How Complex Systems And Chaos Theory Work, According To Emoji

How do neighborhoods become segregated, forest fires spread, and herd immunity work? Emoji can help explain it all.

Emoji are a great way to express yourself. Through Simulating the World, the latest interactive web toy by artist Nicky Case, they’re more than just cute stickers. They become a tool for thinking about systems, illuminating how everything from forest fires to flu pandemics start, or spread out of control.

Simulating the World is a time-lapsed grid that is semi-randomly populated with whatever emoji you choose, according to certain user-defined rules: what happens when an emoji spawns to another emoji that is different, for example. It doesn’t sound like much, but used intelligently, this emoji grid is enough to simulate, if not predict, how all sorts of systems work: how a bolt of lightning can decimate a forest during a drought year, for example, or how neighborhoods can desegregate over time.

“All complex systems have things in common,” says Case, explaining why his simulator can be used to explore so many different things. “So in a way… Financial crises are like forest fires. Terrorist groups are like termite colonies. Pandemics are like a GIF people won’t stop spreading… you can learn a few core lessons about all systems from any system.”

Simulating the World is a sequel of sorts to a previous project by Case, called Parable of the Polygons, an array of triangles and squares that simulate major social problems, like discrimination and diversity. “After I released Parable, everyone wanted to add another ‘race’ of shapes, or have a wider range of ‘shapism,’ or model other social/economic institutions,” Case says. “At the time, all they could do was fiddle with a couple sliders. But it got me thinking, what if people could edit everything in a simulation, without needing to touch the code? What if everyone could easily read and write in complex systems?”

What made Simulating the World possible from a technical perspective was emoji, which Case calls a “comprehensive, standardized art pack that comes pre-installed on everyone’s computers and phones.” By using emoji as symbols, Case realized that his sim could be applied to nearly any complex system, without any custom programming or art.

Although Simulating the World is a surprisingly deep delve into the logic behind complex systems, one thing Case wants to stress is that simulating the world through emoji is not the same as predicting it. “If there’s one thing that chaos theory predicts, it’s that you can’t predict very much or very far,” Case points out. “The world is too chaotic for that, and simulations can only help marginally.”

But that’s not to say that such emoji simulations are useless. For example, creating a sim of how emoji bank robbers and emoji police officers interact might not help us predict a crime wave, but could help us prevent one by giving us a better understanding of how they begin. “That’s how artificial societies can change our real societies,” says Case. “Sims can give us a deep understanding of the game.”

Check out Simulating the World here.

About the author

John Brownlee is a design writer who lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. You can email him at