Creativity games: what-if and what-else

A simple creativity exercise we can play anywhere at any time is the what-if or what-else game. This exercise can be applied to almost anything and can be easily modified for more controlled experience.

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Simple “what if” game

Our basic visualization is person-action-object, so the easiest exercise is replace just one of these factors and see what happens.

For example, we can replace a person in any given situation.  We can either replace a single attribute or the entire person.

Alternatively we can replace only the action or strategy performed by the person. In a critical moment each of us may make a crucial decision. What if the person made a different decision? How would that affect everything.

There there is an object. We leave the person and the activity as-is and change only the target of the action.

Additionally it is interesting to leave the person, action, object unchanged and move the entire scene into a different setup: it can be a different space or time, cultural or financial situation, availability of knowledge or technology.

This is the simplest form of “what if” game. What if Elvis was bold? What if Hitler’s paintings were a huge success? What if Einstein chose violin over physics?

Marvel’s “What if” series is a cool example of playing this game.

“What else” modification

Instead of playfully modifying one of the elements, to see what happens we try to scan the “space” of alternatives.

The basic combination would be multiplying objects. If a person applies strategy to one object, the same strategy can be applied elsewhere. What else could it achieve?

Alternatively, the action itself may be modified. Instead of one operation or strategy, an alternative strategy or series of operations or strategies may be applied. What else can cause a similar effect?

The person may also be modified, and not necessarily by another person. What else can perform this activity?

The context may also be modified. For example: what else can this combination of person-action-object achieve? Or alternatively, which other combination of person-action-object can appear in the same context.

A classical example of this game is root cause analysis. What could cause this result? What else would result from this root cause? What else could cause this result?


Related to SCAMPER

SCAMPER is a basic creativity tool for problem solving. It defines a set of operations that can be used for example in “what if” game.

  • Substitute: What can be replaced? (for example, components, materials, people)
  • Combine: What can be combined? (for example, other features, devices)
  • Adapt: What can be added? (such as new elements or functions)
  • Modify, Magnify, maximize, minimize: What can be modified? (for example, change the size, shape, color, or other attribute)
  • Put to other use (purpose): Could you put the product to a different use, or use it in another industry?
  • Eliminate or minimize: What can be removed or simplified?
  • Reverse, reengineer, or rearrange: What would happen if you reversed the product’s production process? What can be swapped or flipped?

Initially SCAMPER appears as a relatively abstract tool. With time most of practitioners learn to derive a significantly large set of specific operators, and try them one by one.

Attributes and perspectives

Quite often instead of changing an entire object, we change just its attribute. When we consider people we may change their motivation. A person is doing some action with some object. What if the person is angry? What if the person is sad? What if the object is very expensive?

Perspectives may also affect the way we are influenced by the event. What would my role model say about the event?

Larger systems

Not every situation can be easily described by a PAO. For example, in TRIZ any working system must have 4 parts: the engine, the transmission, the working unit, the control element. It is not unlike placing 4 PAO in the corners of a big room. Only here the parts of the system interact with each other, and modification to one part may require modification to other parts.

For example, a bigger engine applies more torque on transmission, requires better traction of wheels on the road, increases fuel consumption and price. Adding a second engine (like in a hybrid car), enables higher torque without more complex transmission system and decreases fuel consumption, but requires more complex control and a large battery. As a creativity exercise you can add a flywheel (mechanical energy storage) to the design, or move the electric motors to the wheels, or add capacitors for short-term energy spikes.

The focus is on playing with the way different parts of the system affect each other.

Creative templates in science fiction

Some genres of science fiction constantly deal with “what if” scenarios. There are series that deal with people who have exceptional skills, series that deal with strange artifacts and regular people, regular people and artifacts but strange events modify the rules of the game and so on. “Rick and Morty” series are exceptionally inventive in what-if games, often changing multiple factors.

The element of “how” here is less important than the effect of the anomaly. We accept the premise and see what happens. I think that many actual inventions and social changes where inspired by science fiction writers. Experts occasionally rely on the creative templates from science fiction projecting them into reality.

The “how can” game

“How can it be that” is a complementary game. In this setup we accept a strange set of results and look for the most reasonable explanation. Basically it is a detective work. Assume that people can fly. What can explain that? Some bees wings should not generate enough lift based on the simple computation, but we know that the bee flies. How is this lift generated?

This game can be harder than “what if” game, but also more rewarding if successful.

“Yes and” mindset

The “what if” style of creativity games requires positive thinking. The automatic approach is not analyzing why this could never work, but playing the entire scenario under the assumption that everything will work.

Consider Star Trek series. The team and often the galaxy are in a huge danger. All team members understand that, yet they work in total belief in the abilities of other team members.  In the last possible moment, somehow everything succeeds. At the end of the episode the disaster is avoided. In this sort of fiction the heros do not panic and blame each other. They are positive, creative and action oriented. If one participant offers something, the others try to cooperate using “Yes and” mindset and positive self talk.

Innovation is mandatory

Playing creativity games for a while we often find ourselves repeating the same basic activities while changing the background. The solution is innovation.

Some innovation comes simply from playing with others and observing what happens. An average algorithmic team in any company is a nerd paradise. If you start playing “what if” game during lunch break, you will get the entire team playing with you.

Other forms of innovation come from reading. When read we get what we want to get. If’s like a pregnant lady suddenly noticing numerous other pregnant ladies on the streets of an average town. If we are looking for ways to improve our “what if” games, we will find such ways.


Science fiction short story may ask a simple “what if” question. Science fiction series episode will perform multiple creative operations one after another, often resolving nearly absurd situations. Our dreams also work this way. We usually chain multiple “what if” effects and follow the way everything affects everything.

When to play creativity games?

Ideally we should play these games as a part of our job, but also as a hobby, and as a time filler. As a time filler to play these creativity games when bored: driving, resting during Pomodoro break, waiting for someone. The hobby or work may dictate the subject. Playing these games as time filler we gain creative freedom. The more we play the creativity games, the more likely we are to succeed in our actual jobs.


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