scribblenauts kid[“The Blue Key” is a bi-weekly GameSetWatch column from writer Connor Cleary. This week, he applauds the rise to prominence of games that emphasize player creativity, points out some of the more notable examples, and mentions the benefits of player-created content capabilities.]

Here at The Blue Key, I talk a lot about the desirability of immersion in gaming – about losing yourself entirely in a game. But there is another side of gaming which takes almost the opposite approach to player interaction, and it seems to be gaining a lot of ground lately.

In this alternate realm the goal is not to make the player feel like they are entirely inside the game, but rather to acknowledge the player as such and utilize their creativity to enhance the gaming experience.

Of course player-creativity has long been an aspect of gaming, whether you're trying to come up with an inventive combination of equipment and/or skills and/or magic, devising a tactical plan of attack in an FPS or an RTS, or trying to find a new way to think about a puzzle that's stumping you, games engage you in a way that few other mediums can.

When you boil it down though, video games are based on the idea of “play,” and the recent wave of creativity-games really embody that basic idea and take it to the next level. In fact some games are little more than physics playgrounds, like the popular Source-based Garry's Mod. But even when there are predefined goals (generally agreed to be a defining characteristic of a game) many of these creativity-centered games have a distinctively “playground” feel to them.

Look at Scribblenauts for a great example. If you've never heard of it: the game allows you to write a noun and and summon nearly any object you can come up with (exceptions include anything trademarked, offensive or vulgar) in order to solve a variety of puzzles.

With over 20,000 objects available for use in-game, every level has at least a handful of solutions. But if all you do is rush through each puzzle and get to the end, you're missing the point of the game. Sure, you could use a “jetpack” or the “ROFLCopter” on nearly every level and never look back, but the real brilliance of the game is to be found in returning to the levels you've already completed.

In order to “Master” a level in Scribblenauts, you have to go back in and complete it three more times without using the same object twice. So if you use the “jetpack” in your first round, you'll have to find another way to reach that ledge in both of the following rounds. This mechanic pushes the player to think of some really crazy combinations.

But even when your attempts fail, just experimenting can be extremely fun for its own sake. From “teleporters” to “portals” to “time machines,” Scribblenauts developer 5th Cell went all-out to add some serious hilarity to their game, and when the player's creativity is the catalyst for that hilarity, it is so much more satisfying

Some other notable examples include: Crayon Physics, I don't want to think about how much time I spent just playing and experimenting with the physics in that game. Although, 3D Dot Game Heroes failed to draw me in as a game, I had a great time designing my personalized MegaMan character in the custom character editor and watching him come to life, then designing a Samus character for a friend.

Even games like Angry Birds and World of Goo force the player to engage their creative mind to come up with one of many possible solutions, since neither of those games have rigidly defined parameters on how to complete a given level

Even the fairly linear Trine is a good example. If you're playing Trine single-player you'll miss out on a lot of the more mind-bending puzzles that you're forced to contend with when you're playing multiplayer.

In single player, it's a relatively simple matter to swap in the Thief and swing over most bottomless pits, or swap in the Wizard and draw yourself a bridge, but when you have multiple players and only one player can occupy a given role at a time, you're forced to find ways of getting everyone across. This often requires - if you'll excuse the unavoidable pun - thinking outside the box and getting really creative. If there are only two of you, there is always the option of switching to the Thief or Wizard one at a time, but that is kind of missing the point and I would suggest it only as a last resort to avoid frustration.

Of course, how could I talk about the Era of Player Creativity without mentioning the current reigning champion, Minecraft? As far as I can tell, the only “predefined goals” of Minecraft's single-player experience are these: survive and be awesome.

There is something so deeply satisfying about looking up at your impenetrable fortress each day, and remembering its humble beginnings as little more than a hole in the ground where you cowered in the dark while spiders hissed and zombies groaned and skeletons clanked around above you. Now you look down upon them from atop your unscalable battlements and scoff. To add a further level to that satisfaction, you know that this world and this building are uniquely yours, you know that no one else in the world could possibly have the exact same fortress as you.

I couldn't close this piece without also mentioning Minecraft's Creative Mode; a friend recently took me on a tour of the reddit creative server and it absolutely blew my mind what people are building in there. Which leads into a quick point about player-created content (a topic that could easily occupy its own column altogether). This aspect of the game industry may not be “new” per se - I was creating custom player-models for the original Half-Life and custom maps for the original StarCraft over ten years ago – but it seems to have risen to a new level of prominence in the past few years.

I am consistently impressed with the gaming community, whenever they are given access to a level editor (or any similar custom-content capacity) it is just incredible what the community is able to produce. Even if we only took Minecraft, LittleBIGPlanet, and Blizzard's 'Craft games as evidence, there is clear proof that developers can vastly extend the shelf life of their games by giving gamers the tools they need to create custom content. People simply love to create, it must be in our nature.

There are so many possibilities for the gaming industry in this direction, and personally I'm happy to see this trend gaining so much momentum. I believe the rise of creativity-games has the potential to produce a variety of desirable consequences.

First, they will probably appeal to a much broader audience than just the average gamer. Second, I think they will eventually be proven to be good for the development of critical thinking skills in kids - especially since many of the current incarnations are family-friendly games. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they will expand the gaming medium into previously unforeseen realms.