To the surprise (or at least disappointment) of many, it turns out that some players in Elite: Dangerous found an exciting and fresh way to do something beyond the pale. These players managed to find a way to build a form of indentured servitude or slave labor into the game starting from first principles, which is kind of an unexpected way of using the game’s mechanics to build something. You could even get lost down the rabbit hole of “wow, someone built something unusual using game mechanics” before you remember that what was built was an operation that lied to and gaslit newbies and exploited the heck out of their labor.
Let’s be unambiguous about something. If you are cheering this on, you are slavery cheerleaders, since that’s the actual gameplay that has emerged here. Naturally, we have certain people eager to defend this as emergent gameplay, which it technically is. But just the fact that something is emergent does not change the fact that awful behavior is still awful. People finding new ways to harm, deceive, or create misery is not a new or revolutionary concept in MMOs, and we shouldn’t be celebrating that just on the basis of its being player-built.
Taking a step back, it’s worth considering what “emergent gameplay” even means because it’s a fuzzy term. Strictly speaking, it refers to any sort of gameplay that the game permits but isn’t set up to reward or facilitate. A fine example of that are specific player-created challenges, like finishing an RPG without ever using a certain common ability or leveling up.
However, the colloquial use of the term in the MMO sphere tends to refer to the interplay of systems behaving in a way not intended by the developers but still entirely valid within the game. In an open PvP game, for example, the game may not explicitly have mechanics to take over roads and declare that those roads are toll paths, but you can get your friends together to blockade the road and kill anyone who refuses to pay the toll. It is emergent gameplay.
It is also kind of an asshole move. And it’d be just as emergent if you killed people regardless of whether or not they paid the toll. Or if you promised to trade someone something and instead traded them a worthless item with a similar icon. Or if you camped the new player area offering to guide people, then abandoned them in a high-level area after teleporting.
All of these are emergent bits of gameplay. The designers didn’t intend any of them. All of them are also intentional jerk moves.
That doesn’t mean that emergent gameplay has to be a jerk move. The example I always like? Ninja in Final Fantasy XI, long accepted as one of the game’s tanks, was entirely an example of emergent gameplay.
One of Ninja’s abilities, Utsusemi, makes the character completely immune to damage through use of automatic dodges. Someone realized that with proper timing, this could make a Ninja able to completely bypass taking damage, thereby opening up the option of having very different party compositions since the tank was now taking little to no damage. As a result, players started using this particular property to turn the job into a full-on tank, overcoming the fact that it was never intended to be one through gearing and ability choices.
This wasn’t intended gameplay, but the designers even recognized it as functionally appropriate play within the context of the game’s mechanics. Later developments were aimed at making Ninja tanking less dominant than it had been for a time, but it remained emergent gameplay that was later accepted by designers.
And you’ll note that in this example, no one was getting hurt or scammed in the process.
Heck, the first few instances of the Corrupted Blood incident in World of Warcraft were legitimate bits of emergent gameplay. Certainly the designers hadn’t intended to make a virulent plague spread through the game, and the first few people who caused it to happen had no idea that it would happen. It was a natural interplay of systems that wasn’t intended but wound up working together despite that fact.
Once people knew how it worked, of course, the usual suspects jumped in to weaponize it. And if you’re noticing a theme that a whole lot of this “emergent gameplay” involves finding new creative and unexpected ways to screw over other players, that’s not by accident. Because even beyond the colloquial use that we’ve already covered, “emergent gameplay” has wound up discovering a very different meaning: “You can’t punish me for finding a creative way to disrupt the game without technically breaking any rules!”
This particular way of looking at games treats emergent gameplay as a priori good, the entire point of online games, and as far more important than what is actually done with these systems. The logic then goes that if someone can find a creative way to break the spirit of the rules rather than the letter of them, punishment should be forestalled because the emergent gameplay is more important than what emerged.
This, my friends, is bullshit.
If you’ve ever read a tabletop RPG rulebook, one of the first things that those books tend to include is a statement that the rules can be changed or rewritten if needed for the demands of the game. This assumption underpins the entirety of the spirit in which the rest of the book is written, and it’s meant in no small part as an immediate backstop against rule abuses like the “bag of rats” trick. The person running the game is well within their rights to say “yes, that matches the rules as written, but it’s also obviously ridiculous and you can’t do that.”
Go ahead and try to counter that by arguing that it’s emergent gameplay. See how fast you get thrown out of the group. I’m going to go ahead and just say “quickly.”
Rules are there as a backstop for what people can anticipate being done. Yes, players are going to come up with emergent ways of using those systems that designers perhaps could not have anticipated. But that does not mean that the spirit of the rules no longer counts. No, there were no specific rules in place in Elite to prevent people from exploiting slave labor, but that’s not because the designers wanted to allow it; that’s because they were surprised someone came up with it in the first place.
Emergent gameplay is nice in theory. It’s neat. It’s really interesting to see players find organic solutions to problems or take a given system and do something unexpected with it. There’s always a lot more creativity in a lot of players enjoying a system than in a handful of developers testing it out, and it’s worthwhile to celebrate many examples of player creativity.
But the fact that the gameplay is unexpected does not in and of itself excuse it from moral weight. Players do not get a free pass because they managed to invent a type of abusive behavior the designers didn’t intend. And if that’s the way you like to play your games, the real test for the companies running these games is whether or not they’re more concerned with what you did than whether or not it happens to be an unexpected trick of system interplay.