The Power of Creativity: How Game Design Changes the Way We Think

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Game designers, who must capture and retain players' attention and interest quickly, need to understand human psychology and culture

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Every summer, fifty fifth graders converge on Manhattan for a week-long game design camp called Mobile Quest and magic happens. In only a few days, the familiar urban landscape is transformed. The mesh metal trash cans on every street corner become portals to a vast underground enemy fortress. The squirrels in Washington Square Park become spies burying secrets. And the huge central fountain becomes a sunken spaceship.

Of course, the fountain is still a fountain. But an important shift in the campers' perspective is underway. They are beginning to view the world not as it is, but as it could be. They start to experience every object as a possibility. They begin to sense in every encounter with the "real world" an opportunity to re-write the underlying value, function, or meaning of its objects in support of the games they are learning to design and play.

The mesh metal trash cans on every street corner become portals to a vast underground enemy fortress.

This shift in perspective is tremendously empowering, especially for young people transitioning into adulthood, with all its alien rules and expectations. It puts them in touch with their own creative power, their agency to act in the world, to participate, to choose. And because all this occurs in the highly collaborative context of a camp, they simultaneously realize that creativity, power, and agency have value only insofar as they connect to, engage with, and inspire other people. In other words, the fountain takes on the reality of a spaceship only because a group of kids was inspired to come together and agree to play the same game, to abide by the same set of rules.

This kind of empowerment is one of the first fruits of beginning to think and act like a game designer. There are other fruits as well. One of the sweetest comes from a game designer's tendency to see the world as a complex, dynamic, highly interactive system rather than as a collection of isolated things. It is the difference between looking out the window and seeing sky, water, trees, and birds and looking out the window and seeing all this with an understanding of its interconnectedness and interdependence -- plus how you fit in. This may seem like an advanced idea, beyond the reach of a fifth grader. In fact, kids pick it up fast with no problem. This may be because it is an idea naturally embodied in games, and games are a language kids speak.

A game is a complex system. It is a miniature world, in many ways analogous to the world we live in. The game occurs in a space or setting. It has its own physical laws or rules. It engages people or players, who generate outcomes by making choices and taking actions. Learning occurs largely by trial and error, and through this learning a clear goal or goals emerge. There is a sense of progress, a system of feedback, incentives, reward, punishment, reputation. The only difference is that the game world has been 100 percent designed, and it is an experience players can choose to walk away from. This means game designers must capture and retain players' attention and interest quickly. They must imagine how the game they wish to create will look and feel, then construct a system logic capable of delivering what they envision to a wide array of players in a wide array of situations. This requires game designers to develop a deep understanding of human psychology and culture. It also requires them to become keen observers, because chances are they will not arrive at a final design on their first try. They will have to test the experience of play produced by their design, a practice called play-testing.

Play-testing is done by observing players as they move through the world of the game. And this is where the kind of systems thinking practiced by game designers becomes really interesting. In play-testing, designers learn to move from the observation of some undesired outcome -- a player getting frustrated and walking away -- to a hypothesis as to what produced that outcome, to an alteration of game components -- adding more time or subtracting enemies -- to another round of play-testing and observation. The process is repeated again and again and again, until, as a whole, the game yields the desired experience of play. In essence, designers develop the skill of making small adjustments to complex systems -- made even more complex by the involvement of humans making choices -- in order to produce an envisioned result. For anyone looking to transform a large organization, or even to get something done in a small team, this will sound familiar. And how many of us wish we could have started practicing this skill back in fifth grade?

For many kids this is their first brush with systems thinking as expressed in a method of design. For many it is also the first time they recognize their creative potential. Together, these two experiences can produce a tremendous appetite for learning as kids seek to better understand the world we share in order to build better, more engaging games. Or as one parent, Wendy Woon, said about her son, "I've never seen him so excited about the possibilities and the process of going back to school!"

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

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Brian Waniewski is managing director at Institute of Play, a non-profit working at the intersection of games and learning. He is also a partner at the future forecasting firm Popular Operations.

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