Game Studies: Rules, Emergence, and Information

Of all the games we played last week, I was most interested by Mastermind, as it felt the most systematic and logic-based. From the six base colors and the four possible slots for these codes, you had 6x6x6x6, or 1,296, outcomes initially. I found myself thinking through my succession of moves each round logically whittling down these potential outcomes, in a somewhat mathematical way.

In other words, with the code already made, I was free to work within my own head and not respond to the moves of the other player in an ongoing, emergent way, unlike Blockus and Connect Four. I could stick to my own system or strategy and not have to worry about the way other players shifted their strategy. Over a succession of rounds in Mastermind, this may change, but in the context of the night, it did not. It was almost like the game was completely inside my own head as a series of logical possibilities scaffolded over a series of decisions.

This in-my-head quality made the game feel more like what Salen and Zimmerman say about “decision trees,” where one could trace out a consistent set of approaches, including a winning strategy, through a flow chart. With the numbered layout of six colors and four slots, the game has a series of discrete decisions mapped along two possible axis of variability, unlike Chess with its range of varied moves. But this only describes the possible moves, which is where the role of information came in.

Again, in Blockus and Connect Four, my move changed based on the information of the ongoing moves done by the other player(s). As Chris encroached on my territory, for example, I started making a stronger effort to block him. But in Mastermind, my moves changed based on the information provided by my own past decision. In this way, strategy was still emergent in Mastermind as I got new information, but the components of the game–like the input of other players–affected that emergence less. I could create an arc of moves that, theoretically, could be almost algorithmic and unchanged as each guess progressed.

In the information theory approach, as Salen and Zimmerman define, “information is a measure of how certain you can be about the nature of a signal” (193). As they breakdown Mastermind, as the guesser gets more feedback about the nature of the code through the black and white begs, “the guesser narrows down the possible answers (decreasing uncertainty), carving out a single guess fro ma range of all possible guesses” (194-95). Initially, the uncertainty is total–1,296 possible outcomes–but each round reduces the possible answers, so that by my final guess, I was no longer guessing. I logically knew exactly what my answer was.

In the other games, I never experienced this level of certainty. There was no set “strategy,” just an emergent web of possible strategies based on the changing game board, particularly in Blockus. I could get a sense for where people may go, but I never “knew.” I got a sense, as Even points out in his post, that a more expansion-oriented strategy seemed effective, or that certain pieces could fit into key choke-points for other players. But chance, or uncertainty, remained high. Noah, for example, could deliberately not play the “right” move, as we often did in connect four to delay the victory. Or one of us would miss the right move. Or a new move would come up based on the third or fourth person. All of these variables would, in turn, affect my move, feeding back into the system and affecting theirs.

In this way, Blockus, and to a lesser extent Connect Four, felt more “complex” and more uncertain than Mastermind. Or perhaps, it felt more emergent. But importantly, as Salen and Zimmerman point out, these feelings may simply be feelings, and the formal backdrop, the “constituative rules,” of all the games had a similar logic that operationalized in different experiences.


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