Games of Improvisation

Since I started taking improv classes at the Steel City Improv Theatre, I can’t avoid commonalities between improvisational theater and professional life. Not only does improv create a more confident, playful work environment, but it helps to inform business decisions and product development as well.

In my experience, improv has made me more eager to take risks and more resilient in recovering from failure. It is a safe environment much in the way a videogame is safe; both give the illusion of peril but readily show how taking risks is more important than playing it safe.

In a recent article in Technonomy Magazine, Jessica Trybus, CEO of Etcetera Edutainment, explores the contributions improv makes to creating technologists. Etcetera’s vice president of development describes the relationship between game designer and player as one of improvisation. Though the analysis fits the characteristics mentioned in the article, I became stuck on the comparison. It is natural to feel like games and players are improvising, but I think the more impressive thing about game design is that it’s often feigned improvisation.

Highly accurate AI is the closest we can get to true improvisation, but many games seem to employ only a handful of potential returns for each decision made by the player. This is the “least number of satisfactory results” possible to keep the game at the desired level of difficulty and engagement. Depending on the game’s design, complex AI might not even be possible, affordable, or desired. Instead, each outcome needs to appear like a┬áplausible┬áresult across a variety of situations.

I suppose my point is that the skill of a game designer is to use game mechanics to give the perception of improvisation, while not likely doing it at all. Regardless of the advantages, constraints, or restrictions of the game it must appear to be improvising in order to keep the player engaged.