How to Serendipity
It was my last day in Montreal. I had just finished lunch at a local landmark a friend had recommended. The rest of the day was wide open before a late flight back home to New York.
I wandered for an hour or so, rolling my bag behind me, lazily scanning the streets for points of interest as I tried to ignore the brisk winter wind. Up one street, now maybe a right, now a left, now straight again; picking directions seemingly at random.
I pulled my bag up a steep sidewalk curb deep under construction and started to head back where I had come from when I noticed it across the street – a small art gallery not far from the highway entrance nearby.
I walked in and immediately felt as if I were interrupting something. Two women and a man were having tea on a couch and a chair in the carpeted middle of the space. A dog lounged by their feet. They welcomed me and smiled as I set my bags down near the door.
By the time I started to wander through the sculptures and paintings, the women had returned to their reception desks.
The sculptures were fantastic – bits of corroded metal and discarded objects put together in ingenious humanoid structures.
There were also minimalist, sensual paintings, more traditional-looking bronze sculptures, peculiar-looking metalwork pieces of gladiator-like he-men delicately playing stringed instruments… and a video.
I walked over to the corner. There was a video playing on loop, shadowing an artist as he went through the complete process of making a sculpture out of clay.
I stood there and watched the artist drill holes into the wood base to create a wire armature, slather heaps of clay on top to form the body, softly massage and mold the clay into a form, a shape, a face, a beautiful face.
There were more sculptures in the back of the gallery that I wanted to look at, but something told me to stay right here. To keep watching.
And as I watched, I slowly remembered – the hours I had spent long ago molding shapes out of clay, out of Silly Putty, folding paper boats, delicately crafting things with my hands. Learning to knead love into something.
It was something incredibly important that I had forgotten, that I had not done for years, suddenly roaring back. I began to tear up.
I glanced over at the metalwork sculptures and my jaw dropped. They were spoons, I realized. Spoons welded together. Spoons, like the ones I had made sculptures with in hobby art projects years ago. It is still possible, the thought said. You can still do this too. You just have to try. It was useless holding the tears back now.
The video ended and the woman at the desk came to ask me something. All I could do was hug her, and struggle to ask if they had that DVD for sale.
“We don’t,” she said. “The cover hasn’t been finished yet. But we have some copies for us. And I will give you one.”
I broke down again. I had just walked in here, not even ten minutes ago. None of this was on today’s schedule.
She returned with a DVD in a plain black case. “And this is Hélène,” she said, motioning to the other woman in the back. “She’s the director of the film.” She paused. “Would you like to meet the artist? He’s in the back.”
A minute later, she brought him out.
It was the man having tea with them when I entered.
Serendipity is a real thing. This part is not surprising.
But what you may not know is that some people happen to be good at it. And most people can become better at it, just like any novice can become adept at most skills through practice.
Doing so only requires two things: listening to yourself and making connections. Instead of over-analyzing which street would have been best to explore, or which route to take, or the precise time when I needed to leave that part of town, I chose to wander, listening to what my internal compass said was good. When I first started watching the video at the gallery, my curiosity wanted to pull me away, but a stronger voice said to stay.
Of course, if I was running late for my flight, practical concerns would win out. However, in more relaxed circumstances, paying attention to your instinctual messages in this way can steer you toward incredibly serendipitous results.
Making connections is equally important. Finding parallels with the use of spoons for sculpture and my own latent desire to do physical art with my hands is what caused such a powerful reaction in the first place. If I hadn’t made that connection, I would’ve simply stopped watching and left.
Taking a detour down a street because it reminds you of a scene in a movie that you can’t quite place, striking up a conversation with a stranger at a party because they remind you of someone else somehow – there are innumerable examples of how making these kinds of connections can propel you to create new ones.
In this way, you almost become a serendipity machine, creating possibilities for new fortunate turn of events to happen.
Put these two notions into practice together and you get the kind of applied mindfulness that can create unforgettable life events.
What does this have to do with video games? In most cases, nothing – and that in itself is an observation worthy of discussion.
First off, we can acknowledge that for a good amount of people, serendipity is hard. Like any other skill worth learning, some have an easier time with it than others.
Yet in most modern video games, you are almost always presented with activities to do that you would most likely never do in real life. Swordfighting? Horseback archery? Parkour? Piloting helicopters, tanks, spaceships? If we can build simplified versions of incredibly complex activities into video games, why on earth would it seem strange to build simplified versions of similarly complex emotional and psychological skills?
Here’s one way you could do it.
Player-Determined Connection Nodes
In your game, tag objects that the player can express affinity for as “potential connection nodes.” Once the player expresses affinity for something through a choice or interaction, tag it as an active connection. Then, over the course of the game, subtly reintroduce things that the player has tagged in future plot points, decision points, scripted events, etc – so the entire game feels like it has been guided by themes in alignment with what the player has actively sought out. Letting the player determine the connections in this way can help transform a traditional narrative arc into something extraordinary.
Because video games are safer places to experiment in than real life, players will already be listening to themselves as they play and make choices, taking care of the first serendipity requirement. By incorporating their natural inclinations into the narrative patchwork of your game, suddenly that extra ten minutes they took jumping around a mountain pass or emptying every last dresser drawer in a room can be put to work building additional meaning for the entirety of the game.
Sure, this would require a lot of work. But instead of using the artificial “Press X to make one of two choices at this pre-scripted moment” technique modern games are so fond of, a system like this could respond to the player’s emergent choices in a much more natural way.
Serendipity Is for Everybody
We watch action movies to see dangerous, thrilling fantasies fulfilled on the screen. We read Stephen King and Lovecraft to explore, if only for a little while, worlds of abject horror we would hate to inhabit. We play games to become other people, to live other lives, to visit other worlds… if only for a while.
The incredible power of serendipity, while not as glamorous as most game fantasies for sale today, is just as worthy of experiencing.