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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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You are making a strong claim: Fear of criticism means people have difficulty thinking for themselves. But you then couch this very strong claim--one that would be very difficult to argue for--with the assertion that "this is just my personal perception." In other words, you have gotten the very strong claim onto the page and into discussion, but in a way that shields it from any possible criticism or dispute, because how can I argue against your experience? Yet you then build on that "personal perception," adding further arguments and assertions that work off of the strong claim.

This is the only other point I would like to address: I have stated this clearly, over and over. And you are even acknowledging it here. Yet this is still problematic somehow? This doesn't make my point beyond reproach or critique, but it does mean, I have clearly entered the conversation not with any intent to prove anything except this is perception. If people look at what I said and think 'that doesn't make sense', that is fine. If people look at what I said and think 'I have seen this too', then it mike lend some credence to my point. But it isn't like this has any power over you if you reject my claim. And if I tell everyone clearly this is my perception, and your response is 'yes but you are getting away with putting a strong claim on the page', I'd say that is on the person responding, not me.

Now we could get into the details of whether my perception has validity. I see some of your points about cruelty and do have counter points to them (based on evidence and what the research says about how the internet has affected our behavior toward one another). But I really didn't enter into this discussion to engage in a point by point debate. I just weighed in with my impression of where I think the OP may be on to something, and where the topic resonates with me. I really am perplexed as to why people who disagree are having difficulty moving on. If my position is that weak or that insane in your view, just move on.

Just look at @pemerton's point above. He clearly disagrees with my conclusions (or at least many of them) and I am totally fine with that. I don't feel any need to prove my sense of things to him. I said what i said, he said what he did, and we can move on.
 

Argyle King

Legend
My previous post was poorly worded.

I was not trying to say that higher level math didn't involve creativity. My attempt was to categorize two different types of thinking. I do not believe one is better than the other. It's simply an observation of what I see as one group of skills being promoted as a culture, while a different group seems to have withered somewhat.

Perhaps a better anecdotal example would be a lieutenant I was deployed with, during my time with the military. He was one of the most "book smart" people I have ever personally known in my life. If given a situation, he was fantastic at coming up with a plan for how things should work. First 1 - then 2 - then we do 3 - then...

However, he also was very poor at improvising or thinking on his feet when a situation went differently or if a situation didn't present itself as a virtually perfect textbook scenario.

In that particular context, lack of experience was likely a factor. But that's an attempt to illustrate what I mean.

Apologies for mentioning politics, but another example might be the Republican primaries from around 2015. Marco Rubio literally got stuck on saying the same thing over and over again. He had clearly studied the issues and what his talking points were (memorization,) but, when faced with a situation which deviated from the status quo, he couldn't pull himself out of what he had programmed himself to say.

Bringing it back to the college example, the most notable courses in which I can compare differences are when comparing Public Speaking to Public Relations. There are Communications students who do wonderful at Public Speaking but panic and break down during Public Relations. In Public Speaking, you can prepare and think out what is needed to be said in a somewhat linear way. In contrast, the PR class involves being asked questions by other students playing the part of the press and public. I've seen a lot of intelligent people crash and burn because of a simple question or because they couldn't come up with how to react on the fly.

Regarding fear of criticism:

I think there is some truth to that. There are studies which indicate that social media platforms may cause people to fall in line with "approved" ways of thinking, speaking, and acting so as to avoid conflict and to be rewarded with positive re-enforcement from others.

To some extent, I think this is a challenge faced by writers, game designers, and movie directors. Creativity can sometimes be hampered by needing to adhere to cultural norms and whatever moral cause is popular among the masses in the moment. Yes, I do believe there are forms of "entertainment" which are clearly "wrong" and grossly offensive to audiences -and those should be avoiding. Finding a balance between pushing boundaries and not heading into clearly offensive territory can be tough, and that's especially true in a world where so much of what we do and create is on display for the rest of the world. The stress of finding that balance can weigh on a person; I think there are some artists who find it easier to simply conform to whatever is deemed commercially acceptable.

Regarding abundance of information:

I agree that we live in an age during which information is readily available. But I believe our contemporary education has failed to teach how to process information. Things such as logic, reading comprehension, and critical thinking aren't taught to the extent they once were. This leads back to my previous comment. The youth of today is being taught higher-level math and science much earlier than I was. The proficiency at getting from point A to point B in a process is phenomenal. At the same time, I believe there anecdotal evidence to suggest that (culturally: in the US,) some ability to take in information and consider it in a way which isn't prescribed or pre-programmed has been lost.

The odd irony to that is that I see an abundance of creativity on social media, in terms of videos and photos posted on Instagram accounts. But asking some of those same people to apply that same creativity to thinking or to engaging in a personal interaction falls flat.

How does any of this relate to tabletop games? I don't know.
 

Its an interesting thesis, @Johnny3D3D. I'm getting the impression you are correct that we don't teach formal subjects such as rhetoric, logic, etc. in the way they were taught say, 100 years ago. I'm NOT sure that means we aren't teaching people creative problem solving. Actually, what I note is, in general society, a disdain for intellectual excellence, a laziness about thinking things through for yourself, etc. That MAY be a consequence of most people participating as small cogs in large organizations, essentially. In the past you would be a farmer, out in the barn and fields. Your problems were yours to solve, with existing resources available on site. You might access other people, bigger resources to solve a major problem, but you would always be essentially using your own judgment extensively, and creative problem solving was at a premium.

Today, not so much. People have vast information at their fingertips, most really significant problems have stock answers and ready solutions, etc. In their work they are doing one fairly limited specialized thing, and not expected to innovate. Following rules, doing what you're told, and adhering to convention ARE more highly valued.

However, I don't think anything destroys creativity. I think our society fundamentally values it (a heck of a lot more than, say, the Chinese do). It comes out, somehow, somewhere. RPGs seem to be one outlet right now. I don't think people play them really differently now than they did 50 years ago when this started. Maybe I now play with 50-somethings, and that is a bit different, but they're still the same sort of people...
 

Today, not so much. People have vast information at their fingertips, most really significant problems have stock answers and ready solutions, etc.

This is the exciting part of the internet in my opinion (but I see this as a double edged sword too---which probably shouldn't be surprising). On the one hand, I have far greater access to information than I did before, on the other navigating that information brings its own set of problems. One thing I've observed is it can also lead to a wide range of knowledge that is more superficial if you are not careful. I think the case of this most folks will recognize is people looking things up on the fly in the middle of a forum thread debate (for example a debate about he viability of settlements in fantasy settings with no obvious water source, and that leading to debates about historical examples). When it isn't something you have deep knowledge of, it is very easy to be mislead by someone who has just been doing a good job of looking up things on various online sources as they come up. But I have found, once it hits on a topic you have deep knowledge of, that surface level understanding reveals all kinds of gaps and problems in their command of the facts they are finding. For this reason I don't look up things while I am discussing them online, just so I don't succumb to that problem myself.

However the internet also is an surprisingly poor information resource at times too when it comes to gaming. There have been many instances of me needing something like the architectural layout of historical buildings in a given region, and simply not being able to find adequate information or images online (and when I do, they are often cut and pasted from the same unknown source, with mild differences between them). I still need to get books, still need to talk to experts and still need to go to museums in order to get much of this information. I have found similar issues with more complex questions about ancient economies or life on the ground in a particular place and time. Don't get me wrong, i find all kinds of helpful and amazing information on the internet (one of my favorite resources is looking at videos of historical buildings, villages, and other places for example). Also, the internet seems good at correctly faulty information (whereas pre-internet if I was using a source, and it was flawed, and there wasn't another source on that subject, I would repeat the flaw)----though again, the internet clearly presents its own host of issues here.
 

This is the exciting part of the internet in my opinion (but I see this as a double edged sword too---which probably shouldn't be surprising). On the one hand...
Yeah, I hear you. We can see one impact on writing immediately. The 1e DMG has all this detail of (albeit fairly superficial and digested to game-relevance) information on taxation, architecture, government, law, etc. which was really pretty handy in 1978 to a young person wanting to have some logic for why this or that in a campaign. OTOH today you don't see this sort of stuff much in a DMG. The 4e DMG did have a page or two gloss, but nothing like the details Gygax went into. You just don't need it, they have Wikipedia (or whatever).

I've always been a 'synthesizer' of information, so I thrive on all this data, but that is not the pattern for a lot of people, I guess. Anyway I think, for the right person at least, the availability can be a great addition to their creativity and give it a lot of fuel. For others it seems to be 'too much'. Sometimes they just latch onto specific bits and never really achieve a holistic view of things. You see this with all the current 'tribalism'
 

However, I don't think anything destroys creativity. I think our society fundamentally values it (a heck of a lot more than, say, the Chinese do). It comes out, somehow, somewhere. RPGs seem to be one outlet right now. I don't think people play them really differently now than they did 50 years ago when this started. Maybe I now play with 50-somethings, and that is a bit different, but they're still the same sort of people...

If anything, I'd argue a lot of gaming now is at least potentially more nuanced than the dungeon crawls that were often the only game in town in 1975.
 

If anything, I'd argue a lot of gaming now is at least potentially more nuanced than the dungeon crawls that were often the only game in town in 1975.

It would be disingenuous to argue that new styles of play didn't emerge, or that we didn't have more. I don't know that more play styles equals more creativity though. I'd say those are different things. One thing I will say about 1e , Old D&D and the classic styles of play: there has been, in my experience, a throw the baby out with the bath water effect, where we lost a lot (at least I did in my own games and groups, after the 80s as we started playing more styles and maybe looked down on the earlier dungeon and exploration style that we had started on. I was very frustrated by the general style of play in the early 2000s and going back and reading that 1E DMG really opened up my eyes to the things I had lost in play.
 

It would be disingenuous to argue that new styles of play didn't emerge, or that we didn't have more. I don't know that more play styles equals more creativity though. I'd say those are different things. One thing I will say about 1e , Old D&D and the classic styles of play: there has been, in my experience, a throw the baby out with the bath water effect, where we lost a lot (at least I did in my own games and groups, after the 80s as we started playing more styles and maybe looked down on the earlier dungeon and exploration style that we had started on. I was very frustrated by the general style of play in the early 2000s and going back and reading that 1E DMG really opened up my eyes to the things I had lost in play.
Different types of games, yeah. I'm not sure either one has 'lost' or 'gained' ON THE WHOLE, but I would never say that certain elements haven't been removed or de-emphasized, or just become irrelevant, over the years. It wouldn't make sense, AFAIK, to have wandering monsters in my HoML game, for instance. Compared with D&D they have been 'removed', but they would not really serve a purpose in that game's agenda. Likewise various other elements. Of course HoML has stuff 1e lacks, but you wouldn't want to add it to an AD&D game. It would be hard to say that one game is more or less creative than the other.
 

It would be disingenuous to argue that new styles of play didn't emerge, or that we didn't have more. I don't know that more play styles equals more creativity though. I'd say those are different things. One thing I will say about 1e , Old D&D and the classic styles of play: there has been, in my experience, a throw the baby out with the bath water effect, where we lost a lot (at least I did in my own games and groups, after the 80s as we started playing more styles and maybe looked down on the earlier dungeon and exploration style that we had started on. I was very frustrated by the general style of play in the early 2000s and going back and reading that 1E DMG really opened up my eyes to the things I had lost in play.

"Creativity" is such a subjective concept that its hard to argue one way or another. However, I'd absolutely argue that new areas of game exploration emerged, and its hard for me to see a meaningful way that doesn't provide an area for more creativity. I do agree there was some tendency to toss out the baby with the bathwater when moving away from OD&D and other old school D&D style games, but honestly, its hard for me to see most games of that time period as being particularly creative or inventive; a lot of them were awfully rote.
 

"Creativity" is such a subjective concept that its hard to argue one way or another. However, I'd absolutely argue that new areas of game exploration emerged, and its hard for me to see a meaningful way that doesn't provide an area for more creativity. I do agree there was some tendency to toss out the baby with the bathwater when moving away from OD&D and other old school D&D style games, but honestly, its hard for me to see most games of that time period as being particularly creative or inventive; a lot of them were awfully rote.

Creativity is a very subjective topic like you say. I think creativity happens around key moments and is often followed by stagnation. So I think the hobby has had waves, irrespective of our discussion of the internet. Clearly the point when it was being developed and became something new and separate from war-games was one such period of furious creativity. And there have been other waves since (sometimes oriented around developing new ways of playing). But I wouldn't mistake variety for creativity, because variety can easily lack that spark and just be the product of stagnation. I think you see this in genres a lot. If you are ever into genre literature you see these periods where the genre just stagnates. There may be variety but it is often just variety by way of combining things mindlessly. I think in some ways that is necessary. You get this spark of innovation and creativity, which leads to a new style or approach, and eventually the life starts to ebb from that style. In the hobby I have seen so many waves in my lifetime. Usually the biggest periods of creativity seem to come from a sense of frustration or encountering a problem. I watch a lot of genre film and I see this a lot (and honestly sometimes my favorite movies are from those stagnant periods because whatever was sparked six or seven years earlier, is now really refined and sure of foot-------but you can sense it is ready to be replaced by a new style). So I would say I think creativity in the hobby is more cyclical than following a linear path more creativity to less, or less to more (my earlier points about social media was simply they have an effect, and in particular are having an effect on my creativity----they are a new factor in the mix).
 

Different types of games, yeah. I'm not sure either one has 'lost' or 'gained' ON THE WHOLE, but I would never say that certain elements haven't been removed or de-emphasized, or just become irrelevant, over the years. It wouldn't make sense, AFAIK, to have wandering monsters in my HoML game, for instance. Compared with D&D they have been 'removed', but they would not really serve a purpose in that game's agenda. Likewise various other elements. Of course HoML has stuff 1e lacks, but you wouldn't want to add it to an AD&D game. It would be hard to say that one game is more or less creative than the other.

I think both can be true. Some games don't need elements that were in place in the early days of the hobby. A games premise, style and concept is going to determine that. But I was talking more broadly, about things falling by the way side from the hobby in general (or perhaps still being around but being dismissed as old fashioned and not given a fair shake). For me this was just about realizing there were things about the game, there were things about how we approached play in the early days, that made RPGs fun for me, that I had let fall by the wayside and been dismissive of (not realizing their value and how well they remedied many of the frustrations I as feeling). But I wasn't saying these are things every game should have. A big shift in my gaming came when I went back and re-read the 1E DMG (and honestly it was probably my first time really reading it cover to cover----as by the time I was GMing the 2E DMG was what we were using). I got it for pennies on amazon in the early 2000s and was honestly expecting to find it quaint, find the old mechanics clunky and amusing. Instead what I found was a book that charmed me with its warmth and enthusiasm, and saw the game through a lens that made total sense to me (and had tools and approaches that snapped me out of a big game funk). It was a 'oh yeah, I did have fun playing like this' kind of a moment for me.
 

pemerton

Legend
I have found similar issues with more complex questions about ancient economies or life on the ground in a particular place and time.
This sort of information is incredibly hard to obtain even working through high quality academic sources, especially if one is not trained in the relevant fields (economic history, historical sociology, etc). In the fields I work in (law and philosophy), my own work is sometimes thought to stand out for its attention to this sort of historical/sociological detail - but by the standards of serious history I'm pretty amateur.

A book I really like is RI Moore's War on Heresy, about the Albigensian crusade and related matters. But one point he makes is how hard it can be to really work out what the social dynamics were, when the basis for inference is so thin (a letter here, an annal there).

This is one reason I tend to take definitively-stated remarks on message boards, about aspects of social life in various periods, with a bit of a grain of salt. The real history of the earth is both much more nuanced, and much less certain, than a FR or other RPG handbook!
 

This sort of information is incredibly hard to obtain even working through high quality academic sources, especially if one is not trained in the relevant fields (economic history, historical sociology, etc). In the fields I work in (law and philosophy), my own work is sometimes thought to stand out for its attention to this sort of historical/sociological detail - but by the standards of serious history I'm pretty amateur.

A book I really like is RI Moore's War on Heresy, about the Albigensian crusade and related matters. But one point he makes is how hard it can be to really work out what the social dynamics were, when the basis for inference is so thin (a letter here, an annal there).

This is one reason I tend to take definitively-stated remarks on message boards, about aspects of social life in various periods, with a bit of a grain of salt. The real history of the earth is both much more nuanced, and much less certain, than a FR or other RPG handbook!
Definitely. Part of learning about a period is discovering just how little you actually know about it. I have a whole shelf of books that were just research for one game. Having a background in history was helpful for sure (though all I have is a BA, by no means am I a professional in it). But I think also GMs and designers have different answers they need, than a historian (which is one reason I think RPG books generally are not great educational sources). When you are GMing you are not looking for nuance and debate about how hard it is to distill social dynamics from a given period: you need something to hang your hat on to present your players. It is a bit like a movie set in history: it has to settle on one reality to present (and that is as likely to be guided by the desire to entertain as it is to be guided by the desire for accuracy). But you can still want to be accurate to things like architecture or trade.
 

Argyle King

Legend
Its an interesting thesis, @Johnny3D3D. I'm getting the impression you are correct that we don't teach formal subjects such as rhetoric, logic, etc. in the way they were taught say, 100 years ago. I'm NOT sure that means we aren't teaching people creative problem solving. Actually, what I note is, in general society, a disdain for intellectual excellence, a laziness about thinking things through for yourself, etc. That MAY be a consequence of most people participating as small cogs in large organizations, essentially. In the past you would be a farmer, out in the barn and fields. Your problems were yours to solve, with existing resources available on site. You might access other people, bigger resources to solve a major problem, but you would always be essentially using your own judgment extensively, and creative problem solving was at a premium.

Today, not so much. People have vast information at their fingertips, most really significant problems have stock answers and ready solutions, etc. In their work they are doing one fairly limited specialized thing, and not expected to innovate. Following rules, doing what you're told, and adhering to convention ARE more highly valued.

However, I don't think anything destroys creativity. I think our society fundamentally values it (a heck of a lot more than, say, the Chinese do). It comes out, somehow, somewhere. RPGs seem to be one outlet right now. I don't think people play them really differently now than they did 50 years ago when this started. Maybe I now play with 50-somethings, and that is a bit different, but they're still the same sort of people...

There are two ways in which I believe not teaching logic impacts contemporary society:

1) We live in a world which bombards people with information, but we no longer teach skills to interpret information. Off topic, but I'm inclined to believe this is why some contemporary sources are able to pump out blatantly false information, with confidence that people will accept it as fact.

2) From a creative standpoint, I believe there is less ability to extrapolate information and fill in the details in between pieces of given data.

That being said, I do believe -among the rpg community- creativity still exists. I believe that the creativity may be approached differently (to fit different ways of looking at things now,) but it still exists.
 

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