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I hope everyone out there had a good Thanksgiving.  Even if you don't celebrate it, I hope it was a good day.  And, it's always a good time to stop and reflect on what you're thankful for.

Let me take a moment to count my blessings.<p>
<b>Post copyright Brian 'Psychochild' Green.  Visit the post to participate in the comments:</b> <br><br><a href="http://psychochild.org/?p=1444">Happy Thanksgiving!</a></p>

I hope everyone out there had a good Thanksgiving. Even if you don’t celebrate it, I hope it was a good day. And, it’s always a good time to stop and reflect on what you’re thankful for.

Let me take a moment to count my blessings.

I’m thankful for the smart people who stop by and comment on my posts. I’ve been really busy lately, but I appreciate that people post comments when I do manage to find some time to write.

I’m thankful for all my friends. Special shout out to my good frend Dave Toulouse who is a tremendously wonderful game development partner. Go read his blog, as he posts smart things frequently. Especially about the business side of a mid-range indie.

I’m thankful for my significant other. I’m particularly blessed that she supports my game development obsession and isn’t the jealous type. I’ve had to deal with the green eyed monster rearing its ugly head when meeting some potential new friends online. I’m glad my better half understands that men and women can be friends without it threatening a relationship.

I’ll admit, it’s been a tough few months. Perhaps for a lot of us given events on the world stage. But, it does my spirit good to stop and remember what I do have.

Anyway, I’ll post more soon! Just events have conspired to keep me not posting on the blog much. In particular, look for some more news about The Humanity Hypothesis soon!

Post copyright Brian 'Psychochild' Green. Visit the post to participate in the comments:

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving!

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I have been taken lately by a phrase from Stephen Duncombe’s writing about the value of utopian imagination, where he speaks of the “tyranny of the possible,” suggesting that our solutions to problems get limited when we are thinking only within the constraints of what we currently accept as reality. What are some of the tools you have discovered that people are using to think beyond “the tyranny of the possible”? How do we address the concern that unfettered imagination is by definition impractical if we are to achieve that mix of imagination and practice you advocate throughout the book?

 

I love this phrase – “the tyranny of the possible”! Similar to it is one by Erik Olin Wright from Envisioning Utopias where he writes, “the actual limits of what is achievable depend in part on the beliefs people hold about what sorts of alternatives are viable.” The problem that I see with holding too tightly to only the viable and the possible is that one often ends up being purely tactical in nature – going after solutions to pieces of problems based upon one’s own biases and expertise – optimizing for what one thinks is most important and/or what one can ‘realistically’ do. This is fine for simple or complicated problems (think bicycle or Tesla) but will not work for complex problems that need real work at a dynamic systems level (think rainforest) where breaking apart the problem or operating tactically often causes negative versus positive outcomes. These are the problems that require a pragmatic imagination for reasons already touched upon.

Complex problems require thinking forward more than solving for the present. Imagining a better state and then working towards it. The “tyranny of the possible” when it looks forward only sees trends of today playing out. It is stuck in only what is known. It assumes that the future is a version of today playing out. But if you think about it, the future – in any domain, any piece of it – is an unknown. More importantly, it is an unknown that we are constructing, whether consciously or not, with every decision or action we take, small or large. In fact, I would suggest that it will be only a default construction if we wrestle in real time with problems and opportunities constrained by both the tyranny of the possible and the tyranny of time.

 

Utopian thinking, or imagining utopian states/societies, is liberating precisely because utopias are fictional no-places. But what if you want to think about real places and especially new possibilities, new possible states of existing conditions, problems even, how do you ‘land’ utopian thinking. How do you make it useful? How do you avoid the rejection of its results as being (tautologically) ‘utopian’? Historically, utopian thinking has acted as an invaluable critique of existing society, existing realities. As such, its role has been as an agent to prod others to act. So I come back to the question of how do you land it? In fact, how do you start it in a way that it is valuable and then how do you land it?

As you know, I have been interested in, and involved with world building for several years now. I am fascinated by its two-sided nature. It helps us escape the “tyranny of the possible” by giving us permission to imagine and then build a world based upon a larger construct, whether that construct is utopian or not. And then, because we engage in building out that world, with texture, across a wide range of domains, from those that are material (geography, climate, architecture, clothing), social domains (family structure, politics, markets and advertising, crime), mental domains (language, culture, memes), and technology, we create something so vivid that one can actually imagine inhabiting it.

At the 2014 TED conference (its thirtieth anniversary), the rock musician Sting gave a presentation in which he spoke about his rise to stardom and a period in which he was unable to write. After years of silence, he discovered a new muse in reflecting on his childhood. David Brooks wrote about this saying that “most TED talks are about the future, but Sting’s was about going into the past. (TED conference speakers generally live in hope and have the audacity of the technologist. And there’s a certain suspension of disbelief as audiences get swept up in the fervor and feel themselves delightedly on the cutting edge.) The difference between the two modes of thinking stood in stark contrast. In the first place, it was clear how much richer historical consciousness is than future vision. When we think about the future, we don’t think about the texture and the tensions, the particular smells, shapes, conflicts – the dents in the floorboards. Historical consciousness has a fullness of paradox that future imagination cannot match.”

 

What is interesting and so valuable about world building is that you are after imagining, and then creating through text, images, games, film, books, artifacts, “the dents in the floorboards,” So much so that one can actually imagine inhabiting that world. And even desiring to do so. In world building, one is making a whole range of viable and not so viable possibilities actually tangible enough that we are willing to consider them. We are willing to consider them because, as strange as the individual details might be, the world is coherent and therefore credible. And most world building starts in some aspect of reality that draws us in. The coherence keeps us involved until we begin to suspend our disbelief and run with the proposition in all of its detail and texture. And in capturing the “fullness of paradox” or paradoxes that one finds in real life, one is not only entertaining possibilities that escape the tyranny of the possible, you are also wrestling with conflicts and paradoxes that might belong to the present – but now in the way they may play out in the future (The Matrix or Hunger Games) – and/or actually discovering new paradoxes that are specifically related to what might happen if you place different imaged scenarios into the same world building container and let them bump up against each other through story (Minority Report).

There are different purposes for world building in cinema, literature and games. One might aim to create an intensified experience – frightening, delightful, fantastic or humorous; or, to immerse us in an historical period; or critique the present. World building can help us play out hopes and fears. But it can also be used to prototype a future: playing out trends to see where they might go; interrogating conflicts and paradoxes; but also to imagine, or hypothesize, a future based upon an idea or desired outcome – to imagine an ideal state, an ideal response, or a better world, and then build the world around it in the world building space so that one can build towards it in reality.

The value of this for real world situations and problems is just this: to imagine a desired future state, with texture, detail, and coherence, and then build towards it, as opposed to trying to solve for present problems – the kind that, in fact, cannot really be solved – in a fractured way. This can be done at the scale of a world situation, but it can also be valuable at the scale of an organization, or even an individual. I have engaged in world building my future and am actually doing a course this term for the students at Ohio State on exactly this. But I have also worked with organizations to world build the future of their institution in a way that has created something completely unforeseeable and catalytic. I have worked with students and faculty in three institutions to world build the future of the university. And I have worked on world building projects that have generated insight about the future. In these kinds of projects, one of the greatest contributions is that world building uncovers unforeseen questions, paradoxes, conflicts and even opportunities in the process of thinking big.

 

I was immensely fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with Alex McDowell, the production designer for Steven Spielberg on Minority Report, probably the best example of world building that aimed to prototype the future by bringing together the most advanced thinking, trends and inventions on the horizon to intersect with each other. Alex was recruited to a faculty appointment at the School of Cinema at USC and we worked on his first world building studio together. The project was a wonderful conceit. He was interested in working with either Rio or LA as a beginning point. I had been fascinated by a book of José Saramago’s called The Stone Raft in which a seemingly benign incident causes the Iberian Peninsula to break off from the continent and float out to sea. Saramago plays out the political, social and personal repercussions based upon the historical and contemporary relationship of Portugal to Spain. This influenced the generative idea for the studio: a portion of Rio had experienced a cataclysmic event, sending it out to sea, as did a portion of LA. They had collided in the ocean, somewhere non-specific and far from civilization, creating a new city-island-state called RiLao. As the students picked this up, they added more to the history including a major plague that had isolated the island from the contemporary world for a period of time, trapped a series of visiting scientists and technologists who developed a parallel, but different from any mainland society, science and technology – one that was very biologically oriented and highly constrained by resources. There was also a foundational mythology and economy.

 

The catalytic beginning point of Rio and LA collided together allowed us to look at the city as a site of major economic and cultural divides – both Rio and LA have this in common – multiple city islands within the city (we also read China Miéville’s 2009 novel The City & the City). It also allowed us to play with similarities of cultural exuberance and other themes. We found many similarities that underlie global trends and differences that characterized different expressions and possible future trajectories of these trends. World building worked off of the original premise of the collision of the two cities and themes that came from there, but also from student preoccupations as they mapped their own interests onto this world.

There was a fascinating oscillation between playing out reality with permission to let go of the ‘tyranny of the possible’, and the overlay of large ideas and questions that came from the students’ own preoccupations and obsessions about the future. It was fascinating! The responsible irresponsibility led us to find and wrestle with some hard questions. Not in the abstract, but in terms of how they might play out in a world – or a future world. In world building, coherence is the magical mechanism because, while you have permission to imagine beyond, or other-than, reality, the fact that you are building a world, demands coherence. It demands that all of the parts stick together in some sort of mesh of imaginative calculus. This is why and how one discovers paradoxes, conflicts, questions and opportunities.

 

For example, we had students interested in the plague and biological mutations that occurred because of it. Others were interested in the relationship of the plague doctors to the evolution of medical science on the island, while others were interested in how these plague doctors intersected with mythology and religious/cultural constructs. Some students played with the role of memory and identity associated with the plague generation, and how this conflicted with younger generations. The size of the island and its increasing population led to terra-forming, drones for construction, drones for cleaning and repairing buildings that were no longer accessible by infrastructure . . . the increasing divide between the dense lower income city and the new terra-formed neighborhoods . . . artistic traditions from both LA and Rio lent a surreal aspect to much of this . . . all of these contributed. Everything new folded back in to recalibrate the rest of the world.

 

One of the many memorable projects – just to show you the way things bumped up against each other – was the project of a Media Arts and Practices doctoral student, Behnaz Farahi, who was interested in how the densification of the city and the biological overlay intersected with issues of privacy, identity, fashion, architecture and expression. She was playing with the trend of machine-augmented humans with the assumption that the isolation of the island had allowed and demanded an accelerated level of development of biomechotronic parts. But concurrently, she was also deeply interested in how other life forms both protected and expressed themselves through camouflage, defensive adaptations, dramatic coloration and plumage. And then, of course, this resonated with the exuberant artistic cultural heritages of Rio and LA.

Camouflage from WbML on Vimeo.

Her project resulted in a ‘wearable’ device of feathers/armament that was controlled electronically through connections to the electrical output of the skin. Although it was prototyped as a wearable, there was always the assumption that it might actually be a permanent addition to a body. Featherlike in appearance, making reference to the elaborate costumes of Carnival, it could open and close providing privacy, defense and possibly shelter in a hyper-dense environment. The questions the project raised relative to future forms of humans, cybernetics, mutations, identity, space etc were fascinating, and deeply provocative – real questions that we should be entertaining with more rigor and imagination. In assuming the existence, and not the denial, of these trends, Behnaz allowed us to see something that might be as magnificent and useful as it might also be frightening. I have touched on this only briefly but it gives you an idea.

 

A second world building studio that I had the opportunity to witness the results of stands in productive contrast to the RiLao studio. Sometimes, one world builds around responsible and important questions. I was able to sit in on the final review of a world building studio that took on looking at solutions for a highly marginalized community in Lagos. The work was very responsible to the problem and beautifully produced. But wanting to be viable so that the results might be implementable, it got stuck in the tyranny of the possible. Specifically, many of the projects were evocative manifestations of assumed ‘solutions’ around education and health – solutions that others involved with these communities have already identified as necessary. The world building part added certain new technologies to the mix. Not to deny that these are important assumptions, but they are partial solutions that, while viable, have not yet gotten enough traction because the system – the world – around them (lack of funding, lack of government participation, community belief structures, etc) remains intact and immovable.

Going back to the RiLao example, the one project I cited – one of several very successful projects of the first studio – allowed one to see further and more critically – to use one’s imagination to interrogate the present in an exaggerated situation and to look for possible alternate paths of emerging trends. This is not to say that the fearful issues go away, just that one is willing to entertain possibilities that escape from normative biases. And entertain them in a way that lets you see them in a more complex context, technologically, socially and even culturally.

 

The RiLao studio spread after its first semester into a much larger group of participants. When it finished its ‘run’ after two years, 9 other schools in 7 countries had participated in building and interrogating this world with tremendous richness and imagination. Some of the work was pure fantasy but much of it provided windows into how to think about the future and real prototypes for projects that can actually be built today. This is another aspect of world building – that, if successful, the world is so evocative, that others can, and will, begin to build upon it, adding new content to the world and new stories that play in that world.

 

In world building for real world impact, we can target a future date that is far out enough to allow us to break with the present, yet close enough to avoid the seduction of fantasy. Far out enough gives us permission to imagine more than if we stay fixed in the problems, opportunities and solutions on our doorstep. Over the past three years, I have done a series of three studios with a colleague of mine at Georgetown University and one on my own at Ohio State to world build the future of the university for 2033. The first studio at Georgetown was in 2013. Our students were (mostly) twenty years old and so adding 20 years to 2013 meant that we were adding a ‘lifetime’ to the present year.

 

This created enough of a ‘too far out’ to escape fixed views of what is viable. They were still students that had emotional and epistemological attachment to their university, and so that, by default, provided responsibility. Sometimes too much so, but we persevered in pushing them. At the moment, there are two camps in both thinking and action around innovation in higher education. One looks at the problems to resolve, usually picking one to three of them to optimize for, and then creates mechanisms to do so. The other comes from the ‘let the new technologies disrupt’ side and promotes new technology rich methods for learning. Both of these are valuable, but partial, carving off a piece of the problem to work on when the university of today is actually the legacy of an era that is so distinctly different than our own that a new model is required. The digital hyper connected age could not be further from the industrial age, structurally, socially, epistemologically, emotionally, in terms of identity, and in terms of the functioning of the world. Therefore, we focused on what the ‘university/higher ed’ would look like if one world built it for the world of 2033. In world building a new model, the students worked to create integrated, rich, textured and coherent systems/models where conflicts and paradoxes are taken into account and held (not resolved) by the world.

 

The question then becomes: if one world builds a future, which we have said is not necessarily viable today, how practical is that? How can you ‘land it’? How can you create concrete things and actions that lead to change? How do you close the gap between the world that you have imagined/built and where we are now?

 

If we accept that the future is not known, that it emerges out of actions taken in the present, based upon actions in the past, then one has to work to shape the emergence. This means that you cannot create strategic plans in the traditional top-down five-year-prescriptive sense. In Design Unbound, we present a meta-tool that is a System of Action which works both in and on the context to shape change – to close the gap between a new imagined context/world or condition and the present reality.

 

Unfettered imagination should not be seen as impractical. The issue is that it is often seen as not actionable for anything but individual artistic expression. But pragmatic means being able to accomplish something. The pragmatic imagination means being able to marry imagination to action that has purpose and agency.

World building helps one do that. It helps you imagine beyond what you know to see more than you knew. Systems of action or any mechanism that instrumentalizes the imagination helps to put it to pragmatic purpose.

But I also want to be careful. One of JSB’s colleagues, who is an artist and website creator, was offended at even the term pragmatic imagination. He felt that it was demeaning or demoralizing to think of the imagination as pragmatic. As a person, myself, who is very thankful for having a practice that traffics in imagination, I’m not sure I understand completely his concern, but I can imagine that if one thinks that pragmatic means only practical, or that one has to even start purposefully, then I have the same problem. But the concept of the pragmatic imagination is actually the opposite of that. It is the fact that we use the imagination for everything to different degrees. Our point is that it needs to be understood more, valued for more, scaffolded – developing practices that set it in motion – and instrumentalized – both it and its products.

 

Sometimes the imagination just happens, but too often, especially as one matures if one is not in a discipline that specifically traffics in imagination, the imagination is illusive. The pragmatic imagination recognizes this. It looks at ways that others use to set it in motion all along the spectrum. Some of these just happen covertly, while others intentionally provoke its emergence. Pragmatic imagination consciously avoids the rhetoric around ‘we all just need to use our imaginations more’. Instead, it pragmatically sets out to talk about how, why, when, and where we can make more use of it as a cognitive muscle that releases us from the tyranny of the possible!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mapping the Pragmatic Imagination: An Interview with Ann M. Pendleton-Jullian (Part 3)

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Break down the core concept — the pragmatic imagination — for us. What do you mean by imagination? In what senses can our imaginations be turned into pragmatic tools for changing the world?

 

When most people think of imagination, they mostly – or only – think of it in terms of the role it plays in artistic or speculative activities, those activities that we tend to associate with the word ‘creative.’ It has been deified within the realm of cultural pursuits and demonized when it emerges to get in the way of important thinking and serious work.

Those who trade in reason for a living recoil at its undisciplined nature. While others claim that we should not squander it on ‘practical’ work. Throughout western history, we have seen philosophers, artists and scientists setting imagination up against reason. Pragmatic Imagination proposes that the imagination is actually integral to all cognitive effort and therefore all activities in the world. But it is integral in different ways and to different degrees of effort. Understanding this allows us to unpack its role in the relationship between thought and action and then propose a way to think about how to amplify its capacity for meaningful activity of every kind.

We began by defining imagination. Because imagination and creativity are too often used interchangeably, we started by uncoupling the two. To do so, you need to enter into the domains of linguistics, philosophy and the brain sciences. (I said earlier that DesUnbound was its own ‘design’ project. This is because it moved forward through questions and more questions around those questions. As we asked and wrestled with questions, we discovered unforeseen perspectives, openings and branchings in previous thinking. This whole chapter is a good example of that!).

In wrestling with a good way to think about the imagination we went back to word origins. Both imagination and creativity are associated with novelty. That’s why they get conflated. But etymologically, ‘imagination’ is the capacity for, or the product of, imagining, which refers to the making of mental images. ‘Creativity’ is associated with the verb ‘to create’, and refers to inventive, productive and usually intentional action that results in the making of something.

Creativity is aimed at making things that enter the world, while imagination is a specific kind of cognitive function. It is the power or capacity of humans to form internal images of objects and situations. We usually think of these images as visual images, but they can also be auditory, olfactory, or motor ‘images.’

My colleague, the renowned neuroscientist who directs the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC, Antonio Damasio, talks about how the imagination relies on banked images that one recalls, brings ‘on line’ and then operates on to create novel combinations. The banked images he refers to come from both the world outside the mind and images that we are continually working on inside the mind. Experiences create images for the imagination to hold. But the imagination, with its propensity for playing with associations, also creates new renditions of them. So, real world experiences seed rich image banks for the imagination to draw from. The imagination is eclectic. It does not care where it gets images from and ‘real’ images are quickly replaced by ‘interpreted’ images.

Both imagination and creativity are processes that create products. But the product of the imagination is the image itself, while the product of creativity is something that enters and belongs to the world, whether that something is material – a new gadget – or immaterial – a new policy. And – (this is a critical difference) – they are differently experienced because they are different processes of human cognition and interaction with the world. The imagination is primarily an intra-psychological process, occurring in the brain on a temporal scale of microseconds, and ending when a resolution between an individual’s experience, and the internal image formation that this experience calls forth, emerges.

Creativity is a process that is part of a social domain of action. It operates on a longer time scale, ending when an internal cognitive product – a solution to a problem, an idea or an image – becomes embodied as something that enters the world of social relations – a world that has a history to it. Both are socially and culturally mediated products but the experience is different and the relationship of the product to the world is different. Because of this, we tend to associate creativity with intentions and purpose and we tend to associate imagination with the luxury of individual expression.

Why do I dwell on this? Because in looking at the imagination this way – as the cognitive process of making mental images – we were then able to interrogate how this cognitive process functions, and when. New research in the neurological and cognitive sciences – different work that focused on specific activities from basic perception to jazz improvisation – led to a pretty good framework for understanding how it functions. In understanding better the how, we then asked when. It is important to add that, while the concept and framework of the pragmatic imagination might have been catalyzed by scientific advances, it is actually a blend of science, philosophy, experience, and speculation.

A catalytic discovery for us was the work of two cognitive psychologists at UCSD who were working off of the shoulders of the famous Russian psychologist Vygötsky. Lev Vygötsky built a theory of human cultural development that theorized the interaction between the social and biological aspects of our evolution. The work that interested us was on how culture mediates perception – specifically, the most basic function of perception, which is seeing. Everything we see is mediated by the images we hold from past experience – images that are personal and cultural interpretations of the ‘real’ experience. (This is why two people seeing the same event might not agree on what they saw, or worse, a whole group of people might agree on the something they saw or experienced in a manner that completely contradicts what actually happened.)

Two UCSD cognitive scientists, Pelaprat and Cole, did a series of experiments, three quarters of a century after Vygötsky’s seminal work, that actually showed how, in the physical act of seeing, the brain relies on nano-second gaps in vision. When those gaps were removed, the brain ‘saw’ nothing . . . the image in front of the subjects disappeared to gray. In those gaps, they theorized that we use existing banked mental images to correlate the new image with what we know. In other words, to make sense of what we are seeing. This is where Pragmatic Imagination begins because this suggests that the process of creating, retrieving, and making mental images is not just about the most extremely undisciplined activities we might associate with this kind of cognitive activity, but, if it is also part of perception itself, then why not part of everything in between – an entire spectrum of cognitive activity.

Once you understand that the cognitive operations that are the imagination can serve in multiple roles from the most basic cognitive activity that we believe is a direct translation of reality – I’m talking about seeing – all the way to dreaming, which is considered the least directly related to reality, then the bi-polar dichotomy between reason and imagination is no longer relevant. This sets up the first principle of Pragmatic Imagination, which is that the imagination serves diverse cognitive processes as an entire spectrum of activity from perception through three forms of reasoning, speculation, experimentation, and all the way to where the free play of the imagination dominates.

There is a quote by William James that I love. He gets it. He says, “There are imaginations, not ‘the Imagination,’ and they must be studied in detail.”

In our interest to ‘study in detail,’ we then went on to look at the role of the imagination in this spectrum, and to specifically ask about the role of the gap. The gap being the difference between the unmediated thing we see, or experience in the world, and what we know; between the new ‘image’ and our banked ‘images.’ On one side of the spectrum – in perception through reasoning – we use the image making capacity of the mind to resolve that difference. The imagination helps us close the gap and make sense of the world. But as one moves along the spectrum, we actually use the imagination to enlarge, or create, new gaps and then to assist in resolving them to different degrees depending upon how the image is meant to intersect with the world. When we speculate on something, we begin to entertain things that are not necessarily viable – we begin to form images of things that might not be possible – of things that are strange to us. And then we use the imagination to make sense of these strange things – or at least to make them familiar enough to assimilate them. So there is a sense-making capacity in the imagination but there is also a sense-breaking capacity.

These are the first two principles of our framework. The next four go on to talk about how to harness all of this – the whole spectrum for pragmatic purpose. This framework allows us to talk about how the imagination, in all of its cognitive roles, can be put to purpose for agency and impact in today’s world. But it is also important to clarify that we use the word ‘pragmatic’ in its richest sense. We do not mean ‘practical.’ They are often used synonymously to refer to common sense conduct that is concerned with ordinary activities and ordinary work. This may accurately define ‘practical’, but it is insufficient for ‘pragmatic’ as both a way of acting and a way of thinking.

The Pragmatic Imagination draws on a deeper and more textured meaning of the word by borrowing from philosophical Pragmatism whose foundational premise was that thinking and acting in the world are integrally associated; they are indivisible and reciprocal, meaning that thinking – learning actually – depends upon empirical action in the world and action depends upon thinking. In Pragmatic Imagination, we are building a framework to understand how imagination and action can sustain a similar productive entanglement to support agency in the world. And how this is critically relevant in today’s white water world.

Pragmatic Imagination is a framework of six principles that build on each other in a manner that is intended to be useful for getting at how the imagination can be better understood, prompted into action, and then converted into work for all activities, but especially to create a new capacity for working on complex problems in ways we have not been able to do – and, to use your words, “to change the world.” In complex problems, or almost any problem, or opportunity, or interaction with the world, it is often those things which one doesn’t see clearly, or cannot foresee, or will not entertain as viable, etcetera, that are most difficult for us, yet potentially most useful. Often in focusing too hard, responsibly, earnestly, on a problem, we miss seeing the problem completely. Imagination is cognitive peripheral vision that helps us ‘see’ all of those things that are lying just out of range of what we know. And helps us discover things unknown.

The framework draws from advances in the cognitive and neuro-sciences that have allowed neuroscientists to watch the brain functioning under different imaginative activities. It draws from first hand accounts of moments of intense awareness of this kind of cognitive activity. And it draws from personal experience as participants in, and mentors of, imaginative activity. It talks about different methods used to provoke and scaffold the imagination and then looks forward to Design Unbound as a tool set for instrumentalizing the products of the imagination.

The six principles of the Pragmatic Imagination are encapsulated here:

  1. The imagination serves diverse cognitive processes as an entire spectrum of activity.
  2. The imagination both resolves and widens the gap between the unfamiliar (the new/novel/strange) and the familiar. This gap increases along the ‘role of imagination in cognitive processes’ spectrum from left to right. Within the range of abductive reasoning, there is a significant shift from using the imagination for sense-making to sense-breaking, where one first widens the gap and then resolves it with the imagination.
  3. The Pragmatic Imagination pro-actively imagines the actual in light of meaningful purposeful possibilities and sees the opportunity in everything.
  4. The Pragmatic Imagination sees thought and action as indivisible and reciprocal. Therefore, it is part of all cognitive activity that serves thought and action for anticipating, and thought and action for follow-through; and the generative/poïetic/sometimes-disruptive side of the spectrum is especially critical in a world that requires radically new visions and actions.
  5. The imagination must be instrumentalized to turn ideas into action – the entire spectrum of the imagination especially the generative/poïetic/sometimes-disruptive side.
  6. Because the imagination is not under conscious control, we need to find and design ways to set it in motion and scaffold it throughout meaningful activity.

Ann Pendleton‐Jullian is an architect, writer, and educator of international standing whose work explores the interchange between architecture, landscape, culture, science, and technology within complex contexts. She is currently Full Professor and former director of the Knowlton School of Architecture at Ohio State University, distinguished Visiting Professor out of the President’s Office at Georgetown University, and periodically co-teaches world building studios at USC’s School of Cinema.

ApJ’s projects range in scale and scope from things to systems of action. Notable projects demonstrating this range are: a house for the astronomer Carl Sagan and his wife; award winning prototypical bioclimatic houses – one for Tenerife; various winning or placing competition entries including a New Congress Hall in Valparaiso, Chile, and an urban design project for the Miguelete River basin sponsored by the Municipality of Montevideo. Much of her recent work focuses on empowerment and economic development through various projects including the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh and an eight-village ecosystem conceived around rural craft tourism in Guizhou province in China. Currently she is working on a new Jesuit University for Eastern Africa, including its pedagogical model, the future re-imagining of the Pardee RAND Graduate School of Public Policy, and a house in an environmentally sensitive part of the Pocono Mountains. ApJ has five authored books and portfolios, including: The Road That Is Not a Road and the Open City, Ritoque, Chile by MIT Press (’96); Games for Shanghai (’08) published by CA Press in Shanghai; and Design Education and Innovation Ecotones (’09).

Mapping the Pragmatic Imagination: An Interview with Ann M. Pendleton-Jullian (Part Two)

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Puzzle Bobble
In this article, game designer Sande Chen reflects on the level design of puzzle games and how allowing the player to win can help in the success of the game.

One year, at the Austin Game Conference, I was exhausted, not from partying, but because I had stayed up all night trying to progress through Puzzle Bobble.  My college friend had the original arcade machine and since I could use the same quarter over and over, I stayed with it.  I noticed almost immediately spikes in difficulty, remarking how I felt that one level was out of place because it was especially hard and the levels after it were easy in comparison.  Considering that the player also gains proficiency,
gauging the increase in difficulty or challenge between levels must be an interesting exercise. 

Puzzle Bobble
In addition, there is a luck variable to these puzzles since colors can randomly get scarce on you.  It's the same way with Candy Crush Saga, that when you need red candies, you feel like all the other colors keep on showing up.  I especially hate using up moves while waiting for a certain color to show up in a line.  This probably contributed to my decision to delete Blossom Blast Saga.

I mean, I do have a certain amount of patience with difficult puzzles and in most free-to-play games, a player may have access to power-ups or boosters that can make uneven level design tolerable, but when my puzzle-solving efforts feel like frustration rather than fun, then I'll just quit.  Especially when I feel like it's a luck-related factor.

Candy Crush Saga showers me with free gifts, but that's not the only reason why I still play Candy Crush.  I fully realize Candy Crush Saga has that luck component but despite that, I still manage to have fun with it.  The way the levels are designed, I always feel like I have a chance at solving the puzzle because I'll be one or two moves out.  That motivates me to keep on playing because sooner or later, I'll feel like I'll solve it, even if it takes a long time.  If I don't see that possibility of winning, then I'll throw my hands figuratively in the air and mutter, "This is impossible!"  I can see why players are motivated to buy extra moves because it's almost ... just almost... there.  Unlike with Candy Crush Jelly Saga, another I deleted, I did have those boosters in Candy Crush Saga, so if I did feel like I had come across an impossible level, I could help myself out.

I also play Candy Crush Soda Saga, which I like better, even though there aren't free boosters given out there.  I've noticed that after I've been at a puzzle for a long time on Candy Crush Saga, something remarkable will happen such as a color ball and a color bomb ending up next to each other.  I have no idea if that was just the allotted time needed for this lucky occurrence to happen or if the designers were specifically thinking about helping me along.  It would be great if this were a matter of design.

In the past, I was in charge of designing a mah jong solitaire game.  In those types of games, there are the ones where it's possible for the player to have a puzzle without a solution. Alternately, there are the ones that use an algorithm to make sure there was always a solution to the puzzle.  I suppose in the former, a player would be able to get out of that unsolvable state with a booster.  I chose the latter because I always wanted players to be able to win without using boosters.  It seems unfair that the player could be presented with a puzzle that couldn't be solved without a booster.  After all, I wanted the player to stick around for the next level or game.

Challenge is great, but too much challenge leads to frustration, which can lose players.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.



A Look at Puzzle Games

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Every so often, you are introduced to a person and by the time the first conversation is completed, you know you have met someone who is going to be a vital part of your intellectual community for years to come. This is what happened to me when John Seely Brown, AKN JSB (of Xerox Parc fame) introduced me to Ann M. Pendleton-Julian.  Ann is an architect and urban planner, currently at the Knowlton School at Ohio State University, but she is so much more than that.

Like JSB, with whom she sometimes collaborates on research and writing projects, she has a profoundly interdisciplinary mind. They are both fearless about pursuing their interests where-ever they lead them and they consistently ignore divides between science/technology and humanities/culture in doing so. They are  also both people with a pragmatic approach — they want to identify the most compelling problems of our time and work with others to find innovative and meaningful solutions that make a difference on the ground.

In Ann’s case, problem-solving increasingly involves a design process grounded in the concept of world-building as it has been shaped by the realms of speculative fiction, production design, and participatory planning. Every time I meet her, Ann describes to me new projects she is undertaking around the world, all of it growing out of a belief that humans have the creative agency to make a difference in their own lives if they are given the freedom and resources to do so.

The two have  been working together to produce a profoundly important project, Design Unbound.  As I’ve discussed it with Ann across the past few years, this project  has taken a variety of different shapes — it is epic in scope, sprawling in content, and totally original in its bold synthesis of ideas coming from all different directions.   As Ann explains in response to my first question below, the project has required them to constantly reflect on what kind of thing a book is in the 21st century, what it means to read and publish such an object, and how a book can be the beginning as well as the end point of a creative and intellectual process. We still do not know the final shape this project will take, but along the way, they have put together what they are calling a “single,” a stand alone booklet-length essay on The Pragmatic Imagination.

Given that some strands of my own current research centers around what we call The Civic Imagination, I’ve enjoyed many conversations with Ann about the value of imagination in confronting real world problems and so I am using the publication of The Pragmatic Imagination as an excuse for an extended public discussion with her about those aspects of their project. The result was something unique — certainly not an interview in the sense I normally feature here.  She took each of my questions as a prompt for an extended essay which spells out many core aspects of her approach and along the way she provides us a vivid model for how she thinks and works. We might see the whole exchange as two polymaths thinking about thinking.  I am so excited to be able to share her responses with my readers over the next two weeks, hoping that they inspire others to think more deeply about the value of combining play/imagination/speculation/design with problem-solving.

You can learn more about The Pragmatic Imagination here. 

You describe The Pragmatic Imagination as a “single.” Can you explain a bit more why you are releasing this segment in advance of the book proper and how it fits into your larger project? What does it mean to think of Design Unbound as a “system of books” rather than as a self-contained volume?

Pragmatic Imagination is the last chapter – chapter 19 – of the larger project Design Unbound. Designing for Emergence in a White Water World. In a sense, it is the generative idea but we had to write the entire ‘book’ to discover that.

We began this work five years ago as a project to answer the challenge of a colleague of ours. We were at an Aspen Institute roundtable that was focused on how new technological tools could be used to influence diplomacy around the world. The dialogue ranged from conversations around drug wars to weaponized computer viruses. One participant, in a moment of exasperation said something like ‘the world has just come together too quickly to make sense of it,’ and our colleague John Rendon responded that the problem is we are using an old tool set and that it was time to develop a new one. We had already begun work on what would become Design Unbound, and JR’s challenge became an interesting provocation.

Design Unbound set out to define a new tool set for the world we find ourselves in – a world that is rapidly changing, increasingly interconnected, and where, because of this increasing interconnectivity, everything is more contingent on everything else happening around it – much more so than ever before. We characterize this as a white water world in reference to white water river kayaking, where navigation – often survival, even – depends upon understanding how to skill up for dynamic contexts in which things change and emerge without respite. One can see this as a difficult context or as an adventure. We chose the latter. The super interesting thing about whitewater rivers is that they are navigable, just not under the same terms. They require very different tools, skills, dispositions, and even epistemological frames.

Design Unbound is a tool set for having agency in today’s world, whether it is personal agency or agency to make progress on complex problems. It is about being able to navigate this white water world and/or to influence it – to work in it and even on it. The kinds of tools it presents are not the tools of a carpenter or coder but tools that are directly associated with a new kind of design that is an offspring of complexity science married to architecture.

We begin in architecture because principally architecture is about designing contexts in which things happen. It is an ambidextrous endeavor in which the social and technical come together to both hold and shape peoples’ relationships to each other and to the world. From a room, a house, a complex ensemble of buildings, cities, landscapes, and territorial systems of occupation, it is only one more level of abstraction to imagine design, unbound from its material thingness and from its disciplinary boundaries, set free to work on designing contexts as complex systems/ecologies.

These might be physical contexts (smart cities), institutional contexts (education), political contexts (making progress on networked terrorism), policy contexts (poverty, homelessness, environmental vulnerabilities), or cultural contexts (the ethics of data science). These contexts can accommodate well-practiced relationships and behaviors, or they can open up new possibilities of exchange, interaction and meaning creation.

Complexity science gives us a new lens through which to view the world – viewing that leads to action. It is an epistemological lens just as Newton’s and Darwin’s were. We don’t see it as replacing those first two (gravity still works, last time I checked, and species still adapt and evolve), but, instead, as adding a third way to make sense of things, especially today when simple cause and effect do not seem to give us answers that stick, or solutions that can adapt to emerging events.

This third lens or window draws deeply from complexity theory and specifically from the perspective of ecology science – from understanding the complex dynamics of ecosystems. A Newtonian window looks at the world as described by physics. A Darwinian window focuses on processes and optimization. The complexity/ecological window looks at the world as a context – not a thing – and that context is a space of dynamic exchanges between all of the components.

These exchanges can be material in nature. They can be social in nature – exchanges influenced by our social systems (like economics and politics). And then there are all those things that are bound up in the dynamic exchange of ideas – the ideas that motivate us, the stories we build identity and culture through. We think of these as three registers or ecologies for this new window: material, social and mental ecologies of exchanges.

This is where Design Unbound begins. It then uses case studies and reflection on those case studies to present a series of tools that can be used to understand the world today and act with agency in it, and for impact on it.

Beginning the project that would become Design Unbound five years ago, it has gone through a series of different ‘completions’. We actually thought it was finished twice before. The first soft publication was around 225 pages; the second just shy of 375 pages and this last – ‘last’, meaning it’s done – manuscript has just weighed in at 800 pages. But more importantly, design unbound from thingness and disciplinary boundaries became not only the framing concept but also the way we worked. As the book became its own project, it transgressed more and more into other fields. This means, first of all, that the audience for this system of books is going to be broad and diverse.

So we decided to divide Design Unbound into five books for two reasons. Firstly, people read differently today. Shorter attention spans and multi-tasking means that we are often reading several things simultaneously. I am certainly reading in smaller chunks and as I do so, something I am reading in one area might get stuck to something I am reading in another: global affairs with landscape ecology with fiction with . . . By stuck, I mean that they overlap on each other in my mind, creating interesting correspondences. So I see reading in smaller chunks as being full of possibility. Publishing five books of smaller size makes it easier to focus on one part of the larger work at a time; to come and go cognitively.

Secondly, because Design Unbound draws from a vast array of domains: from architecture, science and technology, philosophy, cinema, music, literature and poetry, the military, even, different books within the larger system of books will resonate with different reading audiences. DesUnbound aims to blend a polymathic reservoir of thought seamlessly with real life examples of successful design and action, but it does not expect all readers to be polymaths. So, from architects to people involved re-conceiving higher education to the public policy or defense and intelligence communities, each audience will find different books most relevant. Each of the five books has its own narrative arc within the larger arc of the full book. They each have a different framing chapter and a different set of inter-related tools.

For a while, we thought of Design Unbound a little like a manual, and we were using that analogy until a friend of ours called it a ‘system of books.’ We were having trouble describing succinctly what it was – more than a book and yet not a series in the sense of being ‘serial’ where coherence depends upon the way short installments or successive pieces of something follow one on another in a linear fashion.

Instead, DesUnbound’s coherence is dependent on the way the different books and their chapters interact with each other to create an aggregate whole. They can be shuffled and grouped differently, yet still do the same kind of work. If we think of systems: in biology, a system is an assemblage of organs or related tissues that are concerned with the same function – their coherence is given by the fact that they are all working towards the same thing. Similarly, DesUnbound is an assemblage of books and chapters (tools and lenses) that are concerned with the same function – designing for agency. In astronomy, a system is a collection of celestial bodies that act together according to certain laws of physics – our solar system, for example.

DesUnbound is a collection of books and chapters that act together according to certain concepts (not exactly laws) around the entanglement of agency and imagination. And In ecology, an ecosystem is an assemblage of components that form a complex whole by the manner in which they interact with each other and with their environment. They interact by participating in material and social exchanges. DesUnbound is an assemblage of books and chapters that are meant to interact with each other, through how different tools use other tools, creating new capacities that either tool alone does not hold. So calling it a ‘system of books’ began to work for us.

 

As a system of five books, DesUnbound can be read together or separately. Like a reference manual or a vinyl analog album, one can leave and return to it, picking up the needle and placing it in the groove of a specific tune or skipping around among songs. Different books will probably interest different people, although all of the books together create a rich integrated tool set. The five books present a set of ten knowledge-, skill- or method-based instruments for acting through design and two meta-tools that do work of a higher order, at the level of the ecology of the project.

 

These tools, separately, and together draw on Pragmatic Imagination’s conceptual framework. But they also instrumentalize the pragmatic imagination. They depend upon the imagination for fuel just as muscles working physical tools depend upon food as fuel. But they also convert the imagination into work in the real world, just as muscles convert energy from food into work. As the last chapter of DesUnbound, Pragmatic Imagination is a framework for the productive entanglement of imagination and action that supports agency in the world.

We have called Pragmatic Imagination a single in reference to the music industry. I am a great fan of the television series Nashville. It and real work on DesUnbound began around the same time. So I will admit that this influenced the thought at the time.

Like a single released before an album, Pragmatic Imagination is meant to preview the larger work, introducing concepts and themes that anticipate, but also encapsulate, the larger project. And also like a single, we feel it can stand alone because of the way in which it anticipates and encapsulates the larger project with a singular coherence.

At one point we called it a prequel but that made less sense because it is not a single part of a linear story. It is part of the whole story. It carries the critical themes. But I will say that, as a theory, the irony is that it is less like the tool-oriented chapters – the more pragmatic chapters. But it sets the stage for them. It is the foundation, the dna, the primary autotroph, of DesUnbound. The kind of world we are navigating now, the kinds of problems we want to have agency on, demand a new tool set in which imagination is a not an embellishment or adjacency to real work in the world, but the keystone capacity upon which all other work depends because it advances understanding (empathy even) and it drives novelty. As a muscle of agility, it is necessary in whitewater.

 

Ann Pendleton‐Jullian is an architect, writer, and educator of international standing whose work explores the interchange between architecture, landscape, culture, science, and technology within complex contexts. She is currently Full Professor and former director of the Knowlton School of Architecture at Ohio State University, distinguished Visiting Professor out of the President’s Office at Georgetown University, and periodically co-teaches world building studios at USC’s School of Cinema.

ApJ’s projects range in scale and scope from things to systems of action. Notable projects demonstrating this range are: a house for the astronomer Carl Sagan and his wife; award winning prototypical bioclimatic houses – one for Tenerife; various winning or placing competition entries including a New Congress Hall in Valparaiso, Chile, and an urban design project for the Miguelete River basin sponsored by the Municipality of Montevideo. Much of her recent work focuses on empowerment and economic development through various projects including the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh and an eight-village ecosystem conceived around rural craft tourism in Guizhou province in China. Currently she is working on a new Jesuit University for Eastern Africa, including its pedagogical model, the future re-imagining of the Pardee RAND Graduate School of Public Policy, and a house in an environmentally sensitive part of the Pocono Mountains. ApJ has five authored books and portfolios, including: The Road That Is Not a Road and the Open City, Ritoque, Chile by MIT Press (’96); Games for Shanghai (’08) published by CA Press in Shanghai; and Design Education and Innovation Ecotones (’09).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mapping the Pragmatic Imagination: An Interview with Ann M. Pendleton-Julian (Part 1)

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<div></div><div><a href="https://1.bp.blogspot.com/-Dl634e0KY1o/WC3Vc7GtzSI/AAAAAAAADuE/PYhYajBITJcn1Xn0bQejKP9k5Jnj07MVwCLcB/s1600/fall.png"><img border="0" height="382" src="https://1.bp.blogspot.com/-Dl634e0KY1o/WC3Vc7GtzSI/AAAAAAAADuE/PYhYajBITJcn1Xn0bQejKP9k5Jnj07MVwCLcB/s400/fall.png" width="400"></a></div><div><i><span>Photo by <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/37668923@N03/8190552951/">Rosa Dik</a></span></i></div><br>Ah, the fall. A time to reap what has been sown and contemplate the cycles of the seasons.<br><br>If you are a smaller game developer, you’ve likely noticed some cyclical shifts in how we make games. Games are looking nicer than ever, don’t they? That quality bar keeps creeping higher. With so much work to do, your team is a bit larger. And with so many mouths to feed, it feels riskier to lose everything experimenting on wacky new game mechanics. Luckily, it is pretty clear which genres will yield the breakout hits you need to keep going. It is too bad that there’s a such an abundance of similar games; it feels like you can’t even give them way.<br><h3>What changed?</h3>Remember when we had a revolution? One person teams could make original games with minimal content and strike it rich. Doodle Jump was a thing! A hit indie game like Braid cost a minuscule $200k to make. A developer and some lovely art and there was a complete top tier game. Press wrote about it.<br><br>But it feels if such games were released today, they’d likely be left to rot in obscurity. A modern hit by a “small” team is a game like Battlerite. 25 developers, lush 3D graphics, external funding. An order of magnitude increase in costs over a period of eight years. <br><br>To everything there is a season, and game markets follow predictable patterns of growth, harvest and if you’ve been luckily enough, stockpiling for the coming frost.  <br><br>Have you been making games for less than 10 years? Are you a newer smaller indie developer who has only ever known the bright fields of opportunity known as Steam, console downloadable or mobile platforms? <br><br>Here’s what is coming. Here is what happens when game markets mature.<br><h3>Memories of spring</h3>Historical context matters.<br><br>A new game market opens when a new way of reaching eager players appears. In the early 2000s, digital distribution was a technology that cracked opened an industry previously dominated by retail sales. Apple and Google enabled phones to download games. Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo enabled consoles to download games. And Steam created a cohesive and reliable ecosystem for PC players to download games. <br><br>If you don’t remember the retail era it is hard to overstate what a radical change digital distribution was to the dominant business models. In retail, about 15% of revenue went to the developer. The rest goes to marketing, publishing and the retail store itself. This creates a power differential that tends to squeeze creativity out of game developers. Forget tales of wide-eyed idealism. Retail game development was a factory job that churned out games tailored to the whims of a giant box shipping machine. This was a mature market with most major game developers owned art and soul by middlemen publishers or platform owners. AAA still follow this model to a large degree. Good people, bad system. <br><br>Two things happened when digital distribution hit. For the first time in ages, we saw high demand and low supply. <br><br><b>High demand</b>: Platform owners pushed their new distribution platforms heavily. A platform much preferred a guaranteed 30% cut of digital, especially when compared to a paltry 0-20% cut of retail. Valve bundled Steam with their top selling games. Microsoft gave away prime real estate on their console dashboard. Apple and Google directed users to go through their storefront in order to do pretty much anything. The result is a torrent of customers flooding through these digital stores wanting to buy cool stuff for their cool new toys. Put a pretty picture and a buy button and bam, you’ve got a sale.<br><br><b>Low supply</b>: But there wasn’t anything to buy. A lot of traditional game publishers didn’t want to risk being beholden to some new platform master. Every digital storefront is essentially a monopoly with the potential to exert absolute dictatorial control. So most publishers held back. A few fringe game developers put up games. These were the hippies and hobos whose niche products never broke into the more mature retail markets.<br><br>And their games sold like hotcakes. In large part because there was nothing else to buy. For a while it felt you could put almost anything up on a digital market and turn a profit.<br><h3>Short hot summer</h3>With digital distribution, anyone with a computer could make a game and release it. And because they kept 70% of the revenue, they needed to sell a lot fewer copies to make ends meet. This means lots of little game companies. Call them ‘indies’. <br><br>Most were untrained. They didn’t understand how to run a business. Many had never made a professional game before. So they experimented, often wildly. Bizarro mutants popped up. Journey. Day Z. Tower Defense. What can you do with the internet? Or Flash? Or a touch screen. Or a one person team? Who knows; let’s just try something. Will Wright, gushed about the “<a href="http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/109886/Exclusive_Will_Wright__Video_Games_Close_To_Cambrian_Explosion_Of_Possibilities.php">Cambrian explosion</a>”. New genres were born. That was 2008.<br><br>What a time. I look back on it fondly.<br><h3>End of the growing season</h3><b>Low barriers to entry</b><br>But low market barriers mean new developers just keep flooding in. And the nature of digital distribution means games never truly expire. So the back catalog of great games grows larger and larger.  This is no longer a low supply market. <br><br><b>Fixed demand</b><br>Nor is it a high demand market. Consoles are stable. Smart phones (aka phones) are <a href="http://www.gartner.com/newsroom/id/3339019">no longer</a> setting growth records. PC sales are dropping. All those digital customers are a known quantity, divvied in zero-sum fashion across the various DRM locked platform fiefdoms. <br><br>What happens to a market when demand is fixed and supply is high? Competition. Here’s the traditional logic. The following sequence has played out across thousands of games and dozens of markets. <br><ul><li><b>Standardization</b>: Players form communities around the most popular game types. This creates a standardized demand.</li><li><b>Competition</b>: Developers try to capture the entertainment dollars of these communities by releasing games in the same genre. For example, they might release a MOBA.</li><li><b>Winner takes all</b>: Players gather around one or two high quality, well marketed examples within genre. Those games earn the vast majority of all revenue.</li><li><b>Escalating costs</b>: In order to win that top spot, Developers invest heavily in art, narrative, marketing events and monetization. Maybe you can beat your competition by simply doing more.</li><li><b>Bloat</b>: This results in larger developer team sizes. Larger teams burn more money, leaving less margin for mistakes.</li><li><b>Risk avoidance</b>: A culture of risk avoidance dominates. You must make proven games with proven themes resting on proven mechanics for a proven audience. Layers of decision hierarchy grow to eliminate exuberant impulses. ‘Wasteful’ experimentation is deprioritized. All focus is on servicing the nuanced needs of expert (high value) players in an existing genre.</li></ul><b>What success looks like</b><br>There are three broadly successful long term strategies for independent developers in this newly competitive market.<br><ul><li><b>Become a genre king</b>: Have a hit game in a popular genre. Invest those profits in ensure that you have the best developers, community and marketing to own that audience. Set the standard that all others hope to achieve. Be what Blizzard was to MMOs. If you pick the right maturing genre, you can gain 10 to 20 years of stability.</li><li><b>Dominate a niche</b>: Find a niche that only appeal to a wealthy but passionate audience. Become hyper efficient at serving that niche. This isn’t so different from being a genre king except no one cares about you. The press barely cover you. The broader population of gamers doesn’t really know you exist. But a small devoted community cares. So you scope your company to the tiny size it needs to be to serve a tiny market. Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulator or SpiderWeb’s retro RPG games are good examples.</li><li><b>Manage a brand</b>: There are a handful of companies that have a powerful brand they used to secure funding. During hard times, they essentially freeze dry themselves. This minimizes costs until the next deal comes along. Jackbox is the most common game industry example.</li></ul><b>False success of having a hit game</b><br>There’s a ton of money flowing through a maturing market and occasionally it arcs over to the random indie in the right place at the right time. Zot! A jigawatt of revenue powers them for years(!) without additional income. <br><br>But the result is a lesson in exponentials. Ever play one of those new fangled idle games like Cookie Clicker? As markets mature, escalating exponential costs rapidly consume existing savings. For example: A top shelf ‘Triple-I’ indie’s last game cost $200,000. They made back $2,000,000 in sales. But their next game costs $2,500,000. Maybe they make that back also. Maybe they don’t. The money in the bank only gives them 1 or 2 additional swings at bat, not 10. <br><br>We now use the term ‘Triple I’ for medium sized teams that had hit games, but we used to call that same spot in the ecosystem ‘midtier developers’. They all died off as markets continued to mature. It becomes increasingly hard to roll a hit every time. In the end, they had no sustainable advantage.<br><br><b>Selling the farm</b><br>So not everyone can stay independent. There are three common outcomes for those forced to give up ownership. <br><ul><li><b>Hobbyist</b>: The team becomes a non-commercial endeavour. Either people get a day job and work a few hours at night. Or their family support them. Or they get grants from some institution interested in their work. Or they make games as students and change careers later.</li><li><b>Hire yourself out</b>: The team becomes a contractor to someone with money. This can be via a publishing deal. Or via outright purchase. Or you actually sign a contract to perform specialized labor like porting or multiplayer development. Mega studios love hired help.</li><li><b>Extinction</b>: The team goes out of business. That whole ‘indie’ thing was neat while it lasted.</li></ul><h3>First frost</h3>You may be curious what winter looks like. Here’s what is coming up for PC, console and mobile. <br><br><b>Consolidation</b>: When a bigger company eats a smaller company..or a smaller company implodes and a bigger company hires their employees, we are seeing something called consolidation. Lots of little studios turn into a smaller number of bigger studios.<br><br>Consolidation is a longer term process that will play out over the next 4 to 8 years. These forces don’t apply equally to every team. Some developers earned enough from a hit game they can ride along for many years without confronting their inability to make another hit game. Others are willing to starve for a few years longer before they make any hard decisions. Be patient.<br><br><b>Distribution scarcity</b>: It has already become increasing difficult to get your game in front of new players. The sheer number of games is part of the issue. Also audience capture and advertising cost (see below) limit the general availability of free customers. <br><br><b>Audience capture</b>: The available audience will actually shrink as high value players are locked into long term service-based games like MMOs or other F2P titles. A player doesn't ‘beat’ a game like Clash of Clans; instead they play one game exclusively for years. F2P companies will attempt to stretch the lifetime of their player to decades. These players are no longer looking for a fresh new games so they are typical unavailable to studios making new games or trying to replace churned players. <br><br><b>Majority of studios priced out of buying ads</b>: The ad market sells its inventory to the highest bidder (across a myriad of categories) And for games, the highest bidder is the game with the strongest Life Time Value (<a href="http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/DylanJones/20141016/227903/Indie_Game_Analytics_101_part_1__five_terms.php">LTV</a>). Do you have a high LTV game in a particular category? Great, you can buy ads that juice your player acquisition. If you have a low LTV game (all premium games, most experimental games, most independent games) effective ad-based distribution is priced out of your reach. <br><br><b>Fewer, bigger hits</b>: As the market consolidates around a handful of high value genre leaders, they will earn enormous amounts of money. The downside is that fewer small developers will capture enough sales to stay independent.<br><br><b>Rise of new publishers</b>: Larger organizations with strong marketing and business development can mitigate some of these trends. They also can build portfolios so that if some games fail, successes still keep the whole afloat. That organization usually is called a publisher. Expect a number of publisher to start snapping up contracts for games from the more capable indie developers. Indie developers get cash to offset the risk of their game failing and and publishers get another chance of owning a hit game.<br><br><b>Rise of first party</b>: Longer term platforms will start taking full ownership of any genre that is a guaranteed money maker. This vertical integration pays off. Platforms can capture all revenue that goes through the game, direct players to their games via promotional spotlights and reduce the riskiness of dealing with a volatile 3rd party developer. <br><h3>Future Springs</h3>We should celebrate the perennials planted during this amazing cycle. Or at least the tulip bulbs that may one day bloom.<br><br><b>Grassroots game development will continue to thrive</b><br>I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the bad old days of early 2000 where ‘breaking into the game industry’ was an actual barrier. Several trends mean the flood of new developers will not cease.<br><ul><li><b>Tools</b>: The cost of tools has dropped dramatically. And the tools that exist such as Unreal or Unity are of unprecedented power and polish. Anyone with time and passion can makes games and I suspect it will only get easier.</li><li><b>Schools</b>: Students want to make games. Schools can charge those student enormous fees to teach them how to make games. This dynamic will exist independent of whether or not there are paying jobs waiting for those students.</li><li><b>Open distribution</b>: There are multiple ways to make your game available to knowledgeable players. Steam, Android and iOS stores have minimal gatekeeping. Sites like itch.io have no real gatekeeping. The vast swath of humanity that doesn’t know about your game will never find out about it from these locations, but at least it isn’t blocked from publication. For the hobbyist developer, even a couple dozen downloads from friends and family can be inspiring enough to encourage further game making.</li></ul>Expect a situation closer to what we see with writers, painters and musicians. Schools enable the necessary but time intensive acquisition of game making skills. The commercial market for those skills remains difficult to break into without elite level portfolios. However, there’s still a vast community of extremely low income developers making games because their passion is stronger than the need to be wealthy. In my dreams, this group of game making hobbyists regularly gets together for wine and moral support. And maybe even funds the occasional indiegogo when one of them needs a new liver.<br><br><b>There will be new markets</b><br>VR is one obvious new market. VR isn’t quite able to stand on its own, but platform owners seem committed to market building. If they collaboratively spend a billion or so to seed VR content, that’s a new billion dollar market for game developers.<br><br>And VR is not one new market. A rolling wave of multiple VR and AR markets will appear over the next decade as new technology leapfrogs past efforts. Each will be characterized by tech giants engaging in market building. That's an opportunity. Early PC development was likely the most similar sequence. We can have multiple Cambrian explosions.<br><h3>The seasons turn</h3>I hail from Downeast Maine where growing seasons are short and harvests valued. The spring is a (muddy) revelation. The summer a miracle. Even fall is greeted with a delighted grin. Yes, the wind blows so hard it is hard to walk straight. Yes, the frost will kill our gorgeous garden. But if we’ve planted well, the root cellars are at least full. And we’ve got hot apple cider.  And if we haven't, we'll do what we need to do to make it through. Even if that doesn't involve owning our own garden.<br><br>The key to my admittedly insipid joy is to realize that the world runs in cycles. We can bemoan the loss of summer, but it does little good. Instead, as winter settles in,  put wood in the stove, put on some tea and let the infinite snow silence the cacophony of the world. Take some time to think. What did we do wrong during the last big opportunity? Take some time to dream. What would we do right if we had a chance to grow again? A long term view means that there will be many seasons of growth, harvest and frost.<br><br>Some form of spring will return eventually.<br><br>take care,<br>Danc.
Photo by Rosa Dik

Ah, the fall. A time to reap what has been sown and contemplate the cycles of the seasons.

If you are a smaller game developer, you’ve likely noticed some cyclical shifts in how we make games. Games are looking nicer than ever, don’t they? That quality bar keeps creeping higher. With so much work to do, your team is a bit larger. And with so many mouths to feed, it feels riskier to lose everything experimenting on wacky new game mechanics. Luckily, it is pretty clear which genres will yield the breakout hits you need to keep going. It is too bad that there’s a such an abundance of similar games; it feels like you can’t even give them way.

What changed?

Remember when we had a revolution? One person teams could make original games with minimal content and strike it rich. Doodle Jump was a thing! A hit indie game like Braid cost a minuscule $200k to make. A developer and some lovely art and there was a complete top tier game. Press wrote about it.

But it feels if such games were released today, they’d likely be left to rot in obscurity. A modern hit by a “small” team is a game like Battlerite. 25 developers, lush 3D graphics, external funding. An order of magnitude increase in costs over a period of eight years.

To everything there is a season, and game markets follow predictable patterns of growth, harvest and if you’ve been luckily enough, stockpiling for the coming frost.

Have you been making games for less than 10 years? Are you a newer smaller indie developer who has only ever known the bright fields of opportunity known as Steam, console downloadable or mobile platforms?

Here’s what is coming. Here is what happens when game markets mature.

Memories of spring

Historical context matters.

A new game market opens when a new way of reaching eager players appears. In the early 2000s, digital distribution was a technology that cracked opened an industry previously dominated by retail sales. Apple and Google enabled phones to download games. Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo enabled consoles to download games. And Steam created a cohesive and reliable ecosystem for PC players to download games.

If you don’t remember the retail era it is hard to overstate what a radical change digital distribution was to the dominant business models. In retail, about 15% of revenue went to the developer. The rest goes to marketing, publishing and the retail store itself. This creates a power differential that tends to squeeze creativity out of game developers. Forget tales of wide-eyed idealism. Retail game development was a factory job that churned out games tailored to the whims of a giant box shipping machine. This was a mature market with most major game developers owned art and soul by middlemen publishers or platform owners. AAA still follow this model to a large degree. Good people, bad system.

Two things happened when digital distribution hit. For the first time in ages, we saw high demand and low supply.

High demand: Platform owners pushed their new distribution platforms heavily. A platform much preferred a guaranteed 30% cut of digital, especially when compared to a paltry 0-20% cut of retail. Valve bundled Steam with their top selling games. Microsoft gave away prime real estate on their console dashboard. Apple and Google directed users to go through their storefront in order to do pretty much anything. The result is a torrent of customers flooding through these digital stores wanting to buy cool stuff for their cool new toys. Put a pretty picture and a buy button and bam, you’ve got a sale.

Low supply: But there wasn’t anything to buy. A lot of traditional game publishers didn’t want to risk being beholden to some new platform master. Every digital storefront is essentially a monopoly with the potential to exert absolute dictatorial control. So most publishers held back. A few fringe game developers put up games. These were the hippies and hobos whose niche products never broke into the more mature retail markets.

And their games sold like hotcakes. In large part because there was nothing else to buy. For a while it felt you could put almost anything up on a digital market and turn a profit.

Short hot summer

With digital distribution, anyone with a computer could make a game and release it. And because they kept 70% of the revenue, they needed to sell a lot fewer copies to make ends meet. This means lots of little game companies. Call them ‘indies’.

Most were untrained. They didn’t understand how to run a business. Many had never made a professional game before. So they experimented, often wildly. Bizarro mutants popped up. Journey. Day Z. Tower Defense. What can you do with the internet? Or Flash? Or a touch screen. Or a one person team? Who knows; let’s just try something. Will Wright, gushed about the “Cambrian explosion”. New genres were born. That was 2008.

What a time. I look back on it fondly.

End of the growing season

Low barriers to entry
But low market barriers mean new developers just keep flooding in. And the nature of digital distribution means games never truly expire. So the back catalog of great games grows larger and larger. This is no longer a low supply market.

Fixed demand
Nor is it a high demand market. Consoles are stable. Smart phones (aka phones) are no longer setting growth records. PC sales are dropping. All those digital customers are a known quantity, divvied in zero-sum fashion across the various DRM locked platform fiefdoms.

What happens to a market when demand is fixed and supply is high? Competition. Here’s the traditional logic. The following sequence has played out across thousands of games and dozens of markets.
  • Standardization: Players form communities around the most popular game types. This creates a standardized demand.
  • Competition: Developers try to capture the entertainment dollars of these communities by releasing games in the same genre. For example, they might release a MOBA.
  • Winner takes all: Players gather around one or two high quality, well marketed examples within genre. Those games earn the vast majority of all revenue.
  • Escalating costs: In order to win that top spot, Developers invest heavily in art, narrative, marketing events and monetization. Maybe you can beat your competition by simply doing more.
  • Bloat: This results in larger developer team sizes. Larger teams burn more money, leaving less margin for mistakes.
  • Risk avoidance: A culture of risk avoidance dominates. You must make proven games with proven themes resting on proven mechanics for a proven audience. Layers of decision hierarchy grow to eliminate exuberant impulses. ‘Wasteful’ experimentation is deprioritized. All focus is on servicing the nuanced needs of expert (high value) players in an existing genre.
What success looks like
There are three broadly successful long term strategies for independent developers in this newly competitive market.
  • Become a genre king: Have a hit game in a popular genre. Invest those profits in ensure that you have the best developers, community and marketing to own that audience. Set the standard that all others hope to achieve. Be what Blizzard was to MMOs. If you pick the right maturing genre, you can gain 10 to 20 years of stability.
  • Dominate a niche: Find a niche that only appeal to a wealthy but passionate audience. Become hyper efficient at serving that niche. This isn’t so different from being a genre king except no one cares about you. The press barely cover you. The broader population of gamers doesn’t really know you exist. But a small devoted community cares. So you scope your company to the tiny size it needs to be to serve a tiny market. Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulator or SpiderWeb’s retro RPG games are good examples.
  • Manage a brand: There are a handful of companies that have a powerful brand they used to secure funding. During hard times, they essentially freeze dry themselves. This minimizes costs until the next deal comes along. Jackbox is the most common game industry example.
False success of having a hit game
There’s a ton of money flowing through a maturing market and occasionally it arcs over to the random indie in the right place at the right time. Zot! A jigawatt of revenue powers them for years(!) without additional income.

But the result is a lesson in exponentials. Ever play one of those new fangled idle games like Cookie Clicker? As markets mature, escalating exponential costs rapidly consume existing savings. For example: A top shelf ‘Triple-I’ indie’s last game cost $200,000. They made back $2,000,000 in sales. But their next game costs $2,500,000. Maybe they make that back also. Maybe they don’t. The money in the bank only gives them 1 or 2 additional swings at bat, not 10.

We now use the term ‘Triple I’ for medium sized teams that had hit games, but we used to call that same spot in the ecosystem ‘midtier developers’. They all died off as markets continued to mature. It becomes increasingly hard to roll a hit every time. In the end, they had no sustainable advantage.

Selling the farm
So not everyone can stay independent. There are three common outcomes for those forced to give up ownership.
  • Hobbyist: The team becomes a non-commercial endeavour. Either people get a day job and work a few hours at night. Or their family support them. Or they get grants from some institution interested in their work. Or they make games as students and change careers later.
  • Hire yourself out: The team becomes a contractor to someone with money. This can be via a publishing deal. Or via outright purchase. Or you actually sign a contract to perform specialized labor like porting or multiplayer development. Mega studios love hired help.
  • Extinction: The team goes out of business. That whole ‘indie’ thing was neat while it lasted.

First frost

You may be curious what winter looks like. Here’s what is coming up for PC, console and mobile.

Consolidation: When a bigger company eats a smaller company..or a smaller company implodes and a bigger company hires their employees, we are seeing something called consolidation. Lots of little studios turn into a smaller number of bigger studios.

Consolidation is a longer term process that will play out over the next 4 to 8 years. These forces don’t apply equally to every team. Some developers earned enough from a hit game they can ride along for many years without confronting their inability to make another hit game. Others are willing to starve for a few years longer before they make any hard decisions. Be patient.

Distribution scarcity: It has already become increasing difficult to get your game in front of new players. The sheer number of games is part of the issue. Also audience capture and advertising cost (see below) limit the general availability of free customers.

Audience capture: The available audience will actually shrink as high value players are locked into long term service-based games like MMOs or other F2P titles. A player doesn't ‘beat’ a game like Clash of Clans; instead they play one game exclusively for years. F2P companies will attempt to stretch the lifetime of their player to decades. These players are no longer looking for a fresh new games so they are typical unavailable to studios making new games or trying to replace churned players.

Majority of studios priced out of buying ads: The ad market sells its inventory to the highest bidder (across a myriad of categories) And for games, the highest bidder is the game with the strongest Life Time Value (LTV). Do you have a high LTV game in a particular category? Great, you can buy ads that juice your player acquisition. If you have a low LTV game (all premium games, most experimental games, most independent games) effective ad-based distribution is priced out of your reach.

Fewer, bigger hits: As the market consolidates around a handful of high value genre leaders, they will earn enormous amounts of money. The downside is that fewer small developers will capture enough sales to stay independent.

Rise of new publishers: Larger organizations with strong marketing and business development can mitigate some of these trends. They also can build portfolios so that if some games fail, successes still keep the whole afloat. That organization usually is called a publisher. Expect a number of publisher to start snapping up contracts for games from the more capable indie developers. Indie developers get cash to offset the risk of their game failing and and publishers get another chance of owning a hit game.

Rise of first party: Longer term platforms will start taking full ownership of any genre that is a guaranteed money maker. This vertical integration pays off. Platforms can capture all revenue that goes through the game, direct players to their games via promotional spotlights and reduce the riskiness of dealing with a volatile 3rd party developer.

Future Springs

We should celebrate the perennials planted during this amazing cycle. Or at least the tulip bulbs that may one day bloom.

Grassroots game development will continue to thrive
I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the bad old days of early 2000 where ‘breaking into the game industry’ was an actual barrier. Several trends mean the flood of new developers will not cease.
  • Tools: The cost of tools has dropped dramatically. And the tools that exist such as Unreal or Unity are of unprecedented power and polish. Anyone with time and passion can makes games and I suspect it will only get easier.
  • Schools: Students want to make games. Schools can charge those student enormous fees to teach them how to make games. This dynamic will exist independent of whether or not there are paying jobs waiting for those students.
  • Open distribution: There are multiple ways to make your game available to knowledgeable players. Steam, Android and iOS stores have minimal gatekeeping. Sites like itch.io have no real gatekeeping. The vast swath of humanity that doesn’t know about your game will never find out about it from these locations, but at least it isn’t blocked from publication. For the hobbyist developer, even a couple dozen downloads from friends and family can be inspiring enough to encourage further game making.
Expect a situation closer to what we see with writers, painters and musicians. Schools enable the necessary but time intensive acquisition of game making skills. The commercial market for those skills remains difficult to break into without elite level portfolios. However, there’s still a vast community of extremely low income developers making games because their passion is stronger than the need to be wealthy. In my dreams, this group of game making hobbyists regularly gets together for wine and moral support. And maybe even funds the occasional indiegogo when one of them needs a new liver.

There will be new markets
VR is one obvious new market. VR isn’t quite able to stand on its own, but platform owners seem committed to market building. If they collaboratively spend a billion or so to seed VR content, that’s a new billion dollar market for game developers.

And VR is not one new market. A rolling wave of multiple VR and AR markets will appear over the next decade as new technology leapfrogs past efforts. Each will be characterized by tech giants engaging in market building. That's an opportunity. Early PC development was likely the most similar sequence. We can have multiple Cambrian explosions.

The seasons turn

I hail from Downeast Maine where growing seasons are short and harvests valued. The spring is a (muddy) revelation. The summer a miracle. Even fall is greeted with a delighted grin. Yes, the wind blows so hard it is hard to walk straight. Yes, the frost will kill our gorgeous garden. But if we’ve planted well, the root cellars are at least full. And we’ve got hot apple cider.  And if we haven't, we'll do what we need to do to make it through. Even if that doesn't involve owning our own garden.

The key to my admittedly insipid joy is to realize that the world runs in cycles. We can bemoan the loss of summer, but it does little good. Instead, as winter settles in, put wood in the stove, put on some tea and let the infinite snow silence the cacophony of the world. Take some time to think. What did we do wrong during the last big opportunity? Take some time to dream. What would we do right if we had a chance to grow again? A long term view means that there will be many seasons of growth, harvest and frost.

Some form of spring will return eventually.

take care,
Danc.

Autumn of Indie Game Markets

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