14 Oct 2014

The Mutual Exclusivity of Creative Agendas

The controversial part of the Big Model is the part that suggests that Creative Agendas don't mix. I would strongly suggest reading the previous blog post first. It contains all of the non-controversial parts of the Big Model. Cutting to the controversial part of a technical theory is one sure way to misunderstand what is being said.

The problem with controversies, is they are fun. We like to define ourselves by controversial ideas, it helps us find like minded people to agree with, or challenging people to argue with. The problem with the Creative Agenda controversies is they also appear to define us. It is impossible to read about categories of game without placing ones own own gaming experiences into the mix. It is difficult to read about preferences and tendencies in gaming without out reflecting on ones own.

These problems and controversies amount to the vast majority of things that people talk about when they address the Big Model. That contrasts with the fact that the Creative Agenda concept is actually not very controversial or even the main body of the theory. Most of the theory is about how to put together games or analyse gaming behaviours, or how the various parts of gaming fit together and work.

Because the Big Model is based on observation and behaviour then the categorisations of Creative Agenda are are based on looking carefully at each game that is working well and identifying the type of game it is. Any categorisation process is by definition seeking to understand what is categorically different about things and working out which of these different categories something fits into. That is what a category is.

The Big Model theorists have identified three categories of Creative Agenda, this was a long and disputed process, and no one is certain that it is over. One of the biggest problems with the early discussions was working out why the main body of gaming all felt similar but couldn't be as clearly categorised as two more easy to define categories. It didn't feel helpful to define them as being anything that didn't fit the other two. That isn't a category, rather it is a lack of category. It took a long while to work out what exactly constituted that big category and to be sure that it was a single category. The theorists have settled on three categories and so far any witnessed or imagined game that works well (what my previous article described as a Winning Formula) seems to fit into one of those three categories.

Some of the controversy comes from people looking at the categories and thinking that their game doesn't fit into only one. There are three possibilities here, it is either in a new category, one of the three categories or won't fit because it isn't one of the things being categorised.

The categories are successful games that achieve a winning formula, it is possible that a game never actually manages to achieve a winning formula, and as such cannot be categorised. However, that isn't the same as saying a game that doesn't easily fit into one category must not have a winning formula. If you can't work out the category of your successful game that is not the same as it not fitting into a category. Those that understand the categories will classify it as one of the three existing ones, or possibly create a new category for it. Successful games are what the categories sort, so a successful game by definition requires a category. They may need to study it very carefully and identify some unspoken things that everyone that is playing expects from the game before they categorise it.


It shouldn't be controversial that there are unsuccessful games out there. Many of us have played in games where no one seemed to get along or agree. In those games the categories don't apply. We have defined the categories as collections of successful games. Unsuccessful games are useful because they help us work out why certain components work together well and why some pull in different directions.

The real tricky games to categorise are the ones that use lots of components. A large game with lots of techniques being employed, with lots of conflicting ephemeral detail and a complicated social contract that ties all of those disparate parts together. It just so happens that a large number of games do this, which is why it took a long while to settle on the categories.

The clear cut games are easier to categorise, ones that have all their components working in a coherent manner (unified and logical) clearly show us what kind of game they are. The incoherent games are tricky, they take a lot of careful observation to decide where they fit. An incoherent game is not the same as a game without a winning formula, it just takes a lot of effort to maintain the unstable equilibrium. It requires practice or the understanding gained playing it over a long period of time.

Agenda Clash

The other side of this equation is games that don't work. What the theory is good for is looking at all of the game components and helping them pull together in a more coherent manner. Some of those components are at a social level, they are either ephemeral detail or techniques that help the social activity of play, or they are in the Social Contract. Whether or not a game is working for everyone is at the fundamental level of 'why they do it', it properly belongs at the Social Contract level of play.  If everyone agrees on what they want out of the game, and what counts as enjoyment, then you can look at the Exploration involved or the Techniques and Ephemera and get them working together to support that. However if you cannot agree on 'that thing you are doing together' then it is far harder, if not impossible, to make the game coherent.

A lot of focus has been placed on Social Contract for this reason, the Creative Agendas are named after the type of Social Contract a group may have. That is not to say the Creative Agenda is specifically about the Social Contract. Just that it is more noticeably at play at that level. If you define clearly what the group wants in the Social Contract then you have less need to work things out through trial and error in play. A clash of expectations is more easy to identify than a clash in a group that cannot clearly identify those expectations.

The controversy that emerges here is whether individual members can have different expectations of a single game and still make it work. There is a tendency to focus on the expectations part of that sentence, but I propose it is more helpful to focus on the working part. What does it mean if we say a game works? My previous article is all about that, it means that we have reached a winning formula. A winning formula can be reached even if different people want different things. It involves everyone actually having fun doing the same thing on a fundamental level. They must compromise to find the winning formula, but they do so willingly in order to have fun within the group.

Remember, we defined Creative Agenda as the mutually exclusive categories of all fun games. You can't escape that definition within this theory. It's a circular argument that different people can have fun regardless of their expectations, as long as they conform to the group's enjoyment and adapt to its expectations. They may not do it consciously but the theory is constructed around that happening. That precise thing has been observed many times when the categories were being formed. Coherence is meaningless outside of the framework of the theory. It doesn't mean anything to look at a successful game and identify multiple Creative Agenda expectations unless you want to use them to help the game to run more smoothly.

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