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5. Do something specific vs do anything

Creativity on demand is the business I’m in. Most of my work consists of creating larps that others want created, and though I also get to create larps that I myself have helped come up with, it’s rare. Most of our customers aren’t larpers who want an experience. They’re people who want a larp.

Whether the customer is a school, a bank, a worker’s union or a museum, the basic design brief is more or less the same.

  • We have X people
  • We have Y money
  • We have Z time
  • And we want them to have an experience teaching them A, B & C.

Roughly. Of course reality is way more complex, but this is the basic formula. Maybe it’s a an accounting software company that wants to teach its middle managers teamwork skills, communication skills and some new tricks on how to manage their teams. They might have 10 people, 2.000€ and 4 hours. That’s what we know. Then we come up with ideas.

We might let them be Russian spy cadets in the 80’s, learning how to infiltrate the capitalist West — and inside that fiction teaching them teamwork and communication skills, and giving them tricks on how to manage their teams.

We might let them be Orcs, fighting over territory — and inside that fiction teaching them teamwork and communication skills, and giving them tricks on how to manage their teams.

We might let them be the crew of a Starship, exploring space — and inside… you get the point. The important thing is that when we present an idea, the customer will decide whether they like it or not. We usually give them several ideas, so they have something to choose from, and always give them the option of also choosing something “not on the menu”.

Sometimes there’s also a thematic brief. Doing a larp for a 5th grade history lesson about vikings usually means involving vikings of some sort, rather than French Ancien Régime soldiers or 1920’s gangsters. Sometimes it’s more free, and we get to flex our creative muscles fully.

And this is where things get interesting. Because contrary to what a lot of people believe, it’s much easier for me as a career creative to craft something within constraints than just to go nuts without any limitations. Whenever I see a Polish castle, I automatically get a ton of ideas, because I already have an idea of both the location and some rough budget ideas (based on previous castle larps we’ve done).

If someone asks me “If you could do any larp, what would it be?” I’m a bit at a loss. Would I want to do a pirate larp aboard two historical sailing ships chasing each other across the open sea? Would I want to do a Les Miserables inspired larp about revolution and decadence in 1832 Paris? Would I want to do a larp about a starship, hurtling through space on a desperate mission?

Varied as they seem, these three larp ideas have one thing in common. I’m already working on them in one way or the other. If I had to come up with my dream larp and wasn’t allowed to choose a project that’s already beyond the initial brainstorm phase, it becomes a lot harder.

I honestly don’t know what my “dream project” is.

If someone gives me some constraints, I can come up with (generally quite good) ideas on the spot, and I’ve often gotten praise for being extremely skilled at going quickly from loose conversation -> concept sketch -> actual design -> realistic project -> execution. But coming up with that loose conversation in the first place — that’s hard.

Other creative professionals may have it differently. But for me, working without constraints (time, budget, participants, location, theme, etc.) just makes my job harder. Tell me to do a “Romantic submarine larp for 60 people that lasts 4 hours and costs less than 10.000€” and I’ll come up with excellent ideas within minutes. Tell me to do a larp and I’ve got nothing.

Ok, that’s not true. I’d of course come up with something, since I have a lot of half-baked project ideas just lying around in the dusty corners of my mind waiting to be realised. So it’s not as bad as I make it sound.

But it doesn’t change the fact that I’d rather do something specific than do anything. I’m pretty damn good at doing specific stuff. I don’t really know anything about doing anything.

Written by

Director, The College of Extraordinary Experiences & Coach at McKinsey

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