- Writer Unboxed - https://writerunboxed.com -

Game Time: Creativity and the Pause

I bring to you my most pervasive recent addiction. It’s a video game on my phone, Sims BuildIt [1], and it is insanely addicting. All the Sims games are addicting, because of course they go right to the greedy world-building center of my novelist’s imagination. I learned early on that I could not have any of them on my main writing computers or I’d just go zone right out on games and forget completely about writing for the day. This includes all games these days—any solitaire games, anything like Tetris or Bejeweled (how satisfying to line up all those squares, tidy up the world for a few minutes!) and absolutely no RPGs games or Sims games.

The phone….now the phone is a bit different, right? And I don’t write on my iPad, so I have some games on there. I’m human, and I love games of all kinds, so having a little Catan to pass the time on boring flights or waiting rooms seems harmless enough. Catan exercises the brain, after all, and a person is always in training for the Catan board game extravaganzas I play with my sons and partner on long holiday stretches.

I downloaded BuildIt to my phone a little more than a year ago, not long after it was released. Since then, I have accumulated a population of nearly 800,000 people, and an approval rating of 99%. I don’t inflict earthquakes on my unsuspecting populace. I just build and trade and generate products in my factories, which I then use to raise cash or build new buildings. It takes a lot of juggling, sometimes, which I convince myself is good for my brain (and I actually think it probably is), and there’s some relief in collecting all the needed goods to build something I’ve been waiting awhile to finish.

What does this have to do with writing?

First of all, there are a lot of similarities between creating games and writing [2], but of course, that’s the danger for writers. When I’m mired in BuildIt, I’m deeply engaged in world building, in a world that has both free choice and very specific rules—my game will not look exactly like anyone else’s. It feels almost exactly the same as world building for a book.

Which is why I had to kill all the Sims people games on my screens—add in the human quotient, and this novelist is lost in the creation of that game person’s life. I obsess about what she’s doing when I’m occupied in the real world. It’s just a gigantic, irresistible time sink. (I never allowed myself to get too far into Second Life for this reason—a whole entire parallel universe?)

I love a lot of games, as I said, grew up in a game crazy family and raised two game crazy kids who had every single game system as it arrived in the world. Dr. Mario and Tetris occupied me for endless hours. But I find myself returning, again and again to the world building games. Even the Settlers of Catan is almost exactly that—buying and selling goods to build an empire and become Lord of Catan.

Is that always a bad thing?

I don’t think so. As a student of my own creativity, I have learned that pauses are as necessary to the creative process as forward motion, maybe even more so. A drive, a shower, a ten-minute meditation, cooking or gardening or taking a long walk are all acceptable ways to move the problem in the novel to the back burner to simmer while the front brain engages in something else.

Why not a game? In BuildIt, which is visually appealing thanks to terrific graphics, I create goods in factories in order to manufacture other things in order to send shipments to France or England in order to get items I need to build particular buildings. That might mean my factories are filled with animal feed and seeds in order to make flour and milk to then make bread to send to France in order to get things I need to build a French quarter in my city. It’s a lot of complex thinking, but none of it is even slightly important. Nothing rises or falls on my actions except this game. It’s just a game, who cares?

That’s one of the most important functions of game relief—it doesn’t matter. No matter how much I loved Tetris, it never mattered in the slightest whether I won or lost. In the Sims building games (as opposed to the people games, which I still do not allow myself access to), there is no true end game. I just continue to build and collect rewards.

That’s a great break when I’m frustrated with the book world. I can head into my city, collect some loaves of bread and cash, make sure one of my factories is making electronic widgets in case I need some in the future, and return to the book world with a fresh brain.

It’s also enormously logical. If I do this, then that happens, which I can then use to make that happen, which then makes that happen, which then leads to… whatever. It’s a good mental exercise, but in the end, it doesn’t matter. At all. That makes it an escape from all the things that do matter, especially in our increasingly noisy, demanding, and unfortunately, often nasty, world. The streets in my city are upgraded as needed, and they’re clean and tidy. I don’t have to build a jail because there are no criminals. It’s peaceful, at least the way I play—you can create chaos if you like, with natural disasters and super villains—and restful.

Which allows the plot problems or character inconsistencies to bubble away on the back burner of my mind. When I return, more often than not, the simmering has allowed the solution to rise to the top of the pot.

There are some rules. One must be aware of the dangers, and only you know what those are. I can’t play any RPG games because I do get lost in them, and obsessive. The lure of living in that other world proves to be too hard to resist, so I just don’t let myself download them. Maybe you have other triggers—I am far from the only person who had to give up Free Cell because it has that just…one…more….round lure. Maybe your crack is Candy Crush.

Just be aware. If you end up playing games more than writing, you’ve gone too far. Simple, no?

Now, if you will excuse me, I think the bread is probably ready to send to France, and I need those Chanel purses…..

Do you play video games? Are there certain types that are more addicting than others? Have you ever felt that playing games improved your writing or your process, or is it a time sink you have to avoid at all costs?  

About Barbara O'Neal [3]

Barbara O'Neal [4] has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life [5], which landed her in the RWA Hall of Fame and was a Target Club Pick. She is a highly respected teacher who also publishes material for writers at Patreon.com/barbaraoneal. She is at work on her next novel to be published by Lake Union in July. A complete backlist is available here [6].