Today I was putting a bike rack on my car. A brand new bike rack from Thule – great design, well made device, terrible instructions. There were several times where I had to infer what piece went where from very little information. It was a lot of trial and error. I had to problem-solve.
I was relying on the information that this was a well made rack, not a piece of junk from a cheap store. The pieces that I had already placed went in smoothly and were clearly fitting exactly the way they were supposed to go. When I went to fit the later pieces I found myself thinking as I had in a well crafted game – if it doesn’t go in smoothly, it probably isn’t the right solution. That kept me on track. I was able to not stay too long on spurious, ill-fitting trajectories, so that I would change course and more quickly find the well fitting solution.
As a game designer, too much click and try on spurious objects leaves me frustrated. I am currently stuck in Machinarium, Botanicula, and Half-life 2 at points where I got bored with trying to find the game mechanic. I am probably not the typical gamer. I don’t want to have to navigate and click-to-find too much before finding the mechanic. I want it right in my face but with a complex puzzle so that I have to figure out how to use it. I want to be able to use my trial error to quickly get feedback on how to leverage the mechanic in the current situation. Otherwise, personally, I go to a walkthrough or leave the game.
But back to the bike rack. How many things do we do each day that are aided by exploratory problem-solving, the kind that is so core to good games? Assembling and fixing things without good instructions, certainly any kind of innovation, how about managing a household budget? Managing with limited resources to create “lemonade” from lemons – I guess that is back to innovation. It feels like the quality of how we live our lives, and how in control of our lives we can ever hope to be, is based on our problem solving ability. Is that true?