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Creativity in Context – The Board Game Industry

If you’ve spent any time at all reading my blog, you certainly understand the importance of creativity and some of the ways you can foster it in the workplace. But something I haven’t discussed much is the context of creativity. More specifically: do your employees’ creative ideas make sense given your industry and your position in the marketplace? 

To explain how contextualized creativity works, let’s look at the board game industry. 

The Advantages of Understanding Your Context

When you think of the most popular board games of all time, your mind probably turns to some of the classic Hasbro games: Monopoly, Clue, Battleship, Guess Who, and so on. These games are designed for kids and don’t require too much strategic thinking.

In Monopoly, you move your piece around the board, buying up properties so you can make other players pay rent when they land on those spaces. For Clue, you have to move your piece around the board to determine three basic questions about Mr. Body’s murder: who killed him, what weapon did they use, and where did it happen?

While these two games are relatively simple at their core, they’re nothing compared to the simplest game of all: Candyland. 

While the game is simple, the success of Candyland is surprisingly complex. At first glance, the game is nothing more than a bold, sugarcoated theme. But if that’s all it took to entertain kids, they could just stare at a box of sugary cereal for a few hours.

Looking at the gameplay mechanics, Candyland relies entirely on the luck of the draw. You pick cards one by one from a stack, then move your piece where the cards tell you to. There are no buying spaces, no resource management, no mystery to solve. You don’t even have enough autonomy to make random guesses, as you do with Battleship. 

So, how could a game with that level of simplicity become so popular? The answer lies in the context of the creativity employed by the game’s creator, Eleanor Abbott.

Abbott was a polio patient, at a time when the disease struck a lot of children. Polio patients were confined to their rooms, stuck in iron lungs that they couldn’t leave for more than 15 minutes at a time.

As someone with polio, she understood the monotony that struck those fighting the terrible disease. And as a schoolteacher, she understood what this sort of confinement would do to kids.

So, she created Candyland, a game for kids with polio. It was a game that allowed the illusion of movement, without requiring much movement from the kids.

Her knowledge of kids, as well as her personal experience with polio, gave her the context required to create the right board game for them. The creativity she used to come up with Candyland would have been less useful if she didn’t understand the kids and what they were going through.

When You Need to Find a New Context

To maximize the creative efforts of your employees, you need to show them the context of your business so that they can properly direct their creativity. But before you do this, you need to be sure your business actually has the right context.  

Phil Eklund was a Hasbro game designer who always wanted something more. During his time at the company, he was focused on more complicated board games, developing them for his fellow hobbyists who appreciated more complicated games. These games were successful by indie standards but there weren’t more than a couple of hundred people in the country who were interested in buying them. The market just wasn’t there.

At the time, Americans still thought of board games as something for kids. The people interested in more complicated gameplay were busy with video games. However, this wasn’t the case globally. In fact, Germany had already developed a rich tradition of complicated board games (such as the popular “Eurogame” Settlers of Catan).

Eklund couldn’t support himself as a professional game designer in his current market, so he decided to change the context of his creativity by moving to Germany. There, his creativity thrived, and now his name is featured on the boxes of the games he creates. He’s a brand unto himself, selling games based solely on the prestige of his name.

By moving to Germany, Eklund changed his context to better suit his business goals. 

How you choose to change your context will depend on what you’re selling: you may need to change your location, or you may decide to target a different audience. If you’re coming up with creative ideas for your business, but you’re having trouble implementing these changes, always keep your context in mind–it could change your entire course of thinking!

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