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GREAT IDEAS: Iterate by Colleen Macklin and John Sharp {Interview}

Game designers say failure is key for business innovation

What does iteration mean?  Cambridge Dictionary defines iteration as: the process of doing something again and again, usually to improve it. 

U.S. game designers John Sharp and Colleen Macklin, authors of Iterate, say game design is filled with all sorts of failures, so to them, iterate means: not giving up when something has failed.

Here, in an interview with The Growth Faculty the two Associate Professors in the School of Art, Media, and Technology at Parsons School of Design show how failure and iteration is integral to innovation strategy.

Failure has a bad rap. Failure is the fuel of creativity. It’s the fuel to keep the iteration engine running.
Failure is ever present in creative practice, so any useful approach to making things has to account for failure.

A skateboarder’s failure is very immediate. A chef might take a long time to fail. You finally get the meal to your diner, and it fails there. No two iterative processes look alike.

No matter how successful you are, you would have failed.

Resilience largely emerges from repetitions of failure. Like a callous on a hand. Failure becomes a lot less scary the fifth time.  It’s about getting perspective.

Psychologist Carol Dweck, author of Mindset, set out the difference between people who think they’re innately talented, which can really set them up for failure,  and someone with an iterative mindset, who’s willing to fail and try again.

In game design you can’t see what’s happening with it until someone plays it. Failure is painful; you’re constantly faced with “Why don’t they [the player] just do it right?” (a common thing for new game designers to say).

Our students say “The players didn’t play it right.” We say, no, it’s always the designer’s fault; you didn’t design it right.

Ultimately, creative practitioners find their way through trial and error – landing on a process that works for them.  In other words, they learn to fail better.

The book’s guiding quote is Samuel Beckett’s “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” To us, it’s a very liberating statement. It’s okay to fail. It’s totally cool. Anybody who thinks they don’t is too egotistical or not too bright.

John and Colleen’s GREAT EIGHT, eight getting to know you questions we ask all our authors.  

Recommended book: Colleen: Ted Chiang’s latest collection of short stories Exhalation.  John: Donella Meadows Thinking in Systems

If you could co-author a book with anyone, who would that be?  Colleen: Donella Meadows.  John: Megan Rapinoe, American professional soccer star.

What’s a great piece of advice you could share? John: Fail better. Colleen: I second that motion.

What’s been your lowest moment, and how did you recover? Colleen: I had a low moment this year. I was spinning my wheels. I decided I would do a little bit of something every day… I wrote down my three goals for the year in a book. I look at it every morning, and think what can I do in 15 minutes?   John:  I think a repeating failure in my life is things take forever to happen. This book took 7 years. I have to figure out how not to beat myself up about it.

How do you relax? Colleen: I like things that involve a hammer and nails. John: I like (but I’m bad at remembering to do it) to run. And cook.  
What's a fun fact that’s not widely known about you?  Colleen:  I, and several other creative people, are behind a famous rave party in Kuala Lumpur in an abandoned prison, that attracted 4000 people. John: In my days as a DJ, [American drag queen, actor and model] Ru Paul once told me he loved me. Also, I have the patent for scrolling sideways on a web page. That has gained me zero notoriety and even less dollars.

What’s your secret of success?  Colleen:  Take time. If you can, take the time you need. Take time away from it too, if you’re not sure what the next step it. It will come to you if you’re not focussed on it. I don’t  know why that it.  John: Pausing is not stopping. I have to always keep doing things. Even though this book just came out, I’m thinking of what Part 2 would be. Thinking about what’s next.

What’s your prediction for 2025? Colleen: There will no longer be inequity. I don’t make predictions about technology. Stuff happens in strange and mysterious ways. I think we can make the world a better place.  John: More than 50% of world leaders will be women.  

Members of The Growth Faculty can watch, read or listen to the full interview with John Sharp and Colleen Macklin as they discuss their failures, their research and the role of iteration in creativity. Simply log in to On Demand. 

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