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How Can Gameplay Allow Players to Get Creative?

November 20, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 6 Next

The Grammar of Creativity

It is a well-known established fact throughout the many-dimensional worlds of the multiverse that most really great discoveries are owed to one brief moment of inspiration. There's a lot of spadework first, of course, but what clinches the whole thing is the sight of, say, a falling apple or a boiling kettle or the water slopping over the edge of the bath. Something goes click inside the observer's head and then everything falls into place. The shape of DNA, it is popularly said, owes its discovery to the chance sight of a spiral staircase when the scientist's mind was just at the right receptive temperature. Had he used the elevator, the whole science of genetics might have been a good deal different.

- Terry Pratchett, Sourcery

What is the fundamental distinction between aesthetic and gameplay-efficient designs? In fact, they do not use the same language. When players create Spore creatures tailored for gameplay (with all the skills necessary for a certain play style), they think about the rules of the game, about the obstacles they may encounter, about their ultimate goals and the way they are going to reach them.

On the other hand, what motivates players to design creatures before they even know the gameplay that well? Indeed, when they create their first Spore creature to try the game out, they do not have a clear idea of what they will face. Yet, is it the same feeling as modeling a creature from scratch in Zbrush? Not at all.

For starters, it is easier with a creature editor, as you are guided and never experience a "blank page" syndrome. But the main difference is probably that players know their creature will come to life (even if they do not know if it is going to survive for long). When designing their creature, players imagine how it would fare in what they expect the game world to be.

If creativity is the ability to combine old ideas to generate new ones, the question is: Where do these old ideas come from? Most gameplay-related customization systems are very narrow and limited, and do not allow a large enough number of options for players to be creative. Ideas from other domains usually do not have much value. The only pertaining grammar is strictly endogenous.

When the editing tools are deep enough to allow for designs based on a creative idea, as in Spore, the player uses a much wider grammar. It may be a combination of elements from the real world ("behold the butterfloctopus!"), the game world ("tiny flying animals every other creature wants to eat"), from everyday life ("a clone of my ugly math teacher"), from fantasies ("a giant penis"), from cultural icons ("Homer Simpson with Wolverine's claws") or even from many different grammars at once ("flying Homer with a giant penis and a pulley in the middle!")

Behold the butterfloctopus!

This is exactly why Faceez' photos allow users to be creative right away. Not only do they allow for a larger number of options, but they use a grammar the player already knows.

Of course it is always possible to create something that will work in creative grammars as well as the gameplay grammar. Sometimes, efficiency brings its own aesthetic value, and people familiar with the game will be able to decipher the creation's characteristics by just looking at it ("I see you've designed a social creature; nice idea to make it a fast sprinter, just in case!")

Wherever ideas come from, the ability to connect concepts from very different worlds is a cornerstone of creativity. Or more simply:

Creativity requires inspiration.

Inspiration mainly describes the way the brain connects existing ideas to build new forms, concepts, actions... The process is mostly unconscious, and has the reputation of coming and going. While this is true, there are several ways it can be stimulated.

We have already discussed how randomize buttons may familiarize players with the available options. Randomness may also give ideas, just as browsing Google Images or listening to people during a brainstorming session. An arbitrary flow of concepts gives food for thought.

Arbitrary situations may have the same effect: When the only tool you have is a hammer, any Celine Dion CD you come across may give you ideas. Situations do not only give players elements to work with, they also imply a certain number of constraints. Sometimes constraints guide inspiration; sometimes they destroy it. A gameplay grammar brings constraints to the customization process. These constraints may help new ideas appear, or they may just prevent and kill any creative ambition.

It turns out user generated content allows for inspiration and creativity but is not strictly a part of gameplay. Few games allow creations to have a deep impact on gameplay, and that may result in synergy or conflict.

Those conflicts come from this unavoidable fact: all players have at least one gameplay objective. User generated content may or may not mix well with it. This raises an important question: What is the purpose of creativity?

The Muses' Secret Agenda

For any of us, creativity evokes insight, epiphanies, imagination. This is indeed a very important aspect of creativity: Without the ability to have ideas, creativity cannot exist.

But creativity does not stop there. It has a purpose. That purpose may fluctuate, be unconscious, arbitrary, silly... but it still is a purpose. If you do not have an objective, there is just no point in being creative. Creativity is inspiration plus perspiration.

On a theoretical level, having an objective and having a problem is just the same thing. Of course they do not sound the same at all. For example, I may accuse you of creating your own problems, and that would sound bad. Or I could praise you for deciding of your own objectives, which sounds a lot better. While these feel different, I am really talking about the same phenomenon: creating your own problems gives you objectives. Similarly, by picking your own goals, you will face the new problems of how to reach them.

Creativity is a problem-solving ability; it requires a purpose.

ACME statistics show that coyotes are 78% more creative when they are starving. (Citation needed)

Life is full of goals: ambitions, dreams, needs, professional challenges and requirements, social obligations... So which real-life problems may the ability to "find and apply new ideas" solve? Plenty: closing a business deal, getting your children to eat vegetables, coming up with a funny joke to break the ice, getting all the luggage in the car, writing a 10-page composition on a Sunday evening, opening a strongbox on a desert island, and so many more.

If having a purpose and looking for a solution to a problem are the same, then gameplay and creativity seem very close. Moreover, the above examples are all quite challenging. Yet, are they similar?

Any game has at least one goal, even if the player had to invent it. Otherwise, it would not be a game at all. But it turns out real-life problem-solving is different from gameplay problem-solving. During gameplay, the player has limited options and is constantly judged by the game.

You may think this depends on the game but, in reality, it does not. Remember, we are comparing games to real life here: even the most amazing free-roaming physics-based massively multiplayer triple-A game contains extremely simple and limited objects and systems when compared to the real world.

What would happen if creativity were deemed the objective of the game? Let us look at Create (EA Bright Light) to find out.

Creativity for the Sake of It

Create is a mixture of Incredible Machine-like puzzles, contraption-building challenges, and highly customizable environments. While this title is a good puzzler and contains hundreds of different customization and/or gameplay items to unlock, it fails to reach the objective displayed on Electronic Arts' website: "Create tracks your creativity and rewards you for it."

The game features special challenges called "Create Chains": the player is rewarded for using a specific set of tools in a given level. Apparently, the ambition of Create Chains is to give players many opportunities to be creative, and thus get them to know the available options better. These options are quite comparable to those of a level editor, but they are entirely built-in and use the same interface as the problem-solving gameplay -- just as games from the Trackmania series (Nadeo) brilliantly gives players a level editor interface to design the most efficient track they can.

In fact, creativity is not the Create Chains' real objective. The real hardcoded objective is "use each of these tools enough". The player may be rewarded for picking any option and clicking randomly in the scene: the challenge has been completed but there has been no creativity. The challenge is a no-brainer.

The player simply gave the game what it wanted in order to keep playing.

At the top, you can see the situation Create gives you as a starting point for a Create Chain in level 1: Theme Park. The two other pictures show different "solutions" to the challenge, equally valid for the game system, but one of those is clearly more creative than the other.

We have seen how inspiration cannot be forced. So we understand how a game cannot ask a player to be creative on demand ("Be creative! NOW!")

You cannot just make creativity happen.

Even if players are willing to be creative, they may not be able to do it on demand. They may need time. But let's admit a given player succeeds in being creative, what happens then?


Create is unable to rate creativity. No existing video game could. Even fellow human beings are sometimes very poor at assessing another person's ideas -- as developers, you probably know about that problem. How could a basic video game AI crack such a subjective question?

Of course, games often pretend to acknowledge the players' sensitivity, for instance when judging the player's interior design (as in Nintendo's Animal Crossing) or when reacting to the name you just typed in: "Bollocks? My, what a pretty name!"

In the first level of Duke Nukem Forever (3D Realms), this AI-controlled Earth Defense Forces soldier seems to approve the cunning plan I've written for him on the whiteboard.

Nintendo's Wii Music has a very interesting approach. It allows the players to pick instruments, play the chosen track, design a cover, and then the system asks them to rate their own work, with no limitations whatsoever. The designers knew the game was unable to judge the music's quality, so the only pertinent opinion is the players'.

Creativity cannot be identified or rated by a computer.

If creativity cannot be identified by the computer, it cannot reward it and more importantly, it should never punish players for not being creative. Even preventing the player from continuing to play is a slight punishment.

We have now defined creativity in a satisfying way. Let us gather all the fragments so that we can forge the ultimate definition of creativity.

  • Creativity is the mental process allowing us to find and apply new ideas.
  • To be creative, a player must know the available options well.
  • It may only happen if there is a large number of choices.
  • Creativity is making new things out of old ones.
  • It requires inspiration.
  • It is a problem-solving ability; it requires a purpose.
  • You cannot just make creativity happen.
  • It cannot be identified or rated by a computer.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 6 Next

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