Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Volume 83! Games Creativity Life (Part Two)...
Good morning self generating catalyzing constraints,
Here in Northern New Jersey it is getting hot – up in the high twenties celsius (up into the low eighties fahrenheit). Early mornings are the only cool time. Trying to write in the evening is always a difficult proposition, but now with the heat – all the more so.
Our houses were designed under the assumption of AC and thus designed to turn away from entering into any kind of dynamic dialog with our environments. It makes it hard to attune to cooling forces. But we are always trying and along with all the magnificent tree blossoms there is a cool wind to be found.
We hope that your daily routines are shifting with spring in joyful and exploratory ways – here we are eating much later – salads on the front steps and all the doors and windows open looking at Orion rising into the night sky. And rising before the crescendo of the conference of birds begins…
Last week found us digging into games and exploring linkages between creativity and games – what games can teach us about creative processes (and what they cannot). The questions that we posed at the end of the newsletter led to some interesting discussions during the week (thank you to everyone who reached out!).
Perhaps the most fruitful were with our collaborators on exploring early childhood mathing and qualitative creativity: Steven Greenstein (who has an amazing book on Fractals) and Erin Pomponio (we have a grant with them to explore early childhood learning, creative processes and math). We managed to find some precious time to sit down and explore some of these concepts with physical tools (wiki sticks, playdough, and Speks).
We are interested in designing games that explore qualitative changes in ways that young children can come to sense and recognize the differences between change-in-degree and change-in-kind in forms of spontaneous play.
And having Bernard Suits gaming concepts in the mix and working with the dynamics of the constraints and propensities of the materials was really illuminating. One critical aspect we realized is that it helps to work with materials that resist representational play (making human and other recognizable things). If you give young kids playdough, which affords the making of known objects – people, dogs, toys – then that's what you will get, unless you intervene to not allow this, which disrupts spontaneous exploratory play. But finding “Fleks” – a bendy magnetic four-armed connector toy gave us a way to explore the possibility of developing games that inherently avoided representation.
And with Bernard Suits’ concepts we got much further than we had previously towards actual games. What was most helpful was his and Thi Nguyens concept of games as producers of spaces of alternative agency. Games are about the experience of play but where the logic of the game brings forth a specific space of agency:
“...This basic idea – that games work in the medium of agency – reveals something quite profound about the role games can play in human life… Games turn out to be a way of writing down forms of agency, of inscribing them as artifact… We have developed methods for recording stories… for capturing sights… sounds… We have even developed methods for capturing sequences of actions performed – cookbook directions, dance coreography… Games are a method for capturing forms of agency.
And this suggests another possibility: that games can be a way that we collaborate in the project of developing our agency and autonomy. If games can record and transmit agency, then I can learn new modes of agency from a game.” (Thi Nguyen)
Being able to ask and explore the question “what new form of agency are we interested in developing and exploring?” Is really helpful in getting any of us to shift our approach to creative processes. For us, we are curious how we could develop games that give very young players the ability to sense when they are crossing qualitative thresholds into the new (vs just experiencing something quantitatively different). A work in progress…
That brings us to this week:
One of the big challenges in exploring the creative processes of the radically new is in how we directly sense and engage with problems.
We have written extensively on the topic of “what is a problem” – but it always remains hard to grasp how much bigger and more creative a problem is than our everyday intuitions suggest.
Classically we conceptualize a problem as having two qualities:
But, this alone cannot effectively define a problem, to this we need to add:
What does it mean to say a problem is productive and has its own “modality”?
The theory of games as the art of agency can help us understand and explore this aspect of problems.
The construction of a game – developing its constraints, rules, objectives and spaces of novel agency is in many ways the same as the construction of a problem in the innovation process.
What do we mean by this?
Games invent problems: how can you achieve a certain objective under these conditions?
If we remember Suit’s short definition of a game: “Playing a game is a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles” we can see how a game produces a problem – that which we strive to overcome. And in doing so games invents (or produces) a modality – a way of being of the problem – a form of agency.
One key difference in a game is that conditions under which one can play/work (the form and space of our agency) are made explicit. While problems are conditioned – the conditions are rarely made explicit – and in most cases cannot be made fully explicit:
“A problem contains far more than what is explicitly stated. The explicit components rest upon a vast sea of highly diverse implicit factors. This unstated side of things is not exclusively or even mainly conceptual. What is implicit in a question cannot be put into words because it is about things, environments, habits and practices — all things that exceed in action anything we might conceptualize about them in language.
Thus questions / problems come to us embedded in — and are — a network of unspoken assumptions, equipment, approaches and practices that frame and support the way the question / problem is posed.
A problem is a statement embedded in a specific highly stable assemblage of physical things, environments, concepts, habits and practices that give rise to an emergent field of possible outcomes or solutions.
Problems are not free-floating statements or abstract challenges. They are issues arising as assemblages and fields.” (From: Innovation – It’s About Problems)
Both Problems and Games are situations where the “context” – what conditions them is productive. In both the context generates a world via a dialog between the objective and productive constraints. Being able to see how games are productive – produce possible subjects and forms of agency – which is to say they have a modality – can help us sense how problems have a similar conditioned productive logic.
Here we are still at the level of the general description, what matters is what happens because of the objective plus these explicit and implicit constraints. And what happens is that a novel space of unique agency is created – the game (and the problem) produces a distinct way of being and doing:
“a game designer creates, not only the world in which the players will act, but the skeleton of the players practical agency within that world. The designer’s control over the nature of the players agency is part of how the game designer sculpts the games activity” (Thi Nguyen Games: Agency as Art).
It is important to see that a problem works in a very similar manner – it is just that most of what is made explicit in a game remains implicit in most problems.
Now one could argue that while games are designed and made in an explicit fashion by someone – problems are not – they are simply given. But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of a problem:
“Stating the problem is not simply uncovering… it is inventing… the effort of invention consists most often in raising the problem, in creating the terms in which it will be stated." (Henri Bergson, Creative Mind).
How we work creatively with a problem is by inventing the conditions under which it can be engaged – and this is where the play and design of games can help us both see and explore the generative nature of a problem: problems in their construction generate a unique space of agency – a field of possible subjectivities, actions and modes of being.
We can jump to “solving” the problem – but this is to falsely accept the problem as an unchangeable given. Before joining the adventure of solving a problem we first need to consider how the modality and agency of the space of problem is giving rise to a solution space…
“...a solution always has the truth it deserves according to the problem to which it is a response” (Gilles Deleuze)
Often the response to a problem is one of “then, let's change the rules! Who needs these rules!”
Here, again games are illuminating – the productive power of the game does not only reside in the rules – think of soccer – the conditions of play: the ball, the field, the bodies involved all play productive roles.
Playing a game is not (necessarily) about winning but exploring the space of all possible resolutions (outcomes). Where each resolution is one way to inhabit the agency of the game. The game does not end when the objective has been reached – that is just one resolution – one experimentation. Deleuze says something similar of a problem: “A problem does not exist apart from its solutions,... it insists and persists in these solutions”.
It is also useful to shift from seeing a problem as being solved – being completed and done – to being “resolved” – a solution is simply one way of resolving a problem. And what matters in not the single solution but the larger solution space and its overall qualities: what is its modality?
What is interesting in the great diversification of role player board games that critically and creatively take off from the Dungeons and Dragons type games is that one can wander and explore the spaces of how to shift the conditions and what new forms of agency arise when we shift the conditions/mechanisms of play in subtle ways. Small shifts in the ecology of a game lead to profoundly different emergent spaces of agency (in very non-linear ways).
Here we can see great game designers (problem producers) looking at the total space of resolution – the play of agency and seeing how they can sculpt the solution space to allow for the exploration of other modalities. Could we talk about the invention of problems in a similar manner?
Moving across and between a series of similar games attunes us to the complex emergent nature of the conditioning of agency. And can bring us to see the nuance of our role in the construction of problems – in ways that go far beyond jumping to solutions or playing with rules.
We need to learn how to care for how we construct our problems – and games in their productive invention of new modes of being – new forms of agency can help us develop a sensitivity to this nuanced creative task.
What games are you going to play this week?
We are curious about this one where you move forward by gaining access to forgotten memories (suggested by Thi Nguyen).
Next week we will look at how problems (and games) are generated in their co-evolution.
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