Leslie Scott - Designed to Play


(photo credit: Sue Macpherson)

I’m a board game designer. I became a board game designer in 1982, and at the same time I founded a business to publish my first game, Jenga, which I launched at The London Toy & Hobby Fair in 1983. And so began a long career in the business of play, and so began my interest in Business, and in Play.

Leslie Scott Associates, the business I founded 38 years ago is alive and kicking, though it looks quite different today. It morphed into Oxford Games Ltd along the way and we published over forty games in its first 20 years, all designed in-house. We continue to re-print two or three of the best of these games under the OGL label today, but we are not really any longer in the business of publishing games per se. However, we are very much still in the business of designing games. I say we, but I should clarify this. My daughter, Freddie Scott Vollrath, who has a degree in product design runs OGL now, and she, personally, is very thoroughly entrenched in the business of designing games.

While I am involved in OGL, and act as a sounding board for Freddie – occasionally contributing an idea, or voicing an opinion or two (possibly one or two too many for her) – I have essentially stepped back from running the business, and from designing or publishing games on a day to day basis.

As a senior associate of an Oxford College (the senior refers to my age, rather than any academic seniority) I now focus most of my attention on trying to understand PLAY, and by extension CREATIVITY. There are many types of activities we call play and many, often contradictory, reasons given for why we or any other animals play, but the link of a specific kind of play, so called playful play, to creativity and hence to innovations in humans is strong. Though there is considerable evidence to suggest that coming up with a new idea requires a different mindset from usefully implementing a new idea. In other words, an invention is not the same thing as an innovation and an inventor is rarely an innovator, too.

We designers of the products of play are often referred to as the Creatives of the Toy Industry. Speaking for myself, the more I research into play and creativity, the less I understand what it means to be a ‘creative’. It seems to imply that designing a product of play is, by definition, an act of creation; of conjuring up something entirely novel out of thin air.

Which is very seldom the case.

Besides, as I know from my own experience with Jenga, that while originality may be venerated in theory, in practice, it can be exceedingly difficult to get a novel concept accepted. But this is neither new, nor peculiar to the Toy Industry. Inventors, whether scientists or artists, have always struggled to have new ideas accepted.

‘ The mind likes a strange idea as little as the body likes a strange protein (eg a virus) and resists it with similar energy…..If we watch ourselves honestly we shall often find that we have begun to argue against a new idea even before it has been completely stated.’ Wilfred Trotter, a pioneer in neurosurgery.

So, while companies, in any industry, may wish to be seen as innovative and may profess to want to be ahead of the curve, it can make business sense to hover a little behind a competitor, and wait for the right moment before surging ahead with a new twist to an established idea. Being the first to harness a new idea and bring it to market can be immensely costly. And to have any chance of success requires the rare ability of being able to judge when the time is right and the world is ready to accept a new idea; a new product that people will want to buy because it satisfies an existing demand, or better still both creates and satisfies a new demand.

Of course, to innovate you need to start with a new idea, and new ideas or new solutions to old problems can be elusive. They tend to hide when being sought, and pop up when least expected; when thinking about other things, or when not consciously thinking at all, when the mind is left to wander, as say in a day dream in the bath. There are countless examples of famous inventors who have recognized a novel and beautiful idea when, but not how, it hit them.

While it is generally agreed that civilization has always owed a great deal to creativity, in the past it was often regarded as either a divine or a magical gift. Today, while we may accept that there are still people who are more naturally gifted creators, we also think that everyone - children in particular - should be encouraged to be creative – through play.

Unstructured, playful play where children are allowed to think and to experiment for themselves. There is a growing consensus that such playful play is at the very core of all creative thinking and action, which can in turn lead to the acquisition of greater skills for dealing with varied and novel circumstances.

There is no step by step guide to how to be creative, which means you can’t teach creativity, but you can learn to be creative, and perhaps stop ‘the mind’ from rejecting any new idea by default. Such is the power of play.

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