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World of Design: The Lost Art of Making Things Up

In a previous article I shared differences between entertainment media and how it feels imagination is less often required of people today. What changed?

ideas.jpg

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

The most important thing that we've ever learned--the most important thing we've learned as far as children are concerned--is never, never let them near a television set, or better still just don't install the idiotic thing at all. It rots the senses in the head. It kills imagination dead. It clogs and clutters up the mind. It makes a child so dull and blind. He can no longer understand a fairy tale in fairyland. His brain becomes as soft as cheese. His thinking powers rust and freeze. He cannot think he only sees! –Mike Teavee, by Danny Elfman, from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

With most forms of entertainment you need to use your imagination because there are things missing that you have to add in. Games are part of that. You need to imagine things that aren't actually there. How much imagination you need depends on what kind of entertainment.

“A Fairytale in Fairyland”

Let's differentiate imaginative play from an unfettered imagination, which is wild imagining separated from reality, with imagination in the service of problem-solving or real-world entertainment. This kind of thinking is something we learn early as children but society gradually becomes considered “daydreaming” as adults, a negative connotation. As such, an unfettered imagination tends to be the domain of children who have more time and freedom to imagine. But even in childhood play, things are changing.

“It Clogs and Clutters up the Mind”

For example, with video games much less imagination is required than with tabletop games, because the video game can show so much more (now with photo-realism). There's a tendency these days to expect games and life in general to be highly attractive. We expect movies to be extravaganzas with lots of computer-generated special effects. We can even make a young Arnold Schwarzenegger as in Terminator Genesys.

These are all aids to imagination. As a result, imagination is no longer required nearly as much in play as it was before, due in no small part because of corporate branding. Kids don't just get a set of race cars and have to imagine the rest. Instead they get cars from the movie Cars, or go-karts from Mario Kart, and so forth.

Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy is an example of the power of imagination. Originally it was a radio program in Britain, which I happened to hear when I was living there in the late 70s. Then it was brought to TV (same actors), then it was a book, then a series of books, then a radio program again, and then a movie, and somewhere in there I suspect there were video games as well. I've always thought the original radio program was more entertaining than the movie or even than the books.

As the history of Dungeons & Dragons has demonstrated, there’s money to be made in creating content. In the past, it was expected that tabletop board games have lots of attractive artwork and bits, often miniatures. The less multimedia a game has, the more imagination required. This is in part a shift for Fifth Edition, which placed “theater of the mind” as a viable playstyle that involves descriptions only and no board or miniatures. Theater of the mind eschews props, but they can easily become a substitute for imaginative descriptions. For example, I rarely use miniatures (but do use a board and pieces); yet many people won't play without them.

“He Cannot Think He Only Sees”

When we stop using our imagination, we are no longer “thinking” but only “seeing” – processing information instead of creating it. In comparison, it seems to me that imagination is used less in gaming than it used to. The sandbox style of play in D&D is very much associated with the old school renaissance (OSR) and thereby older adults. But perhaps it’s just shifted online. Children play Minecraft and Roblox, worlds in which players are encouraged to create something from nothing.

The tension behind open world video games is that it costs money to create them. Emergent play by playing in a sandbox-style world is risky; players may have an amazing experience by interacting with randomly generated monsters and other players, or they may find it boring and quit. Given the upfront investments in these types of games, it’s critical that they have a means of getting players to keep paying and coming back for more. One way is to brand them, which is why corporations want to create branded worlds that have a unique intellectual property. In video games, subscriptions are one means of guaranteeing repeat play and therefore access to the imaginative world.

In tabletop games, designers can try to help player imagination but the ultimate decisions about a designer’s work are with the publisher, not the designer. Because aids cost money. Of course if the designer self-publishes then the designer decides how to spend money in order to get aids to imagination. Since tabletop publishers can’t “turn off” your imaginative play, they can instead produce pieces of a world that you must buy one book at a time, or explore one adventure at a time ("modules").

Modules often provide player maps and other visual aids. The popularity of modules can even be argued as a failure of GM imagination. To be fair, it's also a matter of convenience in a world that poses a great many calls on one's time. Even if you do buy an adventure, the imagination of the DM and players is still required. No two games run from the same published adventure are alike.

In my opinion, the ability to use imagination has atrophied from lack of use due to changes in media. Can we do anything to change it as individual game designers? Probably not. The best we can do is keep producing and hope that tabletop games continue to offer something no other medium can provide: unfettered imagination.

Your turn: Do you see a difference in how gamers today use their imagination in tabletop play?
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

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Social media is an incredibly powerful tool. It has transformed the world; for better and for worst.
Again, I am not here to persuade you. I do think it is hard not to look at social media and see this clear difference. But I am not in the business of debating this. This is a conclusion I have reached based on my own first hand experience with the internet and with what I have seen in the industry. It is my sense of what is going on. If you don't share that sense, it really isn't any of my concern. But I will say it is clearly a culturally transformative shift in the same way the printing press was. And I think key ways the internet and social media are different than in the past is how inescapable they are, how constant they are, and the sheer numbers of people it can bring to the same place. That can be disorienting to say the least if you are putting an idea out there and getting responses to it. And it can be hard to navigate which ideas you encounter online represent real trends, versus ones that are just well suited to the internet medium (but maybe aren't as well suited to the table). With creativity, again I find there is a paralyzing effect, because you are aware of how rapidly and widely criticism spreads even in a niche hobby like gaming. It really caused me to write with my shields up, anticipating those critiques. But in the end, it produced material that wasn't as good in my opinion, so I backed off the internet a lot. I would liken it to working at a job where you have an overly critical boss. That causes lots of people to take fewer chances and make less interesting moves. A certain amount of criticism is good. Too much, paralyzing. And in its worst form, it can be manipulated, even used as a weapon against things people dislike seeing in games. For me, it took a long time to understand what social media really represented, how to use it, and how to make it work to enhance my creativity rather than harm it. If you haven't had any issues with it, then that is fair. More power to you. I found it strikingly bad for my creativity
 

I am here to give my perspective, have conversation, etc. Again, if any points don’t convince you they don’t convince you. Not sure what you are expecting here

Well, when your response to any attempt at conversation on the subject is "I'm not here to debate this or convince anyone" its pretty much coming across that you don't want to have conversation.
 


Apparently, since I can't see a way to have a conversation with someone who apparently reacts to any disagreement with "I'm not here to argue my point or convince anyone" since it seems to leave rather little to talk about, unless the only permitted conversation is to agree with them.
 

I feel like I gave plenty of reasons. Sorry if you don't like how I have conversations here. Like I said, I have learned to manage social media a certain way. Part of that is not giving into other peoples demands in conversations. Doesn't mean I don't offer information when asked or that I don't acknowledge good points, but it does mean I this particular topic is at its end for me with you and Hussar. We are just going to have to agree to move on
 




What I think @Bedrockgames is trying to say is that the openness of the internet makes communication open to all. While that is good in many ways, that also means that harassment and toxic behavior can also easily spread. I could dig up research and stuff, but I'll just say a lot of Twitter users call Twitter a hell site for a reason. EDIT: Or you read a thousand post thread here to see the thing Bedrockgames is trying to wisely avoid.
 


Argyle King

Legend
This isn't gaming related, but on the topic of imagination:

I have no hard data to measure this. This is simply perception from interacting with college students. I have noticed that contemporary students are much more skilled in in interacting with information which is formulaic. That is to say that skills in higher level math, memorizing facts, and things of that nature are improving. However, I have noticed that more students struggle with assignments which are more-loosely defined and contain the expectation that the student make more of their own decisions concerning how to approach the assignment.

Obviously, this varies if different groups of students are viewed. Those who are in artistic degrees are different than those focused on things like statistics. But, as an overall general observation (not based upon anything beyond personal interaction) it appears there are changes to the skill sets and mental approaches to information among the population.
 

Hussar

Legend
Heh, it's always nice to see that it wasn't me.

And, yeah, @pemerton, that does rather seem to be the core of the issue doesn't it? That blatant misogyny, bigotry and racism is now called out instead of being tacitly acceptable does seem to be the primary issue of why social media is a negative for creativity.

It's ... certainly one opinion I suppose.
 

I think that what @Bedrockgames is talking about is criticism presented using the language of "cultural appropriation", "lack of (or misreprsented) diversity", etc.

I don't think he's talking about a Twitter storm criticising a writer for using too many adjectives.

I am talking about the wide range of criticism online. I don't think it is limited to this one area. That is just the focus of one segment of the gaming community. I am also talking about homogenization around things like style (for example my feed was filled with pretty identical stylistic writing advice about three years ago or so----and you started to see a lot of designers write in the same way).
 

What I think @Bedrockgames is trying to say is that the openness of the internet makes communication open to all. While that is good in many ways, that also means that harassment and toxic behavior can also easily spread. I could dig up research and stuff, but I'll just say a lot of Twitter users call Twitter a hell site for a reason. EDIT: Or you read a thousand post thread here to see the thing Bedrockgames is trying to wisely avoid.

I left twitter, because I found it overly negative and felt it wasn't contributing anything to my creativity (it was just causing me to avoid making interesting creative choices, and causing me to adopt a style that was overly similar to the people I was following). But I will say from personal experience, there is still no escaping twitter
 

That isn't what I am saying @Hussar. But your post is one example of what I am talking about. How discussion can be stifled by negative framing of a position and how people can just project negative things onto a person (that have nothing to do with what they believe)
 

This isn't gaming related, but on the topic of imagination:

I have no hard data to measure this. This is simply perception from interacting with college students. I have noticed that contemporary students are much more skilled in in interacting with information which is formulaic. That is to say that skills in higher level math, memorizing facts, and things of that nature are improving. However, I have noticed that more students struggle with assignments which are more-loosely defined and contain the expectation that the student make more of their own decisions concerning how to approach the assignment.

Obviously, this varies if different groups of students are viewed. Those who are in artistic degrees are different than those focused on things like statistics. But, as an overall general observation (not based upon anything beyond personal interaction) it appears there are changes to the skill sets and mental approaches to information among the population.

this is more in the realm of what I am talking about. I think, and again like you this is just my personal perception, that the internet has taught a lot of people to test the wind before they speak and to anticipate criticism to the point that they have difficulty thinking for themselves. And I want to be clear here, the internet has done a lot of good for creative fields as well. I love music and music theory, musical techniques, these are all highly accessible. We are living an age of online guitar virtuosos. I think overall, guitar playing is better, or at least people have greater access to better guitar players now they wouldn't have otherwise seen. And that is good. But that too is a double edged sword. I can't help but notice a lot of guitarists sounding wonderful and great, but kind of the same. And I can't help but wonder how many less polished, but perhaps more interesting performances, we are not seeing because online music is so obsessed with perfection (which is understandable because when you put out something creative for the internet to see and judge, it is there for all time and viewed potentially by millions). I think what is called for is the creators managing how they deal with feedback. Unfortunately though feedback and criticism can impact people even if they don't want it to (because the internet and social media are largely inescapable---a guitar player who puts out something that gets a negative response, could end up in becoming internet famous for that one thing). So I think there is a combination of hyper criticism, omnipresence of social media and a tendency toward cruelty (where people and artists are not seem as human but as a target for dunking----even if the language around dunking is itself sometimes wrapped in laudable terms) that can negatively impact creativity.
 

Aldarc

Legend
Heh, it's always nice to see that it wasn't me.

And, yeah, @pemerton, that does rather seem to be the core of the issue doesn't it? That blatant misogyny, bigotry and racism is now called out instead of being tacitly acceptable does seem to be the primary issue of why social media is a negative for creativity.

It's ... certainly one opinion I suppose.
But is that really a negative for creativity or simply a negative for creators meddling in "blatant misogyny, bigotry, and racism"? I don't think that creativity in and of itself is a "good" when it services or preserves harm against others, particularly against marginalized groups.

However, I would note that social media has permitted creators to reach and cultivate audiences across the globe. This is particularly good for creators who design primarily niche products. And since they can establish a wider audience through social media, their creativity can extend beyond more localized publications.
 

What I think @Bedrockgames is trying to say is that the openness of the internet makes communication open to all. While that is good in many ways, that also means that harassment and toxic behavior can also easily spread. I could dig up research and stuff, but I'll just say a lot of Twitter users call Twitter a hell site for a reason. EDIT: Or you read a thousand post thread here to see the thing Bedrockgames is trying to wisely avoid.

This also is a bit closer (though my focus isn't on harassment as much as more normal criticism and discussion (which can veer into cruelty but I think harassment has the opposite effect of what I am talking about because it is obvious: when you are on the receiving end of harassment, you are not likely to take the harasser's criticism seriously). On the other hand if you enter a space online and lots of people are using the same critique about an idea or about something you made (or someone else made), that seems more reasonable, you are more likely to take it seriously and as reflecting the norm. And human nature is to adjust to the norm. We've learned how to balance that in direct interactions. We have learned how to balance it in newer but longer established media (like magazine criticism). But I think we are still learning how to process it on the internet, and how to balance it.
 

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