Hello and welcome back to Free To Play. During a chat with this site’s chief, Aggro Sky (aka Z), I made an offhand comment about spontaneous order and games to which he had to almost hit me over the head with the fact I had a topic that I was letting myself forget. This is a common thing – Z having to point out something that should be obvious to me.
Yes, I’m an idiot, but I can admit it. What’s your problem?
The thing about spontaneous order is that a large amount of people accept the theory yet don’t even realize it. Spontaneous order is the simple idea that even without command from a higher authority, order will naturally arise in a given system. Most of the time you see this as a defense of my beloved free market, although it has been used in defense of democracy itself on more than one occasion, but today I’m going to explain how it works by walking through examples from gaming. I mean, that’s kinda what this series does.
Gaming, and the gamers who make it amazing, has always had a fairly strong anti-authoritarian streak. We don’t like being told what to play, and we sure as hell won’t play something just because we’re “supposed to.” Nothing demonstrates the unparalleled creative streak of spontaneous order as much as gaming. Gaming as a whole moves in thousands of varied directions that are not only vastly different from each other but often diametrically opposed to one another. The joke is usually aimed elsewhere but I think it fits here: if you put three gamers in a room and asked what they thought “gaming” was, you’d get five different answers. Numerical inaccuracies aside, the joke does prove a point about gamers being incredibly varied, thus gaming itself being varied. But how did this come about, and did anyone cause this by themselves? The answer is no, and leads perfectly to a discussion of spontaneous order.
Spontaneous order is just like it sounds. It is a philosophical idea based upon the belief that chaos will eventually give way to ordered structure, and it actually occurs more often than you would think. Music, art, and even language all arose without much in the way of direction besides the tastes of the day. Even the mind boggling complexity that is the ecosystem arose totally without top down direction*.
A classic piece of free market economics is the legendary “I, Pencil” by Leonard Read. This piece is a short story from the POV of a pencil who details how each one of its parts are created in various places by many different people, and how not one of them knows the way to make a pencil by themselves. The story makes an excellent point in that some of the parts are not manufactured solely for the making of pencils, but because of the spontaneous order they can be fused together in a new whole. No, I will not make a Dragon Ball reference. Ever.
Let’s look at something that anyone is familiar with: music. With the obvious exception of some of the classical/romantic/baroque music that was made at the bequest of various royalty or aristocrats, for the most part music has evolved across the centuries based upon the innovations of individual composers who often worked completely isolated. Blues is the foundation of most Western popular music, but nobody told the poor sharecroppers of the deep South in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s what kind of music to make. They simply adapted the music of their ancestors with the instruments of their time to create what is, in my mind, the single greatest contribution the USA ever made to music. W.C. Handy certainly wasn’t intending to “discover” the blues in 1902 when he was waiting for a train, only to hear another man playing a simple blues song on a guitar, yet his pioneering work allowed the blues to become a pillar of Western music. We can go even further with this, and use my personal favorite genre of music. Black Sabbath is widely – and correctly – regarding as inventing heavy metal, but it came about purely by accident. Guitarist Tony Iommi worked a factory job before the band’s first big tour, but an accident took the fingertips of his fretting hand. This handicap led him to begin using a slackened tuning, thereby lowering the pitch, and simple riffs based upon power chords. As the music began to have a dark, “evil” sound they simply wrote lyrics to match the style of the music and heavy metal was born.
This leads us to the core of this article, as appropriate for a gaming site, genres in gaming. For all that Luddites and idiots in media try to portray gaming as one monolithic culture with every single member in total agreement, gaming is an incredibly varied and segmented hobby. At the most basic you can divide it between video games and tabletop games – hey, we’re Gaming Rebellion, not “Just the Gaming You Personally Like Rebellion” – and each one of those divisions has at the very least dozens, if not hundreds, of subdivisions. While a complete history of the development of the myriad divisions of even video game genres could and has taken up full books, that’s beyond the purview of this article. I’m more interested in the fact that said genres developed organically, without top-down direction.
The earliest video game on record was a simple tennis simulation called “Tennis For Two” that was based upon oscilloscopes. The very simplistic display of an oscilloscope necessitated a simple game, and tennis can be boiled down to simply “bounce a ball back and forth,” which translated quite well to the display. Just a few years later a group of early computer programmers at MIT developed what would become the first major video game, SpaceWar! This game was a very early vector space shooter, and started as a very simple game until other members of their group added more to it. Members added things such as a very realistic physics engine, a nearby star, and even a hyperspace button. The game also had other additions that weren’t as successful, but were taken out before the game was finished. Some were removed because they weren’t fun while others simply weren’t feasible with the hardware of the time. A few years later a version of this game would be remade for the arcades as Computer Space, and would be a cornerstone of early arcade machines produced by Nolan Bushnell and his Atari corporation.
Around the same time legendary engineer Ralph Baer was developing his prototype “Brown Box” that would become the first ever game console, the Odyssey. Working almost entirely on his own Baer created simple games such as Table Tennis and a few clones, a simple two player “chasing” game, and even a falling star shooting gallery. Atari would follow just a few years later with the innovative Video Computer System, or 2600. While Atari owned the market with its VCS, its in house development groups were pumping out title after title, and often each game would be designed and programmed by just one employee. Atari was pretty loose about how games could play, as long as they felt the games would sell. When Atari did start making more demands of their developers, it led to a few programmers leaving and creating the first third party console developer, Activision. The programmers left expressly for the purpose of making the games they wanted to make, and the early Activision output shows this.
As gaming got bigger, and hardware got more powerful, new types of games began to emerge that were simply not possible with previous hardware. Shigeru Miyamoto, the greatest designer in gaming history, would not have been able to create the Legend of Zelda on the Atari. Computer games at the time also evolved organically as series such as Ultima, Leisure Suit Larry and the Lucasarts titles pushed the envelopes of their respective genres, and often created entirely new ones. For the most part the only forces that acted upon the developers of the time were standard market forces, and we played better games for it.
Gamers have such an astounding variety of game genres to play in that if you pick two gamers at random, chances are very high that they will not have the same favorite genres. As gaming matured, developers started to come out who had grown up with games, and started making the games they had dreamed of growing up. The text based adventure, which was essentially an electronic “Choose Your Own Adventure” book, gave birth to the first western RPG games which were of course heavily inspired by Dungeons And Dragons. Not being satisfied with creating one legendary genre, the text based games gave rise to the point and click adventures popularized by Lucasarts and Sierra. A good example of a multigenre series of the time was the landmark Ultima series of fantasy games. The main line of the game series is one of the defining titles in the genre of Western RPGS, but the spinoff games, Ultima Underworld, were one of the earliest titles in the first person perspective to become a hit. Years later, their title Ultima Online would essentially become the first huge hit in the now well established massively multiplayer online RPG, which carry the unwieldy acronym MMORPG.
One of my favorite examples of how connected games give way to wildly different genres is the Wolfenstein saga. The original Castle Wolfenstein was an obscure 2d stealth game from the 1980’s that John Carmack and John Romero were massive fans of. Years later, they started their own studio they decided to make a “sequel” to Castle Wolfenstein after securing the rights from original developer Silas Warner. Instead of a 2D title they took inspiration from first person dungeon crawler Ultima Underworld to create the first major hit in the first person shooter genre, Wolfenstein 3d. The game was a hit and influential, to be sure, but it was the next title that Carmack and Romero’s iD Software released that would cement the FPS genre for years to come. Doom was so influential in FPS games that for years afterward the genre was more often than not simply referred to as “Doom clones.”
Over the decades we saw genres rise and fall. The platformer ruled the 8 bit to 32 bit eras, but went quiet on the last two generations with the exception of Mario. However, with the rise of indie gaming the 2D platformer has made a triumphant return just because someone took a chance and consumers loved it. The JRPG ruled the 16 and 32 bit eras, but a rather arrogant seeming opinion that they didn’t need to innovate has caused the genre to become a shadow of its former self, while western style RPGs are ruling the day as seen in the phenonmenal Elder Scrolls, Fallout and Witcher series.
All of the wonderful games we are enjoying nowadays are mostly made independent of the “once a year, same as it ever was” style of top-down management development. I bitch about such tripe as Call of Duty and Madden often, but it’s a perfect example of the opposite of spontaneous order. Instead of the games being allowed to develop without any kind of decree from on high these games are simply checklists of what they think will sell the best. Gamers are not idiots – at least, not for the most part – and we can tell when a game has soul and when it doesn’t. Both Fallout 4 and Black Ops III are big budget first person shooters. The difference is you can tell from just an hour of playing it that FO4 has a soul that comes from being carefully built from the ground up while BO3 is just another boring cash grab that has as much soul as a roll of toilet paper. But I digress.
A simple visit to your favorite local game store or even Amazon’s gaming storefront will reveal that even just restraining your view to games released in the last 12 months will show the bewildering amount of genres that gamers have access to. Sure, a lot of them are the standard “once a year, copy/paste” dreck like Madden, Call of Duty or Battlefield but at the same time you have titles such as Bloodborne, Rocket League or Super Mario Maker that are vastly different from the soulless, top-down mandated crap. Funnily enough, even the top-down crap originated from a small developer trying something completely different. Hundreds of different developers working simultaneously on games that had absolutely nothing to do with each other contributing to the mind-numbing array of choices that modern gamers have.
That’s where we come back to the free market. The rise of communism in the late 19th century to the early 20th represented a line of thought that was ancient in that otherwise highly intelligent, good people sought to control the “anarchy” of the market to direct it in the lines they thought it should go. Every single one of these failed, because those in charge failed to understand what makes the market work is that it doesn’t have controls. Those who go against prevailing wisdom often are hailed as visionaries, and make things better for us all. In 1984, Nintendo was told that gaming consoles would never sell again in the United States, but just a year later their Nintendo Entertainment System gave the US console gaming market a rebirth. Sam Walton was told that poor people would never be the foundation of a department store, but his creation Walmart is now the single largest private employer on Earth – regardless of what you may think of its current incarnation. Spontaneous order is less a law then an accurate observation of how millions of independent minds work best to create a new system when they’re not shackled by controls from out of touch higher ups.
Gaming, especially with the advent of digital distribution platforms such as the superlative Steam, has become one of the freest forms of expression we have. For every 50 shades of brown “realistic” first person shooter, there are dozens of games with imaginative worlds, innovative playtypes and unique experiences that await gamers wanting something new. Honestly, that is the single best argument I can make for the work of spontaneous order upon game genres. My best friend is a high level CoD gamer who really only likes playing that game with his limited time, while I have far more time to game and love most genres that aren’t FPS, but both of us can go into any game store and find titles that we love. Thanks to the order from chaos that birthed a hundred game genres, every gamer can play what they love, and that’s the finest thing I can think of about gaming.
*I refuse to get into any sort of religious discussion on this site so I’m not about to go further than to say I’m not an atheist yet I firmly support evolution and firmly believe “intelligent design” is a crock of crap.