Games are proving to be resolute adversaries against the weight bearing down on the world during the COVID-19 crisis. But even more than the reprieve they offer, some gamers’ emergent play will hopefully change how we see and use games for years to come.
Having been around since the first role-playing games in the 1970s and arguably beyond, emergent gameplay is not new. Generally, game developers strive to achieve a game that allows for players to interact with it in uniquely different and creative ways over time; they don’t want their game to be stagnant. Now, in this strange time during the descent of COVID-19, gamers en masse are discovering opportunities to connect to others through games as the social distancing enforced by COVID-19 keeps so many people housebound. But before I get to that, first and foremost: what is emergent gameplay?
“Emergent gameplay” refers to complex situations or experiences that arise as players interact with very simple mechanics. Usually, and somewhat by definition, emergent gameplay is entirely unplanned and unaccounted for by the developer(s). Many times, it arises from glitches and bugs in the game that are usually then removed. However, developers can place things in a world knowing they will be interacted with in many unique ways, just not to what extent. The tabletop role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons, classically demonstrates emergent gameplay since, outside the framework of simple mechanics, lore, and stats for monsters, characters, and items that Wizards of the Coast creates, the rest falls totally into the hands of the players and the Dungeon Master — also called “Game Master”– to role-play as they choose. Players are constantly interacting back and forth with the Dungeon Master, who takes on the role of everything that goes under the hood as AI in an RPG. There can be no reliable script since the outcome of every interaction in the game emerges on a second-by-second basis based on player reactions.
The tell-tale signs of a player who naturally engages in this type of play are gamers who have a penchant for exploring and pushing the boundaries of games. These players sit back with some mechanics given to them by the game, turn them over in their lap, and then ask, “can I break this game?” or “what would happen if I do this?” Those with this mentality demonstrate beautifully this emergent play concept: these players take something seemingly bland or innocuous given to them by the game and then find out how far the game will allow them to stretch it as they dream up different possibilities for its interactive potential. Through their actions, the game reacts accordingly, and the foresight — or lack thereof — of the developers reveals itself, making for some ingenious and, at times, comical situations.
For example, a player discovers in a racing game that he can turn around in a racetrack and smash into all the opponents’ cars in order to let his brother win unimpeded. The game let him do it, and it works! Though the developers probably didn’t intend for it. This is the magic of emergent gameplay.
There are endless moments like these — “cheese strats” can fall under this category, too — and developers can have an idea of what may happen with their mechanics, but there are infinite combinations of all that can come to fruition when another curious human is involved. But how is this relevant to COVID-19 and the mass stay-at-home mandate? Well, games are being played at record highs, which means more curious gamers have more time to explore and break their favorite games, or at the very least, get creative with the resources available to them in-game. Weddings, graduation ceremonies, birthday parties, and other important lifetime events are being canceled or postponed left and right in our world right now. So, instead of sitting back and doing nothing, gamers are recreating these celebrations to honor friends and family who are grieving the loss of the collective celebration of these momentous events. And all in-game.
MMORPG players will find this movement as no surprise; when you form a bond with people who exist in the same game world with you but are hundreds of miles away in reality, getting together is difficult and you have to get creative to fill that physical gap. One way to do that is through in-game events to bring everyone closer and recreate that feeling of community in a shared virtual space. Now, gamers are navigating their favorite games in innovative ways to take back the power to connect with others that COVID-19 has taken away from them in this uncertain time. In other words, they are uncovering the emergent play potential of their favorite games.
So, what does this look like? Recently released to much anticipation, players in Animal Crossing threw a wedding ceremony for their friends who had to cancel their wedding because of COVID-19. In addition, an Apex Legends player named Alvaro Romero and a team of friends helped celebrate another friend’s graduation from the New York City Fire Department’s Emergency Medical Services Academy while logged into this popular shooter, singing songs and using characters with abilities that could help mimic a grand celebration with smoke and “fireworks.”
Perhaps the most incredible of the bunch, a seventh-grade math teacher, unable to teach his students in the classroom, found a working set of whiteboard markers, a whiteboard eraser, and a window he could write on in Half-Life: Alyx and recorded an entire lesson to send to his students. I give my praise to the advancements of VR and to Valve for creating such life-like physics and assets — the eraser, in particular, is astounding. But where the freedom given to the player by the game and human creativity meet is where the power of games illuminates; this teacher innovated for the sake of his students in a time of crisis with something very simple before him. And all through a game. Who would have believed that a math teacher would ever look at Half-Life: Alyx through this lens of possibility if not for COVID-19? What else could possibly be done to aid humanity with well-crafted and nuanced games as a medium?
Apex Legends player, Alvaro Romero, went on to comment in the CNN article that “the whole gaming community has joked about being built for moments like this.” I have to agree with him. Those who passionately dedicate their lives to games have fought to prove their worth as a medium for many years; these people champion the importance of play, strive to create worlds that challenge the creativity, drive, and curiosity of their players, and demonstrate the innovation of games and their potential to drive positive change; they know that joy is incredibly powerful. Society at large is finally honoring games as more than just mindless, brain-numbing distractions. Now, the fallout of COVID-19 illuminates not only the former benefits but the space that games create for true and authentic connection between our fellow human beings. Perhaps COVID-19 will add a few more badges of honor to the list: games as safe havens for so many people in an otherwise chaotic and uncertain world. Games as agents of healing and joy. Games as places for the restoration of communities to begin again.