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References and pointers

By Steve Draper,   Department of Psychology,   University of Glasgow.

This page is almost a written version of this talk, which was given on 16 July 2019 at a symposium at GU titled "Ludic Literature: The converging interests of writing, games and play". It summarises key points for each section of the talk, and gives and/or points to the relevant sections of the published literature.


  1. Plan first, or play first?

    Is planning part of the fundamental method for writing (fiction, or programming code, or ...)? or instead must you write first and work out later what it is you are creating? Is it know-it-all in advance OR learn from the writing / creation process? Is it structured or organic writing?

    As Midge McLundie's PhD thesis taught me, this is a fundamental question that has been examined in several fields, including a) how children or anyone writes; b) how programmers design and write code; c) how scupltors create new sculpture. And (contrary to some quite dictatorial practices in certain times and contexts) the general answer seems to be that people are naturally split roughly 50:50 between these two alternative approaches. If children who are natural play-first people are bullied enough by teachers to plan first, then they just go off and write the piece first; then write a plan afterwards. This might be useful in some circumstances as another product (like the abstract on an academic paper, or a catalogue blurb for a painting) but is NOT part of their mental process of production.

    What I have called here "plan-first vs. play-first" has been called in the field of children's programming "formal vs. concrete" (terms derived from Piagetian thoeries of child development); and "top-down vs. bottom-up" in computing science derived from algorithmic terminology.

    This simple binary contrast probably makes the most sense in looking at people at the start of a new skill: school children, undergraduates. Yet even in people with extensive careers you can come across apparently strong statements that seem to fit. For instance, I once heard a world class research programmer say that what he does isn't top-down or bottom-up, but "middle-out". Again, Jimmy Carr apparently always has to write out (and learn) all his jokes: no spontaneity for him. In contrast, Billy Connolly says he never writes down his jokes — they just don't look funny on the page. (A performance comedian, not a script writer?)

    However it may well be that for experienced practitioners, other approaches may be going on involving both processes but in highly individualistic ways. I have heard (in recorded interviews) well published novel authors say things that suggest they may invent and stockpile specific phrases, sentences, or scenes; and then evolve the rest of the book to allow these favourite / inspiring chunks to fit in and be necessary. Such things seem to have a place for both plan and play, but not simultaneously nor even at a single stage in the process. For myself, even, long after my student days I noticed that when writing an academic paper that engaged me I no longer even attempted to write it in one pass. The first version would be for me only; no thinking about the audience, just dumping out my thoughts in a private language in order that I could then "see" it all in an unstructured heap; followed by shuffling the bits around to find a structure; followed by writing it with (for the first time) an audience in mind, and a planned structure. This is similar to Stephen King's advice: "Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open." Stephen King (2000) "On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft"

    Anyone interested in the writing process should make themselves aware of Peter Elbow's work. (some pointers to his work)

    1) Peter Elbow's (1987) memorably titled paper on this point: "Closing my eyes as I speak: An argument for ignoring the audience" which begins with the quotation "Very often people don't listen to you when you speak to them. It's only when you talk to yourself that they prick up their ears." This of course is the opposite of lesson number one in most writing classes: consider the audience.
    Peter Elbow (1987) "Closing my eyes as I speak: An argument for ignoring the audience" College English vol.49 no.1 pp.50-69

    2) Peter Elbow also talks about "Reader-based feedback" of great importance in giving feedback to authors. He points out that we have not one but two critical modes: in one (judgemental, authoritative, "constructive") we tell the learner what they should have done; in the other, we tell them what we felt when we read their work (describing our personal feelings and interpretations). The latter "Reader-Based Feedback" mode is forced on us when we don't know what the author intended to communicate; but it is also much less affronting for authors sensitive to criticism.

  2. Fun and play

    A web page introducing an analysis of concepts including fun, play, ...

  3. Readers

    An important point to consider is that at least some of the concepts relating to the role of maker, inventor, creative artist, designer also apply to the novel reader, game player, art-gazer etc. However I don't have references to published theories of this, although others may well be able to supply them.

    I have perhaps two simple points to make. One simple idea is that readers (say, of a book), or someone listening to music, need a combination of surprise (novelty) AND also some expectations that get satisfied. It is the blend that leads to satisfaction and interest together. Total predictability is boring; total randomness is empty and also boring.

    Another point is that the same person in relation to the same medium does NOT have a constant level of which degree of surprise vs. predictability they want at that time. Especially when I'm tired, I don't want a difficult book, an original book that I have to struggle to orient myself to. In fact I spend quite a lot of time re-reading books because surprise both requires energy to think, and is not comforting. And there are almost always new things to notice in an old book: partly due to imperfect memory, partly because not everything got processed the first time round; and partly when I now know things I didn't when I first read that book, but now I can connect them to the book. (This is just as true in going on a walk you have done before — this is not special to "consuming" human creations.)

    This variability of energy / attention levels also often applies to games. In the past I've used games as a something to occupy my fingers while my thoughts (typically struggling to formulate an idea, or how to express it) tick over, percolate. I can even play chess in this autopilot mode; but playing as well as you can is a quite different experience.

    One of the inherent advantages that video games have over novels (say) is that in many games, a player can set themselves goals at several levels of "demanding-ness", and pick which level they want to work in the current "visit" to the game e.g. keyboard skills, acquiring some specific bit of knowledge (e.g. about a character's properties), developing strategy, ... With books, this can only be satisfied by having several books with different levels of demanding-ness, in progress at once.

  4. Books with multiple "subjects"

    A closely related issue is the idea that, while in third rate genre novels, readers all tend to see it from the same angle, in really great novels different subsets of readers perceive its subject – what it is about – its "point" in quite different ways (all seen as great by readers in that subset).

    This is in part an illustration of the earlier point of how the impact of a book depends in part on what the reader (not just the author) brings to it. This is also likely to apply to video games.

    For me, this was superbly articulated in Doris Lessing's preface to the second edition of The Golden Notebook (1962 / 1971) in which she discusses the fan mail she had received about the first edition. I will crudely summarise it as follows. Fans were almost entirely divided into those who thought it was all about the sex war / women's liberation, all about left wing politics (in London in that era), or about Mental Illness. But, Lessing says, she herself saw it as about a fourth subject (how thought can fragment, and a breakdown can be self-healing when these walls are broken down into a single whole). (And she also then mentions three more themes she had been conscious of in creating the book.)

    "Second class" novels e.g. best in a genre, are intermediate. The genre gives expectations that are satisfied, but the author contrives unexpected additional elements that are not dictated by the genre, nor used again by the author elsewhere. For example, in "Silence of the Lambs" the protagonist detective is female, and not just a superhero in a female body but a woman constantly rubbing up against sexist disadvantages. Again, during the story she manages to find in herself two valuable legacies by reconnecting with a memory of her father; and separately a memory of her mother. These are not stock in trade elements of the genre but unexpected.

  5. Flow: Complete absorption in what you are doing.

    Time passes without any consciousness of that, nor worry about it. At each point in the process, the person is neither puzzled about which of many possible actions to take, nor stumped by not being able to think of a single action to take next. But when the activity is complete, often the person then leaves and doesn't look at it again: complete, satisfied, leave it behind.

    The term "flow" was coined by Mihály Csikszentmihályi (1975). His original basic aim was to study the nature of the situations where people are happiest, getting the most value from their life. For him, flow is not only intensely enjoyable but is also intensely serious and valued. For New York sculptors (one if his earliest sets of participants), it was the activity of sculpting; for others, it will be other activities, depending on what they value. If the book is good enough, this is true too of reading for many of us. Possibly also for authoring?
    Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975) Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: Experiencing Flow in Work and Play San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
    Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990) Flow: the psychology of optimal experience (New York: Harper & Row)

    John Dewey (an American philosopher and educationalist) has something interesting to say here. If we contrast play and work, where work is defined by producing something useful regardless of enjoyment, then work seems the opposite of enjoyment. But in fact if instead we name the play vs. work dimension "realism", then we can see that enjoyment is usually at its height when we have both learning and utility being produced; drudgery when it is all utility and no learning; "foolery" is when it is all playing and no relationship to utility at all.
    Dewey, John (1938) Experience and Education (90 pages) (London: Collier Macmillan publishers) or new paperback Simon&Schuster.

    Flow depends on many things: it depends on a perfect balance between the difficulty of the task and the current skill of the actor; but also on how tired or alert they are, and so on. It may also be interesting to define other subtypes of flow: some of these are suggested in these slides.

  6. George Eliot's theory of the value of novels

    A web page introducing Eliot's theory, and giving pointers to the essay, and parts of the essay, where she expounded this.
    "The greatest benefit we owe the artist, whether painter, poet or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies." (In today's usage, we would probably say "empathy" not "sympathy".)

    Eliot argues that in reading good novels, we learn to understand how people different from ourselves feel and think: and that this is both useful and makes us better people. Eliot defends fiction in terms of deeply moral and serious values; and her argument is that serious fiction is in some crucial, deep way realistic: about real feelings, and real human experience. Many people today are less attracted to realism, not least because it seems opposed to playfulness (which is also a deep part of human nature).

    Yet it may be possible to reconcile these issues, and the web page also outlines a precursor by Shelley, and possible extensions to the argument derived from Oscar Wilde, and from Ursula Le Guin. One resolution depends upon realising the relationship between humans, reality, and imagination. Imagination is not just for creating escapist experiences; nor is it only to convey to us things that are presently true but not in our personal experience (which is the case with Eliot's view of learning from novels about others' emotional experiences, but equally why flight simulators are important training devices). But imagination is also for conceiving a state of the world we want, and then changing the world to become like what we imagined. This is what was involved in going to the moon; in building the Manchester to Liverpool railway (about six times faster than any previous transport; and over a bog that horses couldn't traverse). In today's slang "we are where we are", and "be realistic" are used to make people think that things cannot change. They can, and it crucially involves imagination. Specifically it entails first imagining something that is not the case, and then changing the world to convert the hitherto untrue vision into concrete reality. This is the essence of what constructors, engineers, and builders of all kinds do. It gives a quite different resonance to Oscar Wilde's witticism "Life imitates art".

    In addition, the web page gives pointers to academic psychology experiments inspired and/or conducted by Keith Oatley, looking with some success for evidence of whether Eliot's theory is right.

    Doris Lessing too seems to feel, and argue, as Eliot does; and that consequently novels do educate, and that this can be painful; so novels may be painful too:
    "If you travel with us you will have to learn things you do not want to learn in ways you do not want to learn".
    [Doris Lessing, in a letter replying to a reader who had been seriously disturbed by reading one of her novels. Quoted in Alan Yentob's "Imagine" TV programme on Doris Lessing, broadcast Tues 27 May 2008, 10:35pm on BBC1]

  7. Creativity

    A web page on the concept of Creativity. This is largely my summary of, or introduction to, Maggie Boden's theory of this, as given in her book Boden, Margaret A. (1990) The Creative Mind: Myths and Mechanisms (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson).

    There are four necessary conditions for something to be creative (although it is also interesting to look at cases that have only some of these):

    1. Human agency (as its cause)
    2. Utility (i.e. of value to people)
    3. Novelty (as a matter of history)
    4. Surprise (contrary to expectations)

    Most, perhaps all, cases of creativity can be thought of as being the combination of two essential parts or aspects:

    Frequently one of these is known and shared in advance, the other is the new bit i.e. you don't have to be original in both ways at once. I.e. there are new creative solutions to old problems, and new creative uses for old methods (machines, objects, genres, tropes, styles).

    Boden also suggests that novelty may exist either relative to the person OR to their group or culture. The former is about personal learning by re-construction / re-invention (a well known powerful learning event); while the latter is a contribution to the whole culture. Both these subclasses of creativity are important.

    The distinction can be applied to some other conditions. Surprise is determined by expectations, and is different between people. Importantly, the expectations of the general public and of those involved in active research and development are frequently different; of the general reader or of literary experts. The same applies to utility (the value an innovation has): something may be valuable to some, not to others; valuable to the inventor, not to enough others to make it financially valuable. (Is the creator / inventor the person who personally constructs the idea, or the person who persuades and manages others in doing so and without whom it would not have happened?)

    Most importantly, each of the four necessary conditions is relativised to either an individual or the group (or culture or sub-culture), and typically the relevant groups are different for each condition even for the same invention.