Friday, April 17, 2015

Embarrassed silence

I'm stealing the first three paragraphs of Pippin Barr's lovely post: (see also -- Emily Short's take)
A post called Minimum Sustainable Success by Dan Cook has been doing the rounds on Twitter recently and so I read it because people were saying it was good. And it is pretty good, especially if you’re a bit games+money minded – as I am not. It’s a hard look at how you might address and perhaps even mitigate some of the enormous risks and problems involved in getting into the making-a-living end of our beloved videogames.

In there, Dan brings up the “supportive spouse or family” category of game developers and points out that people don’t often “admit” to being in this one, with the idea being that it’s a bit embarrassing, and that it should be talked about more to add perspective to this crazy thing called “how the hell am I supposed to make the games I love and also live at the same time?”

Fortunately I have no shame, and so I’m writing this to represent one data point of the “supportive spouse” crew. Are we legion? I don’t know. I’m definitely one of us, anyway. Hi, here’s my life story (of privilege).
Like Pippin, I have a very supportive and awesome spouse. His name is Eddie.

In addition to currently making more money than I could ever hope to make as a part-time adjunct academic, he is a better Unity programmer than me and taught me a lot of what I know today. He also has really good design instincts; he had the idea to make the cooldown in Hurt Me Plenty go into several weeks, and he also picked-out the music used in Stick Shift. And right now, I'm making him write the server code for my upcoming dick pic game because I don't feel like doing it. (LOL.)

And sure, sharing wage labor and creative labor is really great, but relationships provide something more basic -- like, we share mundane household labor. Eddie cooks most of the time, I cook occasionally and wash dishes. We take turns going grocery shopping. ("Did you buy toilet paper already? Oh, okay, I'll do it on my way back from work.") ("What should we do for dinner? When will you be home?") And even more important than that, we also share emotional labor. We ask each other how our days went, we remember each others responses from days and weeks and months before, we help each other interpret how our lives are going and reassure each other that Things Will Be Okay.

All of this probably sounds really obvious to you, which is why I never felt like I had to say it. I always thought of it as, "no one really cares about my personal life" or "my relationship deserves privacy" or "married people are boring" or "it's boring to brag about how my relationships support me, and it's annoying / useless when the takeaway is essentially 'fall in love and be lucky' so why bother writing this post."

So when Dan Cook characterizes silence as "embarrassed silence" in his post, that just sounds emotionally tone-deaf to me, and speaks to a larger problem I've experienced in the games community.

Once everyone got on-board with "anyone can make video games", then the weird leap in logic was, "who wouldn't want to make video games," and worse, "who wouldn't want to solely live off their video games?"

... And the answer is that 99.9% of the world has no interest in becoming a game developer, and they'll pay rent some other way, and live perfectly meaningful lives. This is difficult to reconcile with gamer exceptionalism and "video games are the new dominant medium of the 21st century" rhetoric. If my life is dedicated to video games, and video games don't really matter that much, then does that mean my life's work doesn't really matter? (And will my games friends still like me?)

Like a few years ago, I was arguing with my mom. As she nears retirement, I thought she should take up some kind of creative hobby or write or something -- and it took an hour for her to drill into my brain that the meaning in her life came from her family and home, and she didn't care about her "professional output", and she liked having a job she wasn't in love with. As someone who prides himself on his creative and scholarly production, this mindset made absolutely no sense to me. But if I can't understand my mom, at least I can give her personhood and dignity and respect, and see her as a role model in countless other ways?

So that's what my experience of "embarrassed silence" is more about -- how was I so narrow-minded, to impose this idea of "success" on myself and everyone around me?

Then once I realized this, I wondered if I should say anything, or remain silent. Even now, I imagine people will read this post and interpret it as a pretentious attack on their commercial indie dev practice where I'm encouraging people to "give up on their dream" or to talk shit about indie sell-outs. Personally, I think even that (inaccurate, mis-read) conclusion is better and more useful than Dan's conclusion:
Perhaps the longer term solution is to run your games as a service. Try to create a product that produces reliable cash flows. This likely require a certain level of business thinking. You are making a financial machine that lasts instead of a Hail Mary piece of art that vanishes.
It took me a while to decide that I had no interest in running a business, and that it was okay to not want to run a business, and that I could live a different life than my peers while still counting them as my peers. It is absurd that it took me a while to realize that, and what stopped me from doing so was the assumptions exemplified in Dan's post, that this is naturally what everyone would strive to do. It took me so long to realize that those assumptions didn't apply to me. (My lack of self-awareness is not Dan's fault. But it's certainly a symptom of the dominance of indie biz culture.)

If you're living off your games and you enjoy the work, that's great and good job. I guess my conclusion is more for indie devs who are not "minimally sustainably successful" and wondering whether it's due to some deep spiritual weakness or "not wanting it enough" or whatever:

Dream more than one dream.