Emergent behavior and why game devs should care about it

I like to describe “emergent behavior” as this: “1+1=3”. To describe using words: emergent behavior means that something “bigger/unique/different” is born from simpler building blocks, or that some kind of new behavior appears when you combine 2 (or more) other things.

A few days ago, I asked my daughter (1 year 6 months) a question. I pointed my finger at something and asked “what’s that?”. She said “brrrmrrrm”, which totally delighted me positively. I was pointing my finger at a picture of a car.

Why was I positively surprised? Answer: emergent behavior.

Some days earlier, we had taught our daughter that “car says vrmmmm”. To her it was “brrrmrrrm”. When we asked “what car says”, she would delightedly reply “brrrmrrrm”. Now, when asked “what is that”, she saw a picture of a car and said “brrrmrrrm”. It was surprising, since usually she mentions the name of the objects (like “kukka!” – flower that is).

I must point out that if that didn’t sound fun… then please just take my word for it. It was fun moment for me!

So, by combining two different things (action: “car says vrrrrm” and object:”that’s a car”), a new behavior emerged “that’s vrrrrm”), which caught me off guard.

Similar things happen in games all the time. And when you put effort in thinking about the smallest building blocks and actions player can do with them, a new odd and fun combinations might arise.

And that’s fun.

Juuso Hietalahti


  1. I wasn’t talking in billions of neurons scale.

    But… I’m not sure what behavior that was, since later I re-thought that what happened was probably:
    – daughter is asked to tell what a picture of a car represents
    – she knows it’s a car
    – but she doesn’t know how to say word car (“auto”, it has nasty T)
    – it’s easier to say “brrrrmm”, so she uses that word.

    Earlier we have asked (without a car picture), “what kind of sound car makes” and she replies brrrrm. So, when we point our finger to a picture of a car and ask what that is… it’s different question, but she successfully combines these two.

    And of course as a parent I’m more than willing to fetch a baseball bat from the garage in case somebody wants to argue about things that my daughter does 8)

  2. What happened with your daughter isn’t really emergent behaviour. Maybe, if you are talking in terms of the billions of simple neurons that interacted to produce that complicated behaviour. That’s emergent behaviour. The combination of the two words, and the mistake that the car was ‘vroom’, wasn’t emergent behaviour.

    Anyway, enough trolling for now. You finished off with the basic concept…

  3. This sounds similar one of Sid Myers design rules…basically “Complex systems on their own are daunting. Have Simple Systems interact to create accessible and interesting Complexity/Depth.”

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