If this blog is about playing with creativity, it begs a few questions: what is creativity, and how do you play with it?
Creative readers will recognise aspects of this post and identify with them in their own lives. Some parts won’t resonate as much, and that’s fine. This is one way (out of infinite ways) of thinking about the process. How I think about creativity changes – right now, this is what my mind is going with.
Creativity is a bit of a black box. What goes in often looks nothing like what comes out. Exactly what happens to bring about this transformation isn’t always clear. Still, there’s a lot that we have figured out about it. Like how it is a balancing act between saturating your brain in inspiring media and embracing boredom to give ideas space to grow. Like how you accept that it’s a meandering path that goes whichever way it wants. Like how it needs to be a fun, positive and engaging process.
Another thing that we know is that ideas grow when shared. Spreading ideas around strengthens them, both by clarifying them in your mind and letting them interface with other ideas in the world. Collaboration is a powerful tool for spinning up new ways of looking at the world.
Taking those things together, we have the blueprint of what part of the process looks like. A properly cultivated mind – rich in time, inspiration and media – emits something resembling an idea. It is not quite an idea yet though. It is incomplete, anaemic, unable to support its own weight. I like to think of it as an idea fragment, just waiting for the right component to make it whole.
If you are trying to write a novel, then the purpose of your creativity is to produce a book. You take the idea fragments, refine them into ideas and upgrade them to a finished product. This is a laborious and demanding process. It is worthwhile, of course – this is the only way your ideas see the light of day and start working for you (and earning you money). Finishing projects is the real test of a creative professional – making the leap from abstract to real, translating an idea fragment into a finished product.
This is where playing with creativity differs from being creatively productive – when playing, the goal isn’t to produce an outcome but to maximise creativity. In which case, we are freed from a lot of the hard work. Idea fragments invite response. Each idea fragment – each potential idea – is so clearly visible yet so clearly incomplete that you can’t help but think of ways to round it out. Ideas inspire creativity, but idea fragments make creativity explode.
I like to think of ideas as water molecules. Quite famously being H2O – two hydrogen atoms, one oxygen atom – water is chemically stable and very unreactive. It is powerful, useful, vital and beautiful but, chemically, it will just sit there.
By analogy, an idea fragment is like a water molecule fragment. Take away one of the hydrogen atoms and you are left with an OH- radical – one hydrogen atom, one oxygen atom. It is nearly a stable molecule, but the funny thing is being nearly stable makes you really unstable. A measly hydrogen atom will ‘complete’ the OH- radical. To get that hydrogen atom, it will react strongly with a lot of different chemicals.
This is the fun part. Most creative people love thinking up fun and creative ideas – it’s turning them into outcomes that is a drag. Building idea fragments is the first part, the funnest part, the easiest part. In an exploration of the creative, where else would we start?
When you read my other posts on this site, you’ll notice a lot of this going on. I will cultivate idea fragments and fire them off into the wild. I’ll endeavour to give them legs – a prototype here, a demonstration there – but they won’t be finished products. No, they’ll be eagerly awaiting the complementary reagent that makes them whole.
It’s a shame that relentless idea generation such a bad habit, one that I am thoroughly guilty of. You have a vision for some creative endeavour, you start, but the inspiration runs low and momentum peters out. Dabbling in the idea fragment space is satisfying, most of the time. But it neglects half of the process.
If we have an ecosystem of idea fragments, colliding and spinning off whole, healthy ideas, it would be criminal to leave it there. Just as the chemistry-rich primordial earth gave rise to complex biology, so too must this frenzy of idea fragment generation give rise to ideas, then outcomes.
Here’s the thing: let’s not force it. Maybe we just sit back and let the ideas evolve. Let them come to us when they’re ready. If and only if an idea seduces us, we should run with it. Until then we can sit back, relax and keep nurturing our precious idea fragments.
I have books at home filled with idea fragments dating back years. In a way, I have already built an ideas ecosystem and have been all my life. But it is lacking a couple of things that you guys can provide. One is, of course, exposure – my idea fragments can go to other people and theirs can come to me, and somewhere in this amino acid soup will be the spark that takes them to the next level. The other benefit is accountability. Emergent ideas that deserve more out of life will have a public audience. If they whither from my neglect or negligence, I won’t be the only witness.
Which is where you come in. I will provide you with what I can – gaming tips, creative resources, an insight into one rookie’s design journey, inspiration, a flood of idea fragments. I give you these things freely – nay, eagerly. In exchange, all I ask is that you participate. Share your own idea fragments. Comment on mine – what works, what is missing? Take my idea fragments and run with them – I won’t mind, as long as they find a good home.
I promise I’ll have fun. Invest your creativity in me and it will pay dividends.
Gaming is a window to our true selves. So is the creative process. Why don’t we indulge them a little more, see if they cannot surprise us.