A Design to Broaden Creativity: Lessons Learned from LittleBigPlanet2

September 21, 2012

PROJECTS: Leveling Up



In my previous posts[1] I’ve talked just a bit about some of the design principles that our work with the game designers at MediaMolecule (Mm) revealed. The purpose of this post is to foreground a system of design principles underlying the LittleBigPlanet2 game that are relevant to the design of connected learning environments.

In other research I’ve participated in, I was responsible for setting up systems that allowed teams of researchers and curriculum designers to support thousands of teachers using our products. Supporting a large group of online users of continually developing products requires both pushing (emails, tweets, etc.) and pulling (forums, emails) information, and constant monitoring of end-user driven forms, such as individual blogs and forums. At a more detailed level it requires building heat-maps, and usage traces to see how users are engaging a product, and where they might be getting stuck. While we tried to keep the channels of communication open and attend to the needs of our users, it was always an overwhelming job, requiring 2-3 full-time staff year-round. And despite our best efforts, we still only felt half-successful, since end-user satisfaction varied widely. I’ve heard enough anecdotal stories from other designers about their struggles with community management that I know these challenges are very common.

This history of experience had left me with a service oriented approach to community support and management, but my interviews with Mm’s designers turned my experience on its head by illustrating that community design, management, and support is about generating an experience that is tightly coupled to the underlying design principles of the product. This post is about the underlying design principles that primes the community experience. To frame the following discussion, I’ve put together a graphic illustrating the interconnected design principles I’ll share here. While most of these elements come directly from the interviews with the LBP2 team, the structure and connections are based on my analysis and interpretation of our conversations. Relative to the Connected Learning principles, the design principles I cover are related to production centered, openly networked platforms for participation with shared purpose. [add links to this text]

Making Work Visible (As A Way To Drive Creativity)

One of the tragedies I think in digital industries is the amount of awesome stuff that is hidden on people’s hard drives.
— Kareem Ettouney, Art Director, MediaMolecule

One question at the center of the design of LittleBigPlanet design was, “What does it mean to be creative?” Part of the Mm teams’ answer is to support creativity development, believing that sharing ideas and designs in progress for the purpose of getting feedback from others was critical[2]. To do this, it is necessary to make work visible to a community of peers with a shared purpose or interest. Fundamentally, visibility is key to creating a community with shared ideas[3] in addition making it possible to get feedback which drives a cycle of learning and exploration. In digging through the transcripts of interviews with the LBP team and performing my own analysis of the design, I identified the model shown in the figure. Each element indicates a design principle that can be used for creating an environment for making work visible. Arrows indicate support for the target principle (i.e., the arrow from Co-Location to Sharing indicates that Co-Location supports the design for Sharing).

Design for Sharing

As we watched the reaction of all the kids playing the game, we realized that it was that cycle of showing something off that really motivated and allowed people who didn’t consider themselves creative to totally get motivated and make stuff. And I love that idea as a kid, I had never reached an audience. I could make my LEGO model and I could never show it to anyone.
— Alex Evans

While there were many wonderful moments in our brief visit with the Mm crew, this comment from Alex struck me hard. The notion of how significant access to a real audience with whom to share one’s creative works is something we (dis)miss in education all too frequently–though the reasons are due more to a lack of resources and support than desire. But this spirit underlines the idea that sharing even partially-complete work can be valuable as inspiration for others, and creates learning opportunities for others through observation, and for the creator through feedback. Interest driven activity may result in interesting artifacts and products frequently, such as illustrations or game models by aspiring artists or works of fiction by writers, but in many cases the work isn’t shared because it may not feel finished or a child’s parents or friends don’t “get” the interest. This is more of an issue when someone is beginning a new practice, which is exactly when a learner needs to be supported in their entry to a community.

Design for Co-Location

One of the things that really stuck out in my analysis is that everything happens, and is immediately available, in the Craftworld universe within LBP–“the place where dreams go when we dream” according to the opening cinematic of LBP. Because player creations are co-located in this creative universe, it creates an on-going cycle of extension and metagame activity that extends the play space. Players do not have to go hunt for new material at random locations on the web, that require insider knowledge as was the case even just five years ago in modding communities. Those specialized forums are still available, and others on this project have documented the interactions in some of the LBP communities, but unlike some game modding systems, the actual mods are “just there for everyone.” It means that anyone that is interested can find, and use your work, and this motivates sharing.

Design for Discoverability

Actually, the most important thing in any sort of connected user-generated world is discovery.
— Alex Evans, Programming Lead, Mm

After leading us through a discussion about the importance of Sharing as a core principle of LittleBigPlanet, Alex shared how they had learned that sharing was only part of a solution. In fact, work that has been shared (published) must be readily discoverable in meaningful ways. More than simply making information available via search, this means pushing suggestions to individuals based on their own activity, as well as allowing an individual to advertise their work. The easy and common way of doing this is supported by calculating lists of what levels are new, highly-active (hot), and highest rated. But LBP’s team thought beyond that. For example, if you “friended” someone in the PlayStation Network (PSN), maybe you’d like to see their most recent activity? Your friend may have stumbled across something great, and you might like it too! If you have a PSN account visit http://lbp.me to see how some of these features look.

In addition to pushing activity information, the team realized that it was important for player-creators to be their own advocates. In fact the underlying inspiration for lbp.me was to enable players to share their works outside of the game using short URLs, making Twitter, or even paper and pencil notes reasonable transmission media. An example is this great parachuting level: http://lbp.me/v/7vdd14. Follow the link, and you can add it to your queue of levels to play next time you login!

Design for Friendliness

What we discovered after looking at the distribution of data there was, and looking at cases of sort of people kind of abusing each other in the community, we discovered that the frowny face was almost exclusively used to kind of cause grief to other people…So what we’ve recently decided is to remove the frowny face button altogether.
— James Fairbairn, “Share” Server Programming Lead, MediaMoledule

James was kind enough to take an extra hour and let me geek out about the design and maintenance of the server backend–something I had invested years of my life on with QuestAtlantis during my graduate work. This quote was from part of our discussion about the rating system, and how Mm had realized that the ratings system was being abused by some players to make it so that published levels would just never be seen by most players. By getting a few friends together and giving a frowny face, a level could receive enough negative votes early on that it would never recover…and they found cliques of users that would band together to harass creators using this mechanism!

Maintaining a friendly environment is essential to the spirit and goal of LBP to expand creativity. Friendliness creates and maintains an environment for anyone to participate. Without the friendly ethos, it would be intimidating for anyone to share even their fully-baked ideas, much less the half-baked and in-progress thoughts that might be our best opportunities for learning.

Design for Inclusion

To bridge to the real-world metagame production of dolls, cos-play, etc. the LBP team felt the use of real-world materials and physical concepts for design was key. Referencing materials like glass, metal, wood, and sponge to communicate the physics of the game also creates opportunities for players to pull and push their creativity from the world into the game and vice versa. Furthermore the use of familiar materials made it so that it was more likely that a new player could step into the creating role feeling like they “knew” something about what to do. And that entry point is critical for inviting potential members into a community.

The effect of this entry point is that it creates opportunities for everyone to be acknowledged for their own creativity. This in turn helps to broaden the answer to the question“What does it mean to be creative?” Specifically, creativity in LBP could mean creation of a level, a shared object or prize, music, reviews, community support, and mashups. Every contribution is acknowledged for contributing to the ecology of the game.

Conclusions on Making Work Visible

I’ve introduced five design principles as somewhat independent elements because I believe they can be used independently. But I also want to encourage seeing them as an ecology that was put together to support the larger idea of “Making Work Visible” as a way to drive creativity. Sharing without Discoverability isn’t as useful as with Discoverability, just as Co-locating work can enhance the discoverability of work and drive sharing. If you don’t feel safe sharing your work, you probably won’t take that risk, so Friendliness is another important part of the design.

This diagram is by no means complete, and my next blog post will pick-up on a whole set of connected principles focused on design principles for acknowledgement and feedback because those are key elements to the human experience of this design. But in this post I wanted to focus on what might be considered more mechanical design principles, things that could be functionally instantiated by designers.

One last comment Kareem made really gets at the core ethos of this web of design principles:

Inspiration is everything. You have to love things and like people and have heroes and want to …to pay homage to them. The whole mythology of originality is isolating us all from each other…is killing everything. You must like others and have respect for their achievement, and know that they took years of practice [to get there].
— Kareem Ettouney, Art Director, MediaMolecule

[2] This is part of the studio’s internal process, as discussed here: Connecting Workplace Culture Qualities to Player-Creator Communities

[3] And even epistemic frames, as discussed before.


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