So I was watching The Escapist's Extra Credits feature on The Role of the Player, and a question mentioned in the video intrigued me. The question was, "Is creation merely a personal act referencing only the secret inner life of the individual, or are there universal aspects to creation that might allow us to make a more satisfying creative experience?"
It had me dumbstruck for a moment, but here's what I worked out based on my own experience.
Within any given artistic discipline, there are definitely universal aspects that allow us to make a more satisfying end product.†
For example, music has a pretty concretely established set of rules. There are (among a vast array of other things) different scales that are known to bring different feelings and concepts to mind. A marching band playing something in a major key is going to be toe-tapping. A violin playing something in a minor key is going to sound much, much sadder than the aforementioned marching band. Something played using the B flat blues scale is going to be funky, and might inspire to you put on a pair of sunglasses, light a cigarette and start singing about how your woman left you (dun dun) and went so far away (dun dun).
Theatre also has a set of traditions and functional rules of its own. Differently coloured lights can evoke different emotions in the audience, dressing the actors differently can make the audience pay more attention to one character than another, and line delivery methods (soliloquy vs multiple character dialogue as well as the emotion invoked by the actor when delivering said lines, posture and movements during the line delivery, hell, even where they stand on the stage) all play into how we interpret the work being presented to us as an audience. By example, imagine Romeo's "But soft, what light through yonder window breaks; it is the east, and Juliet is the sun." Ok? Pretty romantic, eh? Yeah, being taken in the context of lovestruck teenager breaking into opposing family's garden to steal a glance at the girl he saw once at a party can do that. Ok, now imagine instead of intending on speaking with her (he totally was, don't give me that 'he was seen accidentally' nonsense. If he didn't want to actually speak with her, he wouldn't have been in the Capulet's garden. But, I digress.) and standing off to the side, up stage left or stage left (where he's important but not at the forefront), he's standing down stage centre (where he's front and centre). Makes a bit more of a bold statement, yes? Perhaps Romeo seems less a creepy teenager and more a conquering romantic hero, jumping from woman's bed to woman's bed in a single bound. That doesn't fit with the general story of R&J, though, so lovestruck teenager it is.
Visual art, especially, has its guidelines and set methodologies, as it's pretty much the second oldest form of expression, short of storytelling. There's definitive styles of art, common concepts like scale, perspective, color, detail, drawing the viewer's eye in to a specific point, and even rules that distort or completely ignore any other given rule! Because visual art doesn't rely on things like harmony, story structure or even language, at its most visceral form it has merely two rules. It must be visible and it must be distinguishable. Even these two base rules vary in their application, though; a piece's reduced visibility or ease of distinguishing it from the background could be a defining factor.
Storytelling's a biggie. There are so many different methods of telling a story, the wording you use, the format your story comes in, microreleases (web comics, flash fiction) vs minireleases (comic books, episodic flash fiction) vs macroreleases (novels), building suspense through character, building suspense through environment... the list goes on and I'm not near qualified enough to speak at length on this subject, so back to the initial question as it applies to games.
As games are relatively new to the world in comparison with older art forms, it's difficult to say what these universal aspects might be, simply because the study of games on an academic level is something that's relatively new to the world stage. One could argue that as games are a marriage of disciplines, all of the above applies. This is, I think, absolutely true. Obviously, games incorporate music, visual art, placement of actors, delivering of lines and story structure. They also have their interactive aspect which, as far as this post goes, is the crux of the matter. Where can we draw from to gain an increased degree of understanding interactivity as it applies to sandbox environments whose limits vary by large degrees from instance to instance, not only from game to game but even within a game?
Were I to hazard a guess, I'd say that sports are a good example of interaction in artificially limited environments. For example, in soccer (football to anywhere but North America) it's forbidden to use your hands. This means that conventionally, you're going to have to use your head, chest and the top of your shoulder. Hopefully not your face. Clever players have found unique means of expression within this artifically limiting ruleset; 'What if we kicked above our heads?' It's become an expression of great skill to successfully pull off a bicycle kick.
Another example of interaction in artificially limiting environments can actually be found in dungeons and dragons. I'm sure a great many of you know this, but google d&d optimized builds. While the usage of these characters in an actual campaign is questionable depending on DM and campaign, players who create these builds have successfully created a meta-game from the rules of an existing game; it's an expression of the knowledge of rules and given material (interaction in an artificially limited environment) that has grown a whole community out of optimized builds. Want an example? Check out Pun-pun the kobold. This character was NEVER meant to be played, but rather it was meant as a thought exercise. Now hold that thought a second there. A game designed to facilitate roleplaying and dungeon crawls has spawned a purely academic side to it. Something that's separate and completely different from its original purpose, yet still within the bounds of the artificial environment. That's pretty freaking cool. For other examples, check out the Hulking Hurler, or pretty much anything at brilliantgameologists.com's Min/Max it section of their forums.
Now, some may say that's it's simply user generated content. This is true, but it's different than a mod for oblivion that changes how levelling works. This is more like that tip for playing vanilla oblivion that states to take your least used skills as primary skills, and not to take athletics, acrobatics or security, as the first two will level up naturally and can cause you to increase the power of enemies without increasing your own combat capabilities, and the latter can be rendered completely useless once you get that unbreakable daedric lockpick from Nocturnal's shrine. It's a community built around metagaming.
And I think that metagaming is one of the universal aspects to creativity in an artificially limited environment (ie/ a video game). I mean really, where would Super Mario Brothers be if you stayed within the intended confines of the artificially limited environment? What if you could -not- jump over the flagpole no matter what you tried, or if you couldn't jump into the ceiling in 1-2? To use a pretty prominent example from Super Mario World, what about that secret exit that required you to take a blue yoshi, eat a shell, fly -under- the goal post and KILL YOSHI to get that secret exit that led to the star world? That's SO against the intended rules of the game (y'know, where the game encourages you to get and keep yoshi by not only providing several new mechanics (tongue, immunity to jumping on spinies and fireballs AND the ability to bounce off of these objects to attain greater heights) but also adding another instrument in the music track as long as you ride your faithful if easily scared long tongued friend) that it's mindblowing! How absolutely ingenious Nintendo was to do this!
To take a look at a bad example of allowing the player to be creative, check out D&D 4e. The player is limited to a (comparatively) small number of options and variations, and while specific rules still override general rules, there's WAY too much specific to allow any significant degree of creativity within the bounds of the rules. It's anticipated the metagaming and prevented it, in order to facilitate a lower entry level for new customers by reducing the possibility, and therefore the need, of metagaming. I'm not saying that D&D 4e is bad by any means; more accessibility means more people playing which means continuation of the D&D brand, which is very much a good thing, but I don't think that the long term ramifications were considered as much as they should have been, as they apply to replayability and metagaming.
In short? Creation, in the context of the player's role, is a personal act reflective of their interest in and knowledge of the rules of the artificially limited environment, and can be facilitated by careful design and an application of rules that states that specific overrides general, and does not have too many specific barriers to prevent the sandbox of general applications of rules to be played with. This careful application of the rules allows players to exercise their own personal creativity by allowing it to influence and shape the way they work within the artificial confines of the game.
If anyone else has good examples of metagaming facilitating creativity or has other ideas relating to the original question of individual creativity vs universal aspects of creativity, I'd be glad to hear your thoughts.