What are Casual Creators?

And what is this dissertation about?

originally posted on www.casualcreator.com (4/4/14)
This image encapsulates all the best definitions of Casual Creator software. “All she needs to make it on her own”, “The fun is in the making”. Self-sufficiency, creativity, and pleasure in the creative process.
This image encapsulates all the best definitions of Casual Creator software. “All she needs to make it on her own”, “The fun is in the making”. Self-sufficiency, creativity, and pleasure in the creative process.

When I was a kid, I had this toy, called the Barbie Knit Magic, which was a Barbie-branded variant of the toy advertised above, just called the Knit Magic.

Just like the Knit Magic, but pinker and more brand-conscious.
Just like the Knit Magic, but pinker and more brand-conscious.

It was a hot pink plastic machine with many little plastic prongs that you wove your cheap acrylic yarn around, and then you’d crank the handle, and with a bit of luck, the machine would start extruding a stretchy knit tube, just the right diameter to slip over your doll and call it a high fashion concept piece.The Knit Magic was a more automated version of another toy I had (yes, I was a very crafty child), the Knitting Nancy, a peg with some brackets and a hole, painted to look like a lady in a red dress.

Old school knitting toy. These may date back to Roman times or before.
Old school knitting toy. These may date back to Roman times or before.

Similar to the Knit Magic, this provided an easy and straightforward way to make little knitted tubes of yarn, provided you have small hands and lots of free time. According to wikipedia, the Knitting Nancy dates back about 400 years, but given the lack of records we have for most craft and textile technology, I wouldn’t be surprised if they existed much earlier.

In modern-day 2014, if you have a niece or daughter under the age of 10, or if you are yourself a female person under the age of 10, you probably have seen one of these:

Welcome to the stretchy rainbow future of crafting.
Welcome to the stretchy rainbow future of crafting.

The Rainbow Loom was one of this year’s biggest toy trends, selling 3.5 million units and roughly an infinite number of little plastic bands. Though this toy traded acrylic yarn for stretchy rubber, it’s clearly filling the same niche with the same needs as the Knitting Nancy and the Knit Magic: simple but labor-intensive creation of a single type of colorful object, which can be used as ornaments for the self, other toys, and (importantly) friends, marketed to a majority female audience. The thing that it makes is also restricted enough, unlike full-scale free-form knitting, that a lot of assistance can be provided, and even some automation, making it much easier to use, harder to fail at, but at the price of not having as much control as normal knitting.

A Computer Science dissertation about … the Rainbow Loom?

Wait, you say, aren’t you a computer science? When you write your dissertation, isn’t it supposed to be about computers, and not about vintage craft kits?

Yes! Emphatically so! And I’m opening my blog (and the public version of my dissertation research) with these examples for very good reason. In this dissertation, I’m defining a new genre of software, the “Knit Magic” of software, in which creativity is both restricted and supported to allow greater accessibility, ease of use, and, perhaps, greater creativity because of that. It’s important to note that, though I’m providing a definition and making up a name, this field has always existed, because it has always fulfilled an important need. The need hasn’t changed just because we have computers now. But the solutions to that need probably will.

I’ve found that one of the best ways to define a genre is by what emotional, psychological and functional needs it’s providing to the player (not a new idea, certainly). But it’s particularly useful when looking at these casual creator systems, whether a Rainbow Loom or the Spore Creature Creator, because it walks so easily around the tangential issues of age and audience and gender that get bound up with traditional marketing genres, which construct commercially-useful groupings of target consumers, rather than intellectually-productive groupings of software.

Casual creator

an authored system or software that:
  • privileges enjoyment of the creative process above productivity

  • encourages and supports a state of creative flow

  • results in the user’s feeling of pride and ownership toward the produced artifact, and sense of pride in their own creativity.

This definition, at least, is the way to look at a piece of software (or not software!) and see if it is a casual creator, or, more commonly, see if it should be attempting to become one, and how well it is succeeding. Most character creators for games should be following this pattern, after all, a game is about pleasure, not productivity, but not all character creators are successful at creating flow or surprising the user with their own creativity.

So there are some number of systems that are useful to look at as potential casual creators, and there are many more systems that are really clear examples of a casual creator, such as the Spore Creature Creator, but also Toca Salon, Let’s Create Pottery, and many others. There are also systems that have strong similarities to the needs and affordances of a casual creator, like Instagram.

RPG Maker, Cake Pop Maker, and the Sims
RPG Maker, Cake Pop Maker, and the Sims
RPG Maker, Cake Pop Maker, and the Sims
RPG Maker, Cake Pop Maker, and the Sims

Why hasn’t anyone identified this field yet?

Partly, audience. Though there are exceptions, this field has traditionally been sold as a young, or female, which is a recipe for not being taken seriously by either academics or software engineers. It’s easy to spot a parallel with the field of casual games: both get derided as the amusements of “housewives” and “children”, as though these humans are less worthy of entertaining than…say, 26 year old male games engineers (or that engineers don't want to be playfully creative). Like casual games, they are often simple, and designed for short periods of engagement, rather than long term mastery, so those who have spent years mastering an extensive and arcane interface, whether Maya or Final Fantasy, are not often enthusiastic about something that attempts greater simplicity at the cost of reduced control.

But it’s also an economic problem.

Remember that part of the definition of a casual creator is “privileges enjoyment of the creative process above productivity”. Most of the creativity tools, like Maya, GarageBand, Photoshop, and Final Cut Pro, were designed for professional people who were trying to get work done. They are priced astronomically because they are sold, not to people, but to corporations who want their employees to do more work. Even a self-employed designer will not turn to a client and say “You know, I couldn’t really make the exact website you asked for, but I’ve made something surprising and I feel great about myself” and expect payment. It’s also telling that a lot of the creativity research is sponsored by the military, with the goal of enhancing workflow and generating better ideas.

This economic view creeps into our definitions of creativity. Csikszentmihalyi provides one of the most ‘classic’ definitions, in the “Where is Creativity” chapter of his influential “Flow” book:

Creativity is any act, idea, or product that changes an existing domain, or that transforms an existing domain into a new one.

Well, that takes care of all our world-changing creatives, those producers of creative acts of great cultural, social, and usually economic, significance. But we colloquially use “creativity” for many more situations than a universally novel, globally significant act of creation. We speak of children being creative, of moments of creative problem-solving in our daily lives, of creativity in art therapy or as a hobby.

“Hi, you’ll like Amy. She’s an artist!”-Toy Story 3
“Hi, you’ll like Amy. She’s an artist!”-Toy Story 3

This dichotomy is frequently characterized as the “Big C, Little c” creativity. A child playing with paints is being “creative”; Mozart, while composing a symphony, is being “Creative”. Presumably, if Mozart played with paints as a child, he, too, was little-c “creative” in those moments. James Kauffman extends that to 4 Cs, including creativity in the learning process and professional, but not transformative, creativity.

Why do we want ‘normal’ people to be creative?

The hope of pleasure in the work itself: how strange that hope must seem to some of my readers – to most of them! Yet I think that to all living things there is a pleasure in the exercise of their energies, and that even beasts rejoice in being lithe and swift and strong. But a man at work, making something which he feels will exist because he is working at it and wills it, is exercising the energies of his mind and soul as well as of his body. Memory and imagination help him as he works. Not only his own thoughts, but the thoughts of the men of past ages guide his hands; and, as a part of the human race, he creates. If we work thus we shall be men, and our days will be happy and eventful.

William Morris, “Useful Work versus Useless Toil” 1884

To cite wallpaper designer, socialist and futurist, William Morris, we are creative so that “our days will be happy and eventful.” We can scientifically demonstrate that people who do art therapy are happier, healthier, more at ease, less in pain, and more social after having a creative experience. The existence of pottery-painting and paint-by-numbers kits shows proof that people enjoy being creative, even if the world won’t be noticeably changed by their output. It also turns out that restrictions, constraints, and support structures and guided assistance don’t fundamentally undermine the creative process, but often enhance it.

Petroglyph pottery-painting studio, Santa Cruz. These places offer a variety paintable pieces for open-ended exploration (blank tiles) or those seeking guidance and inspiration (ceramic cats, piggy banks, embossed dragons)
Petroglyph pottery-painting studio, Santa Cruz. These places offer a variety paintable pieces for open-ended exploration (blank tiles) or those seeking guidance and inspiration (ceramic cats, piggy banks, embossed dragons)
So if this type of human activity already exists, why make software for it? And why write about that software? As happens when any activity it translated into software, a potentially huge new world of possibilities arise that would not have been possible while then activity remained non-digital, but in many ways, it continues to fill the same niche. Chess became computer chess, but then also became Call of Duty and League of Legends, products that would not have been possible without the exploration of possibilities that were exposed when the desire for tactical competition made the jump to the digital space.

And why write about it? Because this period of translation and exploration has just begun for Casual Creative software. It remains uncategorized, falling into a half-dozen different categories on the app store. The focus of thinkers and researchers, both in academia and in industry, remains focussed on “creativity support tools” and the broad, professional productivity tools, like Maya and Photoshop, while this area remains unexamined. And, for a field of such seemingly simple pieces of software, there’s a lot to examine.

Putting things together

The moment that I realized that Casual Creators were a real distinct field was when I started to group them together, and I began seeing incredibly clear patterns arise, patterns that clearly did not exist or weren’t borrowed from games or professional creativity software. And yet these patterns existed across different, and often wildly successful pieces of software, as software like the Spore Creature Creator (over 100 million creatures uploaded) or Instagram (55 million photos per day), but also as an important crowd-organizing feature of a larger website like colourlovers.com and polyvore.com, and even in tiny or seemingly silly pieces of software like memegenerator.

Such disparate pieces of software, for such different communities and different types of end products, all share a great range of design patterns. Whether they would articulate it like this or not, they all:

  • privilege enjoyment of the creative process above productivity

  • encourage and support a state of creative flow

  • result in the user’s feeling of pride and ownership toward the produced artifact, and sense of pride in their own creativity.

That is, they are all “Casual Creators”. And the patterns that they follow, are followed because they support and create the feelings defining casual creators. So, to create a successful piece of casual creator software, a designer should take a good look at the patterns.

What I’ll be writing

One of the biggest benefits of belonging to a community of practice, whether as a photographer, mystery writer, or game designer, is that you have a wide range of related works to look at, often made by creators who are as good as, but different from, you, who have invented a great number of interesting and potential techniques that you may also find useful. Without a community, the practitioner must blindly explore on their own, perhaps coming up with some of the possible techniques on their own through intelligence and common sense, but unable to learn from the work of others. Of course, app developers look to other apps for inspiration. But casual creator software has such common purpose, I hope to create a community of shared practice by defining it as a field, allowing practitioners to find inspiration and knowledge outside of where they would have otherwise looked.

Also, to assist anyone making such software, I plan to compile

Kate’s Big Book of Casual Creator Design Patterns

A comprehensive volume of many of the best and most successful design patterns, from software both old and new, music apps, 3D printing apps, serious software, and silly software, and even the occasional structured-creativity social phenomenon. Every pattern will have examples of software that uses it, as well as advice on how to use it, and since I’m an enthusiastic practitioner myself, sometimes a breakdown on how I’ve implemented it in a working example.

And so, as the first pattern, and the official kickoff of this project:

Never Start With A Blank Page

A google search for “Terror of the blank page” turns up many writers lamenting how paralyzing the site of a nice empty sheet of paper can be, or, to quote Margaret Atwood, “The fact is that blank pages inspire me with terror“. With nothing on the page, there is no constraint, no fixed anchor, nothing to push against. The possibilities are endless, and the creator is frozen by choice paralysis.

But even just a small bit of starting material can give the creator something to build on, or subvert or rebel against, and I love the idea of this Kickstarter, “a notebook to alleviate the terror and tyranny of the blank page”, by providing little evocative partial drawings, each different, on every page.

In a casual creator, this is one of the most important patterns. If the creator comes to the software with a fixed idea in mind, they are not deterred by having to click ‘erase’ or ‘clear’, but for a creator who wants to make ‘something’, the presence of something, anything, on screen to provide a starting point is absolutely critical.

Pick a head, any head.
Pick a head, any head.

We can see an easy example of that in the Spore Creature Creator. This is one of several pre-authored blobs that might appear when the creator opens the creature creator. Right away, there is the suggestion of next steps, as Csikszentmihalyi lists as his first condition for creative flow, “there are clear goals every step of the way”, and this body suggests a neck where you might place a head (the first open tab) and perhaps an indentation where some legs might go. The user is not frozen, but presented with a manageable number of options, all correct.A very novel form of this is in Adam Smith and Kathleen Tuite’s Sketch-a-bit, an Android drawing app. It is highly unusual, in that almost every other drawing program starts with a blank slate, but in this app:

“When a user starts up Sketch-a-bit, a random sketch is down- loaded and displayed. If the user does not like that image, he can select the “Fetch” menu option to get a new image, repeating this until he finds an image that inspires him to draw.”

Reimagining an image (from the paper)
Reimagining an image (from the paper)

The user first sees someone else’s image, and the first action that the player must take is not “What shall I draw”, but “Do I like this? What do I imagine it becoming in the future?” a much clearer guiding of their intial action. Of course, some small number of users erase the entire image (a laborious process in Sketchabit) but many others took the opportunity to make a drawing that they could not have anticipated.

Giving the creator a seed to start with unlocks their creativity, and allows them to use it as inspiration, and to gain pleasure from finding creative new solutions to using it. As the tv show Who’s Line Is It Anyway? shows, any improvisation is easier with a prop to inspire you.

Who's Line is it Anyway?, using props

copyright 2017 Kate Compton