Games Steven Johnson 50 Essays

The villagers are restless. I think of them often through the day, during the quiet moments, as I'm walking back from dropping my son off at school, or waiting in line for coffee. I am thinking about their needs: some of them are hungry, and require fresh supplies of grain; some have grown tired of sleeping without a roof over their heads.

I'm thinking, too, of their ambitions: to someday build a great temple in their midst, or a broad stone wall around the village centre to protect it from invading hordes. I am thinking of their demographics: right now, there aren't enough children to sustain the kind of population growth I have envisaged for them. And I am thinking of their devotion - to me. Because I am their god.

I should say at the outset that these are the kinds of thoughts that make me relieved there aren't mind-readers standing next to me at Starbucks. There is something slightly mad trying to figure out how to fortify your worshippers against invaders while simultaneously trying to decide between having a venti or a grande Frappuccino. But it is a madness that any regular videogamer will instantly recognise. Because, of course, my worshippers are virtual ones.

I have been playing Black & White 2, the new game from acclaimed designer Peter Molyneux, in which the player is cast in the role of a deity. The goal, ultimately, is to build your flock: converting whole cities into believers, either through wrath or beneficence, by conquering or clothing them. Or usually, in my case at least, a little of both.

If you are not a gamer, you may be surprised how many otherwise normal-looking adults around you are harbouring comparable thoughts. In the US, the game industry now brings in as much money as Hollywood, and the average gamer is roughly 30 years old. We are fast approaching the point where an ordinary gamer is more likely to have had a child than be one. Since Tetris at the very least, and probably all the way back to Pong, digital games have been lodging themselves in the back of our consciousness, prodding us to think through their puzzles just one more time before going to sleep.

Tricky business

I would submit that the primary reason for that mental screenburn is this genuinely unsung fact: today's games are exceptionally difficult. They tax the mind in ways that would amaze anyone who last played a game in the age of Pac-Man. In Black & White, for instance, the player must simultaneously track hundreds of shifting and interconnected variables. Some of these are emotional and metabolic in nature: each worshipper - and there can be thousands of them - has a distinct set of needs you must satisfy or risk losing their devotion. Some are militaristic: other villages, worshipping rival gods, may be building armies to attack your strongholds. Some needs are environmental: build too many villas for your population and you will burn through the supply of forests surrounding your growing town.

Crucially, each of these elements connects with the others: protect your forests by building fewer houses, and your villagers won't reproduce at the same clip, thereby limiting the size of the army you can build.

Black & White is a relatively highbrow game, of course - but only in subject matter, not complexity. There are moral values explicitly addressed by the game: you can choose wrath or kindness, swords or ploughshares, to win over your disciplines: hence the title. But the mental challenges involved in Black & White are positively routine.

The best-selling PC game of all time, The Sims, involves an equally complex tableau of variables to track, while the ever-popular sports simulations force you to run an entire organisation - making trades, balancing budgets, soothing egos, as well as calling the plays from the sidelines. Even the controversial hit game Grand Theft Auto maps a staggeringly large and complex world: one players' guide to all the variables involved in the game clocked in at 53,000 words, the length of a short book.

But does this complexity, on its own, necessarily mean we should take games seriously as works of culture? That they should be reviewed and dissected alongside books, film and ballet? After all, crossword puzzles are mentally challenging, but we don't generally run reviews of them in the culture pages.

System addicts

I think the answer to that question is a decisive yes, but doing so requires that we develop new aesthetic criteria that are appropriate to the medium. Many games take the player through some kind of narrative arc, but I think, in general, storytelling is one of the least interesting things about gaming. Where psychological depth is concerned, most games are laughably simple. The great majority of gamers, I suspect, don't engage with games because they want to find out what happens, or because they care about the characters. They engage because they want to figure out how the system of the game works, or because they want to explore the space the game represents.

Banal narratives and one-dimensional characters sounds like a critique, but only if you are starting with the criteria we use for novels or films. But if you think about games as closer to architecture or environmental art, then it doesn't seem like such a failing. We don't look down on buildings because they don't have strong narrative threads or well-developed characters. The same should be true of games. They are - first and foremost - environments and systems, not stories. The art of making a great game lies in making spaces that are interesting to explore, and systems that are interesting to tinker with - like those teeming villagers in Black & White, with their multiple, interconnected needs.

Game of life

But if games tend to lack storytelling prowess, it doesn't necessarily follow that they lack social relevance. All the complex simulation games on the market - from The Sims, to Civilization, to SimCity, to Black & White - are, in effect, animated theories of how a given society works, whether it is ancient Rome or a modern metropolis. You learn the theory by playing. One of the defining attributes of Grand Theft Auto that has been chronically ignored by critics is how explicitly the game plays as a satire of American inner-city culture - or, more precisely, suburban America's nightmare of inner- city culture. But that satire emerges as much out of the environment of the game - the hilarious radio pseudo-soundtrack, the snippets of dialogue you overhear in the world - as it does from the story that unfolds as you play.

All of this - the economic strength of the gaming industry, the complexity of the games themselves, and their growing relevance as a platform for social commentary - adds up to one inevitable conclusion: ignoring games means ignoring one of the most interesting and innovative cultural forms of our time - not unlike writing off Hollywood in the era of Citizen Kane and Gilda.

In fact, there is more to be said about the connection between early film criticism and the contemporary assessment of gaming. But it will have to wait for another day. I have a flock to tend to right now.

· Steven Johnson is distinguished writer in residence at NYU's department of journalism, and the author of Everything Bad is Good for You, published by Allen Lane. To order a copy for £10 with free UK p&p, call the Guardian book service on 0870 836 0875 or go to

· If you'd like to comment on any aspect of Technology Guardian, send your emails to

It turns out that a foosball table will not magically transform the culture of your organization, says best-selling science historian Steven Johnson. Joined by Scott Barry Kaufman, cognitive psychologist and scientific director of the Imagination Institute, the two discussed the latest research on creativity, collaboration and what actually works when building a culture of innovation.

This conversation has been excerpted from the “Open Minds” video series on American Express OPEN Forum®. View the complete video and series for more on creativity.

For more on creativity, view the complete video and series on American Express OPEN Forum.

Steven Johnson:One of the most important questions in the realm of creativity and innovation is, “How do you take these insights and apply them to an organization?” It’s not just about you and your brain, but you with your colleagues and a manager. How do you create an environment that encourages creativity?

One of the things that I’ve seen is what I call “the foosball problem.” Companies are trying to be more innovative, and they’re like, “I’ve seen the offices of all those tech companies. They’ve got a foosball table, and it creates a playful, fun environment. So, here guys, take this foosball table and go crazy.”

But that’s not how you do it. It’s not the foosball table that magically transforms the culture. It’s a richer problem, a deeper problem. You have to create an environment that truly honors that sense of creative play.

Scott Barry Kaufman:The essence of play is doing something for its own enjoyment. That doesn’t mean that the task isn’t boring. It’s really a framing issue. I feel like you could bring anything to me, no matter how seemingly boring it is, and if I bring my inner foosball, my inner curiosity and playfulness to the task, I could be interested by it. Do you know what I mean?

Johnson:Absolutely. The other thing that we share between our work is looking for inspiration outside of the workspace, or outside of whatever vertical your organization happens to be in. Let’s say you’re in the air conditioning business, and all of your competitors are also in the air conditioning business. So, you’re going to air conditioning industry meetings, and you’re reading the literature on air conditioning, and you’re looking at other people’s products. You have that kind of focus because that’s your job.

The problem is, the possibility space for new ideas in air conditioning is finite. And the breakthrough idea, the disruptive idea, the paradigm-shifting idea, probably doesn’t exist inside that space. It’s probably somewhere else. It’s some idea from another field, or some new technology that’s being developed in another field.


Johnson:Radiators, or it’s artificial intelligence, or something like that. So, you get to that breakthrough because intellectually, or maybe geographically, you travel outside of your domain. And you’re sitting there looking at some new smartphone and the way that it uses AI, and you think, “Wait, what if I took this idea that was developed to create a music playlist for me, and I applied it to how this air conditioner works?”

Kaufman:You touched on diversifying experiences, and the importance of creating a culture where that is the case. There is research showing that immigrants are more creative. Wherever they immigrate to, they tend to bring a different perspective to the table, and the entire society is more creative as a result. It’s a very cultural issue.

Johnson:It’s diversity. For understandable reasons, we have focused on diversity as a kind of political attribute, where we want to have diverse environments so that there will be equal opportunity and better social tolerance. Which is great, I’m totally supportive of that. But there’s another point, which is that diversity trumps ability. This could be diversity of country of origin, gender diversity, diversity of intellectual points of view or training.

Kaufman:Even learning disabilities. Autism, dyslexia…

Johnson:Exactly. You can have high-IQ people who all have the same background. When you ask them to perform tasks that involve creativity, a lower IQ group that has more diversity, however you define it, will do better. Think about the makeup of your team. What different perspectives and backgrounds are you bringing to the table when you gather people together in that project room? Do you have a diverse team, or do you have people who all have the same background?

Kaufman:I’m glad that you brought that up, because that’s an important recommendation we could make to people who are in a position for hiring. What are you looking at when you’re hiring people into your company? We weed out so many people who might not be obviously relevant to a project, when in fact, having them on your team would add great innovation and diversity.

Johnson:The old theory about why diverse teams were collectively smarter and more creative was that the outside perspectives brought new ideas, new approaches, new metaphors to the problem, and that made the group collectively smarter. That is part of it, but there’s also been this interesting finding that just the presence of different perspectives makes the original in-group smarter and more creative. When they’re surrounded by people who are just like them, that group tends to cohere around a kind of groupthink, whereas even if you just visually introduce the presence of diverse people, you challenge yourself to be more creative.

Kaufman:So much of it is, as a manager, allowing your employees the autonomy to choose at what point in the day they are feeling most creative. And not choose ahead of time, but choose in the moment. Creativity can be so influenced by our inspiration, our mood. You don’t know when inspiration is going to happen. Inspiration is not a willed phenomenon.

So we need to leave more opportunities in the day for people to act on those inspirations. You can’t plan that out. You can’t put that in your agenda: “Okay, everyone, at 3:00 p.m. everyone’s gonna be inspired. At 4:00 p.m. you’re gonna finish the work.” You need to [allow] greater autonomy to act on it when it happens.

Johnson:In a way, this is an argument against meetings in general, because if you have a meeting of six people, the odds are low that all six of those people are going to be in that headspace of, “What I really want to do now is get together in a conference room and look at somebody’s presentation.” Maybe half those people are like, “I was just on this really interesting creative brainstorm by myself.”

Kaufman:You might be disrupting a breakthrough. How about this? Leave room for spontaneous meetings. What if someone’s like, “Eureka, everyone!” And everyone goes, “Okay, John just said, ‘Eureka.’ Let’s go to the meeting and see what he’s got.”

Johnson:One of my favorite riffs from history is the importance of coffee houses in innovation during the Enlightenment. You have these semi-structured public spaces where people are hanging out and talking in these open-ended ways. Almost every big idea in the 18th century, certainly in London at least, happened in a coffee house in one way or another. It was the seat of new ideas. I think getting outside of the conference room mode of, “We have a three o’clock meeting,” and more to that, “We’re all kind of hanging in this interesting shared space,” is important.

And if you have an interesting idea, you look across the room and, “Oh there’s Mary, and she’d be perfect. We need a designer, or someone who can model this financially. Come over here and talk to us about this idea.” If you’re in that open-ended space, that kind of coffee house-like space, you’re much more likely to have those unplanned, serendipitous connections happen. It’s an example where the cubicle model or the conference room model is literally putting limits around your creative thoughts, due to the physical architecture of the space.

That’s the thing about this whole field of creativity and innovation. If we’re moving towards a society where artificial intelligence, robotics and automation are becoming increasingly important in almost every field, creativity is one human skill that, at least for a long time, we are uniquely able to bring to the table. We now know that the idea that creativity is this magical property, that either you have [it] or you don’t, is wrong. There are lessons to learn from science and from history to teach us how to be more creative at work, and that’s exciting.

For more on creativity, view the complete video and series on American Express OPEN Forum.

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