Creativity in computer games


My research progress since starting the Masters, starting with Relaxation aiding games.

ABSTRACT

Interactive and games technology are relatively new in comparison to other more traditional forms of expression such as books, music, art, and even movies. The benefits and limitations of this medium have not yet been established to the same extent and certain subject matters and concepts have received a disproportionate amount of development in comparison to others. Games involving the acts of driving, shooting or driving and shooting have been relatively well covered while games where the player can communicate in a meaningful way or create environments and objects that can be explored and interacted with in a more gentle way have been far less developed.

I’m interested in harnessing current interactive and gaming technology to create relaxation experiences that are intuitive, immersive and deep.

To narrow down this very broad concept, I will be exploring the concept of accessing people’s creativity to allow them to express themselves in a way that helps them to feel more at ease. Artists and musicians often feel most relaxed when they are creating work. Children also benefit from expressive activities but often lose that outlet as they get older because they don’t feel ‘good enough’. This is known as ‘self-censorship, that inner voice of judgement that confines our creative spirit within the boundaries of what we deem acceptable’ (Goleman, Kaufmann 1992)

I hope to develop an interactive experience that helps people to rediscover that creative outlet and express themselves in a way that feels liberating and ultimately relaxing.

RELAXATION AIDING COMPUTER GAMES

My initial plan on this course was to explore how to make computer games that have a relaxation effect on the player. I have been an enthusiastic player of computer games since I was very young, but have become frustrated with the conservative nature of the mainstream games industry. The traditional market of ‘gamers’ receives a constant stream of first and third person shooters, driving games, platformers (games where you run and jump on platforms and other obstacles- sort of like a virtual obstacle course) and role playing games all of which playing remarkably similar to how they played in years gone by. The main reason cited for this is that the cost and risks of making games increased massively through the mid nineties and into the new millennium, so publishers have become understandably cautious about trying anything too new and risky.

Among all these games, there have only been occasional examples of games or elements of games that could be called relaxing.Pilotwings 64 (Paradigm entertainment 1996), a launch title for Nintendo’s N64 back in 1996 was a flight simulation game that stripped away the complexity of controls of traditional flight simulators to give a streamlined flying experience over a series of islands filled with exploration possibilities and variety. The pace of the game was kept deliberately relaxed and the music was endearingly gentle. A well loved game that has had enduring appeal, Pilotwings 64 managed to engage players in a relatively sedate game where simply flying itself could feel satisfying in a way that similar games couldn’t match.

  The exact reasons for this are not initially apparent. I compared it to a game with a similar relaxation ethos,Endless Ocean (Arika. 2007). A diving based game, Endless ocean features incredibly lush looking tropical undersea environments and features a soothing and mysterious soundtrack. The experience is strangely hollow though, It somehow doesn’t engage the player in the same way as Pilotwings. Aesthetic comparisons would indicate that Endless Ocean’s visuals are far richer and the sound in both games is excellent. Both games have environments that beg to be explored and yet Endless Ocean still feels flat. I found myself ‘wanting’ to love it, but somehow not being able to get fully engaged. I wasn’t fully able to understand why until later, when my research into Flow, a focused state of mind described by Csikszentmihalyi (1997) and game design methods as researched by Dickey (2005) began to shed light on the subtle differences between the games.

Pilotwings (left) and Endless Ocean (right)

This difficulty in being able to define exactly what makes one relaxation game work and another fail was my main difficulty early on, There seemed to be a paradoxical situation where the traditional view of relaxing entailed reducing interactivity and creating a calming ambience, while the nature of making interesting computer games needed high levels of activity and stimulation. I identified four possible categories for types of relaxation games: Abstract Visualisations, Creativity Games, Ambient Environments and Exploration Games but found that they would all have the same problem of somehow balancing relaxation with stimulation.

PRACTICAL,TECHNICAL AND AESTHETIC ASPECTS

While this theoretical development was taking place, I had been working on testing aesthetic concepts, technical ideas and interface possibilities. After several conversations with another student who was interested in the psychology of colour, we decided to make an experimental interactive piece called Paintzilla that would help us to test our concepts in an iterative way. The basic concept of the game is that you are Paintzilla and your mission is to paint the city rather than destroying it. We would build a simple game that would allow the player to paint but in an interactive gaming context. We would then be able to see what parts of the game worked and what didn’t. The game is currently still in development, a very rough prototype has been built but the level of interaction is currently too limited to be able to learn too much from at this stage. Development of the concept for Paintzilla began to sharpen the focus of my research into exploring the Creativity Games category further. The idea of combining a traditional game with the ability to create art within that game world was exciting and full of interesting emergent possibilities. There could be a lot of interactions possible like making the paint colour you use affect the population of the city in different ways. There were so many ideas in fact, that it became difficult to try to work out which of them would improve the game experience and which would actually detract from it. Without a properly grounded understanding of the methods of game design engagement and what makes people want to be creative, we would not be able to clearly identify the necessary elements to make the game fun to play and satisfying to use creatively. My next step was to research these two subjects to see how they could be synthesized into one game.

The first question I needed to answer was ‘what is creativity?’. There were many different interpretations but the one that made most sense to me was surprisingly different from the idea of creativity that I initially had. Before researching it, my concept of creativity was the act of creating something expressive like a a painting, music or poem. I had identified four main categories:

  • Identity

  • External issues

  • Improving mood

  • Emotions

Identity was about playing with or expressing ideas of your own identity, External issues were ideas and thoughts about subjects that interest or motivate you, Improving mood was about pieces of work that are instinctively made to make you feel good such as handcrafted ornaments, scenic paintings, relaxing music etc. Emotions was about work that is about expressing internal feelings and emotions. After reading Goleman and Kaufman’s (1992) theory on the nature of creativity (1992) and Dilworth’s (2004) analysis on self expression however, I decided those categories were more related to self expression. This definition of self expression became useful to use as something that complements the creative focus of the game but first I needed a new definition of creativity.

DEFINING CREATIVITY

After exploring the views of Csikszentmihalyi (1997) and Goleman and Kaufman (1992) my definition of creativity then became: 

The enjoyment of working to complete a challenge using a synthesis of conscious thought and intuition.

In other words, creative people like to take on challenges and find new ways to overcome those challenges, they don’t shy away from trying something new and are willing to risk failure to eventually succeed. Creativity is not limited to artists and musicians or other similar fields, it is more a state of mind where the individual seeks to overcome challenge in the work that they do, improve their skills and take pride in improving their ability to do the task well. For example, a task as seemingly mundane as cleaning can be made interesting by a creative approach. The cleaner might vary the order that they do things, set targets to try to finish each activity by a certain time and look for ways to work more efficiently or even find unusual ways to do the same thing as a way of exploring the possibilities.

It is often about challenging the assumptions and expectations of the individual and their environment and it creates a sense of adventure as new pathways of possibility are found. A vital part of it is the synthesis of conscious and unconscious parts of the mind to find solutions to the challenge. The conscious mind is comparatively straightforward and is effective at finding the most direct solution to a problem which it’s usually unable to see beyond. The unconscious part of the mind is far more complex and sees links between seemingly disconnected concepts and experiences. It has access to far more memories and experiences than the conscious mind and consequently has a much richer and deeper well of knowledge to see patterns and solutions. It’s the librarian of the mind, finding just the right elements of knowledge from a vast library of experiences. It’s able to retrieve background information and connections from this rich database and present it as ‘suggested reading’ for the conscious mind to take or leave. It doesn’t take action itself, but it acts as a guide, helping to properly inform and give contextual understanding to decisions. Sometimes this contextual understanding is more of a feeling than an actual identifiable fact, taking the form of instinct or intuition.

Many people lose their creativity over time due to external influences, distractions and worries. They lose their ability to listen to their intuition and forget how to see beyond the straight, robotic path. Losing this communication with the unconscious has many negative effects, without the ability to see beyond the mundane functions of everyday life, the ability to ‘dream’ becomes impossible and the person can become trapped in an unhappy situation, unable to visualize a way to improve or escape from it. Without creativity, the mind stagnates and is unable to see beyond ‘now’. It is the sense that there’s something better, tantalizingly within reach.

Drawing from the work of Goleman and Kaufman (1992), I defined the creative process as having five stagesthat lead to achieving a successful outcome, although they don’t necessarily flow directly from one stage to the next. Sometimes there can be a loop back to a previous point.

The research stage is about finding out what you can about the subject, collecting background knowledge and finding out what others have done. The analysis stage is about taking this information and trying to piece together how it fits into the ‘bigger picture’. You weigh up the options available to you and if you’re lucky, you may find something that works. If you find the solution isn’t satisfactory, you move onto the reflection stage where your mental librarian goes to work, building context and connections. This can be happening when you’re sleeping, daydreaming or doing some kind of straightforward activity like walking. Observations and possibilities are explored outside of your mind’s view. The planning stage happens when you contact your mental librarian. They’ve got all your reading material ready and have even highlighted all the important bits so you don’t need to wade through it all! Now you can start weighing up the options again like you did in the analysis stage but now with a clearer understanding. The final stage is implementation where you have decided on a plan of action and now must follow it through keeping in mind the knowledge gained.

Through my research, I regularly encountered references to Flow (Rogatko, 2007, Engeser and Rheinberg, 2008 and Scoresby, 2009) that I briefly mentioned earlier. It is a state of mind when our creativity seems to come most naturally to us. It appeared that If I could understand the methods of achieving the state of flow, I would potentially be able to facilitate them in a game.

RESEARCHING FLOW PSYCHOLOGY

The sensation of being in flow was described as a feeling of being able to combine conscious and unconscious thought without distractions or feelings of inadequacy. Flow feels like you are in control, even though you are challenged by what you are doing. When an athlete is performing at their best or a musician is engrossed in their performance, they are in a state of flow. They can be doing something incredibly complex and yet it feels natural and easy. The main characteristics of flow are:

  • A complete focus on what you are doing.

  • A loss of the sense of self.

  • There are clear goals

  • You get instant feedback on your actions

  • Your ability matches the challenge of the activity

  • Time either passes very quickly or very slowly.

  • The process itself becomes intrinsically motivating.

The mental state of Flow requires an emptying the mind of superfluous thoughts through a concentration on what you are doing thus creating space for the conscious mind to ‘breathe’. If you are unable to clear your mind of distractions, you will be unable to connect with your unconscious and consequentially will experience difficulty in finding inventive solutions to the issue at hand. You will be unable to ‘think round’ a problem. When a person is in flow, they are able to do the majority of the task automatically while the conscious mind is free to relax and simply guide at a higher level, keeping things on track. Like the director of a company, it’s important that the conscious mind is given space to think and not get too caught up in the minutiae of all the processes that they oversee. The unconscious is much better at controlling these processes. So in summary, Flow is about the act of being creative. It has been directly linked with an increase in Positive Affect (PA) (Rogatko, 2007), a measure of positive influence to a person’s feelings of mental well-being. Flow is something that is often experienced in computer games (sometimes known as ‘the zone’). My next step was to first look at the computer game design methods and then try to understand how they create a state of flow when played.

DEFINING GAME DESIGN METHODS

Game design methods are at their very core about creating an intrinsically motivating experience aimed at enticing as large an audience as possible. Game designers have become very good at this with a lot of good and bad press about the compulsive and sometimes controversial nature of games. The methods of game designers to keep people playing are very similar to the characteristics of flow. Here are the main methods of computer game design:

  • Concept: The game has a ‘hook’ that draws the player in.

  • Goals: The player is clear about what they need to do

  • Challenge: The game increases in difficulty as the player’s skills improve.

  • Feedback: Games give instant feedback to the actions of the player

  • Emotional Engagement: Games provide a context to the actions of the player


    CONNECTING GAME DESIGN METHODS TO FLOW PSYCHOLOGY

    The methods of engagement used by game designers are similar to the ways that a person achieves a state of flow: clear goals, achievable level of challenge, instant feedback and the process is intrinsically motivating. Games players often feel a strong sense of flow and in fact it is essential with certain games. ‘Bullet hell shooters’ such as DodonPachi (Cave. 1998) are a type of game where the player’s reactions and concentration are pushed to the limits, The screen is filled with hundreds of enemy bullets all capable of destroying the player’s ship instantly. There is no way that the conscious mind can cope with the insane amount of action on screen and so the player must enter a state of flow (known in gaming terms as ‘The Zone’) where the player reacts instinctively and intuitively seemingly without conscious thought. I’ve experienced this first hand and remember finding myself doing really well until I got distracted by how well I was doing and began to put pressure on myself not to make a mistake whereupon my game ended very quickly. Like climbing the stairs, it’s fine until you start to think about what you are doing, if you’ve ever found yourself having difficulty doing something you’ve done a hundred times before, it can be because you’ve shifted control of it to your conscious mind which is comparatively slow and cumbersome.


    A screenshot of gameplay from DodonPachi.


There is a strange dichotomy between zen-like flow state experienced when playing computer games and the sometimes stressful and violent nature of what they often represent. Having played many a violent game myself, I can attest to entering a calm state of flow and having a general feeling of well-being even straight after an evening of vicious virtual people slaughter or scarily fast and dangerous car driving (also virtual). The nature of flow goes some way to explaining this as I found myself in a state of complete focus on the game and able to forget about my worries for a while. Reactions to the events of the game felt natural and unforced. However these games can still be very intense and at least a little stressful, so does that not actually work against the positive feelings felt while in a state of flow? Strangely, it seems that it is actually the opposite. People actually need a little stress to be able to feel excited and involved in what they’re doing, otherwise they become bored and unable to engage properly. There has to be some kind of perceived risk, although what that risk is can vary enormously from the fear of your virtual avatar being viciously slaughtered by a group of angry virtual people to simply fearing the failure of not managing to complete a challenge. Similarly, a lot of people find that they are unable to find that state of flow in other situations until there is an impending deadline to finish their work that gives them the stress boost required to become focused.

 Going back to the earlier comparison between Pilotwings 64 and Endless Ocean, Although Endless Ocean was more beautiful and arguably more atmospheric, it failed to be as effective in a few key areas. Goals were less well defined and the ones that you had were not challenging enough to hold your attention, there are invisible barriers that put you back into the area you’re in, distracting you from the flow of the game. There is no inherent challenge to the game. In Pilotwings, there is a lot of fun and challenge in mastering the different methods of flight which all handle very differently with subtle nuances that make them easy to learn but difficult to master. In Endless Ocean, you look where you want to go, then you go there. There is an emptiness to Endless Ocean that has nothing to do with the amount of scenery and a lot more to do with the amount of meaningful interactions available.

ANALYSING THE LINK BETWEEN CREATIVITY AND FLOW

 Another question that I found myself was whether achieving a state of flow in a computer game would actually translate to finding it easier to enter flow outside of the game. Rogatco (2007) stated that there is some evidence that achieving a flow state becomes easier the more you do it . This could suggest that it does, but it may depend on the context and whether the sensation is transferrable into a real life scenario. For example, playing a first person shooting game might put a person into a state of flow, but they may not be able to then go and approach a difficult piece of creative writing with that same sensation- the differences between activities may be too great for them to make a connection. If the game was based more on the use of language in a playful and experimental context however, there is probably a much higher chance of transference.

 In my research I found a game called Quest Atlantis (CRLT. 2002) that demonstrated the feasibility of combining real and virtual activities to engage children in academic learning. It has been developed with three main purposes in mind, entertaining and engaging children in the game world, helping them to develop their academic skills and building their social awareness. The concept of the game is that Atlantis has lost it’s way in terms of knowledge and culture, The Atlantean council has requested the children to help them regain their wisdom. The game itself is played online with the children’s avatars being an extension of themselves rather than a completely fictitious character. Information about the children and their progress is stored on a profile which helps them to keep track of their own achievements. The Atlantean council set them tasks to perform which have either an academic or social benefit to the child’s learning. By creating a context and story that the children can care about and clearly defining how they can make a positive difference, they are given motivation to learn by being involved and participating. Rewards are given to children for successfully completing tasks and they are given further incentive by the appreciation of the in game characters whom they have helped. The developers found that the ability to help others proved to be a powerful motivating factor for both girls and boys. The interactive environment allows them to experiment and play with their learning, make mistakes and learn from them in a safe and non-judgmental setting. It gives them a chance to be creatively involved with their own development.

Research carried out to test the effectiveness of Quest Atlantis found that children who played the game were more able to understand and deal with social issues as well as being more confident in their academic studies. Barab et al (2005) stated that a majority of experts believed that ‘Inquiry based learning’ where the student discovers information for themselves is far more effective than simply being given the information by someone else.

An interesting facet to the design of Quest Atlantis is that it is designed to include activities inside and outside of the virtual environment. Players are required to learn and research from sources external to the game and then bring their findings back into the game world. This helps them to apply skills learned from the game in the real world while being motivated by story elements within the game world.

Creating a link to the real world helps children to be able to avoid compartmentalising their knowledge and experiences within the game world. This game is aimed at children between the ages of 9 and 12. At this stage in development, children have very active imaginations and are therefore much more able than adults to be creative and enter a state of flow. There is a lot of evidence to show that as children grow up, they often lose the ability to think creatively and their view becomes blinkered and stuck in the present.

DEFINING THE BARRIERS TO CREATIVITY

Many people lose their creativity because they become afraid of looking foolish to their peers, It feels safer to conform than to risk criticism or abuse from others. They often don’t get enough ‘space’ to do their own thing without scrutiny from others making them feel self conscious. Sometimes adults can interfere too much, trying to help but actually restricting a child’s creativity. Often, they don’t want to know the ‘right’ way to do things, but just want to experiment and find things out for themselves. Adults can also have intimidating expectations for their child, putting too much pressure on them and making them lose their ability to relax and let their mind wander. These factors can eventually lead to self censorship where even when an opportunity arises, they restrict themselves anyway, past experiences making them lose their confidence.

I decided that a good way to help people to gain confidence and unlock their creativity is by encouraging self expression, it is a common feature in computer games to a greater or lesser extent and can allow people to play with perceptionsof themselves and their world. Games allow the facilitation of this at a simple level (Designing the aesthetics of your avatar in Skate (Electronic Arts. 2010) or at a very sophisticated level (Writing satirical screenplays for your own films in ‘The Movies’ (Lionhead Studios. 2005)). The other benefit of using self expression as a focus of my design was that it helped me to focus on a more specific area of creativity.

RESEARCHING GAMES THAT ENCOURAGE SELF EXPRESSION

 Two games I researched that do more than most to encourage self expression are Second Life (Linden Lab. 2003) and LittleBigPlanet (Media Molecule. 2008). Although encouraging self expression is a main theme of both games, they are very different experiences.

Second Life is a massively multiplayer game world currently inhabited by over 20 million subscribers. Within Second life, it’s possible to express yourself in many different ways. From fully customisable avatars, user created furniture, fashion items , toys and gestures to building an environment that reflects your emotional state. Second Life covers all four of my categories of self expression. It is also interesting in that it challenges some of the computer game design methods mentioned near the start of this paper! It doesn’t have game generated goals or objectives and doesn’t necessarily reward achievements. In fact, it’s debatable whether it’s actually a game in the traditional sense. One of the many interesting aspects of Second life is that the goals and achievements are supplied by the gamer themselves, they can decide what they want to do, create a music-hall and try to entice other players to come and watch events put on by performers that they’ve hired or simply go exploring, the choice is theirs. Second life’s moniker is very accurate, it is a place where people can meet, talk, fall in love and even earn a living.

 LittleBigPlanet is a very cute looking platformer that uses a very traditional ‘hand made’ aesthetic to make it feel accessible and familiar to a wide audience. However, if you dip below this appealing surface, you’ll find a very sophisticated tool that allows you to create your own games using the building blocks that it provides with physics simulation to make fun interactions possible. The freedom you are given makes it possible to create interesting environments that you can share with the community online. Like Second Life, LittleBigPlanet fits all the categories of expression, you have a lot of freedom to fashion an game with a story that has relevance and meaning to you. For example, I found a user created game that was used as an engagement proposal (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mf2iGG9uTZY). This is an interesting merging of the borders between creativity within and outside of the gaming context.

 Both LittleBigPlanet and Second Life share a focus on players being able to express themselves as an end in itself, LittleBigPlanet has more of a traditional gaming structure, it has levels and some basic goals, but it is more of a way of introducing and building people’s interest in the game. It allows them to see what can be done and gives them a starting point to what they can do themselves. When they are ready, people can then dive into the real focus of the game which is using the structure of LittleBigPlanet to be able to express themselves. It arguably has a more user-friendly framework to help you to develop your skills and confidence before you attempt to get creative but both games have a focus that definitely moves away from the traditional computer game methods of engagement. So what have both these highly successful games done to replace them that works so well where others have failed?

The big difference is that Second Life and LittleBigPlanet both have a thriving community built around them, they have been designed to encourage people to share the work they’ve done and have fun with each others creations in a positive, supportive community of similarly creative and enthusiastic people. Second Life especially needs to maintain a fine balance of creative and expressive freedom while at the same time ensuring a positive community spirit is maintained.

 It differs from LittleBigPlanet in the sense that there is meant to be one shared world that all the residents share, a virtual community for people to express themselves freely as opposed to building and sharing little worlds with their own rules like in LittleBigPlanet. This allows a lot of exciting freedom, but also comes with some serious difficulties. If people are allowed to express themselves freely, how do you ensure they don’t offend others? How do you decide what offensive is? How do you encourage freedom of expression while maintaining harmony? As it’s popularity has increased and the number of players have increased with different expectations, Issues like this have been thrown into sharp focus.

IDENTIFYING THE IMPORTANT ELEMENTS FROM EACH STRAND OF RESEARCH

 I’m now at the stage where I’m beginning to try to identify and synthesize the most important elements from my research on Creativity, Self Expression,Flow Psychology,Technical Aspects, Aesthetics and Game Design Methods to make a game or demo that is effective at encouraging and cultivating creativity in the short and long terms. It needs to:

  • be accessible while still challenging people who are more experienced.

  • introduce one or more forms of self expression at a steady pace.

  • have an interesting concept and context that hooks people’s interest.

  • have clearly defined goals especially at the beginning.

  • reward players for their achievements, especially forms of self expression.

  • give satisfying feedback to player’s actions to make the gameplay enjoyable.

  • make people’s self expression feel worthwhile.

 These are the main points that I need to consider. An element that I haven’t included is about the social aspect of the game if it is to have one. This element would need more research if I was to decide to try to incorporate it, especially as it is probably unrealistic to try to build a community element to the game when just getting the basics working will be difficult enough! However it will still be worth looking into and could perhaps work as a party game designed for multiple players to enjoy together. The social aspect of the game will be very important If the focus of the game is heavily based on self expression. My next step is to assess how well these elements can be incorporated into Paintzilla and also look again at what other game design possibilities there may be now that I have a much sharper focus than when I started the course. I still currently have time to consider what form my final piece will take.

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About garrywhitton

I'm a masters student studying animation and visualisation. I am exploring the use of games technology for therapy and relaxation.
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