Mycelium is a creative thinking game, designed to foster the skills required for dealing with the wicked questions the world is facing today. It was developed by Dan Holloway, an Oxford-based polymath whose CV combines being the 2016 and 2017 Creative Thinking World Champion, a performance poet, entrepreneur, mental health campaigner, and university administrator. Since the launch of Mycelium in August 2018, Dan has been using it as part of creativity training sessions with doctoral students and post-docs in the Humanities and Social Sciences, as well as in outreach events with members of the public in libraries and museums. It is also for sale and can be played alone or with others. I talked with Dan about the purpose of the game, about the conditions conducive to experimenting with new ideas, and about the importance of creativity for thinking about the future.
What does the game entail?
The idea for Mycelium arose in the context of the Humanities Innovation Challenge. Dan, in his role as university administrator, was meant to inform academic staff about the event, and spontaneously decided to submit a proposal himself. Despite him only being able to work on it in his spare time, it turned out to be the winning contribution. The game draws its inspiration from many different sources of knowledge about the creative mind, ranging from the memory systems of mediaeval monks to contemporary research into the brains of jazz musicians, battle rappers, and cab drivers. It works with two basic principles: you are most creative when 1) you know lots of things about lots of things, and 2) you can easily make connections. Playing the game regularly can help with both, by getting you to practice with questions such as or “How would … help solve the world’s problems while … would make them worse?”, and “object” cards to fill the gaps. The author and her flatmates spent a good amount of time considering “What would happen if a well and a bee swapped places for a day?”, coming up with a surprising variety of scenarios and vigorously discussing why they made sense – the latter being as much part of the game as the former.
Teaching people to teach themselves
Dan’s approach to creative thinking has been informed by his own experiences of learning and teaching, both within the university and in self-organised contexts. He says: “I started off teaching philosophy when I finished university. One of the things I learned from that is that people learn better when you help them to teach themselves, rather than when you teach them.” Despite the fact that many common ways of teaching are not conducive of nurturing creativity, Dan doesn’t think it is impossible to work within established educational frameworks. “It’s almost taken for granted that education is antipathetic to creativity. The most popular TED talk about creativity is Ken Robinson’s talk about how schools teach us not to be creative. It’s become this dogmatic position that creativity and education can’t go together, and that in order to be creative you have to work outside of education altogether – whereas I think that if you teach people to teach themselves, it can be education but not in the sense of educating. It’s much more about true open access: giving people the conditions under which they can learn – a safe environment in which they are not being judged – and the tools to be creative – such as the Mycelium card game – and letting them take it from there. If you are teaching someone how to do things in a prescriptive way, then you will reinforce the problematic situation. However, if you help people to develop the mental tools to find a way of asking or approaching their question differently, you have the hope of finding a way out.”
Creating a safe space for learning together
One of the things that stand out in the experience of playing Mycelium, is that it is informal, fun, and sometimes slightly ridiculous. Dan is convinced that such an atmosphere is conducive to creative thinking, and we could do with more of it: “If the whole thing is either fun or silly, then you don’t worry about being ridiculous with a particular answer. This is also important in real-life situations: not to be worried about looking stupid. Because that’s one of the real things that holds us back: the fear of being the outlier, and as a result being the one that is laughed at. There are all sorts of social penalties for thinking creatively. I think that’s the most important thing to overcome. That’s why we need to create a safe space in which to learn together. If you have an environment where you are worried about what someone is going to say, you are never going to express the idea in the first place. And that might be the really important idea. I hope that people’s experience of playing the game will translate into what happens when they need to solve problems in a real-world setting. That they learn and remember: actually, that time we did it, when we weren’t being judgmental, it actually led to some really interesting things. Maybe, when we try it outside, we should be equally non-judgmental!”
Why we need creative thinking to have a future at all
The aim of Mycelium as a game is to help people develop their creative thinking skills. It doesn’t involve a consideration of how to best make use of those skills. I asked Dan if he thinks that creativity is important for its own sake, or whether he is also concerned about how people choose to employ it. He replied: “One of the things I try is to help people who are working on wicked problems. What makes such problems a problem in the first place, is that they come out of a particular way of doing things. Therefore, the only way out is a new and different way of doing things, and for that you need creativity. If people find themselves trapped in a problem and can’t see a way out, it’s often because they don’t know how to start. That’s where we tend to get stuck. Learning to think creatively is about learning to come up with different starting points. Also, wicked problems are future-related: if we are to have a successful future, or any future at all, we need to solve them. I think that much thinking about the future pretends to be much more innovative than it is. A lot of thinking about the future is simply what we have now with different kinds of technology, rather than something that is actually radically different. Or people come up with different futures by returning to past models that we’ve left behind. So again, it’s not genuinely new, it’s just reinventing something that has already been tried. I think that having more creativity involved in how we think about the future is really important, in order to avoid just going around in circles. My interest is in thinking about genuinely new futures.”
The future of Mycelium
Dan has had to combine the development of Mycelium and the facilitation of his creativity training sessions with a full-time job in administration. I wondered how he feels about this significant personal investment, and how he sees the future. “It’s been really worth it”, he responded, “just to see people’s responses to the game. It has enabled lots of conversations to happen that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Also, I think it’s really important to give people confidence to have and express ideas that they wouldn’t otherwise have expressed. It is great that I can make use of the university’s infrastructure – we have events at museums and libraries, so I get to meet and talk to the public. But whereas academics get to do that as part of their job, I have to go along in my spare time and sometimes hoodwink myself onto the guest list [laughs]. But it’s definitely worth the time and it’s an interesting experience as well, because you have to find a creative way of doing it. Now, it is a question of growing outwards from here. I can imagine moving into traditional education spaces, but also into alternative sites of learning such as Oxford’s Common Ground, where groups get together to think about problems. My work with Mycelium could support their process. I am seizing any opportunity I can to make my way into the circles of people who are working on the problems I think are most pertinent, and to offer my work where I think it would be most helpful!"