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Why serious games enhance creativity.

New product development needs innovation if you want to really make a difference. And innovation needs creativity simply because you need to discover new information. The problem with innovation is that it is unpredictable so a defined process with upfront planning is futile. You need to create lots of ideas and then reduce the number of ideas to those that make sense. You need to think creatively!.

Distributed cognition

Experts in cognitive proceses like Seymour Papert and David Kolb describe a similar model for learning, discovering and creative thinking. In short it comes down to people learning by building a theory internally and then validating their theory in the material world. A group learns along more or less the same process.

Working in a group can significantly increase creativity of individuals [Gerrard Fischer]. Listening to others opinions, discussing different perspectives and looking at problems from different backgrounds stimulates the creation of new ideas. As a group you more easily explore a broader solution space.

In order to get to creative results as a group you need a setup of minimal structure and minimal constraints. Innovative results emerge rather then come from upfront planning. In addition the group needs to work with external artifacts like e.g. post-it notes, or drawing on a whiteboard. These external artifacts also known as externalizations enable groups to more easily go from vague mental ideas to concrete representations, enables a group to create a shared memory that in turn enables to create common understanding and a way to work together. [R. Keith Sawyer]

Emergent creativity

According to R. Sawyer creative results are by definiton results that emerge. To get emergent creativity you need to

  • Understand at a abstract level what you want to achieve but not know how to achieve it.
  • Have actions of people be dependent upon the actions of others. People must have a large number of possible options to take  in reaction to the actions of others in the group.
  • Have the possibility to change the effect of another’s action or even undo it  by future actions.
  • It has to be a collaborative process where everybody contributes evenly, so no hierarchy.

The common approach of running a meeting is far from this and therefore creative results are rare. The problem is that common meetings have someone to run the meeting, have an agenda and there are no externalizations for people to work with and create distributed cognition [R. Keith Sawyer].

Why do serious games enhance creativity?

Serious games cover all prerequisites discussed above for enabling group creativity.

A serious game consists of a game space where all the action takes place. Often it is some kind of metaphoric picture with a canvas, quadrant or something else to emotionally connect to. Then there are the artifacts to work with (mostly sticky notes), a common goal to achieve (what features should be put in our next release?) and finally there are some rules of play. The rules, game space, artifacts and goal form the externalizations and help a group create a distributed cognition as described above.

Serious games have a goal but the path towards it is open and emerges though collaboration. In a serious game everyone is equal and can contribute equal. On every action a person takes others provide feedback, others can build upon it or can change its effects. The use of externalizations like post-it notes, written information, drawings, pictures and discussion make you use more parts of your brain. As a group and as an individual you’re creating new ideas that build upon others ideas and then you are reducing your ideas, you are thinking creatively as a group. All this makes serious games also in line with the prerequisites for emergent creativity as discussed above.

The topping on the cake is that games create a safe environment. An environment where people are equal and people are more likely to say what they really think. It is easy to provide and receive feedback and you see real progress towards the goal. This makes serious games not only very productive but also much fun to do.


  • R. Keith Sawyer – Distributed creativity. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts © 2009 American Psychological Association 2009, Vol. 3, No. 2, 81–92
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