Play a Game with Mundane Imagination


I’ve been reading The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses by Jesse Schell (which is wonderful), and there was a passage about imagination that I thought was really remarkable:

Imagination puts the player into the game by putting the game into the player.

You might think, when I talk about the power of the players’s imagination that I might mean their creative imagination, and the power to make up dreamlike fantasy worlds — but I am talking about something more mundane.  The imagination I’m talking about is the miraculous power that everyone takes for granted — the everyday imagination that every person uses for communication and problem solving. (p. 124)

What does this look like?

He goes on to give the example of a story:

“The mailman stole my car yesterday.”

Take a minute and run the movie of that story in your head.  What do you see?




Schell talks about the fact that you can picture the story — if asked, you can probably describe the mailman and the car, and the scene where it happens, including time of day, the weather, the color of the car.  You can even start assigning motives to the mailman, and describe the consequences of what happens next.  You didn’t need to be told any of that, and you don’t even need to work that hard to see it — most of it appears nearly effortlessly (it’s not the effortful kind of thinking we associate with creative design).

This ability to automatically fill gaps is very relevant for game design, for it means that our games don’t need to give every detail, and players will be able to fill in the rest.  The art comes in knowing what you should show the player, and what you should leave to their imagination. (p. 125)

Picture an Armchair

Schell talks about how amazing this power of imagination is, and how incredibly flexible it is.  For example, imagine an armchair (another of Schell’s examples).

  • Now imagine that it’s very large.
  • Now imagine that it’s bright orange.
  • Now imagine that it’s made of oatmeal.
  • Now image that it’s walking around the room.

The fact that you can change your inner vision of the chair, largely effortlessly, is miraculous and mundane at the same time.

Barely Games

I thought of all of this when @bfchirpy sent me a link today for this posting from Russell Davies:

He talks about the idea of Barely Games – experiences that come from interacting with the world around you in a game-like way.  His games seem to have a game-like intent without the rigid structure.  He explains that the rules for these games are ambiguous, and that ambiguity is part of the experience (read the whole post – it’s worth it).

He talks about the role of Everyday Pretending in Barely Games, and explains that:

Everyday Pretending is something you do with a bit of your brain, with the edges. It’s a thing of inattention, not concentration.”

What do you see?

I usually try to make sure that my blog posts have a lot of visuals, but I didn’t this time, because I didn’t want to interrupt your own mundane imagination when you were reading this.  I also usually try to include ideas for how to apply the topic to learning design, but I’m not going to do that either.

Here’s why — I want to you take something you are working on at present (a project or task – whatever it might be), and picture it.  Now, as gently as you possibly can (without regard for practical constraints – in the same way you can picture an armchair walking around a room), picture that project/task/work as a game.

What does it look like?


(if you feel like playing, describe what you see in the comments)

4 thoughts on “Play a Game with Mundane Imagination

  1. I try to imagine my inbox and my email as a game, where I have to get them to be empty by the end of the day. The problem with this game is that there is no reward — so, sometimes I make up pretend rewards in my imagination. Sometimes they are medals or ornaments, but other times they are something more tangible like, “now I give myself permission not to even look at the computer for 12 hours” or even more tangible, like a glass of brandy or hot chocolate.

    I do wish this game could be improved — because I play it a lot!

  2. Jaymo – make sure you read the Russell Davies piece above to see what email looks like as a game (click the YouTube links).

    I’m reading the same book (it goes well with Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun) and having exactly the same thoughts – hence my invention of the Skinner game to liven up my Information Architecture, UX, Social Media learning.

    But that would be cheating in your comments to bang on about my own thing so here goes…

    I’m trying to build a website that collects and collates the curricula and syllabi of teacher/trainer/instructor programmes – I’m trying to work out what the ‘core’ knowledge that learning professionals need.

    I could create a google map and colour it in as I collect the data from the different places around the world. I could award the title of ‘mayor’ to anybody who helped me get information from a certain place. I could create a dashboard/power meter with some targets and award myself power-ups when I reach key stages.

    These days, I do find myself saying ‘achievement unlocked’ a lot more than I used to.

    Did you read the piece about the woman who turned her cancer recovery into a game? I’ll dig it out if you haven’t.

  3. What I’m working on right now is like a really large puzzle – I’m thinking a 10,000 piecer. The pieces are all spread out like my 4 year old got hold of it before I could open the puzzle box in a more orderly manner. Presently I’m having small puzzle victories but putting one 3-5 piece section together at a time. What makes this puzzle especially challenging is that the box it came in doesn’t have a picture that shows me what it all looks like when it’s put together.

    Here’s a more interesting game I created when I was stuck in the smelly DMV. I had to renew my driver license. I had taken a number and was left standing in an endless line. I arrived early hoping that I would be able to get out of there in enough time to make it work. The arriving early also meant that I missed breakfast.

    My two problems 1. work on time 2. hungry – made me wonder if I would be able to get to work on time and more importantly, could I leave, grab a bacon, egg and cheese mcmuffin and come back without loosing my numbered spot in the endless line. So, I decided to play a math game. First I would need a data set. The number of windows open seemed to vary, but not as much as the amount of time it took help each person. I began timing the various windows until I had an acceptable data set, then I averaged them all up and considered whether I wanted to use the median number or the average. I decided on the average and discovered that I had 35 minutes before it would be my turn.

    After downing my OJ and bacon, egg and cheese mcmuffin, I returned to the DMV lobby, to see my number flashing.

    Game Over – I won

  4. My game?

    A friend stopped by the other night and told me the salary of an average Minneapolis orchestra musician and the conductor’s salary. Impressive enough to make me regret giving up on the trombone. Ever since the other night, I’ve been seeing everything in music.

    So today at work, I’m conducting a symphony.

    Tap, tap, tap.

    Instruments up!

    The violins are writing software training today, and I’m editing tasks,but I can’t ignore the base section, demanding customized e-learning content, conceptual pieces, thick and rich sounds, which underscore the uh…score. I’ve got project management snare drums looking at me to take their cue and I also follow them to make sure I keep tempo with project expectations.

    Everything is in motion, the task writers writing, editors like flute players making smallish corrections, insisting on consistency (the good kind) and I try to integrate their quiet notes into the main tune so everyone gets heard.

    Lately I’ve been working an intense Bach piece, but maybe I need to slow things down, calm myself with something lovely to keep me even-paced and calm despite the impending, advancing crescendo.

    Thanks for the great read on the “miraculous” and “mundane” nature of imagination. I forget how spectacular my brain can be when I let it play with everyday things.

    Go brain!


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