This article was published on: 9/1/2011

Synapses

Time is a funny old thing, often our experience of it can vary a great deal. We’ve all experienced that sensation of time flying when we’ve having fun and dragging when we’re bored. I’ve touched on this before with my article on flow. When we’re really engrossed in our current activity we’re not paying attention to the passage of time and, by not observing it, never really experiencing it. In contrast to when we are bored where we’ll painfully watch the clock tick seemingly backwards.

However in the medium term our experience of time can tell a very different story. Christmas holiday 2007 was the end of a very hard year of ball busting work to get a game out the door so I had a lot of annual leave stored up. I was off work from Nov 16th – Jan 4th, brilliant. What did I do with the time? For the most part I played the Xbox 360 game Mass Effect. Before I knew it, it was Jan 4th and I was back at work. I didn’t feel refreshed and certainly didn’t feel like I’d had a month and a half away. Even though I’d had fun playing the game it was one chunk of very similar day-day activity. Suffice to say, to my brain, Christmas 2007 was quite easy to compress to memory. My fiancé told me about a book she had read by Steve Taylor called ‘Making Time’. In the book he talks about the way our brain allocates our life to memory. Unique experiences earn a rightful individual place in our synapses. However, similar experiences that re-stamp old ground don’t require new space. Our brains don’t see much use in storing them separately so just re-write over the same slot as before.  People say ‘travel broadens the mind’ because it literally does, everything is new. In the medium term our experience of time is very much dictated by the allocation of our experiences to memory. Memory and time are very much interlinked.

How we spend our time is also critical when it comes to creativity. Christmas 2010 I was in the same position as in 2007, I was off work from Nov 18th – Jan 4th. But this time I spent it very differently including a vacation to the Caribbean. It’s a part of the world I’ve never visited so everything was exhilarating and new. We snorkelled with turtles, kayaked through tropical mangroves, hiked through beautiful rainforests and bathed in hot sulphur springs to name a few highlights. This is not to mention being semi-mugged on the beach in St. Lucia and getting sun stroke in Barbados, but I digress, my notepad was on fire. I’ve never been more productive in writing, generating new game ideas and mechanics. All these brand spanking new experiences were like an electric shock to my brain. New data fired up synapses from new angles rather than familiar data over well trodden neural pathways. It was a party in my brain with only new ideas welcome. As a bonus, when I returned on Jan 4th I also felt incredibly refreshed and like I’d been away from work for an eternity.

Creativity is a demanding beast. Feed him the same old junk and don’t exercise him and he’ll become fat, lethargic and immobile. But keep his diet fresh and varied then you’ll have him lean, mean and barking for more, excitably taking you in new directions every time ‘walkies’ is called. Yes I have turned creativity into a dog, but you know, a lovely cute one!

So when it comes to game design what does this all mean? Well I’ve been on projects where the game design seems to have been defined as “Game X + Game Y = Our Game”. This is not healthy, nor is it a good sign. The point is, you’ve got to be giving the player new experiences.  You can’t play it safe and plump for more of the same, because if you do (and this goes for any design or product) it won’t be memorable. You’ll be consigned to ‘same old’ in people’s brains instead of earning yourself fruitful new territory in bouncy brain real estate where insight, value and enlightenment reign as King. The time spent with your game or product will easily be forgotten. In other words be memorable or don’t both bother coming to the party.

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