Studying complex systems via video games

This article caught my eye because it was in the MIT alumni publication yet was written by a Williams College professor — a rare collision of my two alma maters.

That was my excuse… but then it turned out to also be a really interesting article.  Author Morgan McGuire writes, “modern video games… are arguably the most complex systems engineered in any discipline, ever.”  That had never occurred to me before.  As one example, he points out that the US federal tax code is about a third the length of a standard video game’s source code (not to mention the graphics, textures, maps, etc. that accompany it).

Unlike most engineering disciplines (including software engineering) where the goal is to make the solution as simple as possible, in game design complexity is often desirable because it makes the game more interesting to play.  Often, amazing complexity can be achieved with just a few interacting rules.  I remember reading that the game designer behind the Sim series (SimCity, The Sims, etc.) was always looking for simple yet powerful sets of rules that put the user in control of an essentially infinite number of options — consider the limitless number of possible cities that can be built in SimCity.

McGuire’s thesis is that game design strategies should be better formalized so that they can be applied to designing or improving complex systems in the real world such as government policy, economic regulation, social and technical networks, etc.  We need to be careful with this analogy though, because the goal in most of these disciplines is still to simplify if possible.  So the hope is that by analyzing complex games, we’ll be better able to understand the complexities that inevitably arise despite our best efforts in real world systems.