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How Can Gameplay Allow Players to Get Creative?

November 20, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 6 of 6

Written to Life

When Mark Twain came home after visiting 5th Cell, he came up with his most famous sentence: "they did not know it was impossible, so they did it!" [5]

The Scribblenauts games allow the player to just type the name of items to make them appear: you thus may spawn a "blue platypus", equip it with a "diving mask" and then throw it into a "tiny black hole". The game recognizes tens of thousands of words, which is pretty amazing in itself. A creative player does not even need any level to have fun: I have spent countless hours on the main menu just trying things out.

If I remember correctly, my first true experiment aimed to discover how many crocodiles were necessary to kill God, but I got bored before I found out. God kicks massive ass.

There are roughly two types of levels in Scribblenauts. Firstly, those in which the player must go from A to B. Reaching the exit may get quite boring as the player ends up applying the same solutions, which is a pity; but with the ability to spawn an infinite number of helicopters and giant squids, creativity is not really necessary to overcome any obstacle.

The other type of level can get very creative. These ask the player to write relevant items or creatures into the level. The notion of relevance here depends on a brilliant lexical fields system: each item is tagged with several themes, categories, species, physical properties and so on. That's how, when a level asked me props for a horror movie, I was able for the first time in my life to complete a video game challenge using a dead horse. What a delight!

The Scribblenauts games have their flaws but they are certainly unique, and give the players many occasions to be creative: a huge number of options from many accessible grammars (from everyday life to cultural icons such as the Great Old One, Cthulhu), an immense number of choices, various situations susceptible to trigger inspiration and a never-seen-before pleasure of guessing the myriad of options the developers stuffed the code with.

One More Obsidian Block and I Quit!

Finally, I have to mention the game that already gave millions players from the whole world the craziest ideas... Ladies and Gentlemen, let us discuss, review, and praise Minecraft (Mojang).

Minecraft obviously qualifies as creative gameplay. Many players have spent hundreds of hours digging mines, designing automated rail tracks and building rainbow-colored cathedrals in this amazingly compelling construction game. The game world is very hostile, yet very simple to alter. In a few clicks, players may move mountains, build castles, and excavate dungeons.

Minecraft: changing the world has never been so easy.

Minecraft never tells the players what to do. They do not have a story objective, whether short-term or long term. How come Minecraft is not a mere level editor?

Well, the game plays with our most instinctive urges in a very clever way. The omnipresent hostility gives players an objective: survival. They are always no more than minutes away from nightfall and the horrors it spawns. If they want to survive, they need to find a shelter. This urge to find a safe place has been important to mankind ever since wild things realized we were mouthwatering. Architecture has bloomed into an amazing art form, but it all started as just an attempt to get away from dangerous beasts (including other homo sapiens).

So the game has a very strong objective. Players have many ways to stay alive: big strong walls, armors, weapons, traps... hence a large array of creative strategies. Crafting these tools requires raw material so the players have to explore the world. This exploration leads to encounters, discoveries and... ideas. Minecraft has a tremendous potential for opportunity creativity, but its world being very static (apart from systemic or random events such as trees growing or monsters wandering), it allows for long-term creativity just as well.

The gameplay and the game world share a common grammar, mixing unique memorable creatures (especially the creepers), very simplified real-world mechanics (sand is "cooked" to make glass) and classic fictional elements (zombies are tough and slow).

The simplicity and clarity of the game semantics allow players to keep thinking about the game even after they stop playing [6].

I suspect many other things are at work to make this game a wonderful creativity enhancer: the mindlessness of block-piling [7], the regions' consistency ensured by the biome system, the absence of a clear goal pushing players to find a meaning to their adventures beyond survival... Minecraft would deserve an entire feature. One thing is for sure: it makes gameplay and creativity a happy couple.


We have discussed how creativity is the way we combine old ideas to create new ones. Inspiration is the process of generating those ideas but creativity goes beyond ideas: it is a problem-solving ability and requires a large number of possible choices.

On the other hand, we have established that gameplay requires that the players take action to overcome obstacles and reach an objective.

We must remember that computers are unable to identify creativity. We can only give the player room for creativity and try to stimulate it, but it cannot be rushed.

Gameplay can leave a lot of room for several aspects of creativity, just not in the games you would expect at first.

There's no arguing level makers and modders are a creative bunch. Kudos to them! But while they build stuff for the community, they temporarily step out of the realm of gameplay.

Customization usually has no impact on gameplay. When it has, conflicts may emerge between the player's creative motivations and the gameplay objective.

As creativity is a tool, not an end, its most efficient application is in complex problem solving, strategy, tactics or open-ended systems. This requires solid, consistent and deep gameplay systems.

Here is an overview of the eight forms of creative gameplay we've identified here [8]:

  1. In-game character editors sometimes give players a lot of deep and combinable options to determine their character's abilities or play style.
    Example: Spore
  2. Complex puzzles sometimes ask players to find and apply new solutions to a given problem.
    Example: Armadillo Run
  3. Some deep games reward clever strategies or tactics.
    Example: Total Annihilation
  4. In open-ended games, players may elaborate their own objectives.
    Example: The Sims
  5. Games with a lot of dynamic systems, especially sandboxes, are perfect for opportunity creativity.
    Example: GTA
  6. Complex and consistent game systems allow players to use emergent gameplay features to their advantage.
    Example: Deus Ex
  7. Successfully guessing how the game will react is extremely rewarding.
    Example: Scribblenauts
  8. Though this is rarely done in video games, victory may depend on other players' judgment.
    Example: Dixit

Closing Comments

Why does creativity matter? As a human ability, it is a gift, intrinsically part of our nature. This skill may benefit everyone, and it may be encouraged, trained, challenged... I may be biased on the matter, but I think games are the best medium for that.

I am not only talking about serious games here [9]. But as Raph Koster advocates in A Theory of Fun, games are all about learning. Creative gameplay is good for you.

The current trend of connected media is all about empowering users: social networks allow them to share information about their own lives, level editors give them the ability to tailor their experiences to match their idiosyncrasies, and the increasing success of mobile devices means electronic entertainment is available everywhere at any time.

For players, creativity can make all the difference between mindless button-mashing and unique insightful experiences. Allowing players to get creative may expend your game's lifespan and increase its virality: playing Armadillo Run during lunch breaks taught me how open-ended gameplay makes people stop behind the player to give advice. These people end up buying the game to try their own solution.

By tackling the very subtle matter of creativity, we may also learn how to deal with other subjective issues, such as moral choices. When gameplay uses the same grammar as the game world, then choices made by the player may have deep, emergent, and meaningful consequences.


For my first article on Gamasutra, I would like to thank… well, Gamasutra, obviously, not only for releasing it but also for their very motivating support. A thousand thanks to my wife, but only hundreds to each person who helped me gather information and gave me advice and data: Thomas Bidaux, Samantha Whale, Thierry Perreau, Nicolas Debeljak, Damien Chevalier, Adrien Pelov, Camille Lescaudron, Régis Bonnessée, Philippe Baille, Christian Cirri, Sylvain Gadonna, Antoine Guyard, Marc Rutschle, and all my geeky colleagues for the past eight years.

I would also like to cheer with a grateful wink all the people who don't know me at all but showed me the way through their work: Jesse Schell, Daniel Floyd and James Portnow, Jean-Louis Roubira, Bill Waterson, and many more I ungratefully forgot. I'd also like to thank the following creative companies: Mojang, 5th Cell, Maxis, Lionhead and so many more.

You may give me feedback by commenting or reaching me via LinkedIn (provided you are an interesting person). I hope you enjoyed reading this. Keep up the good creative work!


[5] Disclaimer just to be safe: this story is not true. Mark Twain died in 1910 and never played Super Mario, which proves he wasn't really into video games.

[6] I have once been in a boring work meeting where three people (including me) were drawing the plans for their next Minecraft buildings while some producer guy was waffling on and on.

[7] I believe piling things is as useful as dishwashing when it comes to triggering brilliant epiphanies.

[8] Minecraft could have been cited as a perfect example for at least half of these manifestations of creative gameplay.

[9] A serious game teaching how to improve creativity may be very efficient though.

Article Start Previous Page 6 of 6

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Luciano Lombardi
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Great article. It totally surpassed my expectations. Congratulations on such a well written, educative and interesting article! Bookmarked indeed to use it as a reference.

Eddy Leja-Six
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Thank you! It was a very nice experience to piece this together and I look forward to writing another one. Glad you like it!

Selosse Sandra
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Nice work. We learn an important thing that will help us to know the player's expectations.
I look forward to the next article!

Vivien Lalu
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Fantastic article Eddy! I know some of your work and you are an incredible designer - this paper was very inspiring and I look forward to reading more from you on Gamasutra! All very best... Vivien

PS: I played Neverwinter Nights & LittleBigPlanet more than any other game, mostly because of the built-in editors. I also spent lots of time with ModNation Racers for the very same reason.

Eddy Leja-Six
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Thanks Viv!

Zack Wood
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I think the act of learning a few actions, then putting them together in order to overcome new challenges (what happens in good games), is in itself creative.

There's also imaginative creativity, when you start imagining things about the world and characters that aren't actually included in the game. Extending the game world by believing in it and imagining things that the developers didn't necessarily intend, is to me at the heart of good games. That's what happens for me in all my favorite games.

Also, the "What Games Are" blog uses the words "art brain" and "play brain" to address a lot of the issues you described as gameplay efficiency and aesthetics. I want to popularize those terms, as I think they are really clear and useful for discussing these issues.

Zack Wood
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Also, I think the simplest definition of creativity is not "making new things out of old ones," but "making connections between things that were not previously connected." So it's more like thinking about the old things in a different way, or using them in a new way- not just recycling of old things into new things.

Eddy Leja-Six
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This is all really a matter of definition, that's true. But all the definitions I can think of are about what goes in the player's mind. My point is that a computer game cannot measure that.

For example, even though I agree that combining actions you've learned to overcome a challenge CAN be creative, it all depends on what the player feels: maybe someone told her the correct solution (a friend, an online walkthrough, a tutorial, a hint system...) Maybe the player has seen exactly the same situation before, possibly in another game. Or maybe the Level Design allows her to ignore the challenge or find a way around the obstacle. In those cases, the game will know the player went past the challenge, but can't possibly rate the player's creativity.

Eddy Leja-Six
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@ dario silva:

Sequence breaking is a bug exploit, and as I said in the article, I think this behavior can be considered as very creative.

In your example, the game rewards the players for finding a way around the challenge it supposedly rates. This challenge wasn't supposed to reward players for cheating. It does, but wasn't supposed to.

You're right to point out that a game may reward the player indirectly for being creative. And I think that's what happens in games with a strategy element. But even in those games, the system never goes "oh, clever move!", it states "level complete!" The other players online may have much more interesting comments on the way you've completed the challenges, and that happens with God of War exploits as well.

By the way, it may seem like I'm trying to agree with you at all cost, and that smug smile on my profile picture isn't helping, but I'm just trying to clarify the point I'm trying to make in the article. I didn't write it to convert people, so I'm really happy to disagree with you!

Bart Stewart
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There were so many things to like about this piece. (And some very nice subtle references, too. :)

It sparked a lot of ideas, but I'll try to end with questions.

The main question is this: if creativity is so awesome as gameplay, why are most game developers so determined to prevent it? Why take such pains to strictly limit player verbs or possible system interactions? There are several not entirely bad reasons why. Exploring those might help highlight where creativity in games can go as a practical matter.

1. One problem is offensive content. If you let players affect the gameworld, particularly if they can interact with other players in any way, they are guaranteed to spell out naughty words, erect enormous genitalia, and build penisauruses. (Google "Sporn" for NSFW examples of how gamers immediately used Spore's creativity tools.)

2. Another problem, as noted, is that emergent behaviors can look to some people like bugs. That doesn't mean they *are* actual bugs, bugs in a game being defined as behavior that opposes the intended play experience. Just because it was unintended doesn't mean it opposes the desired play experience.

3. Crafting in MMORPGs is not creative. Crafting -- making objects -- in MMORPGs has nothing to do with "craft" or being "crafty"; it's about mass-producing widgets to win economic competition play. That's a perfect valid kind of play. But it isn't creative in the sense of adding new IP inside the gameworld.

4. Yet another reason to deprecate player creativity is game balance. Organizing character skills in level-controlled classes is preferred strongly in MMORPGs over keying character abilities to skills, and letting players pick and choose the skills they want.

That reduces the chance of the emergence of character ability combinations that may be either unexpectedly "overpowered" or too "weak" to compete effectively with players of similar skill levels. Prebuilt classes improve that balance problem, but never fully solve it while stifling character-building creativity.

5. The mature software development practice of test case-driven development is the process of documenting what your code is supposed to do through well-defined requirements, then writing test cases that describe how to find out whether the software you actually write meets those requirements.

That helps you determine whether every known feature is working as intended. But the all-too-common corollary is: if we can't write a test case for some feature, it's not permitted in the game. When the studio puts process over outcome, it's unlikely to tolerate game designs that encourage player creativity since that would allow behaviors that have no test cases.

6. Finally, there is the problem of the Epic Story. Emergent gameplay invites exploratory creativty. But broadly emergent gameplay interferes with a carefully-crafted narrative. The more epic and detailed the story -- which translates to more development money spent on that content -- the less freedom you can permit players to go do their own wacky things, because then they might not see that expensive content.

To sum up: from the perspective of many game developers, especially in the AAA realm, it seems that "emergent" has become a dirty word. A mindset that only the developers know how the game is meant to be played, rather than a respect for what players themselves enjoy doing, is leading many developers to design against creativity by tightly limiting the number of systems and permitted system interactions.

The result is that player creativity in these games is so constrained as to be nonexistent. You're just mashing buttons until you solve each challenge, in proper order, in the one way the developers intended.

Is there any sign that this might be changing, perhaps as the success of some indie games demonstrates that there is a real desire for games that encourage player creativity?

That's a lot of notes, but it was an inspiring article. :)

Luis Guimaraes
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Excellent points, Bart.

I'm specially fond of your opinions on all points, specially #2, #3, #5 and #6.

I remember a Tadhg Kelly's blog post called "The £500 Game", and while it had a some references with status selling - "What Games Can Learn From Shoes" - it was mostly an essay on the theoretical idea of "super-premium games". To quote the article:

"Arguably there are two broad stories throughout the gaming sphere: The casual game and the hardcore game. The casual game is cheap, fun, family entertainment. Unthreatening training for your brain, fitness programs or a bit of light sports. The hardcore game's story is more of a male-oriented skill-test. Hardcore gaming is deep, involving, interesting.

What I'm wondering lately is whether there is room for super-premium games? By this I mean game machines that cost £1,000, perfectly scultpted joypads and games that cost £500 a piece. This sounds insane, but if it works for shoes then why not for games? It's all in the story.

For many years the hardcore games industry has relied on the teenage boy syndrome. These guys think big but they tend to be poor. They're dedicated but they're often paying for games with their rent or food money. They're students, schoolkids, etc. Whatever is built has to meet their needs first and foremost."

While I don't think games should cost that much, the idea of "what kind of game would be worth it?" (I know people who would say "FIFA Manager"). Whatever crosses your mind when you answer that question is the best game experience is what you should be trying to achieve ta some point.

Edit: The further analysis on your blog is great as well.

Eddy Leja-Six
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Hey Bart. I am really glad that the article inspired you that much! And I'm possibly even happier that you enjoyed all the silly hidden references (I wonder if anyone spotted them all...)

You're making a great point. Players' creativity has become frightening to some companies. Ten years ago, emergence was a big buzzword!

As a player, I really love getting the opportunity to be creative. But not everyone has this craving: I know several people who stopped playing Bethesda's Morrowind after the tutorial because they were lost and didn't know what was expected of them. At first, I thought it was a shame. But who was I to judge that? That just wasn't the kind of experience they were looking for.

To be honest, I would have been unable to foresee Minecraft's amazing and inspiring success. For now, however, it didn't inspire many big-budget games for creative players. Not that I know of. There's just been a crapload of cheap Minecraft rip-offs...

That probably has to do with the reasons you mentioned. I especially love #5. As an industry Game Designer, I know professional developers sometimes overthink the game's content. That's why every once in a while, an indie or student game shows us how we are wrong about what the players want. There's a lesson in Minecraft's appeal to so many players, and I think you've explained in your comment why this lesson has not been heard as it should have been.

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Eddy Leja-Six
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@ Joshua : Speaking as a big fan of Morrowind, it's very hard for me to say that... you've got a point. I really loved exploring Vvardenfell, getting to know its customs, its creatures, even its harsh weather... but it is only fair to point out that such a weird setting will appeal to a smaller number of players.

I still have a feeling that freedom is not what certain players look for. Even Minecraft failed to trigger the creative fiber of some people. I'm certainly not trying to say that all games should give the player creative freedom or allow deep and interesting choices. There will always be a place for Dinner Dash in this world!

Arturo Nereu
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Thanks for sharing this Eddy, I had an amazing time reading the article.

I just want to add other area where gameplay allows people to get creative; this is when players share their creations via youtube, forums, etc.

There is another layer of creativity going on, one for example is creating your world on Minecraft and the other one is making, editing, and mixing the video.

Well, is just my point of view.

Again, congratulations on the article!

Eddy Leja-Six
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Thank you for your feedback! That really makes the effort worthwhile. (Good lord, somebody turned my "corny beauty pageant contestant" switch on!)

I almost didn't mention the pleasure of sharing creations and videos because it happens outside of gameplay. But that IS a very rewarding and deep form of creativity.

A few games even give the player powerful video editing tools, and this probably allows more people to make interesting videos. I remember spending a lot of time editing cameras with the built-in editor in Carmageddon II (I wish I had a more recent experience to share...)

Dave Ingram
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Thanks Eddy for this insightful piece. I love how everything ties together at the end, and your attention to the flow of the article.

You made me think of a saying I've heard before about freedom. Freedom exists in it's most nearly-perfect form only inside of a system of rules. In any state of anarchy, individuals are automatically governed by basic necessities (survival). It is only when appropriate constraints and restraints are in place that individuals have true freedom (in a civilized society, for example).

This speaks to the basic conundrum I see repeated in your article. At every turn, there are things inherent in game systems themselves that limit creativity. However, compare any of these scenarios to a blank screen, and it becomes apparent that the very gameplay systems that limit creativity are those that allow for some form of creativity to spring up in the first place.

Eddy Leja-Six
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Thank you for your nice comments, especially about the flow. I took a few iterative tweaks to make this massive article smooth.

I'm obviously not a philosopher but what you say about complete and utter freedom being somewhat shallow makes sense to me! Although being a quite geeky geek, I'm much less comfortable talking about real life ! :)

Paul Marzagalli
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Brian Fargo has talked at length (as have Obsidian devs) about the true power of roleplaying games coming not from the story but from the gameplay mechanics - that the systems allow the player to experience the story in a way that is unique to them. That it is through those systems that RPGs have their truest and deepest impact. This article seems to be in keeping with that design philosophy. Great piece!

Eddy Leja-Six
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Thank you Paul. I'm glad the article reads that way!

What you relate about Mister Fargo's approach also reminds me of the concept of "story machine" I've read about in Jesse Schell book: some games feature a pre-written story, but any game system contains all the ingredients for a global story to emerge. During design discussions, people often get confused between the 2 main meanings you may associate with "story": what the developers decided would happen, and/or the consequences of the player's actions.

As I suppose you do, I certainly hope that Obsidian's Project Eternity will push envelope to empower the player!

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Titi Naburu
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Thanks for this essay, Eddy!

One thing: when you say that "gameplay requires that the players take action to overcome obstacles and reach an objective", I think you are actually describing game mechanics. Gameplay is game mechanics with a dress. Like, shooting terrorists with a sniper or clicking smileys that pop up are different gameplay but the same mechanic.