the games themselves can be rather slight, the system that the players are more interested in is their opponent. From watching a fairly large amount of competitive melee, I have come to realise that the primary draw of this form of entertainment is not the systems of the game being played. The game merely serves as a substrate to which all of the surrounding human drama can be anchored. The massive growth of twitch and game streaming over the last few years I think shows this very clearly. Streamers acquire viewers who are interested in the games they play, but they will retain viewers depending on their personalities, in proportion to the amount of engaging human drama they can inject into the mechanical process of interacting with game systems.

This is all to say that it is easy to judge games objectively by my own metrics, because my metrics are mostly concerned with objectivity. My motivation as a player is to see game systems objectively, and with this mindset the properties of the game system can be appraised *somewhat* objectively. This is a fairly unusual level of alignment between a human-level concern and pure objectivity. Most human-level concerns are not specifically about objective thought and deconstruction. They tend to encompass larger ideas that make sense to humans, but which may be difficult to define and quantify. So while I certainly think there is merit in breaking games down to their components, and considering their functioning in very low level terms, I must also admit that human-level concerns must trump these low level thoughts in some way.

Drama is the experiential component of chaos. Chaos is the unexpected and unforseen outcomes of complex systems. When we experience chaos, when we respond to it, and contribute to it, that is drama. It is tempting to explain all of our collective desire for drama as a result of a yearning for constant novelty, a source of surface information*. But that seems to me an overly reductive simplification. Perhaps we, as narrative-loving animals, enjoy adding complexity to our own personal narratives? A quiet, contented life may be objectively better on the hedonic scale than a chaotic life, but a chaotic life is at least “interesting”. Perhaps we would prefer have a good story to tell, than to be content?

I feel this drive towards drama in myself, although I suspect it is much weaker than in the average person, and because of this, I have overlooked the desire for drama as a source of motivation, particularly in the realm of games, where I am personally motivated by the desire for understanding. Perhaps, as younger generations avoid interacting with the people around them, if they find themselves occupying homogeneous digital communities, they will need to get their fill of drama from alternative sources.

Experience vs Intellectual Solution
I feel that the gap between games and other art forms is much larger than is often thought. Many players, maybe even most, approach games in much the same way as they would any other medium – they seek novel experiences. This can be contrasted with the systems focused player. The systems focused player seeks intellectual work, they want to acquire systemic knowledge* that will allow them to build an understanding of a complex system. As I have expressed previously, I think this behaviour makes evolutionary sense because the world is a complex system, and so it is adaptive for intelligent agents to seek deeper understanding of systems that will help them to survive.

The experience focused player is concerned with how things seem, the reality is less important. This makes sense when we think of other artistic mediums, where seeming is all there is. Games, however, necessarily contain their own reality, and so the way things seem, by analogy, metaphor, or visual or aural representation, does not always match the way things are. The systems focused player is only concerned with how things are, or at least with the journey of finding out how things are. This can even be an automatic process. After some 200-odd hours in Spelunky, I don’t really see the graphics any more. The artwork has more or less melted away from my experience of playing the game, every piece of art is now simply a symbol, a marker of the systemic properties of the object it represents. We tend to notice things only while they are new, highly familiar things do not often enter our consciousness, and less often still do they prompt conscious appreciation.

My interest in games has long been the systemic side of things, and I think it is the unique property of games that they are able to cater to this interest.

I do not mean to ignore the value of experience, it is certainly very important. I have had profound experiences from art. However, when it comes to games, the systemic side is non negotiable. George Weidman of the youtube channel super bunnyhop, in his recap of 2016, talks about the first two weeks of Pokemon Go. He explains how that brief period was very valuable, experience wise, as players ran around meeting each other, interacting, collaboratively trying to figure out the system. Unfortunately, after that period the game stagnated, the novelty wore off to a large degree and players began optimising their methods. Their optimisations greatly reduced the amount of social interaction and novel experiences, and the optimisations showed how shallow the games systems really were. This is as clear an illustration as I could hope for – Pokemon Go – a game almost entirely concerned with player experience, and appealing to a massive player-base for that reason, began to falter because of its lack of systemic depth.

Even the most experience-centric players will not continue playing once the novelty has worn off unless there are solid systems underneath. That is my main take away here, I think I can now better appreciate the mindset of the experience-centric player, and I no longer think they are simply misguided. I do, however, think that even those players are best served by games that offer both engaging novel experiences and engaging, complex systems.


*surface/systemic knowledge – Systemic Information In Games

Comic taken from XKCD –

Referenced youtube video – Super Bunnyhop 2016 recap

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