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Understanding Gameplay: Progression and Emergence

On Zork, Pong, Black Ops and the ingenuity of Achievements.

When we think about games, and video games in particular, we have to think about how the game presents its challenges. What this comes down to, in essence, is the dualism of progression and emergence. I will briefly talk about those two terms individually before considering games that make use of both techniques (as most modern video games do).

Games of Progression:

Awesome graphics, man!

Games of Progression present their challenges consecutively: You have to complete one challenge to attempt the next. The whole game is nothing more than a series of challenges that may or may not get progressively harder. The perfect example are classic adventure games, both in their strictly text-based and in their graphically enhanced forms. The rules behind the game are hidden in games of progression; in fact, uncovering the rules is essentially what the game is about. If you knew beforehand how each object in the game reacts to your touch in games like Monkey Island, there wouldn't be much of a reason to play the game. Another very typical feature of this type of games is that it is possible to draft a walkthrough. Or more specifically, a comprehensive walkthrough that includes every single step you have to take to complete the game.Those walkthrough are most of the time surprisingly short: The "solution" for the classic text-adventure Zork, for example, is only about one printed page long. Walkthroughs are also an important means of overcoming to biggest challenge in Games of Progression: Being stuck. If you can't figure out what you are supposed to do, it's probably the game's fault. Games of Progression are often criticized if the solution to the challenges they present the player ("puzzles") are too arbitrary. If you think you found a logical solution to the riddle and the game doesn't allow it, anxiety may quickly arise. Note that Games of Progression are an invention of the computer age: There is no equivalent in the non-digital world (I can think of). The only thing coming close to a game of progression are Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books; the huge differences should be obvious.
To summarize, Games of Progression are linear, sequential games with complicated rules that are hidden from the player the present their challenges in a very direct way. They are also a comparably new concept of play.

Games of Emergence:

The visual pleasures continue.

Games of Emergence on the other hand present their challenges indirectly and are contingent on the rules behind the game and, most importantly, their interaction. The rules are much more simple than in games of progression, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the resultant gameplay is simplistic. Take, for example, Pong. There are not many rules behind that game, but there is still a plethora of potential sources of the game and outcomes. Games of Emergence are also the older form of games: Almost every card and board game is centered around the concept of a small(ish) number of simple rules, interacting to create compelling gameplay. When you take our former example of the walkthrough, the difference to games of progression becomes even more apparent: It's pretty much impossible to write a walkthrough for all the single steps you have to take to win a game of Pong, Chess or Poker. You can, however, write a game guide or FAQ, detailing many of the possible tactics and strategies you might use, something that doesn't make any sense at all in games of progression. The rules governing the gameplay may or may not be hidden from the player, but it doesn't make much of a difference gameplay-wise anyway.
To summarize, games of emergence are non-linear games with simple rules that through their interaction create gameplay.

Let me state the obvious: Most modern video games do not fall in one of those two extremes, but are hybrid form of game with emergent and progressive elements. Take, for example, a game like Grand Theft Auto IV: There are many linear, progressive elements like the way a mission plays out and the overarching storyline, but there are also many elements of emergent gameplay. For example, the player may choose not to follow the storyline at all and not complete any mission, but still enjoy the game because of all the other things the rules of games make possible. Or take the single player campaign of a modern military shooter like Call of Duty: Black Ops; while the game itself may be decidedly linear, there are still ample ways for emergent gameplay: You can try to rush through the whole level without firing a single shot, for example, or you may try to complete the whole level only using one specific weapon. The game doesn't tell you to do any of those things and you will not get any kind of tangible reward at the end of the level, but because the rules of the game interact the way they do, emergent gameplay may arise. One may also turn our attention to the competitive online-multiplayer aspect of the same game. Here we have gameplay that is quite obviously more emergent than progressive: There is no overarching storyline binding together the separate battles and through the interaction of rather simple rules, the gameplay arises. There may still be some pseudo-progressive objectives in certain game modes (Search and Destroy or Demolition, for example), but overall, the gameplay is shaped by emergence. But like many other modern competitive shooters, Black Ops also includes a progression-based meta game: By competing in matches of Black Ops, one gains experience points that lead to level-ups.

I would argue that by introducing elements of progression in games of emergence and vice versa, the resultant gameplay becomes more appealing to a wider variety of different types of players (I will probably go into the issue of player types at a later point in time). A player may not be particularly good at the online-aspect of Call of Duty and he might not enjoy the experience of constantly being killed in a match very much - but once you sees that ever-so alluring bar inching closer to his next prestige, you may not even care.

That brings me to the last issue I want to talk about today: The brilliance, the sheer ingeniousness of Achievements. By introducing Achievements, Microsoft managed to include games in a whole new meta-game with progressive features. The game itself may not be all that interesting - it mainly consists of watching the number next to your gamertag grow - but it is there, it is free and it adds a new layer of gameplay. Yes, Achievements and the hunt for them may also be regarded a social phenomenon, but really, it's more than that. As with arcade-game Leaderboards before it, some players may play so that other people can see their name on top of the board, but for many others, getting up there is enough gratification in and of itself. What Achievements (and, later, Trophies) do is include a whole extra layer of progression-based meta-gameplay for all the borderline-OCD cases, the completionists, the hordes of players who enjoy to gather, to collect and to hoard. From a game design-perspective: Pure genius.

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About Artless Breadone of us since 5:26 PM on 12.12.2010

My name is Christoph, and when I'm not playing my brains out I'm a part-time student of communication studies at the University of Vienna. I am 24 years old and have been playing video games my whole life. They are not only favorite pastime, but also my primary object of study: I have written several papers on various issues concerning video games, video game culture, video game effects and design. Momentarily, i am writing my master thesis on the connections between the video game business and war.

Please bear in mind that english is not my primary language; I WILL make mistakes, for which I want to apologize in advance.
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