Improvisation and Design

This week, I wanted to return briefly to Sawyer’s distinction between problem-finding and problem-solving behavior, as detailed in Improvisation and the Creative Process.  The former refers to the artist who is actively engaged in the creative process while the work is being made, seeking innovative paths as they are producing.  Problem-solving behavior, on the other hand, refers to creation in accordance with a preset plan, with the artist simply carrying out the actions during the process itself.  A key feature of improvisation is a focus on problem-finding behavior, taking what is happening in a certain moment and moving it in an all new direction.  Even beyond the improvisational nature of ARGs themselves, this focus on problem-finding behavior is seen everywhere throughout the design process of such games.

Unfortunately, I was not able to make it to class on Tuesday where we created new rulesets for tic-tac-toe, but that methodology is certainly consistent with what Chess and Booth describe in Lessons down a rabbit hole: Alternate reality gaming in the classroom.  Within this article, they lay out what they have empirically found to be the most effective method of teaching an ARG – referred to as the “play-revise-design” method.  Here, students are introduced to the subject by first playing the game and then learning its various aspects such that they understand how it functions.  Though we were not meant to be designing an ARG in class, we nonetheless followed a similar process – playing tic-tac-toe (a game with a ruleset with which we are all familiar) and fundamentally changing the way we think about the confines of play.

However, it is important to note that improvisation does not end at the design portion of the game, and is in fact integral to the entire ARG experience. Even the act of playing an ARG has the potential for improvisational interactions due to the loose typically ruleset and setting of the game. When using real world mediums, there are bound to be factors which the designer didn’t account for which influence the player’s experience with the game – such as seeing references to it where it doesn’t exist, or engaging with other players and having meaningful experiences in that capacity. Fundamentally, the lack of clear delineation between the real world and the game (which is present in similar mediums such as video games and board games) alters the player’s perception and expands the confines of the game to potentially infinite proportions by obfuscating what constitutes “gameplay”.

Potentially anything can constitute gameplay, so long as the game is the focus of the player’s intentions or is otherwise influencing them in some way. This engages the player in another sort of improvisational activity, a sort of conversation with the designers as to what it even means to be playing the game. With the real world and game world so interlaced (at least in certain ARGs) the players have active power to engage in whatever capacity they desire and act counter to designer wishes, even if this isn’t seen often. Player’s get to decide the fundamental nature of the game by what they choose to interact with and, when given the chance, the ways in which they interact. They are, in effect, engaging in their own “play-revise-design” by virtue of the real-world setting. This is very distinct from games with defined rulesets, wherein the improvisation arises from the ways in which different mechanics can be mixed in order to create diverse, differentiated outcomes.

This potential for a changing ruleset and emergent gameplay is something which, I believe, would be very entertaining to see mixed with other mediums. Be it a video game with uses ARG-like elements to tell it’s story, or a manufactured forum used by characters in a TV show, there are various means which media designers can take in order to blur the distinction between their project and the real world, resulting in an effect that is difficult to accurately predict but greatly expands the diegetic scope of the presented world.

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