If you’ve followed my blog for a past few years, you know that I spend a lot of time trying to connect my game design and landscape and urban design. I’ve talked before about how wonder, flow, and meditation are related. But now John Cleese (via YouTube via my friend Gavin) has gone and added humor and play to the mix. In his 1991 lecture on how to be creative, he describes a recipe for creativity that involves getting from a closed state to an open state. Already this begin to sound familiar:
The closed state is when you are intent on getting things done, maybe slightly anxious about it, but definitely focused and single-minded.
The open state is when you are open to new possibilities, exploring and experimenting. This is play.
You generally want to switch back and forth so that you can effectively execute the plans you made while playing. But it’s easy to get stuck in the closed state. Indeed, it’s expected that we adults take things seriously and be decisive and effective. All the time. Play becomes a signature of childhood, and those who continue to play games as adults are seen as regressively childlike. True, not all play produces new ideas, much less ideas that become useful to us in the closed state; but if we insist that all play serve a larger purpose then we undermine the very purpose of play. According to Cleese’s creativity factor number four, play means that anything that happens is okay. There is nothing you can do that’s wrong, nothing you ‘shouldn’t have done,’ because ‘any drivel may lead to the breakthrough.’
Okay, here are all five factors:
& 2. Space and time: Create a space-time oasis. A separate, quiet space away from distractions is helpful. And if play does not end, it is not play. (I’ll come back to this, since it is the most landscape-y.)
More time: Ponder the problem as long as possible. Having a problem creates a tension that we want to diffuse by making a decision, taking the first easy answer that comes our way. If we can learn to tolerate the tension we give our minds more time to come up with something original.
Confidence: Play is experiment. Anything that happens is okay.
Humor: Even serious problems can be dealt with in humor, but solemnity is really just self-importance. Laughing doesn’t make things less serious, it just punctures ego. (This is where humor can become subversive.)
Cleese’s model ties into meditation, in that you do still have to bring your mind in from its wanderings, keeping it ‘gently round the subject’ at hand. And it ties into the process of wonder, too, because creativity involves connecting two separate ideas in a way that creates new meaning. Like ‘in a joke, the laugh comes at a moment when you connect two different frameworks in a new way.’ I got so excited here!
I get so much mileage out of my thesis. Anyway, he goes on to say that it’s helpful to have other people to be creative with. Essentially if you don’t shoot down ideas but always continue them with ‘yes, and…,’ expanding these insane little pocket universes and buying into them with a hearty ‘let’s pretend,’ you can loosen up your brain more easily.
Another technique that I’ve seen used in a few roleplaying games, markedly Fiasco and In a Wicked Age, and also in the excellent storytelling card game (that I just played last night) Once Upon a Time, is the use of oracles: using a random number generator to throw out a bunch of juxtapositions of elements, leaving the humans to sort out the meaning. Cleese calls these ‘intermediate impossibilities,’ absurd ideas that get you used to the notion of being wrong being okay.
So a space-time oasis needs to have recognizable boundaries, and an understanding that inside those boundaries anything can happen. The stakes are low, so there are no mistakes. Currently many of the known oases are virtual, either online (or at least on the computer) or at a gaming table.
And now I have to mention another humorous Brit, Quinns from boardgame review site Shut Up & Sit Down. What makes boardgames great, for him, is that they allow people to come together and create stories. Each game is a complete idea that comes to life through the playing of it. And of course I love that! Encapsulating an idea in a box, playing with frameworks and mechanics until everything clicks into place like a perfect little machine that only needs some players to bring it to life. Can you tell that I find designing games even more fun than playing them?
Human-sized, landscape-like boardgames already exist, and there need to be more of them. They usually take the form of art installations, like the work of Eric Zimmerman (the genius behind the tabletop boardgame Quantum). There are also art installations that become worlds for live-action roleplaying, something like Fabricated Realities in Olympia, Washington or even the non-fiction Village Building Convergence in Portland, Oregon.
Would it be counter-productive to make such a thing a more permanent and accessible thing? Though untested, my thesis on wonder in the urban environment suggests that it is possible if the space is able to change over time and produce unexpected results. Boardgames achieve this replayability because their mechanics construct worlds where choices are limited but all choices are meaningful and failure is still fun. They get everyone laughing, but also get everyone exploring the possibility space for new solutions. And if you really want to test the limits of gamification, you could try to make those solutions applicable to the ‘real world’… but I see value in just helping people get into that open state to start with. Play – and therefore creativity – is a skill that needs practice.