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When games are great

If you look back at the beginning of HoopIdea, we described this motto: "Basketball is the best game ever. Now let’s make it better."

One of my favorite radio shows is WNYC's Radiolab, where a while ago they talked to a bunch of brainiacs about what makes a game great. And they presented compelling evidence that the magic lies in marrying the minds of three-year-olds with the minds of six-year-olds.

Here's what they mean: Three-year-olds have no limitations in inventing the craziest, most fanciful stuff (vacation on the moon!) with no regard whatsoever for the limitations of reality. This reminds me of Bill Russell, about a decade ago, trying to explain the magic of Bob Cousy and Julius Erving to a bunch of reporters. The skills, he explained, were only part of it. First, "you had to have that imagination!" Before you can worry about completing some amazing move, you have to have the idea to even try.

Six-year-olds, however, are those same kids on the playground, shouting things like: Here are the rules. No, you can't do that. That's not fair.

And on and on.

At three, no limitations. At six, limitation city. Kind of like a coach who does NOT want you to attempt that wild play.

The best games, explains psychology professor Alison Gopnik on Radiolab, balance those two. The wild creativity of things you have never seen before, possibly have never even imagined before (A four-point play at the buzzer! A putback dunk for the win! A bounce pass through all kinds of crazy!) with a clear and enforceable set of rules.

Games die when rules win, and the whole thing becomes knowable. For instance, tic tac toe and checkers can be played "perfectly," according to best practices, such that two skilled players can play to a draw just about every time. Chess, on the other hand, is still a candidate for things that have never happened before, called The Novelty, and thus maintains deep mystery and excitement even for aficionados.

If you listen to that bit of radio linked up above, realize that on some level what HoopIdea is about is nudging NBA basketball just a half-inch closer to that wild inventiveness, and away from controlled, knowable right ways of doing things. We imagine a game that your inner six-year-old will respect and believe in, but that will thrill that inner three-year-old game after game.