Play and Innovation

I wanted to speak more on the question from Tuesday about how can aspects of play allow us to solve problems. I am taking a course centered around Science and Technology studies. Our most recent discussion was about how the way we produce scientific knowledge has traditionally been thought of as a retroactive process. The image the world carried was that a scientist came up with a hypothesis, went into a lab, proved or disproved their hypothesis, then left.

Anthropologists such as Andrew Pickering point out that this is seldom the case. Instead, ideas and new technologies are what he calls ‘temporally emergent.’ Instead of a scientist going in with a set goal, they go in open to a new goal, and usually come out with something different than what they started. To relate it a bit more to the general class, it’s like when you write a paper. If you start out with a thesis, it likely won’t be the same thesis by the end of the paper. There are an infinite number of factors at any given moment (both social and physical) than open up the possibility of new experiences, or ideas.

This idea of temporal emergence in the science field is very similar to what Spolin describes. Specifically, when she states that when is a moment where “the answer just comes.” I believe that as people grow older and switch from a “play” mindset to a “work” mindset, play becomes something almost taboo. Our reading on the Situationists International expands on this subject, arguing that society has created a dichotomy of leisure time and work time, leaving little to no room for play to be embedded in our lives.

But to tie it all together, I believe that the childish nature of play and improvisation, mainly that of being open to new experiences, and focusing on the process rather than the final product that in the way that Spolin describes, is essential to finding innovative solutions to problems. There is one story that I believe is a testament to this.

Srinivasa Ramanujan was a mathematician from the early 20th century. He never had a formal college education, but went on to solve problems in mathematics that were considered unsolvable. These theorems he came up with still have a deep impact on stem fields today. At first, no professor was willing to believe that this uneducated man just came up with the solution to an impossible problem that they had been working on for years. But once he was given the opportunity to explain himself, professors were shocked, noting that his methodologies were of the most obscure that they had ever seen.

Many note that the reason Ramanujan was able to come up with such great theories is because he was not confined to the same rules of mathematics that college-educated mathematicians were. There were no mental routes that seemed unworthy of pursuing for Ramanujan. One can say that he was more open and “playful” with how he approached math, and as a result, was able to solve incredible problems. There are more examples that I recommend looking into, such as George Dantzig, but the point is clear: “playfulness” allows for innovation and solutions to problems that could not be solved without this approach.

Risks of External Environment in ARGs

Today, our team presented on Pac Manhattan. One of the aspects of the game that I found really intriguing was how it navigated safety (not well, in my opinion). There were antidotes about players waited until the last possible moment to cross streets to strategically gain an advantage. In other words, if a ghost decided to run after Pacman, they would be hit by a car.

In Pervasive Games, Montola speaks about using the unpredictability of the external environment to always guarantee a unique experience. Everything in the real world becomes an object that can be manipulated for the purposes of the game. Montola also points out the risks associated with this, however. For instance, players may unethically involve non-players, or in the case of Pac Manhattan, could potentially become dangerous.

I believe Pac Manhattan could easily become dangerous if someone experiences intense tunnel-vision, and the designers did not account for this well. Sure, the players were college students who presumably can handle the situation more rationally than a child, but Pac Manhattan is one of the unique ARGs that can be recreated. It isn’t inconceivable that some kids somewhere may try to play the game amongst each other and get hurt.