May 05 2010

Contributions welcome

Creativity’s a funny thing. Not only is it often thought of as an intangible quality that is bestowed on a rare fortunate few , but we are somewhat used to thinking that those rare few work alone, or that they at the very least, call the shots. Creative agencies have people called ‘creatives’, whose job it is to be creative and direct other people who aren’t creative.

Now of course we have partnerships like Lennon and McCartney, Simon and Garfunkel, Morecambe and Wise, Adam and Joe, examples of people who were on the same wavelength to such an extent that they can produce things which are wonderfully more than the sum of their parts.


But lately I’ve got thinking that creativity itself is starting to take a different turn. Permit me to take you on a tangential dive into one of my pet loves.

Those who know me will know that I go on about gaming a lot. Too much, perhaps. And not in a l33t speak, last-weekend-I-played-CoDMW2-til-my-eyes-bled kind of way, but in a way which acknowledges that gaming's move into mainstream is an event of real cultural significance, and that entertainment and art may never be the same again.

I have also been, for some time, fairly convinced of the analogy between a game having a designer and a novel having a writer - great novels can be crafted into works of art because often they are written by people with singular visions, who have control over every line, word and punctuation point (to a degree - I realise this is a somewhat naive conception of the contemporary publishing world, at least).

As gaming and the means by which to create games became popularised over the last, say, 20 years, it has become more and more possible for the creators of computer games to exhibit an analogous level of control over their creations. Picture lone programmer/designers, hunched over their machines in the late hours, just as the penniless artist might at their desk furiously scribbling / painting / typing when in the throes of an idea on a dark night, until everything is Just. Right. I believed that if the trend continued, you would eventually get games which were just as honed, just as artful, as great novels.


However, having worked at a digital agency for some time now, it hit me the other day that that vision is unlikely to be the future, for computer games. I'm not discounting the possibility that single individuals can produce captivating gaming experiences; people like Jason Rohrer and Daniel Benmergui. But the thing about games is that they can be so complex and so full of variables, and require so many different skills, that actually the creativity you need to produce a great game is of a very different kind. Some games like Aquaria are created by designer – programmer collaborations, so you get a kind of Lennon-McCartney partnership, more still are created by small teams, like a band jamming to thrash out a song, and others are created by vast studios, like an entire orchestra getting together and saying ‘hey guys, shall we write a concerto? Dave, you take violin.’

To give an example: Bioshock contains innumerable imperceptible touches contributing to the feel of the game as a whole – the way that desks are left open when they’re searched; the way that Houdini splicers teleport in a plume of blood red mist; the way that lone enemies talk to themselves in wrecked corridors as a manifestation of their insanity.

Now, although it’s entirely possible that the same person came up with all of these little ideas, is it really likely? Is it likely that all of these were dictated by the same person who came up with the Ayn-Rand inspired dystopia that is Bioshock’s setting? Is it even likely that whoever decided to set the game in a decrepit, dripping art deco labyrinthine city under the sea, is an individual, rather than a group of writers?

Or is it more plausible that all of these things fell out of when a group of people threw everything they had into a Magimix and pressed ‘On’? For the record, I don’t know who came up with those ideas. Perhaps not even the people who came up with them know. Or maybe it was in fact all one person with a savant-like ability to describe the minutiae of a nightmare they had after finishing Atlas Shrugged in a single sitting.


To bring it back here, the point I’m making is that digital experiences are now so complex, so involved, that to rely on one person to call all of the creative shots would be a nightmare. I’ve produced websites with little touches which I couldn’t have foreseen and told a developer to implement – these decisions come out of discussions and collaboration, and that’s where creativity lies now. We’ve all heard about megalomaniacal directors or musicians dictating absolutely everything on the projects in which they’re involved – but that’s a very difficult thing to do with a digital experience, more so than anything else, I would venture.

And as digital experiences become increasingly common, and increasingly admired, perhaps that will change our conception of creativity. I’m not for a moment suggesting that there’s no room for an individual’s vision, or for the leadership of a creative team, but perhaps there will be less of an emphasis on “genius” as applied to an individual – perhaps what will be most important will be people’s capacity to interact with one another. If games (and digital experiences in general) will become significant contributions to culture, and many of those games are produced by teams, perhaps some of the most valuable contributions to culture in times to come will be put forth by groups, rather than lonely artists. Your thoughts, ladies and gents?

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