The Games People Play


I’m always surprised, no matter how frequently it happens (and it does happen rather frequently), that when I tell someone I’m a Creative Director (I rarely tell social contacts I’m an Executive Creative Director* – that just seems pretentious) they reply by saying “Oh, lucky you – I haven’t got a creative bone in my body.”

It’s definitely a definition thing. I don’t really believe these people aren’t creative in some form or another, but rather that they don’t identify as being creative.

Which begs the question – what do we define as creativity then, and how is it created? Are ‘creative people’ born or made? Or is creativity a state of mind, rather than a specific skill set?

I don’t think creativity is solely the preserve of those who work in the creative department of an organisation (or within the creative industries). Creativity comes in all forms.

Google the definition and the first thing I found was ‘the use of imagination or original ideas to create something; inventiveness,’ – no mention of pens, paintbrushes or Adobe there. No mention even of art and crafts or literature, music, acting or dance – the things we think of when we think of being ‘all creative’.

For me, the power word is imagination – and, thanks to the Twittersphere, some things I’ve read recently have shed a little light for me in relation to the life experiences (and, perhaps, innate characteristics) that lead to a self-proclaimed creative state of mind.

The first is the link between creativity and memory. The Harvard theory goes that the better your memory, the better you can access early, formative memories, the more creatively inclined you are likely to be.

It’s all about ‘episodic’ memory – in other words, mental time travel, which in turns leads to ‘divergent’ thinking and the ability to imagine a new future out of your experiences from the past.

I can buy this theory. I have a very good memory. Sometimes, a punishingly good memory (I have to confess it can sometimes be hard to let go of a grudge because, via my memory, I have instant access to the feelings surrounding the episode that lead to the grudge in the first place. As I’ve got older, and hopefully matured, it’s easier to forgive – but I still don’t forget!). 

Certainly my brain is full of a lot of seemingly random details – I don’t know much about a lot, but a know a little about an awful lot, something that’s very helpful, particularly in the brainstorming process (and when playing Trivial Pursuit).

In fact, wide ranging interests and general knowledge is something I’ve always looked for when recruiting. Strong conceptual thinkers are often strong because they can link things that have never been linked before together to form something new. Original ideas are often born that way.

But are we born that way?

The picture accompanying this post is of me, at about three years old. Look at it carefully and it’s a very telling picture.

There I am, on a sunny but not particularly warm day (I remember it, or think I do), outside on the front lawn, with my colouring books, purple crayon in left hand, my mother’s wooden wedges (very seventies) on foot (I had a real passion for heels in my toddler years – I’m rarely out of them in pictures. Not something I carried into later childhood or adulthood, but then I am 6’ 3”) and clearly enjoying myself (I’m a happy little chap, aren’t I?).

My brother and sister were probably playing a game in the street with the other kids, but there I am, outside, but still ‘inside’ – colouring, creating, imagining. And, I’ve no doubt, I came out that way. I painted, I wrote stories, I made things. I was good at these things.

Creation, very early on, was purpose, identity and companion for me (and saved me from the outdoorsy rough and tumble my siblings enjoyed far more than me).

But, though I might have been the most ‘artistic’ child of the three of us (‘the creative one’), we were all very imaginative and inventive. I made things, but all of us made things up. Particularly games. We were always inventing games (and were especially good at reinventing board games).

Games were a big thing in our house. Monopoly on Christmas Day was eventually banned by my mother as it just got too nasty as we all got older (insider trading, blackmail, smear campaigns etc. etc.), but, other than that, board games were always encouraged.

Now, you have to remember, this was an age before 24/7 kids TV, before kids had social schedules that would rival the Court Circular in The Times.

During the summer holidays, if we weren’t building camps outside or going on bike rides (yes, we really were that Swallows and Amazons – save for lashings of ginger beer), we were inside playing games. Those were the options – and, if you said you were bored, we always met the same response from our parents:

“Only boring people are bored. Go and find something to do.”

Entertainment wasn’t laid on for us. Victorian as it sounds, we had to make our own. Turns out that was a very constructive thing to do.

We were almost forced to use our imaginations, which made us all creative – not to mention, slightly unconventional – people. Disruptive talents, as it were.

And encouraging us to play games, particularly games of strategy like Monopoly, was, it seems, a smart parental move too.

I’m not sure my parents ever thought of it as helping us to develop life skills (or, for that matter, work skills), but recent thinking suggests they were actually enabling us to do just that.

According to the authors of Your Strategy Needs a Strategy (Reeves & Wittenburg, HBR Press 2015):

“Games…can create an experiential, interactive and tailored understanding of strategy…Used appropriately, games can help corporations build strategic skills in a timely, cost effective and focused manner – a critical capability in today’s dynamic business environments. It’s time to break the taboo – and get serious about play.”

I’ve written before about my belief in the power of Play at Work, so I’m heartened by this movement (and particularly by the fact that it’s not just aimed at the ‘creative types’ who everyone thinks spend their time riding scooters around the office anyway).

Minimising risk. Encouraging interaction and collaboration. Fuelling healthy, fun competition. None of these things can be bad for any business, right?

Solutions – and deeper engagement – can be found in giving people time and space to explore their imaginations. You might not be artistic, or good with words, but that doesn’t mean you’re not creative and have no imagination. All people need is space, time and quietude to find it – and the biggest return might just be a talent community with a truly winning, and inventive, mindset.

The same goes at home. The world needs more creative minds and demands clearer strategies (and meaningful interactions) to deliver. I’m not sure you can get all that from endless solitary play on a tablet (so often the staple pacifier of bored children today). 

I would really encourage parents to break out the board games. Be prepared for the rows. Maybe gen up on a few episodes of Judge Judy. You could be helping them develop good life skills – strategy, negotiation, dealing with failure. You could be setting them up for a career they’ll really love.

People might be born with innate creative skills, but everyone can be creative when the conditions around them are created to encourage them to be that way, child or adult, work or play (or, even better, at the intersection of both, where the really exciting things happen).

*This month, after five years as Executive Creative Director at SMRS, I will be leaving the business and my next role is, as yet, untitled!

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