A few things I learned about creativity from playing video games

Jeff Lowe

March 2, 2019

I’m a firm believer in the mantra, “experience is the teacher of all things.” And since I spent the majority of my upbringing playing video games, I either have to accept the unsettling assumption that life has taught me nothing. Or, I can try to use my vast knowledge of retro video games to navigate the seasons and vicissitudes of life. If you’re afraid for my personal interpretation of the world and general outlook on life, get in line. If you’re interested in understanding a few things I’ve learned about creativity from 80s and 90s video games, then hop aboard the Arwing of my mind. And let’s ride this pixelated jet stream of consciousness together.

Creativity is Hard Work, Like “NES Hard”

I cut my gaming teeth on Mega Man, Contra, and Battletoads. These were hard games. In fact, many of my proudest achievements (gaming or otherwise) involve beating games like Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest and The Legend of Zelda, some of the most notoriously cryptic games ever made, a full decade before dial-up internet. Back then, if I wanted to progress in a game and get the sweet reward of scrolling credits, I had to try and try again until I solved a problem and eventually an entire game.

So, what does any of this have to do with thinking creatively? The answer is that creativity is hard work. Yes, it might come more naturally to some. But creativity is a process and not an end-product. It’s a way of thinking that involves using everything in your metaphorical inventory screen to accomplish the task at hand. Like the cryptic video games of yesteryear, creativity is problem solving—nothing more, nothing less. I approach creative tasks today the same way I played those old games—with the knowledge that there’s a solution out there and that I will eventually find it. It might take time, and I’ll likely have to draw on a lot of different resources for inspiration. But the reward will be that much sweeter because of my efforts.

Even Creativity Has Game Rules 

Some people say that creativity has no bounds. To that, I ask, “Where are all your clients?” 

There is a fine line between creative expression and client demands. And once again, the answers lie in retro video games. Specifically, in this case, in a game called StarTropics. StarTropics is a top-down adventure game in the same vein as The Legend of Zelda. In addition to its merciless difficulty, StarTropics confines the player to a very restrictive set of inputs. You play as ace pitcher Mike Jones. Yet despite your apparent athleticism, you can only move up, down, left, and right. No diagonal directions allowed. Over the years, the game has been criticized for taking away the player’s freedom of movement and imposing unnecessary parameters, which some say results in a more confined, less improvisational experience.

Merits of misguided game critics aside, when you look past StarTropics’ restrictions and learn to work within the game’s limits, you’ll find one of the finest 8-bit action games ever created. You’ll also find an important lesson about creativity. That is, it’s easy to rebuff direction as inauthentic or confining, simply because creativity is such a personal form of expression. But when you stop thinking of direction as a personal attack and start looking at it as part of a puzzle to be solved, you can put the fun back in your creative work. It literally becomes a game. As StarTropics has been preaching for nearly 30 years, it is still possible to improvise while learning to recognize patterns and working within the confines of set parameters. And often, the end result is more focused, refined, and effective because of it.

Experience is the great teacher. And lessons learned from video games give you bonus points in life. So, the next time you hear someone complain about client direction or say they’re just not creative enough, tell them spend a little more time playing video games. If they’re as desperate to find meaning in their misspent youth as I am, it will 1-up their creative energy and help them find the proverbial “princess in another castle” within their work.