Arrogance, Intellectual Bias and “The Glass Ceiling”: Use Them

 

For anyone who feels like they’re being handled with intellectual kiddie gloves and haven’t been invited to the Grown Up Game Designer’s table.

 

This rant is all angry. Here’s a better one: On Creativity

[DISCLAIMER! This is a Rant! And if I'm Ranting it means that I have both experienced enough of this directly and seen enough good people burned by this that I am willing to put my head on the chopping block and lose friends over it. And I KNOW that I will lose friends over this. But this discussion needs to be started and I can afford to start it - I don't have a job to lose or a company brand that can come under attack. I've already been called Very Mean Things and will be called even worse things before my time is up. There is arrogance on ALL sides. I specifically targeted "Game Designers" because it is the field most fraught with discussions about who can or cannot be a good game designer and it is the one we are in MOST need of a diversity of thinkers and creative types!]

 

The amazing thing is that these phrases were NOT spoken cruelly, they were delivered off the cuff and even sincerely. The designers in question did not mean to be cruel at the time and possibly had no idea how the phrase was going to be received:

“Yeah, but that’s an AI problem, let’s not talk about that”

“Sure, if you want to help I guess we could find some marketing stuff for you to do”

“It’s really cool you want to help the games industry, designers need people to promote their stuff”

So I wonder, do I smell? Is there some olfactory waft of “she’s not one of us” hormone that automatically triggers the “use small words” social modifiers?

Of course they don’t know that back in high school I’d take Calculus summer classes at the local college because I thought they were interesting. That my hobbies are neurobiology and sociology – and I consume absolutely everything I can find on Creativity and how the brain works because I think that stuff is SUPER nifty!

No, I’m not a mathematician – I doodle to calculate probabilities because it’s faster for me to think through problems that way than to linearly write them out (though now my calculations are becoming a freak hybrid of subjective visual data and objective mathematical data).

You may see a pretty picture of a boy and a girl with a cute little poem. I see all the data I need to pick up where I left off in my design. Camera angle, style, lighting, position of characters in relation to each other, the careful choice of words: these are variables in a subjective formula that produces a very specific range of probable outcomes. I could come back to that picture in a year and know exactly what game I was making, all the core mechanics, and what I needed to figure out next.

No, I haven’t been making games for Mobile Platform A or Console Platform B: I design subjective experience games in the real world because GPU’s haven’t caught up with the human imagination yet and it’s faster for me to work with Actual Intelligence instead of Artificial Intelligence (but now that people are doing Really Cool Things with probability calculations in quantum computing, I’m going to have to get into it- because that’s how my brain works and I want to test if it works that way in a simulation too!).

No, I didn’t get into computer science when I was a kid – because I found PEOPLE so damn interesting. “Why do they do what they do?” and “How can two people see such very different realities – yet both believe that theirs is the Really Real Reality?”. These questions have directed my creative development since I was a wee tiny person.

Yet, at every games industry event, I meet Important People who handle me with intellectual kiddie gloves (if they see me at all – that “I’m Seeing Through You” stare of intellectual superiority is pretty obvious). These Important People run the gambit from artists to producers to fellow game designers.

The “Oh you’re so cute when you’re trying to be smart!” polite smile is just as common as the frustrated grimace of “stop trying to talk to me about that stuff, it’s pointless, you wouldn’t understand it anyways”.

 

Why? Where’s this Coming From?

 

The popular answer (at least in the games industry) has been an “It’s a Sexist, Old Boys Club!” reproach.

(I’m probably going to make a lot of people very angry with the following statement)

I don’t think that’s it.

At least…I don’t know if that’s the whole story.

I’m not saying that there aren’t sexist assholes in the games industry (you find those anywhere – and they’re not always men) but I’ve never experienced any kind of prejudice due to being female shaped.

In fact, the ONLY time I’ve felt personally uncomfortable is when I accidentally wandered into Anna Anthropy’s tent at IndieCade earlier this year – only to be subjected to a Sad Collection of Cartoon Penises (I’ve been teaching Boys game design for three years and in that time I have seen a great many cartoon penises of increasing artistic quality. These were not as original as those).

Again, I’m NOT saying sexism isn’t a problem in the games industry, I just personally don’t have any direct experience with prejudice directed towards my gender or sexual preference (which I haven’t even figured out for myself yet anyways – evidence suggests that I’m equally bad with both sexes so I’ve given the whole thing up as a useless debate. Let’s just call me Gender Agnostic – I leave the question alone and it seems a pointless distinction for me to make anyways).

The prejudice I HAVE experienced though, is one of Cognitive Arrogance.

I must not be a game designer because I do not have a computer science background (I have actually heard this, it’s crazy). I process information Subjectively as opposed to Objectively (imagine having mental instruments that comfortably calculate quantum electrodynamics but tend to break down and go all funny when trying to calculate thermal dynamics).

But we are in an Objective Primary industry where Logical, Linear, Binary thinking is the domain of our intellectual experts – and everyone else can be an Artist or in marketing or something.

“How do we make engaging experiences?”: our most asked design question.

Yet there seems to be this automatic bias against anyone from the Subjective Primary, Cognitive-Abstract domain trying to answer it.

Like we should focus on doodling pretty pictures or something and let the Real Designers do their work.

 

Angry? Frustrated? Think this is TOTALLY UNFAIR?!?

 

Good. Use that.

Show them up. Prove them wrong by designing better games.

Explore every tool at your disposal across analog AND digital space.

Don’t limit yourself to game engines – there are worlds of design opportunities stretched across social webs, physical spaces and the always nifty alternative-culture creative hubs.

A city is ripe with opportunities for experience design: Old buildings. Midnight parks.

Your game can spread across Arthouse Hotels, to college classrooms to Facebook.

There are Theater houses all over the country (any country) with old props and costumes – and most improv actors I’ve worked with have been happy to be a part of something nifty off-stage.

And if you WANT to use a game engine – learn it. Teach yourself. Don’t go looking for someone to code stuff for you.

Hell, while you’re at it learn everything you can about the laws of physics and the human condition – develop a voracious appetite for Unanswered Questions (because we are wonderful bundles of emotion moving through space and we aren’t even CLOSE to understanding that yet!).

You won’t win respect as a game designer through words. You won’t win respect through arguments. (No one who disagrees with me would have changed their opinions by now and are probably already mentally formulating a Scathing Reply as they read this).

You won’t even win respect by trying to share your theories honestly with people you admire (especially when the Reason processes you’re using output Subjective Data and theirs process Objective data).

You’ll win by doing it for yourself. Figuring it out yourself. Because it would slow you down to wait for them to come around (even if you really really REALLY want to work with them).

Don’t wait for anyone to give you permission to sit at the Grown Up Game Designers table (get your own damn table and run your own damn workshops!)

Design games. If people are enjoying them, figure out why and design new ones.

If people don’t enjoy them, figure out why and design better ones.

So long as you have the blissful Anonymity that comes with being overlooked and underestimated, you have the opportunity to make all your Really Big mistakes when Important People aren’t looking.

And when you’re designing games for yourself and your players and they’re having a great time (and so are you) – then you’ll find yourself wondering why it was so important that you feel Accepted or Included anyways.

Make games. Make lots and LOTS of games. Chase your curiosity until inspiration seizes hold of you and you can’t NOT play with that idea by making a game out of it.

If programmers or artists or business dudes or whoever won’t give you the time of day – then figure out how to do it without them.

Chances are you’ll discover something that turns out to be really really cool and inspires a bunch of other people anyways.

About Epona

Epona Schweer wants to figure out what "switches on" creativity in people. Researching, experimenting and sharing results here. Writing books, making games and coaching folks all over the interwebs. Shoot me an email, follow me on twitter (@EponaSchweer) or drop me a comment and say "Hi"!

Comments

  1. Not sure if it’s fair to come out just attacking one side of the fence.
    Plenty of designers suffer from the arrogance bug as well, and let’s not forget those “fancy pants” artists!

    It’s just a problem in general that many people consider themselves far superior to others, regardless of discipline, though you usually find one discipline having a go at the other, throwing blame across the table for whatever imagined fault or communication error that pops up.

    Programmers thinking they are intellectually superior to others.
    Designers thinking only they know how to make fun games.
    Artists thinking they’re modern day digital Picaso.

    No programmer knows how to do everything, and intellectualism isn’t everything.
    Not everyone loves Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja, and some people are fanatical Manhunt fans.
    Not everyone thinks Picaso was all that great, and some people avoid the “modern” art galleries like the plague..

    Best bit of advice is just be humble, and keep in mind not everyone is interested in what you say, just as you may not be interested in what other people might have to say. Arrogance is everywhere, and like you said, just ignore those people and get on with your life.

    Live and let live.

    • I agree with you! (And interestingly enough this post came after many many weeks of arguing with Hardcore Scientists about over whether or not art and subjective thinking should ever be considered as equal to Science and logical thinking)

      We need both!

      But there seems to be very few people arguing for the subjective side :(

      And I’ve met entirely too many intelligent people who believe that they are less intelligent than others just because they don’t process information the way they do.

      I’ve heard the “you’re not a real game designer unless you have a computer science degree” argument so many times now that I felt it was time to stick my neck out and make a counter argument! (keep in mind I think EVERYONE should learn computer science – but it shouldn’t be some signifying of design ability).

      My opinion: we need both subjective and objective thinking to be creative and both types to do awesome things.

      Right now we’re SUPER heavy on the objective side.

      I want to help balance us out by taking the hits for those visual-spatial thinkers who feel like they can’t risk sticking their neck out.

      • “My opinion: we need both subjective and objective thinking to be creative and both types to do awesome things.”

        Couldn’t agree more! The key lies in mutual respect between both types to realise the value the other brings to the table.

        • “Couldn’t agree more! The key lies in mutual respect between both types to realise the value the other brings to the table.”

          And that can start with us.

  2. I had a seriously mixed big with this issue working in a studio. On one hand, I was very much a fast, intuitive thinker, who had spent years NOT having to justify myself with my creative endeavours. This led to me blurting out what was a very subjective answer, that I felt suited an objective – Making a more interesting player experience. Sometimes it went down well, but a lot of times I was shot down, and it felt fucking arbitrary. It took a short time to realise that my immediate critics had never worked on a serious creative project of ANY form – Naturally, like everyone, they had their own way of being creative, but they’d never shown any interest in creativity FOR someone else’s enjoyment or entertainment. Basically, they were utterly selfish about it. What really shat me here was that I TOTALLY valued the skills and experience they brought to the table that I didn’t have, but they did not value my many years of creative pursuits in multiple fields.

    Funnily enough, I was the opposite of what Epona described – Instead of having issue with someone who wasn’t speaking in all the academic objective mumbo-jumbo. The flak I copped meant I started to take issue with people who had no background in creative pursuits or dealing with a broad range of people, trying to pretend they understood that stuff. After all, they had mastered techno-mumbo-jumbo… So they must be smart enough to do all that airy-fairy artsy stuff too right? Fucking arrogant. In the manner in which they dealt with others, they were effectively academically bright, yet socially dysfunctional – not stopping to think about how rude and exclusive it was to dismiss the ideas presented that didn’t fit into their process.

    I found that to be the biggest disappointment with the AAA games industry – a lack of inclusiveness of free thinking folks who weren’t very technical, with rigid process ruling the roost. There were also folks who claimed to need objective process as others brought subjective ideas to them, but made calls UTTERLY subjectively themselves. I don’t mind subjective calls, especially on things like theme and content and stuff – But FFS, if you’re doing it, ADMIT IT, and stop pretending you’re a fucking wonder of science.

    It wasn’t all bad though, I did get to work with some REALLY lovely, open people who readily admitted they were technical. One programmer in particular was a total joy to work with – I spoke to him about a desire to learn to code to get more involved with pushing things along, and he stopped me and said “Please no! We have good programmers already – We REALLY need people like you helping us make sure it’s going to be fun to play!”

    And surprise, surprise – This guy turned out to try his hand at some design stuff, and his work was good! He actually cared about wanting things to be fun, and that concern/drive meant he got good at it quickly.

    What I love about Epona’s advice here is it is encouraging the INDIVIDUAL to just go get into it themselves, and this is one of the reasons (there’s several) I’m now keen for indie dev, and don’t really have any interest joining a big studio anymore. I personally won’t be learning programming or art because it will simply take me too long (The way my learning-brain works, I’d literally need to stop trying to make anything for several years), and will derail me from actually finishing anything, while collaboration (which I love) will allow me to get there. I’m fortunate in that my work experience has made finding folks willing to collaborate a lot easier than it would of years ago. That may be tougher for a person looking to get into creating games from scratch, so Epona’s advice to learn to do more yourself is probably pretty sound for you! Dev tools are getting better too, and the barrier to entry is not what it once was.

    But the really key bit of advice here that’s gold – Do it yourself (or with a little group who share your vision, or trust in yours!), because you’re NOT going to get the chance to try your more creative ideas by joining an established studio that pays you a salary.

  3. I really enjoyed your thought provoking article. I think the combining of the two disciplines is essential. Walk Disney (art) needed Roy Disney (logic) to make Walt Disney productions into a great industry.

    I understand programmers thinking arrogantly. It seems that right now, they are in need and on high demand based on the salary differences I’ve read in Game Design magazine, and some therefore think they are more better human being as a whole.

    Condescension is never good, and separates teams. I think the team leader that allows that is to blame, and whoever hired that person. I used to struggle with condescension and comparing myself to others, always trying to think myself better than them. If they were smarter, well, I was more athletic. People who fall into that mentality can’t enjoy others successes.

    While I’d weight engine design more to the programmer, the programmer doesn’t put the value with the end product. My recent experience playing Edmund M’s Binding of Isaac, I found I spent two days playing endlessly and enjoying every minute. Creating a game is fascinating because it requires both sides of the brain to make a truly engaging experience.

    I enjoy the encouragement from your articles.

    • Thank you for your support Bryan! But I think it’s REALLY important that we don’t say this is a “programmer” problem.

      It’s not!

      This is much more of a ‘Western World’, Science and Reason over Empathy and Subjectivity, kind of argument.

      There are just as many asshole artist’s lording their abilities over others.

      And just as many asshole producers flaunting their people skills over ALL of us.

      In fact – why don’t we just say that where ever there CAN be assholes…there WILL be assholes!

      By saying we need to be open to Subjective Design in addition to Objective Design is NOT to say that Subjective Design was WAY MORE COOLER all along!

      It is only to say that we need to bring some balance back into the force!

      I start this discussion because the pendulum is SO far in one direction that we need to kick up more of a fuss to bring it back to the middle.

      But swinging it all the way in the OTHER direction is just going to get us a different kind of one-sidedness!

      EVERY HUMAN BRAIN is capable of both and USES both subjective and objective thinking all the time.

      We just grow to favor one kind more than the other!

      But just like people can train to write with their other hand or learn new skills even though they’re REALLY REALLY hard – we can train to use BOTH modes of thinking.

      It’s all one brain and it’s all us.

      It’s time we start accepting that we’re a WHOLE HUMAN and can’t just think like an artist or JUST think like a scientist and expect to make good games (or even live healthy and happy lives – at some point that lack of balance catches up!)

      We need to be Creative. And that means being able to switch between objective and subjective consciously.

  4. Although I belive that is important to have a marked division between roles on a team, I think you are absolutely right about the need of Subjective AND objective thinking walking together along the path. I am a programmer, but I come from a social sciences formation, so, I can really understand this need….

    On a different subject, this is my first time on your website and I liked it a lot! You have interesting ideas about the growth of an independent gamedev comunity and I´m sure we need it here in Brazil, specially in Rio de Janeiro, where I live. I hope someday you and me have the oportunity to colaborate creatively and intelectually on the development of this great world wide indie comunity!

    Cheers and salutes from Brazil,

    João Requião

  5. The problem when it comes to game design is that everyone these days is apparently a game designer. A few years back I was at a conference where I was a speaker and was at the end of day networking event. I was talking to someone, they asked what I did, so I handed over a card and got a smug kind of reaction. I didn’t bother to mention that I was a speaker or clarify my credentials as I didn’t feel the need to justify myself.

    I’ve been in this industry, albeit on the fringes of it, for a long time and I know my self worth even if it takes others a while to grasp it. As far as I’m concerned, I can view that as a loss for myself or a loss for them. So, I tend to choose the latter.

    Anyway, it didn’t occur to me later when I attended other events as to why I was perceived a certain way. Nearly everyone I met at the event introduced themselves as a game designer. I had put on my card simply: game designer. They had assumed that I was one of the many naive students trying to break into the industry. To those that have been in the industry longer, the title of game designer was one you had to earn. You didn’t just go around calling yourself one in case you stepped on someone’s ego by doing so; though, much has changed but not as much as some would like to think.

    But basically my point is perception. Our actions can be perceived a certain way and we in turn can perceive others a certain way based upon our past experiences. I guess you could say that we can jump to conclusions an awful lot ;).

    On the point (or rant) on programmers — technical (science) based versus and creative (arts) based problem-solvers. Well, yes they are both needed, however in the realm of entertainment, especially interactive. Its the creative / arts approach to problem solving that is actually more crucial to the success of projects. However, that’s not how things are “perceived,” especially by producers and business types. They value more the programming side due to the perceived importance of (software) technology to game development. Unfortunately, technology (code) is just technology and pretty much nothing else when it comes to entertainment. Though, in a way it’s value is mush easier to “measure” for accountant types.

    But here’s something I’ll let you in on being a qualified programmer and all. Something that definitely will NOT make me any friends. Most programmers, including game programmers, are a dime a dozen. At least 95% of them can be quite easily switched out with another; the only difference is their passive-aggressive bullshit you have to put up with will be different to the one being replaced. Their importance and “skill” are actually quite overrated by those that look at a page of code and only see the arcane of mystical words and evocation of syntax. Most programming is not what people think it is, which is writing complex mathematical formulas in code steps — algorithms. It’s more to do with logic and knowing the idiosyncrasies of a language and platform than math; with most “math” used in the form of (short) integers used to keep count of things, like how many iterations a segment of code has gone through. Most of the rest comes from using existing pre-written functions (classes).

    Now you can just as easily say similar things about artists and designers, however, they WILL be quite easily replaced on a whim by management as that is the way they are seen. Replaceable. Coders on the other hand can get away with quite a lot before their position is threatened. Most competent coders, leave on their own accord and are usually welcomed right on back, no matter how selfish their reasons for leaving were. They are also traditionally, better paid than the other disciplines due to their perceived importance to what is simply seen as a “software” project. No matter what else constitutes it.

    This is not a new phenomenon. I (naively) started my career in game dev in 2000 and that’s how it was then and that’s how it is now and will continue to remain.

    • “The problem when it comes to game design is that everyone these days is apparently a game designer.”

      Well, actually, YES!

      Everyone IS a game designer – we start designing games when we’re teeny tiny and playing with rocks and action figures and sticks and stuff.

      It’s only when we get older and go to school where we learn how to Learn from School instead of learning from Play that we stop being game designers.

      Sometimes it takes our whole lives to get that playfulness back!

      And sometimes we never do.

      Because people try and tell us who can and cannot be a game designer.

      And that’s not cool dude.

      • I think you misread what I said. I said that when people go around laying claim to a title that others in the industry had to earn. Well, you are going to rub them the wrong way. Sure things have changed, but, not in everyone’s mind.

        You can jump to conclusions as much as you like about that Epona, but do realise, that you perceive people a certain way, their actions a certain way. No matter if that is what they intended or not. And by reacting to them, you perhaps make that initial perception real. A self fulfilling prophecy.

      • Whew….this was an absolutely intriguing discussion to read through. Though I am not embedded in the games industry, I have experienced similar angst. Long and long ago, in a land far away, I was a theater artist (director, scene and costume designer, and when pressed an actor). Then I needed to have more consistent income to assure roof & chow for a small person. Funny how having a robust-for-my-age theater, dance, and visual art resume fell terribly flat out in the “real world.” It was only decades later that I’d learned how to present my arts background to a non-art-oriented audience. It all hinged on language/nomenclature.

        Once I realized that my arts background had direct business relevance I was able to affirm that I had significant depth of experience:
        * Selecting, building, and refining production teams (e.g. casting, rehersal, performing)
        * Effectively driving product goals from concept to completion (play selection to opening)
        * Assurance of highest quality product while respecting budget and schedules.
        * Innovative application of both common and uncommon resources.
        (“Wow” produced with “make do/free/cheap” materials)
        * etc. …. I’m sure you getting the general idea.

        I suppose what I am suggesting here is that that the creative folk fish in the technical folk’s language/idiom ponds to see what nomenclature can be hooked to express the value of the Creative’s unique offering.

        • What a wonderful comment!! And it’s so totally where my head is at these days – game dev feels so much like theater, only digital instead of analog (in the “physical” world)!

          Heh, so much so that that’s the theme of the series I’m writing for GameDevTuts right now: http://gamedev.tutsplus.com/articles/business-articles/creativity-a-game-designers-guide-to-show-business/

          Thank you for sharing this and how your background in stage direction translates across to business, this was wonderful to read :)

          I hope to talk to you more about this!! There’s a lot of people here in the games industry who are struggling with making the move into production management and I think your background in stage management has a lot of insights for those of us who are trying to figure out theater in the digital world! (it still comes down to people and performances, even if our props are made out of polygons instead of plywood!).

  6. The article was a tad bit hard to read through. Suprising how all those big intellectual words fall flat when it comes to getting across a point in a sentence. I at least feel like you where using big words to try for more respect or maybe thats what your vocabulary is built on. Either way, I’ll have to print this off and take it to work tomorrow to study a bit more on :)

    What I did find really great was all the discussion afterwards. I personally dislike talking about these types of issues. They are just not what I want to focus on in this industry. But it is intellectually raising to read others, esspecially Dan Toose, discussoins about these issues.

    I try and be the best human being possible. Empathetic, humble, kind, caring. understanding, patient. I cant claim to be the best by any measure but its so sad to see so many other indivduals with such social disfunctionality. Such as “arrogance”.

    I try and build my relationships with people I care about up to the point that they completely and utterly understand me and know who I am and what I’m about. Build trust and compassion within the relationship. It nearly becomes a love affair. If I dont then so much misunderstanding of each other happens, and in an industry that relies so much on collaberation it just dosnt make sense not to build strong relationships.

    I guess what I’m trying to get at is that being part of this industry it should be a prerequisite to care and understand about each other. But its the exact oppsite on nearly every single level. High management down to your colleagues.

    Its funny though, my current work place which is in manufactoring seems to have a higher degree of compassion than this industry where discussing. My management really gives a shit about us and my colleagues show the upmost repsect and understanding among each other. I am greatful for where I work currently because I’ll be bringing those traditional values of respect to this industry that I’m studying to be in.

Agree? Disagree? Tell us about it!

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