I loved LEGO as a kid and although that love has cooled down, I still consider many physical LEGO models beautiful products, both aesthetically and functionally. It can be argued that the LEGO aesthetic anticipated pixel art graphics in games and as such fully play into my analysis of the discreet vs. the continuous.
Yet even as a kid I had way more fun assembling LEGO models than actually playing with them. And although it would be easy to argue that creating your own models from LEGO bricks would be the actual creative activity, when I tried, I found the experience to be incredibly frustrating. The bricks available to me where always too few and the colors always not the ones I was looking for. LEGO itself also didn’t really encourage creating models outside its own since basic packs of bricks were either not easily available, contained too few parts, or were way too expensive (this situation has only partially improved today).
More importantly, to this day I find the process of following the manual to assemble the model the most soothing aspect of everything LEGO. Seeing the model come to life in front of you is a comforting, peaceful process that easily brings you into a state of contemplation/flow. Progress is steady, the end goal is clear, the way to it is paved. It’s so much fun not despite but because it’s an unchallenging and uncreative task. It clears your mind and makes room for other thoughts. It can be done on the side while listening to an audio book or music or having a light conversation. It can be paused and easily resumed. Everything’s laid out before you: the parts, the goal, the solution.
When I tried to come up with similar activities two came to mind: cooking and knitting. Both cooking and knitting follow the same process as building a LEGO model: all resources lie before you (vegetables, wool), you usually have a manual/recipe to follow, and you have a clear goal. In addition, once you reached the goal, you are rewarded with a physical sensation: a meal which you can taste and a garment which you can touch/wear. Thus, maybe one can subsume this „activity design“ under the label following recipes.
When mapping this design to games, there are a couple of interesting observations we can make. First: Minecraft.
Minecraft’s „creative mode“ is sometimes called the „LEGO of games“ although it largely contradicts LEGO’s design approach. Minecraft’s low-poly models and low-res textures may mimic LEGO’s „discrete“ aesthetics, but the game’s creative mode imposes no restrictions on the availability of building blocks and thus doesn’t follow LEGO’s „recipe“ approach of offering fixed models. Instead, Minecraft is what creating your own LEGO playground would look like if you would have access to all types of bricks and colors; which is great but obviously a very different design approach. (In a particular curious case of capitalistic tautology we now also have Minecraft-branded LEGO models. I wonder how well these sell.)
Then there are strategy games which often have a building/modeling component: classic games like Sim City, StarCraft, Civilization. In these games the fun of „building things“ is usually second to strategic or combat decisions which must be made in real time. From these games the construction and simulation genre has emerged with games such as Theme Park or Rollercoaster Tycoon where the building aspect is more prominent but ultimately part of a business simulation.
More recently, pure town builders have emerged that aim for a more contemplative game experience that already come pretty close to the „LEGO experience“: games such as Dorfromantik, Islanders or Townscaper. Here, you often have a limited set of building blocks which you can then use to freely build up a town/island to your liking. This subgenre is both novel and already pretty popular and shows that many players don’t miss the stressful aspects of strategy or simulation games.
What remains to be seen is if the design approach of „following recipes“ has a place in games as well. If one would broadly subsume tutorial sections of games under this label, it maybe already become clear that just following orders is the opposite of a relaxing or contemplative experience. Nevertheless, I feel that this design approach has potential and there’s a soothing game lurking under it.