Brainwriting more Fair than Brainstorming

edited September 2014 in Play Advice
This article illuminates a fact that most of us are probably aware of, but rarely consider as a social phenomenon: that in a brainstorming session (or, one might argue, in a collaborative storytelling session), early speakers gain a significant advantage in having their ideas "anchored" and accepted as fundamental to the group idea, just as frequent speakers do in freeform group conversations. "Early ideas tend to have disproportionate influence over the rest of the conversation," [says] Loran Nordgren, a professor at the Kellogg School. "They establish the kinds of norms, or cement the idea of what are appropriate examples or potential solutions for the problem."

Certainly there are many game situations in which turn order is intended to grant exactly that privilege, with later ideas following upon and building off of earlier ones. The step-by-step formation of time-bound narratives is one such area. But in other situations - when open, spontaneous and egalitarian idea generation is the intention - this "anchoring" of early ideas may cause undesired effects.

The solution put forward in the article is called "Brainwriting", in which participants silently write down their ideas before collecting and revealing them all at once. This technique gives everyone at the table an equal chance to have their idea accepted on its own merit, rather than how well it fits in with things already said. Depending on the intended nature and flow of idea-generation used in your collaborative game, you may want to consider giving brainwriting a try.


  • Very interesting! Thanks.

    Worth pondering for any designer.
  • Yeah, brainstorming and collaboration in general always puts at its center the already-existing social structure of the group. Watch who gets their way in 10 PTA Pitch sessions and who doesn't. It's sobering.
  • edited September 2014
    I should note that the video accompanying the article states that the brainwriters should not sign their ideas, nor indicate their identity on the cards. The facilitator collects them and pins them all on a board (or lays them out on a table) all at once. It shouldn't be a "here's MY idea" situation. It's a "pool of ideas" situation.

    After they're laid out, they can be discussed, voted upon, clustered, etc.

  • When reading about this, I came to think of two games made by @Simon_Pettersson.

    Det sjätte inseglet (Eng. The Sixth Seal) lets the players write secrets to be revealed later in the game, after introducing some the characters and probably some of the setting. Each note is then later revealed one by one as the group plays on, as a form of plot twist. This works as a nice uncertainty and is free from the influence of others, apart from the setting given from the book.

    Svart av kval, vit av lust (Eng. Black of Despair, White of Lust) let all the players brainstorm the setting, what kind of vampires it inhabits, and all people and relations. All this is done openly which means that early ideas gets cemented so others can build on them, and it should be like that, because it's something social we do together.

    The first game is probably an example of brainwriting and the other one brainstorming. Both got their places and should therefor be handled differently.
  • That is very true. I have been in a few design sessions and they follow the improve style. That is some one puts forth an idea then everyone else adds an "and" or "but." This allows fast design but a bad idea at the beginning can throw things. In a game one player can throw the story and all the rest can do is tack on fixes but not stop the direction outright.

    You can also do note cards/post-it notes of ideas and share round by round, building as you go. Thats a more scrum/agile style of design. I should write up an agile take on game design.
  • I love this stuff. I'm going to play devil's advocate here and say that I feel like it's possible for certain individuals, if they're emotionally/mentally prepared to be somewhat more unaffected by the anchoring phenomenon here. Basically by focusing mostly on spouting out contributions without listening to others. But expecting this much mental awareness and energy at a typical brainstorming session or meeting is, almost certainly, having unrealistic expectations. Just thought it was worth thinking about.

    I'll also add a question: wouldn't anchoring affect each individual? I.E. my own early written ideas affect later ones I posit. Again, being aware of the phenomenon might help me deliberately try to "write and forget" as quickly as possible.
  • While "anchoring" limits the possibilities of future scope, isn't it fundamentally THE very thing which makes brainstorming work?

    Isn't it that throw-out-an-idea, and-quick, what-does-it-make-you-think-of the very mechanism which makes brainstorming tools effective? (And why good ones often *start* with some kind of prompt or seed idea?)

    It seems to me that trying to get rid of "anchoring" altogether might not be a productive pursuit. (Although definitely worth investigating!)
  • edited September 2014
    The basic rule when brainstorming is "there are no bad ideas". The purpose of a traditional brainstorming session is to get EVERY idea out on the table before organizing, clustering, or culling them. So anchoring, because it creates limits, would work against that goal. Anchoring (if it is to happen) would happen in the step AFTER brainstorming.

    Brainstorming (or brainwriting) as a methodology applies to certain exercises or subsystems you might consider building or implementing in a game, but certainly not all. Sometimes (quite a lot of the time), you do want anchoring and linear agglutination. That's an easy way to build a causal narrative in temporal order, for instance. Without that, FIASCO would be a very different game. But there are other situations - maybe brainstorming on a Palette for Microscope, or brainstorming on what games the group wants to play next - in which you want to get everyone's true opinions or ideas, and you want to avoid letting the first speakers (or the most frequent speakers) "dominate" or overly influence the others. In these situations linearity is not the goal, but rather a "throwing a wide net" to gather as many ideas as possible.

    @Big_J_Money - certain individuals; for sure.
  • As they speak out, perhaps people always anchor their ideas to the current context. So, even the first person that says something does so out of the non-verbal cues, preconceptions or social dynamics that the group already has. Maybe writing steps a bit away from that.
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