Transmission in Motion

Seminar Blogs

“Does Design Allow for True Emergence?” – Dennis Jansen

Emergence is the manifestation of a property of an object, phenomenon or system, not by virtue of any single one of its parts possessing that property, but through the coming-together and interaction of its different constituting elements. Through emergence, a phenomenon becomes truly “more than the sum of its parts” (Holland 1997, 32). For example, one might see traffic jams as an instance of emergence: our freeways were, initially at least, not designed with the idea that kilometers-long rows of vehicles would come to a periodical standstill on them—but the interaction between different actors in the system of infrastructure at some point will almost inevitably produce a traffic jam anyway. John Holland identifies boardgames as the prime examples of emergence:

Though the rules must be fully and compactly specified for the game to be “playable”, they can be contrived freely relative to the real world, subject only to incidental physical constraints involved in the movement of the playing pieces. This freedom from direct physical constraints encourages modifications in the rules, accompanied by empirical judgments as to which rules yield a better game. Each new try amounts to a new miniature universe governed by fully defined laws. It is not a long step from such an outlook to the idea that the world itself might be rule-governed. (Holland 1997, 37)

These insights bring me to the question of design, and whether design truly allows for emergence. The notion of emergence remains quite a popular one in videogame design and game studies, which is seen as “properties that are not immediately deductible from the game rules” (Juul 2002, 326). My concern here is that the discourse around interactions between players and rulesets and the supposed ensuing emergent gameplay seems to embrace an uncritical acceptance of (inter)active media, wherein ‘player agency’ reigns supreme and where the Author is well and truly dead. How much agency does a player truly have when the system he/she is interacting with is, first and foremost, what Alexander Galloway has termed an “allegory of control” in which the player is “learning, internalizing, and becoming intimate with a massive, multipart, global algorithm” (Galloway 2006, 90) in order to complete the game?

Figure 1 By MichaelMaggs – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Finally, I would consider the following. To my mind, positing the “art of government” (Foucault 2008, 1) as a ‘designerly’ practice comes almost naturally. Design is about managing human/nonhuman bodies and populations, and like the art of government, our thoughts about what good design entails have gone well beyond notions of discipline and towards notions of control (Deleuze 1992, 3–4). Now, not only are we expected to move ‘freely’ through limited spaces and within universalized standards, but the system is also flexible enough to maintain control in the face of a certain degree of deviance. If emergence ever truly exists in such a framework, it does not exist for very long. The emergent property is often co-opted by the system as an intentional feature in later iterations. Emergence then comes pre-packaged, pre-designed.


  • Deleuze, Gilles. 1992. “Postscript on the Societies of Control.” October 59: 3–7.
  • Foucault, Michel. 2008. The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-79. Edited by Michel Senellart. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Galloway, Alexander R. 2006. “Allegories of Control.” In Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, 85–106. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Holland, John H. 1997. “Emergence.” Philosophica 59 (1): 11–40.
  • Juul, Jesper. 2002. “The Open and the Closed: Games of Emergence and Games of Progression.” In Proceedings of Computer Games and Digital Cultures Conference, edited by Frans Mäyrä, 323–29. Tampere: Tampere University Press.