Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

3 June, 2010

Startling insight about interactivity
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 11:42 AM

A post over at the Rampant Coyote sparked a discussion where Jay Barnson (the blog author) posted the following in a comment:

We talk about “Show, don’t tell.” An important principle in linear entertainment. But could “invite” be a more critical principle still for interactive media? Are modern games so focused on “showing” that they fail to “invite” the player to engage their imagination and contribute to the story? Are the games, effectively, treating the player like a passive audience and saying, “Sit down, shut up, watch this cool presentation and I’ll tell you when to press the buttons to make it do nifty stuff.”

A startling amount of insight about some of the problems I see in modern design. Read on for a few more thoughts.

The post was about how game design might be seen as not progressing in the last 30 years. I suggested that perhaps it’s a problem with not enough imagination in a mainstream audience. I posted:

The problem is that imagination is a scarce resource. In the good ol’ days of gaming, it was mostly the domain of geeks who had a surplus of imagination. We could easily take a look at a 16×16 2-frame animated icon and see a brave sword-swinging Paladin instead. Unfortunately, not everyone has such a vivid imagination.

My theory is that gaming has gotten wider acceptance and as the gaming population has gotten older, we’ve started to lose some of that imagination. The focus on graphics has been because a lot more people see that simple icon as simply an ugly icon, not what it tries to represent; good graphics makes it easier for people with less imagination to get engrossed in a game.

Jay’s point above is related, I think. “Inviting” the player to participate in a game requires them to have enough imagination to participate. It’s kind of like when kids ask an adult to play cops and robbers. The kids run around joyfully while a typical adult will play half-heartedly and maybe say “bang” a few times. The kid can enjoy the game for a long time, while the adult gets bored easily. But, that same adult might sit down for a few hours and watch a cops and robbers style movie.

So, perhaps this is why a sense of adventure has been missing from our games. Perhaps what’s really missing is that games cater to people who don’t have enough imagination to maintain that sense of adventure? The tightly regimented theme park mentality works well for most people because then they don’t have to think or fill in the gaps. But, those of us who don’t mind going off the rails feel constrained and limited.

What do you think? Does having a good imagination help make games better? Do games that don’t allow for much imagination hold the players, and perhaps the industry as a whole, back? Or, does appealing to the lowest common denominator just make too much business sense to ignore?


  1. Good imagination allows us to add when there is room to add, but if there is no room, imagination just shows us the box.

    Comment by Klepsacovic — 3 June, 2010 @ 12:01 PM

  2. This reminds me of something my brother showed me last month. A friend of his was about to give his dissertation at MIT. He did a study where he had 2 different groups, one a group of designers and the other a group of improv comedians, come up with new product ideas. He initially found that the comedians came up with more and more creative ideas. Then he took things a step further and put the designers through an improv skills workshop. After that the designers’ creativity went up; closing the gap between the two groups.

    What does this mean for the discussion here?

    People can be trained to be more creative. Creativity isn’t quite the same as imagination, but it’s pretty close.

    I’ve got the full abstract sitting in my email box somewhere. If there’s interest I’ll see if I can copy/paste the whole thing here.

    Comment by Vargen — 3 June, 2010 @ 12:30 PM

  3. I’d like to read it, Vargen. More than the abstract if that’s an option. :)

    I definitely think the idea has merit, that people who lack imagination, or perhaps a better way to state it would be that they have underused imagination, need games to be more concrete, to show more.

    Most people, especially given the structure of most jobs/careers, aren’t motivated to use their imagination or creativity. They are trained to be consumers rather than creators.

    Comment by Jason — 3 June, 2010 @ 12:42 PM

  4. I really love creative games that allow me to explore and experiment. I’m a firm “Johnny” in MTG speak. Thing is, I think that I’m a minority among gamers. It’s hard to make money off of me by enticing me with pixel shaders and sequelitis. I want meat on my games, but meat is expensive and time-consuming to produce… especially when SPAM is more profitable.

    I do think there’s a market for games that are more inviting, fostering experimentation and creativity. It’s just not the mass market.

    Comment by Tesh — 3 June, 2010 @ 1:29 PM

  5. I think it depends on the type of game.

    Children playing Cops & Robbers in the back yard don’t want to have their game limited by rules, they want to both show and tell themselves: imagination is king.

    Those same children when playing a board game will want structure and goals, imagination can still be used to enhance the experience, but it isn’t necessary – I doubt Kasparov pictures medieval fantasy battles when he’s moving pieces around the board.

    Computer gaming is also a curious medium. Fiction has the advantage that even though the story is set in stone, the imagination is employed to create the imagery associated with the story. Movies both show and tell the story, yet they are still a very valid form of entertainment. Games are beginning to find their place in between these two, in the fact that they will show the world in which the story takes place, much like a movie, but that story need not be set in stone. Current technology limits how much freedom a player can have in exercising their imagination in this regard, but I think many game developers are aware that this flexibility of story is a rich and barely tapped feature of computer gaming, and they are constantly pushing at the boundaries of this fledgling medium.

    Comment by Melmoth — 3 June, 2010 @ 3:11 PM

  6. I don’t think interactivity in games requires a great imagination to appreciate. Even a simple game like poker is more interactive then any quests that MMOs offer, and doesn’t take any special skills to enjoy but rewards skillful play. Just like Vargens post suggested that once some instruction was given, even the ones not used to improvising impoved dramatically and probaby even enjoyed the excercise. I’ve heard the same experience with people who are afraid of pvp but then run with some folks who have experience and then turn into pvp lovers themselves. So when it comes down to it, if a good MMO that breaks the mold comes along – players will come!

    Comment by Coppertopper — 3 June, 2010 @ 6:12 PM

  7. This reminds me of the controversy books movies. Movies make explicit what imagination has to do for the reader. Well modern people tend to read less… so in fact imagination is not really trained as before.

    For me, personally, I love reading books but hate watching movies. For me all the explicit imagery destroys my own images which I have reading, something which I strongly felt when I watched the first few Harry Potter movies (after reading the books, of course). I just couldn’t stand how different the characters were in the movie. Same goes for games, I think. I love those older games without all the explicit graphics and stuff.

    Comment by Tobias Scheuer — 4 June, 2010 @ 12:04 AM

  8. That’s not true, because there is no real difference in quality between works that use imagination and ones that use less. The radio drama version of Star Wars forces you to use more imagination, but no one would ever say that it was better than the film because of it. Entertaining, yeah. Great use of the medium, yeah. But quality is dependent on the work alone: because a book requires you to use more imagination doesn’t mean its better.

    I think the problem is people talk a lot about interactive media and forget that games are well, games. What story are you inviting me to, the story of killing 500 crabs to get to level 32 so I can use Cure 3? Maybe that is why we aren’t all that creative: who would be when a game is like factory work?

    Comment by Dblade — 4 June, 2010 @ 7:18 AM

  9. Well for one looking at plain text and/or crude ascii art switches imagination to “full on” mode -like with reading a book. Its different when you staring at detailed environment in 3d – there is no obvious gaps to fill, imagination is replaced with observation.

    Comment by Max — 4 June, 2010 @ 7:46 AM

  10. I’m in the “people naturally like different stuff” camp. I think there’s a minority of the current gamer population that enjoys imagining things, while most of today’s gamers are happier being presented with an action-oriented experience that doesn’t ask them to engage intellectually or emotionally.

    That, to me, explains the usual design conversation about User Generated Content. Some creative soul from the (minority) pro-imagination camp will express the view that letting players create their own content in Game X would be wonderful. And for that person, and probably a number of others like them, it would be. But then one of the many cynics from the “only high-speed action counts as gameplay” camp will inevitably bring up Sturgeon’s Law to “prove” that UGC can’t possibly pay for the time and money required to develop it. In effect, the Sturgeon’s Law objection is a convenient way of saying “making up my own content would require too much engagement from me, so it doesn’t interest me as gameplay, therefore we don’t need any further conversation about it.”

    In other words, while some people would like games to be more inviting, others prefer games that don’t make demands on their heads or hearts… and there are more of the latter playing games these days.

    Which brings me to the bottom-line question: what does it mean to be more “inviting” toward players? What part or parts of a game can be tweaked to make that game more inviting to a player, that would encourage that gamer to more deeply interact with the elements of that game?

    Can you get there with just mechanics, with formal rules of play that define and/or require specific actions the player can take? Or would you get more inviting bang for your development buck by enhancing the dynamics of the world in which the action of the game occurs, by giving the gameworld more responsiveness to player actions?

    Or is a broad-spectrum approach needed, where every aspect of the game is carefully designed to encourage and reward continuous choice-making by players?

    I personally favor the latter approach, but what publisher would pay to make such a game? And how many people would really want to play it?

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 4 June, 2010 @ 8:28 AM

  11. Here’s the abstract. I’ll see if I can get ahold of the full paper at some point, but things are about to get busy for me so I dunno when that will be.

    Haha and Aha! : Creativity, Idea Generation, Improvisational Humor, and Product Design

    Barry Kudrowitz

    DATE: Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

    TIME: 2:00 P.M.

    ROOM: 3-133


    It is widely recognized that innovation and creativity is the new
    competitive battleground for product development firms. Engineers and
    product designers are now expected to be highly creative, prolific
    idea generators in addition to being analytically competent. Thus, it
    is of interest to study methods to improve a designer’s idea
    generation capabilities. It is believed that wit (spontaneous humor
    production) is strongly related to creativity as both involve making
    non-obvious connections between seemingly unrelated things. This
    thesis looks into the realm of humor and improvisational comedy to
    suggest means of enhancing creative output in blue-sky product design
    idea generation.

    We have found that the ability to quickly generate many ideas is
    strongly correlated (r2=.82) with being able to come up with a
    promising, creative idea. It was also found that, with appropriate
    training, individuals can learn to become more prolific idea
    generators. Furthermore, improvisational comedians were more
    proficient at new product idea generation than professional product
    designers, and methods for training comedians can be effectively
    adapted to product design idea generation.

    In a study where 84 participants (students, professional designers and
    improvisational comedians) took a cartoon caption humor test and a
    nominal product brainstorming test, we found that improvisational
    comedians on average produced 20% more product ideas and 25% more
    creative product ideas than professional product designers.
    Furthermore, the few individuals that were highly prolific in both
    creative product ideation and humorous cartoon caption production had
    an improvisational comedy background. Many of the games used in
    improvisational comedy training are intended to promote associative
    thinking. We designed an improvisational comedy workshop composed of
    these association-based games. A group of 11 subjects who
    participated in this workshop increased their idea output on average
    by 37% in a subsequent product brainstorming session. Our findings
    suggest that improvisational comedy games are a useful warm-up for
    idea generation, that prolific generation is not a domain-specific
    ability and that it is possible to teach creativity. Ultimately, this
    work can lead to the development of tools and methods that designers
    can use to improve their idea generation skills.


    Prof. David Wallace (chair), Department of Mechanical Engineering, MIT

    Prof. Woodie Flowers, Department of Mechanical Engineering, MIT

    Prof. Maria Yang, Department of Mechanical Engineering, MIT

    Prof. Doris Bergen, Department of Educational Psychology, Miami University

    Prof. Nicola Senin, Department of Industrial Engineering, University of Parma

    Comment by Vargen — 4 June, 2010 @ 10:48 AM

  12. Mix and Match Magic

    [...] of a magical reality can and should produce new and interesting effects. I’d like to invite players (more Psychochild and Rampant Coyote!) to indulge in a bit of creativity within the game [...]

    Pingback by Tish Tosh Tesh — 25 June, 2010 @ 5:20 AM

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