Total System Failure: When talking doesn’t happen at crucial moments
[This is the second of three articles based on a talk I gave at Game Connect Asia Pacific 2011, titled Working with Humans. You can read the first part here or jump ahead to Tools for Talking: Changing the Way We Communicate]
In a previous article we talked about how critical good communication is the success of a studio. If company culture is built around the free exchange of ideas and information than great work gets done quickly by impassioned individuals fiercely driven by the shared need to see the company succeed.
If people talking, openly and honestly, is the most common feature of successful projects in our industry – why is it so rare?
Why do people find it so hard to talk during crucial moments?
Us vs Them!
A few years ago I was working at a studio disastrously close to mutiny.
The project was underfunded, understaffed and a year behind schedule. Worried they wouldn’t make their release and would lose the publisher, the producer instated mandatory weekend shifts. Normally this shouldn’t have been an issue, we’re all aware of the potential for crunch on a project, but in this particular case development stopped and the art team threatened to quit.
Management was taken completely by surprise. Everyone expects to crunch in our industry, that’s just part of entertainment. What on earth were the artists thinking? A stop in production at this point could kill the entire project, and sink the studio with it! How could they be so selfish!
What management didn’t know was that for the first year of production the art team felt they had been asked to do work they didn’t know how to do using tools they weren’t trained for. When they had finally worked out a pipeline on their own, the tools it depended on were cut from the budget and they got stuck with cheap software with little to no documentation.
Already overworked and underpaid, realising that all their effort of the last year had been for nothing, and now management had the nerve to ask them to go through that again for LESS pay? Who the hell do they think they are? How could they be so cruel?!?
Two groups of people, both wholly convinced they are in the right and wholly unaware of the situation affecting the other side.
At any point anyone could have spoken up and shared their concerns about the survival of the project or asked for the direction they needed to do their best work. But for an entire year no one said anything at all and production had to stop before people started talking about these critical issues.
This is not a rare case. We’ve read this same story on forums and “tell all” media frenzies after every studio closure.
What’s happening here? We are some of the brightest minds in the digital industry – and sometimes it feels like we’re back in highschool: picking fights, freezing out the people who don’t agree with us, keeping silent when we shouldn’t and speaking out at the worst times.
For such highly evolved creatures our social programming is shockingly faulty.
Still in Beta
Our brains are marvelous, amazing constructions, the result of millions of years of evolutionary prototyping.
The core mechanics, the ability to ensure survival and instinctively respond to life threatening situations, have been in development for years. The processing in that part of the brain (the limbic system) has been so streamlined that reaction is nearly instantaneous. It’s the perfect system: no boot time, no blue screen.
This gives us the ability to respond to danger before being cognitively aware of it. Crucial when we’re driving on a high-speed freeway or walking through downtown LA at night.
Unfortunately it has a hard time telling the difference between a starving assailant and a furious production manager.
The same systems that start pumping adrenaline into the bloodstream are driving our reactions in the office. Muscles tense, vision narrows and nonessential processes like language and rational thinking get shut down.
The result? People either flee to protect themselves, withdrawing into silence; or fight to defend themselves, lashing out and becoming socially destructive.
Those “nonessential processes”, the ability to talk like rational people and think carefully about a problem to choose the best solution, were added in a much later patch with the introduction of the Neocortex. The seat of all logic and reason, Plato and his followers down the generations believed that was the part of the mind that made us human. The most essential state of our being.
So if that update was so game changing, why do our brains still default to neanderthic fight or flight responses?
Unfortunately the user interface for all this social programming, the Prefrontal Cortex, is so new we haven’t worked all the bugs out yet.
That interface is responsible for regulating when we should be rational, and when it’s too dangerous to waste time thinking and need to react on instinct instead.
And the instinctive limbic system, with its fast load times and streamlined processing, is the first to respond when we’re feeling threatened.
This is what that switch looks like:
You’re on your way to a general staff meeting. You just got off the phone with accounts and the news is bad. If the publisher cuts funding after the next deadline you won’t be able to afford to renew the lease let alone keep the staff you need to finish the project. Somehow you’ve got to convince your team to work even harder than they already are or the studio is going to go belly up.
You walk into the common room. Everyone looks tired.
“Alright folks, I’ve got some bad news. I know you’ve worked hard but we’re going to have to ask you to work harder. We need to stay back on weekends or we’re not going to make our deadline”.
Shoulders slump, someone kicks the chair in front of them. The tension in the room rises. This is the part you were dreading all the way down the hallway.
“…and unfortunately, right now, while we can’t pay any extra overtime…”
You get cut off with “WHAT? Are you kidding me? You want us to work weekends and you won’t even pay us?!?”
“…hang on, listen, we want to pay you it’s only right now…”
Someone else stands up, obviously furious “This is ridiculous! You don’t come down here for months and this is the first thing we hear from you? Do you realise how hard we’ve been working?”
“…hey, we’re all working hard, but if the art was done sooner we could have at least…”
“You’ve must be joking! You’re laying that on US?!? Forget it! I’m not losing my weekends to you!”
It’s unbelievable. All around the room people are choosing NOT to do what’s right, what’s needed. This project is going to die, everyone’s going to lose their job and they can’t even see that “Now listen up, if you don’t want to work weekends FINE! You don’t have to work here at all!”
We could argue over who was right and who was wrong. They certainly did.
But that would be overlooking a crucial point.
We Don’t have to Respond Like This
If management had been aware of the art department’s need for more direction and resources than work may never have slowed down in the first place. If the artists were that the publisher was threatening to cut funding if the next deadline wasn’t met then they might have been able to help and offer better solutions.
What happened instead was a complete degeneration into bad behaviour. Smart people saying, and doing, stupid things.
As each side felt themselves threatened their ability to rationally discuss the issues became overcome by the need to defend themselves. Talking stopped. From that point forward it was all reacting to assumptions, misjudgments and fear.
You may be thinking through all this “Well if it all comes down to the way our brain is programmed, then how can we change?”
This is the part where I get really nerdy about how cool the human brain is:
We can patch our own social programming! Through practice and repetition we can build new neural pathways and train the brain to stay rational and reasonable during crucial moments.
Eventually both management and artists in the studio above started working together to find a solution that benefited everyone. The project finished on time, was a huge success and the studio survived.
In the next article we’ll get into how that happened and share the tools they used to get people talking.