Why "openness to experience" is important for play

Over at the Atlantic, writer and historian Cody Delistraty asks a big question: Can creativity be learned? Starting with Mary Shelley’s dark summer inventing the genre of science fiction in Frankenstein through Malcolm Gladwell’s more contemporary “10,000 hour rule” theory of practice makes perfect, Delistraty walks through our current obsession with the nature of creativity–and how to bottle it. The big question remains: is creativity something that can be built through process or are you just blessed with it from the start?

Of the two recent studies that Delistraty cites, the first one published in a recent issue of Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, found that highly creative people have much more activity in the part of the brain that has the ability to make original associations. More specifically, they blend information from a bunch of scenarios and experiences (called “conceptual integration”) which allows them to understand complicated metaphors and comparisons. Wenfu Li, a professor in the school of psychology at Southwest University, and his researchers also looked at someone’s personality and coined the idea that “openness to experience” was the most relevant personal trait to dictate someone’s level of creativity. Stephen Johnson said it best: “Chance favors the connected mind.”

In a nutshell, this explains, to me, at least, what makes amazing games, well, amazing. At Kill Screen, we’ve been toying a lot with this idea of intertextuality, that good art talks to other good art. So when Game Oven pulls in the Dutch National Ballet to work on Bounden, or Rockstar gives Flying Lotus his own music channel in GTA V, or Hohokum‘s graphic design sensibilities come from a talented visual designer, or two Harvard architecture students create their first game, or Dean Hall is inspired by his survival training for DayZ, or the Adams brothers reading of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica influences morality in Dwarf Fortress–these are concrete expressions of creativity that play directly with “openness of experience.”

To wit, Delistraty sees the same connections as marks of brilliance. “Creativity is linked to the ability to quickly process and reorganize varied information. What we can discern from this is that the most creative individuals have a variety of experiences from which to draw.” And if game designers don’t start looking outside of elves and outer space for experiences, their work will likely be on the wrong side of history.