Spontaneous order is one of those ideas you can find in all areas of life once you understand it. But equally interesting is witnessing people noticing the phenomenon who have never studied the subject but find examples of it in seemingly obscure domains. I found an example of a video game reviewer and journalist noticing spontaneous order at work in a video essay posted to YouTube. The subject? How video games use color to convey ideas. He opens by saying:

As you can probably tell from my dress sense, I don’t place a lot of importance on color. But I do find it interesting that, with no apparent discussion or collusion on the subject, video games have developed their own unique color language. Isn’t it interesting how, in the world of live-service gear grinding, that green means uncommon, purple means rare, and orange means super rare? Why is that always the case? Who decided that? I don’t remember participating in a vote. But this is just scratching the surface. Interface designers have long been able to employ specific colors to instantly convey certain concepts to the player with no additional explanation required.

He goes on to list out various colors and what they are often used to convey. Part of what makes this a good example of a spontaneous order can be found in his above comment. These systems and conventions around color occurred “with no apparent discussion or collusion on the subject,” without anyone so much as “participating in a vote.” That is to say, the patterns he identifies have emerged as the result of human action but not of deliberate human design. But there are a few other elements of spontaneous order on display here. 

First, a spontaneous order can often seem messy and even contradictory at first glance. For example, when he discusses how video games have used the color green, he notes that what green conveys can be “all over the place.” It’s often associated with health and healing in games, but at the same time it can be used to the opposite effect to signal poison. On other occasions, it can be used to indicate elemental damage, sometimes signaling “poison, acid, plant, and even wind” based damage. As someone with many years of gaming experience, I can think of examples of all of these. And what’s curious is that despite green being used to indicate a wide variety of different and even contradictory things, I’ve never once been confused about what it was meant to signal in any specific context. That is, I never once came across something green in a game thinking it would restore health only to find, to my surprise, that was poison instead. This is because color is just one of a number of ways ideas are conveyed, and other points of a game’s context make it clearer what “green” is supposed to mean in a given case. Yet I doubt I could specifically articulate exactly what these other factors are and in what combination they are used to precisely indicate what green means in this specific case. I just know I when I see it. The information used is not the kind of information that is easily articulated and categorized into discrete rules. 

Second, once rules and conventions have emerged through this process, sticking to them becomes important, because common knowledge allows people to reliably know what to expect in their environment. When game developers ignore the established order about what colors convey, they end up confusing the gamer. Watching the above mentioned video triggered the memory imp in my brain to dig up an old essay from years ago discussing an example of exactly that issue. In this case, the issue was red barrels. In a video game with a heavy focus on shooting, if you see a barrel that is red, there is a 100% chance that shooting the barrel will make it explode, causing massive damage to nearby enemies. (And in video games, the bad guys are usually sporting enough to ensure their base of operations is just littered with these barrels because…reasons?) The “exploding red barrel” is among the oldest clichés in video games. One game developer tried to break free of the cliché by making their exploding barrels green instead of red:

A representative of the Bulletstorm design team, known as Arcade, blogged about the process that went into making the exploding barrels in the game. They initially wanted to go with green barrels to counter the red stereotype. In the heat of the action, however, they discovered players largely ignored the barrels; they would see a flash of green while running and it didn’t register as “explosive.” In this case, the team rightly decided that conveying an instant message was more important that making a style statement. 

This is a trivial but real example of how the conventions established by a spontaneous order, even if they are seemingly arbitrary, are still valuable because they help communicate important information and coordinate behavior and establish expectations. 

Lastly, the full set of rules and ideas embedded in a spontaneous order can’t be fully categorized. This comes across in the video towards the end, when a suggestion is made for people in the comments to “mention any video game color associations I missed.” There are plenty of examples to be found in the comments, and I could think of a few more myself. This reflects how any attempt to identify the rules that emerge from a spontaneous order will always be limited and partial – not being the deliberate design of any human mind, they can’t be fully reduced to a system of explicit, articulated rules by a human mind. This doesn’t make it pointless to attempt to tease out what those rules are, of course. But we should always bear in mind that no attempt will every fully capture all the relevant information.