The Power of Creativity: How Game Design Changes the Way We Think
Game designers, who need to quickly capture and hold players’ attention and interest, need to understand human psychology and culture.
Every summer, fifty fifth graders converge on Manhattan for a week-long game design camp called Mobile Quest and the magic happens. In just a few days, the familiar cityscape is transformed. Wire-mesh trash cans on every street corner become portals to a vast underground enemy fortress. The squirrels of 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 a significant shift in campers’ perspective is underway. They begin to see the world not as it is, but as it could be. They begin to experience each object as a possibility. They begin to sense in each encounter with the “real world” an opportunity to rewrite the underlying value, function, or meaning of its objects in support of the games they learn to design and play.
This shift in perspective is hugely empowering, especially for young people transitioning to adulthood, with all its alien rules and expectations. It puts them in contact with their own creative power, their ability to act in the world, to participate, to choose. And because all of this happens in the highly collaborative context of camp, they simultaneously realize that creativity, power, and agency are only as valuable as they connect, engage, and inspire others. others. In other words, the fountain takes on the reality of a spaceship only because a group of children have been inspired to come together and agree to play the same game, to play by the same set of rules.
This kind of empowerment is one of the first fruits of starting to think and act like a game designer. There are also other fruits. One of the most enjoyable comes from a game designer’s tendency to see the world as a complex, dynamic, and highly interactive system rather than a collection of isolated things. It’s the difference between looking out the window and seeing the sky, water, trees and birds and looking out the window and seeing it all with an understanding of its interconnectedness and interdependence – plus how you fit in. idea, beyond the reach of a fifth grader. In fact, kids pick it up quickly with no problem. Maybe it’s because it’s an idea naturally embodied in games, and games are a language that children speak.
A game is a complex system. It’s a miniature world, in many ways analogous to the world we live in. The game takes place in a space or setting. It has its own physical laws or rules. It engages people or actors, who generate results by making choices and taking action. Learning largely occurs through trial and error, and through this learning one or more clear goals emerge. There is a sense of progress, a system of feedback, incentives, rewards, punishments, reputations. The only difference is that the game world was 100% designed and it is an experience that players can choose to walk away from. This means that game designers need to quickly capture and hold players’ attention and interest. They have to imagine what the game they want to create will look like, and then build a system logic that can deliver what they envision to a wide range of players in a wide range of situations. This requires game designers to develop a deep understanding of human psychology and culture. It also forces them to become keen observers, as chances are they won’t come up with a final design on the first try. They will need to test the gaming experience produced by their design, a practice called play-testing.
Game testing is done by observing players as they move through the game world. And this is where the kind of systems thinking practiced by game designers gets really interesting. In game testing, designers learn to move from observing an undesirable outcome – a frustrated player walking away – to hypothesizing what produced that outcome, to modifying game components – by adding more time or subtracting enemies – to another round of play and observation tests. The process is repeated over and over and over again, until, as a whole, the game gives the desired gaming experience. Essentially, 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 intended result. For anyone looking to transform a large organization, or even do something in a small team, this will sound familiar. And how many of us wish we could start practicing this skill in fifth grade?
For many children, this is their first contact with systems thinking as expressed in a design method. For many, it is also the first time they have recognized their creative potential. Together, these two experiences can produce a huge appetite for learning as children seek to better understand the world we share in order to create better, more engaging games. Or as one parent, Wendy Woon, said of her son, “I’ve never seen him so excited about the possibilities and the process of going back to school!”
Image: Wikimedia Commons.