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Thoughts On Innovation

I was listening last week to episode 18 of Dice + Food + Lodging Podcast, the second part of a conversation between host Tim and guest Robert Bohl. It was an interesting chat all around, but around halfway through the episode they started talking about innovation in gaming, and my ears perked up.

I have a love-hate relationship with that word when it comes to game design. And I’ll admit up-front that it’s my own baggage, by the way.

As a game designer, I fall squarely in the System Hacker camp; I like to tinker with systems I fall in love with and add fiddly bits to them to make them do extra things that appeal to me. That’s why the d20 era was so great for me. As I started to work on my Vampire rebuild, I very quickly copped to my (self-imposed?) limitation saying that I was setting out to put together elements I liked, not to create the Next Big Thing in Gaming (TM). In short, Hey, I’m just messing with existing parts, not creating new ones. I did this because I have never thought of myself as that kind of game designer: I see some of the really nifty ideas-turned-games out there and I appreciate the elements they add to the general gamer/designer toolbox, but never think I can do it as well. Again, my own baggage for another occasion.

The point is that innovation is this bugbear in my game design highway that I constantly feel I need to be on alert for. So when I hear the topic come up in this conversation, it immediately recalls to my mind all these thoughts and feelings. But this time, there was an extra piece that had never been there before.

I’m reading now God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, by Adam Nicolson (I need something in the Humanities to refresh my brain from all the science I deal with in class). As it discusses the initial clash between Anglicans and Puritans which the newly-crowned James had to deal with and a petition to meet and resolve their differences, the text says the following about the Puritan petitioners (pg. 39, emphasis mine):

Describing themselves as ‘Ministers of the Gospell, that desier not a disorderly innovation [nothing was more loathsome to the seventeenth-century mind than the idea of innovation; ‘novelist’ was a term of abuse, ‘primitivist’ of the highest praise] but a due and godlie reformation…’

That parenthetical was like a splash of cold water. I studied Elizabethan English literature for two years in college, delved pretty deeply into it, and while instinctively I knew the above as true, I don’t recall ever seeing it stated outright. It was an assumption of our classes and discussions; to see it spelled out made something click in me and go, yeah, yeah of course, how didn’t I see that obviously before?

The point is, the modern mind has a love affair with innovation, but this wasn’t always the case. At a time when English language, literature and culture are going through their (arguably) most prolific transformation, the idea of innovation is seen as “loathsome.” Hearkening back to the “primitive,” to the classics, to what already existed, was tested and proven, was the right thing to do. Mind you, within this framework the English renaissance mind still sought to move forward in thought and philosophy, but always with a clear understanding of the classical basis for any argument. The King James Bible will come to be in this environment, where the Translators (they saw their job as such, never as Authors, a term they outright denied and despised) put together a work of religious and literary artistry still used today.

In my new academic field of Science, innovation is highly prized, especially in Medical Science. There is a never-ending quest to revise existing protocols, to dig deeper into nature to uncover more of Life’s mysteries, a mandate (implied, if not outright stated) to evolve in our fields. In my previous academic field of English, especially in my particular concentration of 16th-17th Century England, it is the idea of primitivism that holds court. Even as we ponder texts four and five-hundred years old, bringing their situations, themes, ideas into our modern world, we do so with feet firmly planted in the era that birthed them, and the even older ideas that shaped them to begin with.

My brain is split along similar lines: my scientific brain is novelist, my artistic brain is primitivist. And for me, game design is firmly a product of my artistic brain, not the scientific one. It explains why I much prefer to look at the past to pick my working materials than trying to conjure them in order to do things not done before. This realization is new, and it’s one that I can only verbalize now after years of thinking about these topics and with the aid of these last two catalysts to the reaction, Tim and Rob’s conversation, and the passage in the book.

Understanding this dichotomy will, I believe, help me get rid of my own self-imposed stigmas about game design, and in turn simply let me create what I want to create, beholden only to myself.

I’m not saying innovation is bad; we’ve moved past the Elizabethan and Jacobean mentality to a time when innovation does have its place. I’m just realizing that I’m not that kind of designer, and that, more importantly, that’s just fine as well.

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  1. March 25, 2011 at 4:17 PM

    Here is your task, Daniel.

    Innovatively create a vampire RPG set in Reformation England that mechanically forces players to grapple with the conservativism of the age.

  2. March 25, 2011 at 5:03 PM

    Funny thing: As I’m reading this book, I am fascinated by the situation right at the time of Elizabeth’s death and James accession, and specifically the literary war that is waged for control of the language of worship (the result of which is the KJB). It is as Machiavellian a situation as any Vampiric court in VtM, and would certainly provide tons of fodder for a few game sessions, quite possibly for an entire campaign or even a whole game setting.

    So go figure.

  3. March 25, 2011 at 7:31 PM

    A Jewish Latino guy with a fondness for Celts and vampires and English reformation.

    You are a man of many colors. 🙂

  4. Yehoshua Paul
    March 27, 2011 at 2:13 AM

    And that is why scientific empiricism was such a revolutionary idea at way back when. Scientists used to think that all knowledge resided in the heads of dead ancients, and that there is nothing new under the sun (as one wise king said). When people started realizing that you actually go out into the world, examine it and measure the results, the world was literally turned on its head, and we discovered America.

  5. March 27, 2011 at 9:30 AM

    @Greg Christopher
    I am, indeed. 🙂

    @Yehoshua Paul
    The problem with that empiricism is that, in time, it got to be enthroned as the be all-end all, and nothing could exist then without the proof. Something similar has happened to game design, but I need to think about it more to form a more complete thought.

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