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Five Minutes Of... SpaceChem
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Five Minutes Of... SpaceChem

April 26, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

The pictures I draw in SpaceChem aren't a reflection of my skill at drawing. They're defined and restricted by the specifics of the puzzle and the nature of the toolset. They aren't revelations of how I want to change the world. They're accidents.

I wasn't chasing my vision; I was chasing the game's requirements. I can be freely, insouciantly proud of the things I create there, knowing that I don't have to be defined by them, just delighted by them.

There is huge scope here, that I'm only at the beginning of learning how to design around. There are very lightweight ways to put inadvertent creativity into games.

Super Meat Boy does it beautifully, with the chaotic spray of replays at the end of levels, which are complex documents charting your determination, your competence, your incompetence and revealing unexpected flair in your failures.

There are highly authored, constrained ways to do it, of which some of my favorites are ON's Grow games, which let wonderful nonsenses unfold from a series of oblique decisions that you make. What you're faced with at the end of a Grow game is a thing you made and yet didn't make. Which was made for you, but out of you.

It's something I'm thinking hard about in the games that we make that tie into people's real world activity. One of my frustrations with simplistic gamification approaches -- which I'm still going to be bloody-minded about calling pointsification -- is that they're so literal. They're all too often a one-to-one relationship: do a thing, get a point.

They fall on the wrong side of the distinction that Chaim Gingold draws in his Magic Crayons principle: if something does only exactly what we expect it do, it's probably a great tool but a lousy game. Games thrive when the output to your input is disproportionate and slightly unpredictable.

We want roughly the thing we expect to happen to happen, but we like it when the result amplifies our effort, and surprises us in ways that feel fair but exciting, that ignite our curiosity but maintain the cohesion of the system.

Whether it's something as abstract and self-contained as SpaceChem, or as integrated and significant as a real-world behavior-change game, there are ways in which games can enable freer creativity by constraining it.

I feel about those games the way a glass of salty water on a sunny classroom windowsill feels about the paperclip dangling in it. It's a framework that will draw dazzling crystals out of me, things that I can feel proud of but not responsible for.

In this instance, what games have drawn out of me is a way to talk about this stuff without telling the pooping story. For that alone, you owe SpaceChem a go. Just shout if you need a mentor.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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