If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe. --Carl Sagan
I spend most of my time teaching students how to be creative. More accurately, I teach them how to harness their own ideas and express them creatively. I offer my students tools, and, over time, they learn how to use them.
I've learned that unlocking a student's creativity - especially when he doesn't believe he's creative - is often a matter of handing him the right tool and letting him discover its utility by playing with it. A close observation assignment, for example, can teach a young actor how to carefully note the small details of a person's gait and posture, leading to a discussion of the conclusions we typically draw from such information. Soon, the student learns to incorporate those physical adjustments into the creation of a character, and studious observation proves itself a valuable tool.
If a student finds a tool helpful and easy to use, he will add it to his arsenal. If not, he won't, and no amount of cajoling from me will change that. Some students (especially those who dislike taking copious notes) don't respond well to the observation assignment I described. In those cases another tool, such as a mirroring exercise, can point them in a similar direction. My job is to offer an array of tools (customized as needed), clear instructions for how to use them, and supportive feedback on the results.
Video games are terrific teachers when their pedagogy is aimed at teaching us how to play. Scholars like James Gee and Margaret Robertson have told us about the remarkable ways games facilitate learning, and they make a convincing case.
But when they purposely aim at enabling our creativity, games fail more often than they succeed, and it mostly boils down to lousy tools or bad pedagogy.
In the past, games with creative toolsets were aimed at specialists and experts with the time and skill to learn how to use them. The modding communities that formed around games like Half-Life and the Elder Scrolls series, for example, have generated amazing content and extended the lives of these and many other games. This is undoubtedly a good thing. Unfortunately, the steep learning curve for such tools puts them out of reach for most of us.
Recently we've begun to see the emergence of games designed to promote creativity in the rest of us. These games proudly proclaim "Be Creative!" as a principle design feature. Games like Little Big Planet, WarioWare D.I.Y., Sleep is Death, Spore, and Guitar Hero 5's Music Studio suggest we can all get creative if we're just willing to roll up our sleeves and have some fun. Sadly, you won't get your muse on quite so easily as these games would have you think.
Little Big Planet is particularly disappointing to me in this regard. I'm no designer, but I gave LBP's level editor everything I had for 3 days. In the end, I had a rickety nondescript 2-stage level and 10 stiff fingers to show for my efforts. LBP's toolset is robust and powerful, but overly complex and incredibly difficult to manage with a controller. I don't personally know anyone who built an original level with it, and I know lots of creative people who played and enjoyed LBP.
WarioWare D.I.Y. enticed me with tools to be a game designer, but its laborious means of teaching me how to use them squelched my desire to learn. The game begins with a tedious series of tutorials that require nearly an hour to complete. Each incremental step is intended to explain the principles of game design, but after a 20 minutes I began to feel like a recalcitrant kid being tutored by a pedant.
I've sung the praises of Sleep is Death in my previous two posts because I see it as a significant re-think of how we interact with games. But after two weeks I've yet to find anyone I know (and you really need to play this game with a friend or loved one) willing to be the Controller. Two minutes with the unintuitive UI has sent six of my students and colleagues fleeing for the hills, never to return. And that's a shame, because learning SiD's interface is worth the effort. Sadly, the very people I want most to play this game with me are the very people least likely to play it.
Spore suffers from an inverse, but no less disappointing problem. Spore nails the toolset and makes the player feel instantly at ease creating creatures...but to what purpose? My best memories of Spore are all connected to playing with its powerful creature creator, and that's no small feat. Perhaps we should admire the game for that playful achievement alone. But in the end, Spore gave me little reason to care about my creations as the game progressed. Spore suggested my choices would have broad implications, but ultimately they didn't.
So where is the game that unleashes our creativity with an easy to use interface, a toolset that smartly balances depth with utility, and gameplay that makes all that creativity worth the effort?
Well, I believe I may have seen that game, and I'll tell you all about it in my next post.