False Endpoints

In the highly interesting New York Times Magazine article about play (of which I’m sure I’ll write more on later), there was a fascinating section about ‘false endpoints’:

Through play, an individual avoids what he called the lure of ‘‘false endpoints,’’ a problem-solving style more typical of harried adults than of playful youngsters. False endpoints are avoided through play, Bateson wrote, because players are having so much fun that they keep noodling away at a problem and might well arrive at something better than the first, good-enough solution.

If it’s not clear from the quote above, here’s what a false endpoint is: imagine you need to come up with a new advertising slogan for a chocolate bar. There’s no urgent deadline to it, and so you might work on it for a long time. However, if you’re a bit stressed out and the process of brainstorming the slogan isn’t fun, as soon as you come up with a slogan that’s just ‘good enough’ then you might call it a day and stop working. That’s a false endpoint; you could’ve come up with a much better slogan if the process was more fun – like play – and you’d kept working away on it.

I’ve never heard of false endpoints before, and I can’t find anything about the term on Google. I find it hard to believe that no-one has ever thought of the concept before, but perhaps no-one’s given it a name until now. In any case, it ought to be more widely studied.

In highly creative fields like storytelling and game design, where you have to work to deadlines and commercial demands mean that coming up with ideas aren’t that fun, there’s a real danger that you can fall into false endpoints – simply settling on a ‘good enough’ idea because you just want to move on. I’ve seen and experienced it myself. That’s why there are so many games are stories that are pretty good, but are lacking in certain very obvious ways.

I wonder whether incorporating play into the development process (not necessarily production, although I’m sure it would help to a degree there as well) of highly creative fields would demonstrably prevent or reduce false endpoints. The notion of introduction ‘fun’ into the workplace is not new, and deservedly groan-worthy, but perhaps making creative development not simply fun but interesting in a way that encourages this ‘noodling away at a problem’ is smarter way to approach it.

4 Replies to “False Endpoints”

  1. ‘False endpoints’, though, seem to be as much a consequence of ‘client won’t sign a blank cheque’ as of anything else. In an ideal world we’d brainstorm until the perfect idea presented itself, but the reality is that people want a solution, and they want it yesterday.

  2. I think that’s true as far as it applies to certain clients and certain projects (which I grant I focused on), but there are plenty of circumstances where no clients are involved, and there’s all the time in the world, and yet we still settle for false endpoints – take any creative project done as a hobby as an example.

  3. Wow, what a post – have bookmarked that to read properly later. Very interesting topic you’ve brought out of it though…

    Thinking a bit more about it, I’m wondering if a “false endpoint” is actually just a compromise, or – less diplomatically – a bodge. Many tasks in the real world – as opposed to play, “real” or otherwise – appear to be striving to meet loosely defined criteria with restrictions along several criteria.

    I think the loosely defined, or organic, criteria is the key to this – for example, in the creative example you give of an advertising slogan for a chocolate bar, there is no true “right” answer. The theoretical best answer is one that will increase sales to the maximum the economy will support – but does that mean that a critically acclaimed slogan which doesn’t appear to increase sales or brand awareness very much is a “false endpoint”? Or a slogan that triples sales – is that a “false endpoint”?

    I think the point I’m trying to make, clumsily, is that there’s very few actual endpoints per se outside of play. There’s improvements, and iterations, and breakthroughs… so we end up setting goals for ourselves, targets, because it means we can actually call something done 🙂

    Creative projects done as a hobby are a good example – in many senses they’re more like the above definition of play than anything else – we do them for fun, and have fun so we keep noodling away the problem to arrive at something better than the first, good-enough solution. But we still draw the line at *a* solution, just to be able to draw the line somewhere – even though we may well come back to it later!

    I do think one of the big attraction about many games is that there’s often clearcut metrics of success, which lend themselves to incremental increases in perceived performance – incrementing the false endpoints, as it were, which often appears to actually *enhance* the process of play.

    That’s quite enough disconnected rambling I think…

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