How Video Games Engage the Imagination Muscle

I’m looking for more video games that explore ambiguity in their realities and representation. This may seem like a counter-intuitive ambition in a medium in which artists frequently strive for photorealism. Yet beyond recreation, I want more games that challenge and thus grow my imagination. Let me explain.

The greatest worth of video games — as a human endeavor — may be their potential to nurture our imaginations. This is a familiar argument but different proponents seem to assert different things. Let’s first examine a popular version of the argument, and then unpack a second version that may be more interesting.

It seems most often that the argument for games’ potential to nurture our imaginations refers to games that provide a “mostly complete” experience. This experience starts in the creator’s mind, and then a player accesses it through interaction with the game. A player mostly uses their imagination to emotionally connect with the experience, not to define it. If the game is a box of cake mix, the player just adds water. The essential substance of such a game is the vividness of the direct impressions delivered by the game, from the creator’s imagination to the player’s imagination.

We might say that a player gets to experience the creator’s waking dream. In this frame and in order to leverage greater potential, a game needs more vivid direct impressions, especially more directness and realism in representation and simulation (e.g., in fabric, in hair, in dogs). This is the goal that most AAA game development seems to pursue, and it’s the tantalizing promise of the soon-to-be launched virtual reality headsets (e.g., the Oculus Rift).

A sterling example of this pursuit of vividness is the excellent game The Last of Us. It delivers a transporting experience through realistic graphics and sound, including engrossing action set pieces and richly emotive voice acting. Yet, one of the greatest strengths of such games is also one of their weaknesses. As a player in this kind of game, the journey that my imagination can take is mostly confined to the creator’s vision.

For example, if you and I each play The Last of Us, then we both experience essentially the same sequence with the giraffes. On the one hand, our imaginative experiences vary somewhat, including how we move Joel or the camera and what we each bring from our personal lives to bear on what we’re engaged with in this sequence. For example, the sequence reminds me of visiting Hogle Zoo as a child (from whence the giraffes probably escaped), while you may never have been to Salt Lake City in real life. On the other hand, we both see things that are clearly giraffes moving in a distinctly giraffe-like way. With this box of cake mix, there’s only one cake to make.

I love games such as The Last of Us and the exciting rides on which they take my imagination. But there’s another way that games can nurture our imaginations and this way may be more interesting. The second version of the argument for games’ potential is how they can leave a substantial part of the experience incomplete. In other words, there are various ways to ways to scaffold more creative behavior from a player.

Sandbox games are a popular example, especially Minecraft and the many games that it’s inspired. What we might call “toolbox” games are another example, such as the Little Big Planet series and Super Mario Maker. However, most sandbox and toolbox games still tend to confine at least the sensory experience to the creators’ vision. In Minecraft, you can build a model of the White House and I can build a model of the Enterprise, but we’re still using the same voxel blocks.

I could also argue that building things in a sandbox or toolbox game is actually less like playing a game and more like design and crafting. We move even farther from “play” when users create mods and total conversions, since then players become game creators themselves.

Rather, what I’m looking for are video games that focus on the play activity while leaving a substantial part of the sensory experience incomplete, or that provide a sensory experience that invites different interpretations. Even better, I’d like games that are more ambiguous in their realities altogether. I believe this should be possible, based on examples in other media.

In other media, there can be considerable room for creative imagining by a viewer or reader. Horror provides many good examples. One of my favorites is a lovely scene in the uneven movie, 1999’s The Haunting. During the first act, the characters explore a haunted house in the daytime. The layout of the rooms and hallways in the house is revealed. Two of the film’s characters, Nell and Theo, for instance, have individual bedrooms off the same hallway, and they discover that their rooms are also connected through a shared bathroom.

Once night falls, unsettling things happen. Nell and Theo are in Theo’s bedroom. The door to the hallway is closed and locked, while the door from the bathroom to Nell’s room is closed but unlocked. Something in the hallway tries to batter its way into Theo’s room but fails. The camera pans towards Nell’s room. Nell walks silently through the bathroom to the door to her room. She observes the door handle turning and promptly locks the door. The Something tries to batter its way through that door instead, but, again, fails.

(The Haunting is currently available on Netflix streaming. The floorplan being revealed can be found at 19:30, and the scene with the Something starts at 38:00.).

The brilliance of the scene is the tension that builds as Nell approaches the bathroom door. When I watch, I mentally yell, “MOVE FASTER! HURRY!… but stay quiet…” I don’t know what the Something is, yet, in my mind’s eye, I can see it moving down the hallway, through Nell’s room, into the bathroom, turning the handle, and then POUNDING on the door. All this plays out in my own imagination via the floorplan revealed in the characters’ earlier exploration. (Perhaps due to countless hours of playing first-person shooter video games, I’m pretty good at holding floorplans in my head and remembering when a door is left unlocked.).

Notably, we never learn what the Something is. Brilliant. In my mind’s eye, it’s some mix of my chief childhood terrors: the xenomorph from Alien, G’mork the wolf from The Neverending Story, and a man in a trenchcoat (e.g., Mimic). You might imagine something different. Vivid, visceral depictions of horrors have their place in movies and in video games. But in my experience, the monster on the screen will rarely be more scary than what I can imagine.

How might video games play more with incompleteness or ambiguity? One fruitful direction may be dual- or multi-representation. In the motley game studies book, Rules of Play, Frank Lantz offers an original boardgame called Ironclad. Two players both simultaneously play two sub-games on a single checkerboard. “Ironclad is a game of arena combat between opposing teams of massive, armored robots.

It’s also a game about two logicians attempting to resolve a philosophical disagreement” (Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, MIT Press, p. 286). In one subgame, a token on an intersection is a logical statement, while in the other, it’s defensive terrain in the arena. I’d like to play a video game in which I’m apparently playing one such sub-game but notice clues that suggest something else is happening, instead or in addition to the other action of the game.

Some caveats are in order. I want ambiguity, not laziness. Ambiguity should be a design choice, not a compromise. Of course, horror movies have long used relatively inexpensive sound effects to avoid the cost of on-screen effects. In video games, models and animation can be costly to create, so creators may need to make similar compromises. Regardless of financial constraints, I want the ambiguity to feel like the artistically correct choice, not the barely sufficient choice. Similarly, ambiguity is different from abstraction.

For example, Thomas Was Alone makes great use of abstraction, but this box of cake mix is definitely about artificial intelligences emerging and escaping. I love Thomas and similar abstract video games, but they don’t exercise my imagination in the way that I’m craving.

I want more games that challenge and thus grow my imagination because I deeply believe in the vast, inestimable worth of imagination. I say this as a gamer and as a game designer, as well as a psychologist, parent, and educator. A strong imagination powerfully supports creativity, and creativity is invaluable in our lives, from solving household problems to streamlining processes at work to inventing new technologies. Imagination and creativity depend on having a certain care-free attitude (or disposition) — a freedom from judgment. Goofing off can help foster this attitude. Video games have tremendous, still unrealized power to exercise our imaginations while goofing off and, thus, to strengthen our imagination and creativity.

Games that exercise our imagination more will better actualize video games’ greatest potential. At least in my experience, only a subset of players commit to substantial creation using sandboxes and toolboxes. I want more games that capture our attention and effort like The Last of Us, while purposefully leaving more to the imagination.

Perfect verisimilitude — exactness and precision in representation — may be the ultimate goal of educational illustrations, technical documents, and simulations of real-world places, eras, and phenomena. I look forward to more video games that are blazing the trail in that direction. But I also see other interesting territory to explore that exists in between playable movies and voxel LEGO block sets — in the digital fog of the ambiguous.

Kym Buchanan is the Associate Dean of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He studies and teaches psychology and human development, including the intersection of adolescent development and modern media. His ideal game would be a mashup of Kohan, System Shock, and dwarves. His professional website is and he tweets @reach2grow.