Emergence is possibly the most powerful of these three, but it is very much a function of the intersection of flexibility and responsiveness. To put it simply, emergence is the unexpected that emerges naturally from play (as contrasted wit merely arbitrary or random surprises). The result of several creative people working together on a game is that it will almost always produce unanticipated results, usually in an awesome way. These surprises, from funny scenes to crazy plans to truly unintended consequences, create the real difference between play and the kinds of fiction it represents.
Now, emergence is possible in video games. Any toolset that allows humans to interact has the possibility of spawning the unexpected. Consider that a game of tag could break out on a counterstrike map – it’s not what the game is designed for, but the players have made it so. Emergence in video games tends to be very interesting, since it’s all about the manipulations of a limited tool set, but the limitations on the range of play are also limits on the range of emergence. Even with very creative players, the tools will eventually become a hindrance, when you attempt to play a courtly romance in Halo. Of course, one of the fun things about video games is that someone might write a mod to make it possible, but that’s a slow solution.
In contrast, emergence is almost impossible to avoid on the tabletop. Get people together and give them some freedom, and crazy stuff will come of it. Yet despite this, many GMs view this as an undesirable outcome, and attempt to lock down play as much as possible, to either quelch emergence entirely, to keep it channeled to very specific avenues (such as encouraging it in tactics, but not in the rest of gameplay). And, obviously, some games are better or worse at helping this along, though ultimately the real limiter is the people involved. A GM or player unwilling to deviate from rules as written has, effectively, accepted the same limitations video games operate under. This is not always a bad thing (constraints can breed creativity, after all) but it’s still going to depend on the hearts and minds of the people involved to figure out how to make that work.
As with video games, these are not intended to be things that ONLY RPGs can do, just a thought about what they do well. All straightforward enough so far, but tomorrow I’m going to look at some slightly different territory – ARGs.