Andy Mudrak, Interactive Designer

Thoughts on Openness, Creativity in Game Design, Thanks to Idea Festival

I set aside some time for myself this year to go to some conferences that were non-technical and not specifically game-related or game-focused. I chose one such conference called the “Idea Festival”, held every year in Louisville, Kentucky. For me, it provoked thoughts on what I could do with future game designs, and plenty for general self-improvement. My shared take on this is truly such a minimal, one-percent (or less) slice of all the possibilities of what one person might come away with from Idea Festival.

What is Idea Festival?

Giving a description for Idea Festival has been a little difficult for me each time I’m asked about it, because it can be so many things at once. It’s an open book, exposure to new thinking, with a focus on a better future. If I were to make an analogy, I’d say it reminds me of TED (assuming you’re familiar with them). What I think is great about the Idea Festival is that it’s full of well-defined ideas and presentations, mixed with moving personal stories, alongside a crowd of folks asking some of the most amazing questions I’ve heard asked anywhere. Taking in so many viewpoints is refreshing.

Why a Conference Not Focused on Explicitly Games?

What does this have to do with game design or design in general? It is not about gaining a technical advantage. Game designers should take on a responsibility to expose themselves to a larger part of the world, rather than work in a bubble. Sticking to just technical conferences, only talking to programmers and engineers, or keeping up with news in only technology and science is too limiting for someone working in an industry that combines all of these things plus art, cultural, social, and political concerns and issues. Even when considering social contexts and themes, we usually work within our own cultures and circles; but it’s important to branch out now and then, to get a refresh. Idea Festival is one of the many places that you can show up to that opens you back up to the world.

Laughter = Openness and Creativity

One notable theme this year was how the combination of laughter and happiness leads to openness and creativity. Chris Bliss, a comedian (and apparent world-class juggler), told stories about warming up crowds for the Tonight Show. As you may know, this is basically a service given to help support the main act–allowing the audience to be most receptive when they take the stage. He even went on to recall on some scientific reasons for this–laughter releases endorphins that provides this function of opening up minds. It’s not a stretch to think of laughter and humor as an ingenious way to communicate about difficult social issues. Stress, in most extreme measures leading to our fight-or-flight response, provides the opposite effect: a closed mind. To follow this, Oliver Burkeman described a way to achieve a more permanent, sustainable happiness by accepting negative thoughts (about yourself or your own productivity) and move past them. This reminds me of the “good stress” vs. “bad stress” dialogue, where accepting the stress of your experiences as an inevitability and being okay with it will actually turn that stress into a positive thing for you. In game design, this has some parallels–humor has been an obvious tool used for as long as one can remember. But when it comes to games with a purpose, laughter opening up minds to new concepts and ideas within the story or context within the game should be one of the most embraced tools. Combine this with providing great challenge within a game, and you may have something that helps people achieve a sustainable happiness through openness, empathy, and an accepting self-critical nature.

Systems of Symbiosis and Trust

Another concept to explore further within games would be the use of symbiosis and trust among players, the environment, and its society (whatever that might be within a game’s context). As indie game design culture has grown over the past few years, we’ve already seen a great outpouring of new mechanics in games, well beyond the traditionals of competition, elimination, physical struggle, and simple puzzles. Symbiosis and trust has been only minimally been explored through cooperative scenarios in games–we should expand on this. From the festival, Rafe Sagarin spoke of symbiosis in nature, along with systems of collaboration. When an octopus wishes to change its color, this happens not through a system of hierarchical communication, but through the immediate effects that can occur through a decentralized system. This is a system of explicit trust, each cell, though technically independent on a micro scale, is inseparably tied to its primary role to aid the whole of the organism. Rafe also pointed out the natural existence of symbiosis among organisms, which is established through an implied trust and understanding of the benefits of the collaboration (e.g. a shark doesn’t each a cleaner fish because of its health benefits, and conversely the cleaner fish increases its level of safety due to the presence of the shark). This is a system of adaptation on the part of the individual. But he continued: if this trust is broken (e.g. a cleaner fish fails its task or could somehow harm its host), the symbiosis is immediately and permanently lost between the two individuals. It’s worth exploring portrayals either realistic or even imagined systems of trust (or distrust) in game designs, beyond the trust between players, and into the game environment and its systems. An interesting game study might be of a system of trust and how it is affected by openness of its individuals, and how that openness is also affected by other means–such as laughter and humor.

Inclusiveness, Openness, and Creativity

What if we were all more inclusive people will skill in areas outside of our expertise? What if these folks were to even have a direct hand in thinking through and participating in our areas of expertise? At Idea Festival, Ariel Waldman talked about this, in particular her and other experiences in inclusiveness in scientific fields. She, with expertise as a graphic designer, had landed a job with NASA, the well-known force in exploration in space and science. NASA and Ariel saw and took the opportunity to expand NASA’s effectiveness by including someone with creative and alternative viewpoints on approaches to problems. She went on to produce the Science Hack Day program, where the intent is to include all groups of people in science exploration. This program further demonstrates that this inclusiveness produces innovative ways to solve problems and increases creativity many times over. This openness among the scientific community allowed creativity to grow. We’ve seen a rise in these sorts of collaborations in recent years, in hackathons, game jams, and maker fairs. Let’s bet that this can be expanded even further for even more exponential results in the production of asynchronous tools to allow new collaborations in areas not yet tapped. Video game development, for instance, is a difficult endeavor of programming with the combination of various arts: graphics, sound, story, mechanics. It all leads back to a hierarchical system of communication with the programmer at the top, bringing together all its resources. Why not break this down into a decentralized system, by making tools available to all people in the process, even the artists, designers, and other non-programmer types? We are getting closer with tools like Twine and Gamemaker, and should keep pushing forward to make inclusiveness lead to even greater creativity in game design. With the indie culture we have now, it’s a great time to branch out and explore new and interesting concepts in game design, like openness, trust, and creativity. It’s a great time to be inclusive and listen to folks already in our field, but also those outside of it. We should explore these possibilities and not be afraid to experiment with concepts we learn this way, and in-turn learn and share new things from our collaborative game designs.