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A gaming journalist discovers spontaneous order



A Gaming Journalist Discovers Spontaneous Order

Spontaneous order is one of those ideas that you encounter in all areas of life once you understand it. But it is equally interesting to see how people notice the phenomenon, who have never studied the subject, but find examples of it in seemingly obscure domains. I found an example of a video game reviewer and journalist noticing spontaneous order at work in a video essay posted on YouTube. The subject? How video games use color to convey ideas. He opens with the words:

As you can probably tell from my dress sense, I don’t attach much importance to color. But I do find it interesting that without any apparent discussion or conspiracy on the subject, video games have developed their own unique color language. Isn’t it interesting how in the world of live-service gear grinding, green means uncommon, purple means rare, and orange means super rare? Why is that always the case? Who decided that? I don’t remember taking part in a vote. But this is just a superficial comment. Interface designers have long been able to use specific colors to convey certain concepts to the player immediately, without the need for additional explanation.

He then lists different colors and what they are often used to convey. Part of what makes this a good example of an impromptu order can be found in his comment above. These systems and conventions around color occurred “without apparent discussion or conspiracy on the subject,” without anyone even “participating in a vote.” That is, the patterns he identifies emerged as a result of human action, but not of intentional human design. But there are a few other elements of spontaneous order on display here.

First, a spontaneous order can often seem messy and even contradictory at first glance. For example, when discussing how video games have used the color green, he notes that what green emits can be “anywhere.” It is often associated with health and healing in games, but at the same time it can be used with the opposite effect to signal poison. On other occasions it can be used to indicate elemental damage, sometimes based on “poison, acid, plant, and even wind damage.” As someone with many years of gaming experience, I can think of all of these examples. And what’s curious is that despite green being used to indicate a wide variety of different and even contradictory things, I’ve never been confused about what it was supposed to signal in a specific context. That is, I’ve never encountered anything green in a game that I thought would restore health, only to find out to my surprise that it was poison instead. This is because color is only one way ideas are conveyed, and because other points in the context of a game make it clearer what ‘green’ should mean in a given case. Still, I doubt I could articulate specifically what exactly these other factors are and in what combination they are used to indicate exactly what green means in this particular case. I just know it when I see it. The information used is not the kind of information that can be easily articulated and categorized into separate lines.

Second, once rules and conventions are created through this process, it becomes important to adhere to them, because common knowledge allows people to know reliably what to expect in their environment. When game developers ignore the established wisdom about what colors convey, they confuse the gamer. Watching the aforementioned video caused the memory imp in my brain to search for an old memory essay from years ago discussing an example of exactly that problem. In this case it involved red barrels. If you see a red barrel in a video game with a heavy shooting emphasis, there is a 100% chance that shooting the barrel will cause it to explode, causing massive damage to nearby enemies. (And in video games, the bad guys are usually sporty enough to ensure their base of operations is fair littered with these barrels because… reasons?) The “exploding red barrel” is one of the oldest clichés in video games. One game developer tried to break the cliché by making their exploding barrels green instead of red:

A representative of the Bullet storm The design team, known as Arcade, blogged about the process involved in creating the exploding barrels in the game. They initially wanted to go for green barrels to counter the red stereotype. However, in the heat of the action, they found that players largely ignored the barrels; they saw a green flash while running and it did not register as ‘explosive’. In this case, the team rightly decided that delivering an instant message was more important than making a style statement.

This is a trivial but real example of how the conventions established by a spontaneous order, even if apparently arbitrary, are still valuable because they help convey important information, coordinate behavior, and set expectations.

Finally, the full set of rules and ideas embedded in a spontaneous order cannot be completely categorized. This comes up towards the end of the video, when a suggestion is made in the comments for people to “mention any video game color associations I missed.” There are plenty of examples in the comments, and I could think of a few more myself. This reflects how any attempt to identify the rules that emerge from a spontaneous order will always be limited and partial. Because they are not the deliberate design of any human mind, they cannot be completely reduced to a system of explicit, articulated rules by a human. mind. Of course, this doesn’t make it pointless to try to figure out what those rules are. But we must always keep in mind that no single attempt will completely capture all relevant information.