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Author Topic: Imagination as a talent in varying supply  (Read 15745 times)
Michaël Samyn

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« on: January 14, 2011, 01:36:17 PM »

My thoughts keep coming back to this first paragraph of Chris Bateman's "Game Design as Make-Believe" series of blog posts.
Quote from: Chris Bateman
Game designers are tremendously imaginative people, and as such we often make a serious error in dealing with other players: the great majority of people have vastly more ordinary imaginations. This observation – which should be a truism given the popularity of predictable soap operas, 'reality' television, true stories and other down-to-earth entertainments – goes unnoticed so frequently that a great many imaginative people (both game designers and otherwise) find themselves expressing dismay that such-and-such a game is a commercial failure while yet another war-based first person shooter racks up mighty sales.
http://blog.ihobo.com/2010/04/game-design-as-makebelieve-1-imagination.html

For an artist like me who likes to think that the player's imagination is his ultimate canvas, this is quite problematic. Not everybody's canvas is equally big. Imagination is a talent. And as such not all people are equally good at it.

Being a very clear observation, it is also helpful. It helps me understand why some of our projects may be more successful than others. The more successful ones (like The Path) simply don't require as much imagination as the others (like Vanitas or Fatale). I used to think that this distinction was a question of effort on the part of the player. Like some people can't enjoy Kafka or Wagner because they're not willing to do the effort to understand their art. But now I'm starting to think it's not so much a matter of effort as it is of talent.

Chris Bateman's conclusion is summarized in a very simple formula:
Quote from: Chris Bateman
greater imagination required, smaller numbers of players attracted

This doesn't mean that there is no place for works that require their players to have great imagination. Only that if you make such a work, you should be aware that your audience will be small (and thus adjust your budget and schedule to that expectation e.g.). And vice versa, if you think your work has potential to appeal to a large group of people, reduce the amount of imagination required to appreciate it.

In hindsight, that is exactly what we did with The Path when we added text to the game, to express the thoughts of the characters. We also used stereotypical characters, desaturated our forest to make it look creepy, filled it with all the cliché objects and scenes we knew from horror fiction, used a well known fairy tale, but set it in the present day, etc. All of this helped to reduce the imagination required to enjoy the game.
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PsySal

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« Reply #1 on: January 16, 2011, 03:32:57 AM »

I think there is some validity do this, but it's an oversimplification. Like:

- It seems to me that there are many, many reasons why war sims are popular.
- Wagner used to be really popular!

I think as a designer you choose to leave empty spaces for people to fill in with their imaginations (see: Dwarf Fortress, which is fun to play vicariously, i.e., read people's stories about the game, and I find the same true of Nethack.) Where those spaces are and how large they can be without losing people is going to depend on how much effort your audience wants to put in, not just on the depth of their imagination.

Tolkien is another interesting example. In his mind, many many more details of middle earth were filled in than he probably ever put down. This gives his stories a very fleshed out backdrop; but he DOES fill in a great number of details. The fact that he leaves many blanks in hinting at far, far more works so well because he has provided actually a great deal of context already.
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Michaël Samyn

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« Reply #2 on: January 16, 2011, 09:50:20 AM »

Of course it's an oversimplification. I don't think Mr Bateman's point was to give a conclusive, final or exclusive explanation. It feels more like a answer to the question "what do popular works of art have in common?" And one of those things is that they require less imagination. Or at least that they are also accessible/enjoyable for people with less imagination.

But I don't doubt that this is a property that shifts throughout the ages. In medieval times, it was probably very easy for people to imagine hell. So pieces depicting The Last Judgement might have been popular. Ditto perhaps Wagner. Maybe people in his time were quite familiar with the mythologies and characters and subject matter found in his work.

There's an element of media supporting each other that plays a part in this theory. A particular fantasy might seem far-fetched when it is first introduced, but as more and more works are made with the same subject matter, the audience becomes more familiar with it and the works require less imagination. Perhaps Vampires are a good example of this.
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Thomas

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« Reply #3 on: January 17, 2011, 09:18:10 PM »

I think there is also a certain "courage to imagine" involved here. It is not uncommon to hear people dismissing some works, because they simply do not want to imagine it. For example, I know folks who gladly watch a UFO movie, but won't see a space sci-fi movie. As you said Michael, this might be because people are more used to a certain kind of fiction, but I also believe there is a willingness involved.

Perhaps a lesson to draw from is that one should try and lure people into imagining by starting out with something they can relate to easily and then going step-by-step. At least if you wanna go mass market Smiley
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Michaël Samyn

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« Reply #4 on: January 18, 2011, 01:14:40 PM »

I don't think one needs to aim for the mass market to make one's work more accessible. There's a whole spectrum of possibilities between consciously choosing a small audience with a huge imagination (about a specific topic) and aiming for a mass market by explaining each and every little thing.

Even artistically (and not just commercially), it may be smart to not demand too much of your audience's imagination. If you're talking about a person, you could represent him by a square and demand that the audience imagines what kind of person he is. But by the time they're done with that, there may not be a lot of imagination left to do anything else. It may be smarter to just show a person and then use the player's "imagination potential" to deal with what this person thinks and feels and does.

A person with a huge imagination can imagine just about anything about a square. But usually, our work is about much more specific things. We might as well present everything that is specific in a concrete form. Imagination can also work in reverse: the specific can lead to thoughts about the general.
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Jeroen D. Stout

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« Reply #5 on: January 18, 2011, 01:39:22 PM »

There is another factor - (I hope) I have a well-developed imagination, but I prefer (romantic-) realistic works over abstraction.

For instance, Vanitas did not work for me at all not because I could not imagine what it meant but because I spend most of the day imagining things and art for me is a welcome recluse in that I can be lead on. Art which asks of me to imagine it feels like being a cook who goes to a restaurant and finding the ingredients prepared but is asked to cook them, to pose it a little bit fiercely. But this is why most 'installation art' does not work for me - I can spend my time elsewhere without having to do most of the artistic work in my head.

I still imagine what Catherine & Heathcliff look like, but not how the story really goes - in a way I imagine conclusions, not content. Perhaps that means I am only willing to read the character descriptions and imagine the details, not read that the characters are squares and circles and imagine everything. I also with good art feel my own imagination (and observation) skills are far less well-developed than the master's so I feel like having my own imagination would diminish my experienced quality.

But there are different kinds of imagination: that I 'know' how Wuthering Heights is built is clearly my imagination because there is no floorplan in the book (and even then a 3d model in my head is my imagination). But I do not have to imagine the existence of Wuthering Heights. There may be a big difference between synthesis and creation. I synthesise details from art into mental reflections of more than the art truly depicts, but I dislike having to create details on my own.

What Bateman refers to with his brother not capable of maintaining a mental depiction of the characters may show he lacks the capacity for memory in terms of imagination. Hypothetically he may know what it means to parse 'this character is a massive square' but is not capable of maintaining the imagination for long. But like drawing he could train this if it is needed, I suppose.
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Michaël Samyn

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« Reply #6 on: January 18, 2011, 07:37:23 PM »

Sounds like imagination is a really bad thing to expect from your audience as an artist. Not only is it something that not all people have in equal amounts, those who do might also plainly refuse to use it! I guess I'm starting to understand why the fine arts have locked themselves up in their little niche art world.

I think there's another factor, though. I think people have different capacities for imagination on different terrains. The reason why you couldn't get into Vanitas as other people can, Jeroen, might have more to do with the fact that the subject of Vanitas was simply not something that stimulates you emotionally or intellectually. A work of art needs to connect with something in the spectator in order to function. Part of this is established through education. But part if it is also simply life experience, personality and taste. A work of art that is generally found excellent, may not necessarily be a bland picture that requires no imagination to enjoy, it may also be a work that is about a subject that many people enjoy fantasizing about.

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Jeroen D. Stout

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« Reply #7 on: January 19, 2011, 11:56:28 AM »

I just realized I indeed also do not get anything watching most vanitas paintings. I did not realize this may the same thing - I see a depiction of skulls and other indications that earthly life is transient and it just leaves me cold.

If I see a depiction of a person I do find I form a mental image of this person which involves more than is in the painting. But a painting like a vanitas just has nothing for me to start from.

The interesting question would be to see a hypothetical version of Vanitas in which I find in my iPhone box objects which have been possessions of an old man. I realize that I could just tell myself that this is what I see in Vanitas (or in the paintings) but that is imagining things which clearly are not there and feels silly because the work I am looking at will not support my fantasy.

Are you talking about the reclusion of the modern fine arts? Because with classical works I often feel that while the paintings are a lot better when you know something about them, you can still enjoy them on their own. I rather think the niche little art world comes from making work which are not pleasant to watch, do not offer anything for the uninitiated, and which complexity stems from obscurity rather than worldliness.
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PsySal

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« Reply #8 on: January 21, 2011, 12:14:47 AM »

Of course it's an oversimplification. I don't think Mr Bateman's point was to give a conclusive, final or exclusive explanation. It feels more like a answer to the question "what do popular works of art have in common?" And one of those things is that they require less imagination. Or at least that they are also accessible/enjoyable for people with less imagination.

Well, he does in fact say that it "should be a truism" not that it "is a factor". I agree with your point that it's one of the things that popular works usually have in common.

Moving on... =)

Quote
But I don't doubt that this is a property that shifts throughout the ages. In medieval times, it was probably very easy for people to imagine hell. So pieces depicting The Last Judgement might have been popular. Ditto perhaps Wagner. Maybe people in his time were quite familiar with the mythologies and characters and subject matter found in his work.

There's an element of media supporting each other that plays a part in this theory. A particular fantasy might seem far-fetched when it is first introduced, but as more and more works are made with the same subject matter, the audience becomes more familiar with it and the works require less imagination. Perhaps Vampires are a good example of this.

I think this is sound thinking. There is a collective imagination that contains certain ideas and images, and also certain rules. Vampire movies usually involve the rules around crucifixes, sunlight, blood drinking, etc.; even before you begin to tell your story there is already a lot of material beforehand. Of course you can go either way with that material, for instance in Terry Pratchett's novels the crucifixes have no actual power (to often humorous effect...)
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Dagda

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« Reply #9 on: January 25, 2011, 04:52:02 AM »

I don't give a damn.

I say that as an affirmation of a personal principle. My priority is not to make games that are popular, famous, well-regarded. My priority is to make games that are good- that enrich the lives of others via the experiences they provide.

I also say that because "people who didn't like my creation lacked the mental ability to appreciate it" is a view I reflexively reject.
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Your daily does of devil's advocacy: "We're largely past the idea that games are solely for children, but many people are consciously trying to give their games more intellectual depth. Works of true brilliance are rarely motivated by insecurity."
Michaël Samyn

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« Reply #10 on: January 26, 2011, 10:22:16 AM »

I believe there's a lot that an artist can do to make his work more accessible. And in my experience, the work often becomes better when he does.
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chineseroom

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« Reply #11 on: January 26, 2011, 12:02:42 PM »

To be a little obtuse and deliberately try and start a little fire on this, you could always come back and argue that the entire idea of imagination is, in itself, an illusion. Like consciousness, it's a retrospectively created by-product of what are, in actuality, localised and largely thoughtless instinctual responses. We like, we do. It hurts, we don't. Big fat endorphine rush, intellectualise later. We didn't ever imagine Cathy and Heathcliff, but we imagine we did. Just like 'we' don't exist, only the idea of 'we' that 'we' find useful/rewarding in that moment. That's not just solipsism (it's not actually solipsism at all) but increasingly there are ideas floating out of cognitive science that this notion of cohesive, pervasive cognition, emotion, type is actually largely illusory.

So when we talk about imagination as a user requirement, or preference, or even about the artists' conscious decisions about accessibility, how does this depressing/liberating (delete according to personal taste) idea affect how we think about it?

Or, cast in another light, are we simply peddling the same old opiate just wrapped in another set of predelictions? At what point do we understand whether the 'deeper', 'truer', 'higher' content or reaction or imagination we strive for (and I think most people on this forum tend to consider their work as striving, and not in an elitist, arrogant way, but in a kind of 'why climb the mountain' way, if that makes sense) as being essentially exactly the same kind of mental ketamine as Just Cause 2 or Crysis, but one that feels different to those who like it because their liking of it is predicated upon them feeling that it feels different.

I'm stopping now because I think I've confused myself. Does any of that make any sense?
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chineseroom

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« Reply #12 on: January 26, 2011, 12:03:09 PM »

I am a sucker for Just Cause 2 btw. But Crysis sucked.
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Michaël Samyn

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« Reply #13 on: January 26, 2011, 06:21:26 PM »

Even if everyone is doing the same thing in a different packaging, there still is an undeniable difference in the size of audience the different creators are reaching. And it's not so hard to see patterns related to the size of this audience. Smaller imagination may not be an accurate description of this difference (it could also be called higher tolerance or more patience). But the difference cannot be denied: some things appeal to larger audiences than others. And it's fairly easy to predict which.
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Jeroen D. Stout

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« Reply #14 on: January 31, 2011, 05:54:37 PM »

To be a little obtuse and deliberately try and start a little fire on this, you could always come back and argue that the entire idea of imagination is, in itself, an illusion. Like consciousness, it's a retrospectively created by-product of what are, in actuality, localised and largely thoughtless instinctual responses. We like, we do. It hurts, we don't. Big fat endorphine rush, intellectualise later. We didn't ever imagine Cathy and Heathcliff, but we imagine we did. Just like 'we' don't exist, only the idea of 'we' that 'we' find useful/rewarding in that moment. That's not just solipsism (it's not actually solipsism at all) but increasingly there are ideas floating out of cognitive science that this notion of cohesive, pervasive cognition, emotion, type is actually largely illusory.

So when we talk about imagination as a user requirement, or preference, or even about the artists' conscious decisions about accessibility, how does this depressing/liberating (delete according to personal taste) idea affect how we think about it?

Or, cast in another light, are we simply peddling the same old opiate just wrapped in another set of predelictions? At what point do we understand whether the 'deeper', 'truer', 'higher' content or reaction or imagination we strive for (and I think most people on this forum tend to consider their work as striving, and not in an elitist, arrogant way, but in a kind of 'why climb the mountain' way, if that makes sense) as being essentially exactly the same kind of mental ketamine as Just Cause 2 or Crysis, but one that feels different to those who like it because their liking of it is predicated upon them feeling that it feels different.

I'm stopping now because I think I've confused myself. Does any of that make any sense?

The meta-philosophical point of interest in debates like this is that the only way we may deal with the world in a 'reality' perception is by forcibly not explaining things - we are made of atoms, it is inevitable that at some point of granulation 'we' do not have anything coherent to define. In that interest we ought to define imagination.

If we take the approach of Damasio, we can see the core of the brain, the 'primitive' part, so to speak, as the receptor for sensations from the body. Skipping the part which interprets these signals, there is apart of the brain which receives signals, which we may correlate with feeling something. I.e., a certain stimulus is warm, another cold. This is not imagination, of course.

Damasio adds the expanded consciousness, which is capable to synthesizing false data (in the sense that it is not derived from actual nerve data) and feeding that to the core - producing sensations without a bodily cause strong enough to seem real. This synthesis is what I believe has caused higher lifeforms to thrive as it allows us to make countless permutations and raise expectations. At the same time, synthetic sensations seem so real to us because the control mechanism is the mechanism which also created the patterns for these synthetic sensation - like Hinton's deep belief networks re-creating a glyph.

This is how I believe we can define imagination: first of all, there is this capacity with factors such as strength, endurance and quality. Quality would be the capacity of fooling one's own control mechanism. There are things which I can imagine so vividly it may as well be real (in certain moods) and there are things which hold no bearing to real life, especially things which I have not physically experienced and have no 'original' data of.

In this sense, art (or any medium) transfers symbolic data which one part of us translates into sensations which may be fed to the core brain. It can be seen as an aid. If I do not have the translation table I cannot read the glyphs. If we imagine we are noblemen from the 17th century donning the right clothes may be of aid to us because it helps complete our false data. Vanitas can be an aid as to imagine different things.

But I think larger beliefs are also run through the primitive brain - it knows no scale so we may imagine 10 billion people or a 100 with the same mechanism. There is more a bandwidth problem in a sense. But different experiences do exist, it cannot all be generalized to ketamine. There are things which are great thrills (like a vivid firefight) but leave me empty after finishing them. A good book, however, becomes integrated as part of my thinking.

The mental integration is an important part of Ayn Rand's philosophy of art. She specifically applies it to music in the sense that we try to generalize what we hear and in a manner which is in a sense trying to mimic the more fuzzy data with mathematical constructs. The more apt the brain is, the more layers of constructs you would want to fulfil at once. She is highly dismissive of non-tonal music exactly because it dulls the brain into receiving impulses rather than learning it to generalise data.

In this I follow her and applying this, one may say some forms of imagination are for the primitive brain (base sexual fantasy, for instance), others are vivid enough to be integrated with the real brain. An imagination is so vivid it is stored as a real memory. The difference between Crysis and Wuthering Heights to me basically exists in that while both have a 'in the moment' sensation it is only Wuthering Heights which has larger, more complex lines which engage with (and add to) wider parts of my brain and which has a rhythm I can grow accustomed to, takes my mind to the cold north and confronts me with questions of honour and human nature, adding to the concepts in my mind as well as linking them in new ways. For instance, I may without any structured thought tell you whether I think someone 'a Heathcliff' because I have neurons dedicated to providing data as to recognising Heathcliff. Crysis does not have any this sort in my mind, it operates far more closely to my primitive brain, so I may recognise the outline of some of its adversaries.

When I remember Heathcliff I remember many facets and I notice when I talk of good books to friends the experience never quite comes out the same way, because each of them is more prone to a 'subset' of my Heathcliff generalisation, which is a memory of a person which functions in the same manner as a memory of a real person. In this sense the quality of my Heathcliff consists of how well my imagination worked on the Heathcliff symbolic data.

Speaking for myself, my 'mountain' is allow the medium of games to create these longer, generalisable experiences. I have not had this much with games and plenteous with books. In my personal opinion, I think the medium of literature for many types of experiences to be far superior to film and games. But this is more a problem with the manner in which we make films and games, I am sure.
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