We Are All in the Box

Link Eyes

We have all heard the expression “think outside the box” before, right? It is generally used to imply that we should try to think more creatively; perhaps we need to challenge the biases and expectations that we are using to confront a problem.

In the most general terms, it means, “however you are thinking now, stop doing that. THINK DIFFERENTLY.” This can be extremely hard, but it is important to think about how we think.

I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with this aphorism. On the one hand, it is a very concise way to try to snap someone out of a functional fixedness, which I like. On the other hand, the imagery of this “box” is so tangible, and yet it represents one of the least tangible things in the world. What the heck is THE BOX!?

To me, the box makes a lot more sense as a metaphor for the rules of the system we are perceiving rather than as a threshold for creative thinking.

Well, in thesis-style fashion, let me just tell you what I think the box SHOULD be, and why I think the phrase stands on some shaky ground. To me, the box makes a lot more sense as a metaphor for the rules of the system we are perceiving rather than as a threshold for creative thinking. It seems that what people really mean when they say “think outside the box”, is that you should try to broaden your vision of the box and consider your blind spots to the axioms.

As you may have suspected, I think video games may help us dig deeper into this figurative box. They do an absolutely wonderful job of teaching us to think inside the box.

What is Wrong With “Thinking Inside The Box”?

With the rise of “thinking outside the box,” I feel like what is traditionally perceived as “thinking inside the box” has taken on quite a negative connotation. If thinking outside the box means coming up with creative unexpected solutions, then that leaves thinking inside the box to mean… being logical?

Many games do a wonderful job of teaching the value of learning the rules of the system, building a foundation of expectations based on these rules, and using these expectations to logically puzzle through problems.

Many games do a wonderful job of teaching the value of learning the rules of the system, building a foundation of expectations based on these rules, and using these expectations to logically puzzle through problems.

A simple example of this is with the New Super Mario Brothers games. Each level has three large coins that are hidden throughout the level. Many are fairly easy to find, but some are in quite obscure locations. Thankfully, the game sets and sticks to the expectation that the icons telling us what coins you have found are in the same order the coins are located in the level.

This means we can quickly hone in on possible locations. We don’t have to slide down every vaguely suspicious pit or try to walk through every single wall. By logically considering the positioning of the coins we can systematically rule out possible areas and hone in on the right location.

After doing all of this logical trimming, sometimes I still had trouble finding a coin or two. These last hiding coins represent perfectly what I mean about broadening your vision of the box. That missed coin is never in the wrong order in the line-up and it does not require some kind of hacking of the game to get. If I really can’t find it, it is probably because I am blind to an element or game mechanic. Maybe I don’t realize that tiny Mario can run on water, or that sliding into sand only kills you once you hit the bottom of the screen.

The World is Programmed

The thing that sticks out most about video games when we are trying to conceptualize the box is that video games are entirely man made. Someone sat at a computer and created everything you see, every physical interaction, every defining axiom. Gravity does not exist in games simply because there are two coded masses. There is a code telling there to be gravity (and that gravity can run on whatever equation the designer wants).

Thus whenever a game is asking us to “think outside the box,” what the game is really doing is asking us to learn more about the rules of the system that has been put in place by the creation team.

Thus whenever a game is asking us to “think outside the box,” what the game is really doing is asking us to learn more about the rules of the system that has been put in place by the creation team. Even the things that seem most like crazy creative problem solving were all designed by the programmer.

(Minor Spoilers to old games for one paragraph!)

In Brain Lord, for example, the game breaks the fourth wall. The player needs to figure out that the controller referenced in a riddle is the one in our hand and not the one presented in the game. Somewhat similarly, one of the bosses in Metal Gear Solid 2 requires the player to switch the controller to the second slot.

Even glitches exist because they have been coded. They may not have been purposefully coded, but they are byproducts of what the programmers have created.

These three examples may be unintuitive solutions, but they are clearly within the box that has been programmed to chart our path through the game. They are merely in many people’s blind spots. They require the use of tools that we are not accustomed to being asked to use when envisioning a solution. Breaking the fourth wall or considering glitches may be stepping out of one box, but only to find another box of axioms and expectations.

So What About Cheats?

Cheats that are included in the game are an interesting topic. In one sense they are no different from everything else coded in the game. On the other hand, they allow the gamer to alter the box they are in. Thus, they are weird, controlled ways to distort the axioms of the universe we are interacting with.

One of my favorite examples of in-game cheats is in Vice City. I loved combining a tank with the cheat to lower gravity. By firing the tank gun backwards in low gravity I was able to fly through the sky. I do not know why, but it was the coolest thing ever when I was younger.

Hacking a game is even more removed, as a non-controlled way to distort the rules of a game. In this way, I could concede that hacks are maybe “thinking outside the box” in that they give the user a creative license with what seem to be the inherently natural axioms. So maybe everyone preaching this aphorism just wants us all to be a little more like MIT pranksters? Ultimately, however, I think this is again another box we can learn to understand and play with… just one more of many ways we come to perceive, interact with and build a working relationship with the game.

Some Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, some people could write this entire article off to semantics. We could say that it’s just a handy phrase and we all know what it means, but the George Orwell in me is asking me to question the “staleness of language” and the “lack of precision”.

The phrase is stagnant and is used to mean many things. It has become a fallback for a vaguely euphemistic way to say, “what you are doing is wrong, try something else.”

The phrase is stagnant and is used to mean many things. It has become a fallback for a vaguely euphemistic way to say, “what you are doing is wrong, try something else.” Much more could be communicated if we question our diction.

Beyond this, I do not even think the imagery is a good match. A box is so defined. It has its vertices, its edges, and its symmetries. There is no clear cut line between a creative solution and an “in the box” thought. Why should an amorphous, intangible concept be represented by such a tangible geometric shape?

In addition, if we consider the generic way in which the phrase is often used, each and every one of our boxes would be quite different. So at the very least people should be saying, “think outside YOUR box,” because surely there isn’t a universal box under the current connotations of the phrase.

Anyways, that it’s for the article. Sorry this article wasn’t quite as actionable as some of my other pieces, it was just something that was on my mind. What do you guys think? Do you agree at all with what I am saying or have I gone off the deep end? Am I putting too much thought into semantics? How do you conceptualize “The Box”!?

Until next time, Game on and learn on!

~Dyl

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