International College Hong Kong
Nov 26, 2019

The Ninja Box" - Experiential learning in the Human Technologies curriculum at ICHK

Phil Morgan is Director of Creativity, Head of Human Technologies at ICHK

As a serious student of 'Creative Thinking', few things interest me more than the mental state that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi christened 'Flow'.

If you're not familiar with the term, you'll certainly be familiar with the experience.

In 'Flow' you become fully engrossed with, and engaged in, an activity that holds your full attention. You enjoy being in this state so much that the external world fades away, leaving you in blissful concentration. Time contracts and hours feel like moments. You resist emerging from it.

Flow is a highly attractive and creative state to be in, but a precarious one to maintain. If a challenge becomes too demanding, our commitment and tenacity can wane and we quit the process. If the challenge is too simple we become bored and exit stage left. I fall headfirst into 'Flow' when writing, editing, making things, wrapping my head around a creative problem and watching a truly great movie. As a game-maker, educator, and experience designer, much of the difficulty in inducing and sustaining flow states lies in the creation of a 'reasonably demanding' challenge - Hitting that sweet spot between boredom and intense frustration.

'The Ninja Box' was an attempt to engineer a thinking/teamwork challenge for groups, with the induction and maintenance of an hour-long flow state in mind. It is by far the most elaborate game I have made (so far!), cobbled together from packing cases, a repurposed stereo speaker, a few ready made boxes, a beautiful brass cryptex from The Shop of Many Things and lots of weird and wonderful locks.

As much as I love a good escape room, the set-up involved is always arduous and complicated and outside of purpose-built rooms, few workplaces have the time or space for the maintenance of a permanent installation, so I thought 'Why not make a fairly portable experience'? - I'm calling these stand-alone experiences 'Objectionables'. The premise is very simple, once players begin to explore an object, they find that they are somehow 'trapped' by the story of that object. For some reason (Not giving away all my secrets... :-)) the players find themselves compelled to stick with the 'Objectionable' until it is solved, or they suffer some sort of terrible fate.

Here's a short film of the Ninja Box in action!

Here are a few things I've learnt if you ever feel like attempting to make an 'Objectionable'.

It's a fun, if frustrating process.

It takes more time than you ever thought possible.

Work backwards. Start with the endpoint of the game first. What does 'The win' look like?

Avoid doing the fun 'Aesthetic' work first. Game mechanic first. Looks later.

Don't build anything until you have finished it on paper. Plan, plan, plan.

Test every single element of the game relentlessly. Mistakes creep in very easily. Use test subjects to help you catch mistakes early on. Look at ways of 'misplaying' every puzzle element. Test out how wrong you can get it.

Test the whole game on a forgiving audience first.

Be prepared for players to do unpredictable things with the equipment

Live near a hardware store and get used to doing odd-looking shopping.

Avoid 'Feature Creep' like the plague. Don't keep adding 'cool new ideas. Overcomplication leads to very painful bouts of confusion.

Document everything in detail. Codes, numbers, solutions. Document them in one place...not in several different notebooks. Only an idiot does that...(ahem).

The devil is in the detail.

Build a really tough object. Players do not treat your game with the same care you do. Unbreakable is best.


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