Reflections on ‘Sapiens’

It’s been a while since my last post! I’ll try to get on it more often. I guess that’s more for me than it is for you, but oh well. Now you know that I’d like to blog more often.

Today’s post is a reflection on the book Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari. This book came highly recommended by some friends, and I found it absolutely fascinating and eye-opening. It tells the story of humankind from the time before we were recognizably human up to today, hitting all the major points of development like the advent of writing, money, religion, etc. I wanted to talk about a couple of big points that made me think, and as usual, try to give people something to reflect on as opposed to summarize the book or teach what was learned.

The first major idea was the idea that Sapiens destroyed everything we’ve ever touched, ever. Since the time that we were tribes of chimp-like creatures, we’ve multiplied and obliterated everything in our path. Even before industrial deforestation, before the industrial revolution and the associated pollution, before global warming was a thing that we knew about, we were killing thousands of species and leaving desolation wherever we went. The giant mammals of Australia are a good example; these giant mammals had never seen predators like us, who managed to invade their territory by boats, and by the time they could learn that we were dangerous, we had already slaughtered them all. Bonus: I learned about the diprotodon, a cute giant wombat.

Another idea I found very intriguing was the idea of money, capitalism, communism, and humanism as “religions”. On religion, Harari says:

Religion can thus be defined as a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order.

We know that football is not a religion because it was clearly invented by humans and has a well-defined set of rules and rituals. According to Harari, a religion must “espouse a universal superhuman order” and insist on spreading this belief to everyone. Capitalism is an interesting example of this, because it seems to exist outside of individual humans and while it’s not associated with deities, it has a superhuman way of controlling the entire world’s behaviour. It may not spread in the form of missionaries like other religions, but it spreads through education, culture, and I would argue it’s a strong meme (in the sense of actual memetics, not internet humour). Something to ponder!

Lastly, the idea that agriculture was the beginning of the end for humankind is an idea that resonates very strongly with me. It’s something I had thought before, and he does a great job of explaining this without explicitly saying it in his book. I think a lot of the problems we have in society today and have had throughout the history of modern society have their roots in the fact that we changed from a nomadic hunting and gathering animal to a sedentary, farming one. The range, at least in my opinion, is huge. Materialism (especially exaggerated, damaging forms of it), depression from loneliness, bad eating habits, a culture where work takes up more than half your life, bad sleep habits, disease, the list goes on. I have hundreds more questions about this when thinking about how individualism came about, at least partly from sticking people in tiny houses that they “owned” and separating them from their tribe. So many questions!

But I won’t ask them all here, I’ll simply tell you that overall the read was fantastic and I highly recommend it to everyone. It also makes a good gift!

Tough Questions to Improve Your Leadership

A few weeks ago was the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco. GDC is where a bajillion (I think that’s the official figure) people talk about games for a week, and we get full of knowledge, tons of new contacts, inspired and tired. I was fortunate enough to give a talk at this conference called “Tough Questions To Improve Your Leadership”, which is available on the GDC Vault here, but unfortunately it’s not made available to people who didn’t get a GDC pass.

The view from the podium!

I wanted to write about this talk because not everyone was able to attend the talk, or went to GDC, or has access to the Vault. I gave out a handout during the talk to follow along with, and it listed the questions I brought up in my talk. Here they are, and you can download the sheet here if you wanted to actually fill it out yourself or with your team.

Along with these questions are some of the sources I used, or keywords to search that are related to the questions and could help you learn more.

Are you your own worst boss? How could you improve your own leadership by improving how you take care of yourself?
Seth Godin blog post – “Are You Your Own Worst Boss”

How do you make your employees or colleagues feel like they’re appreciated, heard and empowered?
For this question, I asked the audience to break up into groups and discuss this with the people around them, then write down those answers.

How much cognitive diversity does your team have? How can you promote that?Cognitive Diversity Harvard Business Review
Cognitive Diversity Forbes Article
Six Thinking Hats Exercise

How much psychological safety does your team have? How can you promote that?Psychological Safety Harvard Business Review
Psychological Safety Google Study
Cognitive Diversity and Psychological Safety HBR

Are you the rock? Are you the static, immovable force that doesn’t sway in the face of opposition? Do you show vulnerability? Can you be both? How do you see yourself on this topic?
The Power of Vulnerability – TED Talk by Brené Brown

Do you fall prey to the Sunk Cost Fallacy?
Daniel Kahneman – Thinking, Fast & Slow (book)
“How We Think About How We Think” – about Daniel Kahneman & Amos Tversky
Sunk Cost Fallacy, Loss Aversion, Prospect Theory

Do you ever do things because of your role and not because of your knowledge or expertise?

Do you ignore statistics because you think you’re “different”?
Justin Kruger and David Dunning – “Unskilled and Unaware of it”
Dunning-Kruger Effect
Daniel Kahneman – Superiority Bias & Planning Fallacy

Do you reward extroversion over introversion?
TED Talk by Susan Cain – The Power of Introverts

What project management tips could you learn from other studios?
For this question, I asked the audience to trade papers with the person next to them and write an idea on the other person’s sheet.

Do you fill the space in meetings? Try not doing it, see what happens.

Does your team know where do you want to be as an individual in 2 years? 5 years? 10 years? Do you know where they want to be?

How adaptable is your organization? Have you ever answered “that’s just how we do it here” or worse, “that’s how we’ve always done it” when asked about something you do in your company?
Adaptability

How effectively is “work time” used at your studio? When are people at their most productive? How do you help or hinder this?

Do you know the quality of the tasks you’re doing, assigning, or being assigned? Do you know which tasks are “chores”?

Do you communicate your vision or your feelings properly to your team?

Have you considered the unknown unknowns? How do you plan for those?
Daniel Kahneman – Thinking, Fast & Slow (book)

Do you give advice that you shouldn’t give?
Source: literally everywhere, myself included.

The talk went really well, and I was really happy to see a full room. In fact, I was expecting it to be a smaller room and not full, and it was way bigger than expected! I’m not sure if people came because it was part of the Producer Bootcamp sessions or because of the content of the talk, but I’ll take it, whatever it was. It was also the first time I was speaking alone on such a big stage in the games industry. Last year I did a talk with the lovely Tanya Short, which you can see on the GDC Vault if you have access.

I’m just realizing now that every video ever posted or to be posted of me giving talks will show me in a t-shirt with an animal on it from our game, Ultimate Chicken Horse. I guess I should just make sure to rotate through them often enough…

I’m looking forward to more talks in the future, and I hope that the talk and/or this article was able to help people on their journey, be it in game development or any other industry.

Bonus! Some other stuff I drew inspiration from but didn’t use directly:
Seth Godin on the Tim Ferriss podcast
Alex Dorans – 5 Signs That You’re Compromising Your Approach to Quality
Brené Brown on the Chase Jarvis podcast

How Did My 20 Year Old Self Think My 30 Year Old Self Would Be?

A good friend of mine asked me this question today, on my 30th birthday. Still weird to write that I’m 30, especially when I often feel 12. But this question was an interesting one, and while I can’t know exactly what I was thinking, I have some idea of what I expected and didn’t expect. It’s a nice thought to ponder, and I encourage you to ponder it.

I didn’t expect to be working in the games industry, co-founding a company, or doing any work related to running a business at all. At 20, I would have been in cégep (the school we have here in Quebec between high school and university) and just switching out of music and into sciences. My goal at that point was to become an architect, to design work and living spaces that affected people on a daily basis, without their knowledge of it. The dream of creating a universe in which a person can explore and go about their daily life, the idea that each person who connects with this world I’ve created will have a different reaction to it… this was what I really liked about architecture. After that description, it shouldn’t surprise anyone (myself included) that I ended up in video games.

At 20, I thought that meditation and mindfulness and subjectivity of experience was too spiritual and hippie-dippie for me. I’m certainly not what you’d call a “spiritual” person now, and science is still the absolute only thing that I try to use to describe our experience in this world, but I think that I’m connected with myself in a way that I never could have been ten years ago. In fact, I think all of that has happened in the last year or so, thanks to some great people around me.

I would have thought that by now I would be married, and maybe thinking about children. I didn’t imagine some perfect suburban house somewhere with a backyard and a white picket fence—I always assumed I’d be living in a smaller space, closer to downtown. But I did picture myself married like my brother was a few years back. While we’re on the topic of homes and families, I didn’t picture myself owning a condo, but hey here we are. Here I am, I guess. Hopefully you’re not here in my condo right now.

Overall, I didn’t think that I would be in the spot that I’m in, and I’m extremely grateful for it. I also know now that if I were still my 20 year old self, I wouldn’t have the capacity to be grateful for it, because I didn’t unlock that part of life (that part of the brain?) yet. Besides being happy that I’ve made it 30 years on this earth without any major diseases, without any traumatic injuries, and without, well, dying (knock on wood), I’m also happy with how I’ve changed over the last ten years. I think if you asked my friends, I wouldn’t be noticeably different from how I was ten years ago, and that’s fine. Under the hood there’s more going on, and I’m glad for it.

How about you? What did ten-years-ago you think that you’d be like ten years in the future?

On Death and Immortality

At the gym today, I listened to a Very Bad Wizards podcast about the fear of death, and about what it would be like to live forever, and I thought I’d share some thoughts. It’s a podcast that I absolutely love, with philosopher Tamler Sommers and psychologist David Pizarro, although sometimes you’d think their educations were reversed.

I’m going to present a few hypothetical lifespan cases, and I’m curious to hear which one you would choose and why:

  • Live forever
  • Drink a magical elixir that keeps you alive every day, but if you decide not to drink it you die
  • Live 300 years, assuming you age proportional to your years, so a 299 year old would look like a 90 year old now
  • Live a normal lifespan and don’t know when you’re going to die, but assume around 75-90

In all of these hypothetical cases there’s a huge dependence on how much satisfaction you derive from living. If you don’t feel deeply satisfied with your life, and don’t believe you could become that way, then there’s no reason to think about immortality because it would be a (figurative) death sentence. This blog post isn’t meant to be about achieving satisfaction in life though, so I’ll leave you that and talk about immortality today. So, given the above options, which would you choose?

To me, living forever has some obvious problems. First of all, you would see family members and friends die time and time again. The people you become most attached to would leave, and the only way to not live in a miserable cycle of death would be to detach yourself from those people or detach yourself from the emotions that make you feel close to them. Eventually, you’d need to find fulfillment in other walks of life outside of personal connections to family and friends, and I could see that leading to a depressing and empty existence. You also run the risk of not needing to push yourself to do, well, anything. If you have forever to do it, why bother doing it now? Part of the satisfaction we get from accomplishments involves the timeliness of them, and I could see that slipping away as time becomes a non-issue for your immortal brain. Lastly (though there are probably a ton of others), you would simply get bored. I think that we try to pack in as much as possible in our short time on this earth, and that short time span drives us to become the best we can be given this restraint. Part of what fuels that exploration, curiosity and growth is the fact that we simply can’t get everything done in time, but we should certainly try.

How about drinking an elixir to keep you alive? Also what would it taste like? Would you go mad drinking the same flavour elixir every day? Is it purple? I imagine it’s purple. Anyway this option allows you to just end it when you get bored with seeing the same stuff over and over and over. Seems simple enough, and seems like a good choice. As they mention in the podcast, vampires will often retreat to their coffin for a couple hundred years just because they get bored of the scenery and want to wake up to a new world every once in a while. The hibernation option wasn’t presented here, but this choice would allow you to give up once you got what you needed from life. But the same problems about a lack of time pressure exist as in the infinite case, and I could easily see someone devolving into a boring blob of sensation-seeking meat with bigger things on the ever-retreating horizon, never actually reaching those things because they’ve got the time to do them later.

A 300 year life seems like it might not be so bad, if we ignore of course the economic, political and ecological issues that would come along with the first generation of 300-year-olds. For me, it would allow me time to learn more things, explore more of the world, learn to play cello (though I plan to do that in this short lifetime anyway!) and see more technology change throughout my life… sign me up! There are likely some issues I haven’t though of yet, so maybe just put me on the wait list for now.

The last option is the normal life-span life, which I guess we’re stuck with for now. Might as well enjoy it! …And still try to learn cello.

Here’s the link to the podcast, in case you want to explore in more depth. Just a disclaimer, in the first segment they remake classic thought experiments in philosophy using porn references and it’s absolutely hilarious.

How Does the Future of the Streamer-Developer Relationship Look?

In our sprint meeting this past week, the question of paying streamers to play our game on Twitch and YouTube came up. It led to a longer discussion and brought up some important questions that I’d like to bring up here, and without trying to reach a conclusion, make people aware of the things we have to consider for the future.

The conversation centered around the idea that we want some streamers to play our new update to our game Ultimate Chicken Horse a few days before the release, so that we can build some hype around the launch of the new content. How should we approach these streamers? Do we pay them directly? Do we go through something like the Twitch Bounty? Do we simply offer them the exclusive early content and hope they play it without compensation? There isn’t necessarily a clear answer for this question, so I’ll try to formulate some thoughts here.

The first thing to look at is the relationship between all of the parties. The ones involved here are:

  • game developers
  • streamers
  • Twitch, YouTube, etc. (we’ll call them platforms)
  • companies that pay for ads on those platforms (advertisers)
  • viewers of content (viewers)
  • purchasers of ad products (ad consumers)
  • people who buy and play the game (gamers)

So here’s what I think the current situation looks like, and the green arrow with the ‘?‘ is what my team discussed in our meeting.

If you look at the relationship between any two groups mentioned here, it should make sense; for example, platforms receive money from advertisers, and advertisers get visibility in exchange. Advertisers also pay streamers directly and get visibility directly through them. The cash comes back to them from viewers of the content which become ad consumers when they buy the products being advertised to them.

The relationship between the streamer and the developer is the more complicated one here. The developer creates games that the streamer can use to create content for their viewers, and content for the platforms to show to their viewers. In return, the game developers get visibility from the streamers (because of their viewers). The question we were discussing seems to be whether or not the creation of the game is enough to justify the visibility being given to the developer, or if there should be money involved that comes from the developer and not only from the advertisers (either directly or through the platform).

So if we look only at the money flow, it gets injected into the system by people who are engaging with the system, presumably funded by their jobs. The cash comes to the developers when the viewers are convinced to buy the game and become gamers. The cash goes to the advertisers when people become ad consumers. The cycle can continue because the developers, streamers, platforms, and advertisers are making money and the gamers and viewers are happily spending it.

I won’t claim to know what is best for this system or how we should go about ensuring that everyone is happy and well-paid. I’m glad the conversation came up in our meeting because I think it’s useful to write this kind of thing out, and it brings up some interesting questions:

  • Should developers be paying streamers directly for the exposure they give to the game?
  • What kind of precedent do we set for this interaction, in either case (developers paying streamers or not paying them)?
  • Who “owes” who more, between devs and streamers? That is, a huge influencer playing a small game is much more advantageous for the dev than the streamer, but a huge game being created and given for free to a tiny streamer is more advantageous to the streamer. Where’s the tipping point? Does it matter?
  • If developers are paying streamers, how do we decide the basis for the payment? Time? Viewers? Engagement? Actual game purchases?
  • How do we avoid viewers being turned off by constantly seeing what are considered “ads” (paid streams) as opposed to content that was chosen without bias by the streamer?
  • How do we open the communication between developers and streamers without going through platforms to discuss these things?
  • What do we think is fair to all parties (including advertisers and platforms)?
  • How much should the advertiser money (ad revenue) be going to the streamer as opposed to the platform?

Another thing that came up, for better or for worse, was the idea that indie game studios sometimes ride on the big marketing budgets of the AAA companies in terms of streamers getting compensated. If a streamer makes $30k for playing a new Ubisoft game, they won’t bother asking a small indie for $200 for the same amount of time in their game (for many reasons). If the decision is that developers should pay streamers for the visibility they provide, is it fair to ride on the back of these huge studios?

I realize that this post is asking a lot more questions than it’s answering, but that’s kind of the point. We don’t know what the future of this relationship will look like just yet, but it’s going to be us (developers) alongside streamers who will need to figure it out. We all want what’s best for all parties, and we want to be fair to all parties above all else.

What do you think about this?

We Don’t Need To (And Can’t) Know Everything

Socrates said “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

There isn’t necessarily a universal truth for all problems. People have tried to find the “right” way to run a country or a nation, and we’ve come up with democracy, capitalism, communism, fascism, dictatorships, and more. Every time people thought they had arrived at the objective truth and “proper way”, it turned out to fail the test of time. The only objectively true conclusion is that a lot of problems don’t have objectively true solutions. Often the solutions are positive or negative based on your perspective, and this relativism is important to keep in mind. This post is inspired by a Very Bad Wizards podcast where they talk about Jorge Luis Borges’ short story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.

This does not mean that ALL issues are relative however, as some people seem to claim. Most of science provides good examples for this, while we don’t necessarily know the truth about certain phenomena, we can say with a high level of certainty that the truth does exist, and it’s the same no matter how you look at it. This claim that all issues are relative starts to show when people lose faith in the systems which have failed them; they may start to lose faith in ALL systems. Some systems however, while not necessarily objectively the “best”, can still be good and can be improved upon slowly.

We don’t need to know everything. We don’t even need to strive for that. As Socrates said (or supposedly said), wisdom is realizing that we don’t know everything. Knowledge, on the other hand, speaks to objective truths that we do “know”.

We can focus on accepting that we have limited perspective and we’ll always be influenced by biases and our point of view.

If we DON’T do this, we start to think that the things we do know objectively can apply to other things that cannot be known objectively. The example used in the podcast is a Silicon Valley tech person who’s really good at programming and then learns some psychology, and thinks that they can create happiness with their app. (Seems like this has already happened a few thousand times…)

We have to realize our limitations when it comes to knowledge and be wise about how we use and share the knowledge that we do have. If we want to openly discuss, think, or progress as a society, we need to be aware of our perspective and aware of the problem that we’re trying to solve, especially if there is no correct solution.

Wouldn’t it be nice to learn for a living?

I was listening to a Tim Ferriss podcast recently, and at the end he promoted his “five bullet friday” newsletter where he shares his five favourite things that he’s discovered during the week. These can be life-hacks, books, new strange things to ingest (supplements and otherwise), or whatever he feels like.

That got me thinking: wouldn’t it be nice to learn for a living? Wouldn’t it be nice to work in a place where we can learn new things all the time? Or as a leader or owner of a business, wouldn’t it be nice to create a work environment where our colleagues can learn and develop themselves professionally?

Back to Tim Ferriss for a second though: wouldn’t it be nice if your day job was to interview people and learn new things? Many of these famous podcaster types (Tim, Joe Rogan, Chase Jarvis) support themselves by doing research, asking the right questions, and taking in massive amounts of knowledge. I wouldn’t try to rob them of the ridiculous amount of work they put in to get to this point, where people like Elon Musk and Lebron James will happily be on their podcast, and I also realize that at this point it’s somewhat self-perpetuating. Famous people come on the show, more people listen, more famous people accept invites to the show, etc. But I can’t help but think of how nice it would be to be constantly learning, speaking to the best of the best in various fields, and making money doing so.

But wait a second, can’t we get paid to learn already?

Post-docs and researchers are essentially doing that, though there are a couple of differences between the academic path and what I’m talking about. First off, they don’t tend to get paid very much for it. Generally they have to sacrifice some pay to follow their passion and research the thing they love. Second, they’re often learning very specific things for a few years at a time, if not longer. This hyper-focused learning can be fun for some, and that’s great for them and for everyone their research serves, but it’s not the same as learning about anthropology one day, followed by a day of neuroscience, astrophysics next, and politics after that.

Then I realized that maybe there’s a middle ground. And actually, there are two ways to achieve that middle ground. First, the work itself can inspire me (and even force me) to learn a wide range of different things related to my trade. Second, that work can leave me enough time in my personal life to learn the rest.

Fortunately for me, I’m one of the owners of Clever Endeavour Games, our game development company, so I can try to help create this magical place in both of those ways. Maybe you can too, if you’re a leader or business owner.

We decided, as a company, that we were going to allocate and dedicate time to learning, in whatever way we (and our employees) deem appropriate for our development within the company. That could be by prototyping new ideas, by taking an online course, or by honing our pre-existing skills.

This promotion of learning time in the workplace serves a number of important purposes. First, it allows our team to improve their skills, which they will bring to the table for current and future projects. Second, it shows that we value our employees and care about their individual development regardless of whether or not it directly impacts the company. Third, it helps keep employee morale up by making sure that they’re working on fun things part of the time. Lastly, it gives us a better chance of finding innovative and creative ideas, as we’ll be constantly drawing inspiration from new sources of learning and experimenting.

For me, I can split my time between the work I need to be responsible for (keeping the company alive, finances, bank stuff, accounting, management) and learning. This week that was in the form of learning a visual scripting tool for Unity (a game engine), next week it may be making art for a prototype I’ll start working on with that tool, or something else.

Regardless of how you choose to integrate learning into your company culture, workflow, or daily routine, I think it’s important to make the space for it and foster that creativity, innovation and happiness in your company and work life.