I’m interested in the kind of complexity that arises through emergent processes, in which relatively simple rules governing the action of autonomous agents within a given environment can give rise to permanent structures or changes within the environment which then change the way that the agents express their rules. Unplanned systems, but often highly functional in their own way.
However, there is also complexity by design, in which a system which is consciously intended to have certain restricted purposes or functions becomes more and more elaborate over time, and more and more of its mechanisms become obscure and hidden in their inputs and outputs. I think maybe there are some natural examples of this kind of movement towards baroque complexity. But baroque complexity dies out when it becomes actively dysfunctional within some kind of fitness landscape.
Human systems can achieve this kind of opacity by accident and by intent. Accidental drift towards a system where no one really understands how cause and effect work within the system happens in institutional life all the time. Stakeholders in individual parts or aspects of a system are inclined to expand the influence or size of their mechanism. New forces or powers outside an institution are often accommodated by being incorporated within it. Procedures or heuristics used by an institution in its everyday business sometimes take on a life of their own, especially when they are incorporated into technological infrastructure and automated in some respect. Histories of past practices accumulate and become binding traditions.
Baroque complexity happens by intent when human agents with some degree of authority over an institutional system want to block off direct access or control to some of its inner workings as a safeguard against easy tampering. It also happens when someone with an interest in a particular system believes that secrecy and confusion will instrumentally advance that interest. I think there are quite a few examples of authorities who set out to make it hard for an outsider to understand how a system or process works only to find that in making it hard for outsiders to understand, they’ve made it hard for everyone, that even people in control who thought that secrecy would conceal selectively have found that it conceals indiscriminately.
I’ve found that virtual worlds, massively-multiplayer online games (MMOGs) have provided some great examples of this kind of Rube-Goldberg complexity-by-design, and have also demonstrated why this phenomenon can be a source of so much trouble, that you can end up with systems which are painfully indispensible and permanently dysfunctional, beyond the ability of any agent or interest to repair.
The underlying code of any contemporary large software application is approaching a threshold of complexity where no human agent could ever hope to understand all the possible interactions between the code, the hardware and the user. Even if a programmer can understand why a particular failure or negative event happened, they often cannot hope to understand how to reliably stop it from happening in all possible intersections of code, hardware and user without perturbing some other part of the codebase with unexpected consequences. Pull on one thread, and another may unravel.
This is especially true with virtual worlds, where the size and intricacy of the software is enormous and the practices of users are remarkably diverse and often rivalrous. Developers of a virtual world now start with established code libraries of some kind for managing the visual and interactive components of their product, but they also have to deal with and accomodate histories of user expectation and practice in previous virtual worlds.
Virtual world designers end up with baroque complexity both because their design imperatives drift naturally in that direction and in some cases because they’re trying to veil or protect some of the underlying mechanisms and code of a game from the users. Arguably in some cases, I think they may even be trying to protect themselves from knowing too much about how the world works precisely because they’re trying to keep the processes and procedures that players must follow somewhat opaque, because a lot of virtual world player behavior is about seeking opportunities to arbitrage.
This kind of complexity gets designers into trouble when there is some major aspect of their world whose dysfunctionality is driving players away, where there is some desire to fix or change the game’s systems. Baroque complexity taken too far is irreparable: you can literally get to a point where there is no adjustment of one subsystem that will not cause another subsystem to fail or produce unexpected negative consequences.
A lot of my previous analysis of the early history of the game Star Wars: Galaxies centered on this kind of problem. So much of the underlying design had a kind of Rube Goldberg feel to it, with systems and properties tethered to one another at varying levels of code and design, from how information was stored in the game’s databases to how crafting, the environment and the economy were functionally intermingled in ways that were not always how they were intended to be intermingled. I came to feel that there were many cases where the designers literally had no way out of certain problems, that fixing one aspect of the design would produce problems elsewhere, sometimes problems that could not be anticipated in advance of implementing the change. Characters advanced through developing skills within loosely structured classes, but the game design had almost no way to differentiate between the role or value of some of those classes. At launch, most classes had skills that had little value or that were simply not implemented. Fixing one skill generally broke another, or failed because other skills in other professions that were needed to properly support the fixed skill were not working correctly. The developers of Star Wars: Galaxies eventually came to the conclusion that they would just have to gut out most of the game’s design and start again. They did so in a disastrous manner, but I’m not sure they were wrong about the basic insight.
To some extent, I think the developers of the current virtual world Warhammer Online are in the same kind of pickle. In this case, one of the serious issues in the game’s design is that it is almost impossible for players to understand how to achieve victory for their faction. There are two major factions in the game which fight to control certain parts of the game environment at varying stages of the progression of the player-characters. In the endgame, both factions try to accomplish a series of difficult challenges that will allow them to attack and control the major city of their rival faction. At the moment, it is very hard to tell exactly how these systems work, and I think that is not because the players have yet to figure the system out, but because the interaction of many diverse elements in the game design is so messy that it is impossible to figure it out, possibly even for the designers.
The designers have a vested interest in keeping the system opaque. If players understand very clearly what they need to do, they may discover that the system is easy to exploit, or that one side has a structural advantage. But at some point, making a system appear opaque and making a system actually so difficult to understand that it is genuinely opaque even to its creators are actions which shade into one another.
Far more importantly, the system may simply come to seem mechanical and lacking in adaptability. Once players understand exactly what it is that they must do, how they must do it, and when they must do it, they are likely to find competition to be boring and repetitive. I think this is a major reason that baroque complexity is added by design to many human systems, games and otherwise: because they are systems which need to simulate adaptability, portability, flexibility, which need to mimic the organicism and mutability of life itself. In a way, that’s what successful art in all its forms actually accomplishes: the deliberate creation of mystery, of a work which supercedes the narrow intent of its maker. But a system which requires ongoing use, even the mechanics of an online game, needs a functionality that art does not.
In a limited way, I think the dilemma that some game developers have encountered echoes the vastly more consequential problems of the current global financial system. For both instrumental and accidental reasons, I think the financial system has acquired this same kind of baroque complexity, this same kind of disconnect between the top level that believes it has control over the system’s workings and numerous veiled or incomprehensible mechanisms that have been churning away busily well beyond that control. Like a virtual world whose design has functionally become impossible to easily control, the financial system may now be too complex to repair. Changing one feature may lead to undesirable and unpredictable consequences elsewhere in the system. Pulling on one thread may cause another part of the tapestry to unravel.
And like virtual worlds, there are stakeholders who have a continuing interest in the parts of the Rube Goldberg machine to which they have adapted themselves. In a virtual world that has gone badly wrong, where many players are fleeing its failure, there will always be a few players who have become adroit at using one or more of its broken subsystems. They will be the ones who complain most strenuously at any changes. The emptier the world, the louder their complaints will sound.
Players can leave all their virtual worlds for good: their ludic desires can find other expression, other opportunities. A developer who guts out everything inside of a broken virtual world to replace it with some simpler, cleaner design can hope to bring back all the lost customers, but we know very well that players who quit a virtual world almost never come back. So sometimes you stick with whatever remnant you’ve got left, no matter how dysfunctional the complexities of the design, and ride with them right out to the thinnest margins of profit before closing for good.
The difference between a game and the real world is that the capital which can move away from the broken complexities of the financial system can’t just stop circulating altogether. It needs to go somewhere, wants to go somewhere. The choice may be similar, however. Listen to the actors who’ve adapted to the dysfunctionality of the system, who’ve adapted to live on some cog of the broken machinery, and they won’t want a change. Neither will people who work within some fragment of the system that works pretty well, because they know that a fix to what’s broken has a decent chance to break what works. Gut out the whole system to try and start anew? That’s rarely possible in real life. (So far it’s never really worked with games, either.) Sometimes the best answer is to build a simple, elegant alternative to run alongside the old clanking complexity, to have the System 2.0, and hope that over time, there’s a migration from the old to the new.