My Experience on the IGF Design Jury

I was on the jury this year for the Independent Games Festival design award, an amazing experience that made me rethink what good game design is, and what game design is in general. None of the stuff I’ll be talking about will reference games in any way that will divulge what games were played and nominated, and the fact that I was on the jury was made public a while ago. This post will talk about questions that came up in my mind, and I’ve saved the best and most controversial one for last.

The first thing that came up in discussions between the judges was the question of what constitutes game design, and where the limit is on what falls under design vs. some other aspect of the game. Keeping in mind that there’s also a Grand Prize to vote for, we started discussing. On one side of the spectrum, people will say that everything is design. How the audio interacts with the setting and the movement of the player, how the story interacts with game mechanics, the difficulty progression, the art style serving the game’s purpose—all of this is design. On the other end of the spectrum, people will say that design is what is left when you remove everything else: the art, the story, the environment, the audio—if you removed all of those things, are the underlying systems, level design, skill progression, reward systems, etc. well designed?

In our group, it seemed that the majority ended up agreeing that we should be looking at design as specifically the elements that designers touch, and the Grand Prize discussion would take into account more broad design things like how it all comes together. For this case, I concluded from discussion with judges that game mechanics themselves need to be cleverly designed, well balanced, and tie in with the other elements of the game, and the design has to be innovative in some way. Doing something that’s already been done—but doing it really well—is definitely praise-worthy, but I don’t think it’s what I imagine for the Design award for the IGF. As someone who tends to skew more on the side of “everything is design”, I was okay with this mostly because I put my favourites for all-around design as votes for the Grand Prize.

Opus Magnum by Zachtronics was the winner for design last year. I haven’t played it, but I’ve heard great things.

This brings up the point that our definition of design depends on what we’ve read and learned, and how we came to be game designers. In my case, I consider myself a designer but not “the designer” on my team, as we all pitch in on overall design tasks. We’ve never hired a designer whose job title isn’t either artist, programmer, or something else along with designer. That surely plays a large role in my feeling that the game design includes everything about the experience and not only its systems. I’m sure someone who did a bachelor’s and master’s degree in game design would have differing views on this.

Another question was how innovative the design of a certain game actually was. For example, I played a game which had a very innovative storytelling mechanic, and I thought it was incredible. Then, in discussion with other judges, I learned that the mechanic had actually been done several times in other games that I hadn’t played. That changes things. I didn’t have time to play all of those other games—some of which were 10 years old and on PS3—and so I had to rely on gameplay videos and other judges for input.

How good did the overall game have to be for it to win an award in design (or anything else)? How much is your opinion about the design mired by something like bad writing, or an inconsistent art style? Two points here: first, I think it’s unlikely that a game that fails miserably in some important facet (other than design) will be nominated for design, simply because people will not have had a good time with it and that will influence their thoughts about its design. Second, I think I would have trouble voting for a game for design if it was truly awful in another respect. Some of the games I saw were decent in writing or art but had great design, and that was good enough. Anyway, all of these questions came up and needed to be addressed while looking at the nine gazillion games that were played.

The last, and most fun question, involves whether or not good design = commercially successful games. Games were sorted by votes per view, to avoid giving an advantage to games that were voted for simply because they were popular and judges had already played them. It seemed that the top voted games in votes/view in design also happened to be mostly commercially successful games. This doesn’t give anything away because there were plenty of top design contenders that weren’t as commercially successful, just for the record. The question is: were games nominated for design because they were already popular and more people knew them? Or are well-designed games generally commercially successful because good design leads to good game sales? I don’t have the answer, but it’s something to think about and discuss.

Thanks for reading! It’s been very enlightening and hopefully I’ll be invited back again!

On Setting Your Baseline

The conversation started when discussing gym membership prices with my brother. I’ve been going to EconoFitness, a budget gym downtown which sees approximately 3000 people trying to work out on any single piece of equipment at one time. I’m switching to another, more expensive gym, though still far from the expensive end of the spectrum. The question was, how much would you pay for the convenience of not having to wait for gym equipment, having clean equipment, and having showers at the gym? None of these things are essential in order to get a workout, so where do you draw the line? Would you pay even more for steam baths, saunas, warm towels, and top-of the line equipment?

In most things, there’s a balance of cost vs quality. And in some things, there’s a point where quality is reached and then surpassed, and you end up in the realm of luxury. An old beat up rust-bucket car with faulty seatbelts may be cheap, but is probably below most people’s bar of quality. An entry model Honda Civic is slightly less cheap, but likely reaches the bar of quality for most people. A Porsche Panamera definitely passes the quality bar, but goes above and beyond and offers things that are considered luxury, but that nobody (even the Porsche owners) would argue are essential for the car’s function and regular use.

The discussion that my brother and I had revolved around the definition of a baseline, which differs from person to person. It proved extremely hard to define, but I’ll give it a shot.

To me, the baseline is the most simplified form of
what you feel you need to live a fulfilling life.

Two important things to note before I go on: first, I’m considering material possessions or things that money can buy, not things like fulfilling friendships or love or work satisfaction. Second, the baseline is not the bare minimum on which you can survive. Most of us can survive on much, much less than what we have as long as we have food and shelter, so that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about a comfortable baseline (note that the word comfortable is problematic… more on that in a bit).

To give just a few concrete examples from my own life, here are some of my baseline needs:

  • A car that allows me to drive to hockey, to visit my girlfriend in Ottawa, etc.
    • Baseline example: a basic, functional, safe car. Above baseline example: that Porsche we were talking about.
  • A bike that allows me to commute to work
    • Baseline example: any functional bike that gets me to work and back. Above baseline example: a sweet road bike that feels fast and light.
  • A workout routine for strength training
    • Baseline example: Gym membership at Econofitness or even workout from home with resistance bands. Above baseline example: a fancy gym with steam baths and a sauna.
  • Groceries that allow me to eat healthy
    • Baseline example: Staying away from junky food, avoiding very expensive foods such as pine nuts. Above baseline example: eating only organic foods and ethically raised meat and animal products.

The problem is that the baseline is constantly moving. My brother argued that no matter what you do, your baseline moves up as you earn more and are able to spend more on things that make you more comfortable, like the Porsche or the swanky gym. You start to feel that you need to be able to access gym equipment right away, or have that top-of-the-line elliptical machine in order to satisfy your fitness requirements. You start to lose sight of what it was like to work out at the budget gym, and you would feel uncomfortable going back to that after getting used to the pricier gym. In short, as your income increases, you allow yourself to spend more for things that are more convenient or luxurious—that becomes the new normal.

I agree that this is what typically happens, and I believe that it’s a problem. This mentality is what causes people to be spoiled, to complain when things aren’t perfect, and to see the negative in everything that happens. It causes people to make illogical decisions about spending when income or life situations change, and it causes people to simply be less satisfied.

So what’s the alternative? Can you strive to live above your baseline, and treat yourself to things above this line, but maintain it so that you won’t be unhappy if things change? I think you can. I feel that you can keep your baseline low but still live above the baseline by observing your relationship to things that are above the baseline.

The first way to observe this relationship is to be grateful for the fact that you can afford that $80 pair of jeans instead of the $30 ones. The second is to constantly remind yourself that you would be absolutely fine with the $30 pair of jeans. Fine, meaning that you would be no less comfortable than you are with the $80 pair of jeans. More specifically, if you lost your job and had to buy $30 jeans, it wouldn’t cause you any amount of suffering—you would be equally happy. That doesn’t mean, however, that you shouldn’t get that $80 pair of jeans if you want them and can afford them.

As usual, I like to write about questions that I’m curious about and don’t claim to have solved. Hopefully, this can inspire you to think of the following questions as it has inspired me. What constitutes your baseline? What things do you currently do that are above your baseline? Are you grateful for those things? How much would your baseline move if your income increased or decreased? How would your life change if your income changed suddenly? It can be a fun thinking exercise.


What Would You Put on a Billboard?

If you could put just one (non-commercial) quote, sentence, or idea on a billboard for the world to see, what would you write? This is a question that Tim Ferriss asks in almost all of his podcasts and I really like it. Some examples of quotes that I liked from his guests are below:

“Do your part” – Esther Perel

“You are the average of the five people you associate with most.” – Chase Jarvis (and Tim Ferriss, actually)

“Shut up and listen” – Brene Brown

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” – Richard Branson

On my billboard, I would simply put “Don’t be a dick.” To me, this is the source of all of the world’s problems and if people could follow this very simple instruction, we would all be much better off. It may seem extreme to say that it’s the source of all of the world’s problems, but I actually have trouble thinking of a case where this isn’t the solution. Racism, sexism, misinformation, bad worker conditions, hunger, inter-state wars, etc. Just don’t be a dick!

There is an argument to be made that the problems I mentioned above require more than simply not being a dick to solve. It might take going above and beyond the base level of non-dickishness to actually solve those problems in the long-term, but in my opinion almost every day-to-day issue that exists can be helped, if not solved, with that mantra.

This is actually a thing I’ve been thinking and trying to live by since I was around 13 years old. The mantra, to me, is the path toward living a just life and making the world a better place. So what would you write?

Thought this was clever…

(Thanks to Reddit user r/straaajk for their post compiling some of these answers.)

Catching Yourself

I’ve been rushing to get an American Dollar credit card by the end of the month in order to pay a US supplier on time, and finally I got a confirmation email today (the 29th of the month) saying that everything is approved, the card is ready. That is, the card will be ready after 5 days of processing and 5-10 days of something else, so actually it will come in 3 weeks or so.

In my email response about this, I started off by writing something along the lines of: “Thanks for the help on this. I was hoping this would be quicker so that I could get my bill paid on time but I guess it’ll wait until next month.”

I caught myself before sending this. Was that last sentence necessary? Who did it help? Maybe it helped me to get some frustration off my chest, but that’s not a reasonable excuse. Did it help the bank to do their job better next time? Did it help the person to feel good about trying to push for this as quickly as possible? No.

Instead I wrote: “Thanks for the help on this. I’ll pay next month’s bill with the CC then!” The meaning is exactly the same, but without showing useless frustration or implying blame.

Moments like this happen all the time. Moments where you can catch yourself and say something much more useful for yourself, the person you’re speaking to, and the relationship between the two of you. Ask yourself: is what I’m about to say actually helping? What is the outcome if I refrain from showing frustration and keep my emotional reaction in check? How much is ego a factor in my behaviour? To me, there are two important reasons to do this.

The first is that I see relationships being strained all the time from a simple lack of awareness that what people are saying is for themselves and not for the other person or the relationship. The second is that often, reacting in a way that is not showing frustration, anger, upsetness, etc. will actually cause you to feel less frustrated, angry or upset.

See if you can catch yourself sometime today, or this week, and try to reflect on how you feel about it. You might be surprised!

Modesty and Dangerous Perception Shifts

As you gain experience, your perception of your position and other people’s perception of your position change. For the most part, this experience is incredibly valuable and you could surely impart wisdom to newcomers if asked. But with that experience comes an inevitable perception shift, one that I argue can be dangerous and fought back only through modesty.

I’ve been working in game development for only four years, and have released only one game with my studio. I’m by no means an expert, nor am I very experienced. But I went from being thrilled to be asked even to be in a survey of game development studios, to feeling now like I’m doing it for them and for their data. I went from being thrilled when invited to talk about something in front of a small group of 15 college students to only really being thrilled by having a talk accepted at big events like GDC, the biggest games conference in North America.

Does that make me sound a bit like an asshole? It might, and becoming that asshole is exactly what I’m trying to avoid.

I’m in a place now where I don’t feel I need that small talk to help the company with visibility, or to help solidify my place in the games industry. But at the same time, I realize very well that I am no better than the person who started in the industry yesterday— I simply have more experience. The feeling that I don’t constantly need to be trying to find and take every opportunity that comes my way is completely fine, as long as my perception of myself doesn’t change to put me “above” somebody else.

Modesty is one of the most important traits to keep up as you have more experience and success, and it gets harder the more success you have. I’ve noticed this in myself already and we only have one game and it’s not Minecraft (i.e. we haven’t made billions of dollars). But modesty doesn’t come from doing all of the events or prioritizing things that aren’t right to prioritize at this point in my career. Modesty comes from fighting this perception shift that puts you above others in your own mind and makes you come across as an asshole.

Modesty is assuming nobody knows your game/product when talking to them at a conference, rather than being shocked when someone hasn’t heard of it (I’ve met people like this quite a few times). Modesty is appreciating that luck played a part in your success. Modesty is understanding the advantages you had from the start, for example, starting a company in my city where cost of living is cheap and government money is available for game projects. Modesty is framing your suggestions to others in your field as opinions and not as factual improvements to their products.

Modesty is helping out a newcomer to your field of work by taking them under your wing when they’re a few years behind you in terms of experience.

I mentioned that the perception change can be dangerous, and I think that there’s a less obvious catalyst for this, that is, the fact that other people’s perception of you changes. Everyone else in the world has the same potential to make uninformed conclusions about your success; applauding it as having come directly from your skill, ignoring the environmental factors, forgetting about the team that surrounded you in your endeavours, etc.

People might tell you that you’re great, and that’s fine. That’s great in fact! You are great. I’m all for self-love and for appreciating your positive qualities. But you are not “better” than the person without experience simply because you have that experience, and even if you thought you were, you shouldn’t act as if you are.

Again, as experience changes, things will change. The events you go to, the way you focus your time, the leads you choose to follow, these may all change. But that doesn’t have to change you, the person who is humble and modest and appreciates whatever success they have, whether that’s simply survival in your industry or billions of dollars of financial success. Some of the most successful people I’ve met have also been the most modest, and true modesty is the way to push back this perception shift.

My Ride to Conquer Cancer Experience

As you may know, last weekend I embarked on a 200km long bike ride to raise money for the Segal Center at the Jewish General Hospital here in Montreal. If you’d like to hear the cancer stories that fuelled the ride, check out my rider page here. Around 1150 riders combined to raise $4.2M for cancer research this year, which is nothing short of incredible.

I did this ride with my friend Jackie, who I pressured into committing and coming with me. She had less experience with long rides than I did, but even I had only ever done a 90km ride once. We hadn’t trained extensively for this, but we’re both in good shape and felt that we could push through. Spoiler alert: we did it!

My dad had told me that the doctor that has been taking care of him throughout his cancer saga was going to be riding, so he put us in touch. We had texted, but couldn’t meet on the morning of the first day because I had lost my bike tags and had to run around a bit to get everything sorted to ride. Oh well, I figured we’d meet her at lunch or at the camp and finish line at the end of the first day. Sometime during the day, I stopped behind some other riders and started making conversation. They mentioned that they were here with a big group of doctors, so I asked if they knew a Dr Johnson. She happened to be riding right in front of us! I pulled up and we chatted for about 10km about the research she’s doing, and I thanked her for being so amazing with my pop. It was truly special to meet one of the people who was so instrumental to helping him get past this, and she (apparently) enjoyed meeting me as well.

Here’s Dr. Johnson’s crew, who we rode with the second day. Immune Force One! (We weren’t in the picture unfortunately but we have the jerseys to prove we belonged!)

The hardest stretch of the first day was the 35km long stretch before lunch, which included some torrential downpour, sunscreen in my eyes, and a sore butt. Surprisingly, my legs were feeling fine, it was just my butt that was sore. Sitting on a bike seat for many hours will do that to ya.

We arrived at the halfway (105km) camp around 3:30pm, after having started around 9am with breaks inbetween. We had the most refreshing beer ever—the sun had come out and was beaming down on our sweaty faces for the last 20km or so—and proceeded to have fantastic showers. They had these shower trucks with surprisingly clean showers, not that shower cleanliness would have mattered at that point.

The evening was followed by some really great good and amazing corn on the cob, a live music performance in the main tent, and hanging out with some Toronto folks who we had met at the lunch stop. Hanging, in this case, implies drinking lots of beer and having good conversation until around 10:30pm when it was already past time to sleep; the 5:30am wake-up was looming.

The next morning we had a lovely breakfast buffet which included sausages and eggs and waffles, the perfect fuel for riding. We didn’t indulge too much, because we knew that at every stop there would be fruits, energy bars, peanut butter and other snacks. En route at 7am, and the wind was in our face for the first 20km or so.

We managed to tuck behind a group of four very strong women riders, two of whom were wearing KPMG jerseys. Ah yes, I haven’t mentioned yet that there were a lot of corporate sponsors and big groups from Rogers, A&W (I guess their office is in Montreal?), some investment groups, some law firms, and an architecture firm. Generally they rode in big groups or they split into a few groups but I was impressed with their ability to stay together given the different pace I assume they would have had naturally. Partway through the second day, Jackie and I split off when I jumped onto a little peloton of people from a company called Genyk. They were all in their 50s or 60s and extremely strong… I was using them to block the wind and still pushing hard to keep a pace of around 29km/h, and we kept that up for about 15km until the next rest stop. Riding in a group like that really, really makes a difference for both wind resistance and for general inspiration, so I’m glad we had those experiences.

I think this picture captures some of the feeling of the weekend. Helping each other push through to the finish!

The lunch break for the second day was actually only about 15km from the ending, and we had already covered 80km that day. The last leg of the trip, however, was the most hilly and included a few long, big climbs that caused some people trouble. Jackie and I powered through, despite having very sore butts, and made it to the top of the final hill, with around 2km left to go. I decided to sprint the last two kilometers to the finish, so I split off again. I happened to arrive at the end at a time when nobody else was finishing, so I had the whole finish line and hype to myself! There was a person on a microphone announcing that I was coming in, and people were cheering and it felt like I won the slowest and shortest Tour de France ever. Very cool feeling.

We got our medals, got a lot of high fives, and had another victory beer. Then some stretching and we were off to the bus to come back to Montreal.

Overall, this was a great experience and I’m really glad I did it. I’m extremely fortunate to have parents who are both cancer survivors, and it means a ton to me that I’m in a place where I can help raise money for this research. I’m also fortunate to be able to actually do the ride—a lot of people aren’t physically able to do it, and it’s important for me to be grateful that I have this opportunity.

Thanks for reading, and hopefully you’ll be hearing about next year’s ride in 2020! 🚴🤘

A First Short Story

Hey friends! I’ve just started the Neil Gaiman MasterClass on storytelling, and it’s fantastic. In one of the lessons, our exercise was to write a short story based on some instructions. Knowing the instructions before you read will ruin the story, so I’m going to put the instructions at the end. Enjoy!

From the start of my first session with him, I could tell that there was a lot of work to be done. He was intelligent, maybe even dangerously so, and his views were… different. As therapists, we can’t simply tell a person that their worldview is wrong, or that the feelings they’re feeling are not justified. We can’t try to persuade a client that they should be more like us, or use average people as a standard against which to measure them. Rather, we have to work together to unearth some of the deeper issues and allow the patient to come to the realization by themselves that change is needed. We have to be the catalyst for the change that they come to perceive is for the best, even if they don’t have that perception at the start of the sessions.

He had an aura about him, different from anyone I’ve ever worked with. Charming, yet dangerous– in the way that a psychopath might convince you that they mean well. I shouldn’t use the p word so quickly, I hadn’t done a full assessment and it would be wrong to cloud your judgment about this character before we get to that part of the story. But there was definitely something about him that was almost magical, but in a way that inspired distrust. It took a big step for him to come here, and I don’t want to sow seeds of doubt in his mind about my intentions, so I tried to keep those feelings internal. Honestly, I wanted to get to the bottom of this story out of my own curiousity and intrigue as much as for my practice. My private session notes should help me tell you about him.

“Session 1: Feeling weird about this client. Brings into the room with him a weight, as if the air got thicker the moment he entered. Very friendly and smiling. Might feel like he doesn’t need therapy…”

His clothing was obviously not from around here, and I was sure I had to ask about his childhood to give me an idea of how he got to where he is today. He told me he was born in a country, but I had never heard of it and I didn’t want to seem ignorant so I simply assumed the Arabic name implied somewhere in the Middle East. I make a mental note to look it up afterwards, and it slipped my mind about five minutes into our discussion. He talked about his parents, about growing up without siblings, and about his fascination with birds.

“Father demanded a lot from him: school, music, religious studies, etc. Always expected more from him. Mother wasn’t really present in his childhood, very quiet compared to father. Died in his teens. No mother figure…!”

He was always measured against perfection, and nothing was ever good enough. Most in this situation would show a lack of confidence, an anxiety about their worth. And yet I got a sense of confidence, even overconfidence from him. It turns out, after some digging, that this made sense. His father’s pressure was an awful burden, but he did end up learning a lot and being the top of his class in all of the schools he went to. Certainly his social life could have used some help, but he didn’t rebel like some others would have done in that situation. Instead, he strived to prove that he actually was that good, and actually strived to prove to his father that he was better not only than these expectations, but better than his father in general. They grew distant as he passed into his late teens. Their interaction became more formal, almost transactional. I’m not sure if this was due to the loss of his mother, a lack of open communication, or something else.

One day his father was taken by imperial guards while he was out buying food. He came back to a note saying something to the effect of “we’ve taken [I can’t pronounce his name so I won’t try] to the palace for questioning, he will return shortly”. Well, here we are, 35 years later, and there was never any sign of him.

“Trauma, loss of both parents. Never really concluded his relationship with his father. Maybe explore that relationship more? Mentioned something about ‘sahar’ when talking about his father’s disappearance, maybe that’s a place? Unsure.”

We finally reached the present day, and started discussing why he actually came to my office today. Why today, and not before? Why come at all? He had reached a point where he knew he would do something unreasonable if he didn’t have an outlet for his feelings. I say feelings because there was a whole pile of them: frustration, anger, disdain, envy, all jumping on each other and fighting to burst out of his chest the second an opening appeared. If that metaphor sounds painful, you might be able to start to understand what he was going through. In his position though, if he snapped or even if he showed signs of being about to snap, it could cost him more than just his job. He held pretty important information about the dynasty, their history, their military operations, and more. He couldn’t simply be “let go” like some servant who tended to the gardens.

“Talks about biding his time… (until what?) Having trouble communicating about his goals, his future, seems to be making things up. Need to dig deeper.”

The strangest thing about this discussion was that when he said he deserved a higher rank, and that he deserved more respect, I believed him. I couldn’t see a reason why not, to be honest. Despite that heaviness in the room, he had an air of perfectionism, confidence, and knowledge which made me think that his boss, “the Sultan”, could do well to be replaced. Without judgment I proceeded. He was obviously frustrated, his talents and his skills were absolutely not being appreciated, and it was as if you could feel his father’s soul hovering above his chair, weighing on him heavily, telling him that he’ll never amount to what his father was capable of.

“Motivation: proving to his father that he is better than everyone, even this ‘Sultan’. Drive for power, fame, glory. Doesn’t seem concerned with wealth, trying to fill this gaping hole in his life with power. Dangerous, but not diagnosable in any way. Yet.”

He was frustrated, but he said that this frustration would end when he found it. It. We talked about “it” for a long time, and he refused to tell me what it was.

“End of session 1. Next time: find out what “it” is… my guess is that it doesn’t exist. Power won’t help fill the hole in his life. How to proceed?”

Finally, we found it. Well, we found what I assume is some metaphor for it. “A diamond in the rough”. What did that mean? He was looking for it—looking for someone, rather. I tried asking him if this “diamond” was maybe a part of himself, but he dismissed that as quickly as he dismissed the questions about whether or not he ever truly loved his father. People had died trying to find whatever it was, and he needed this thing, this person, to feel fulfilled. At this point, I was a few hundred times more confused than when we started. There was clearly this narrative going on in his head, a narrative that was absurd and magical and wild and yet he talked about it as if it were fact, as if it were normal to believe that a cave in the middle of the desert held the answer to all of his problems.

What was in this cave? The more he talked, the deeper the story got, and the more tangled the web became. It became impossible for me to determine what was real and what was metaphor, what was suppression of trauma and what was fantastical imagination, what was diagnosably schizophrenic and what was simply a man who had seen more than I had, in a land very far from my own.

“Session 2: Talking about magic, crazy stories and worlds. Schizophrenia? Maybe schizophrenia, really not sure. Validate his experience then dig.”

As a therapist, you have to walk a fine line. You have to believe that the experience that this person is having is real. The experience, of course, is the experience that they are living, not necessarily the sequence of events they claim have happened to them. His feeling that this cave, whatever it was, would solve his problems, was very real. His frustration that he couldn’t find this “diamond in the rough” was equally real, and neither of these are things that any trained therapist would dismiss. But there was more there, so back into his imagination we dove.

There was a princess: a stubborn and strong-willed princess in jewels of jade who refused to play her role. There was the Sultan: a round, bird-brained man who was easier to influence than this man’s pet parrot. There were princes, and when he described the princes that came to court the princess it was as if you were transported into a world of vivid colours, music and dancing. You could lose yourself, it all seemed so real—and yet, here we were. A frustrated 45 year old with a lacklustre upbringing, striving for power and dominance like the rest of them. Whether it’s silicon valley or wherever he came from, the story seemed to be the same.

I knew what had to be done. It was a long shot, but it was worth a try.

“Clearly very imaginative. Use his metaphors, work on real practical solutions using his metaphors. Maybe suggest schizo treatment—not yet. Everything means something: the cave most importantly, the Sultan (if he even exists), the princess. The diamond. Yes, the diamond. Must be central to the story.”

Back in we went. We were nearing the end of the session, and I knew that we had one more session before I would recommend actual drugs for schizophrenia. We made a plan of action. Look deeper for this diamond in the rough. Look for something deep within, know your worth and believe in your ability to find this thing that you seek. Reflect, mull it over with your pet parrot if need be (he told me he did this often), and go to that cave once you think you’ve found it. Go to the cave, and get the treasure you seek. Avoid the distractions in the cave, and bring back the tool you need to reach fulfillment. You can be more, you can do more.

This, of course, was all going to take place in his head. He became so animated when describing the story that I felt it would be a good idea to let him run with it, and see where we were at when he came back next week. He didn’t seem at risk of actually hurting anyone, not this week at least.

“End of session 2. This is a crazy idea, hope he can reach these depths of his mind without it becoming dangerous. High risk high reward, maybe don’t tell supervisor about this one. Doesn’t seem physically dangerous or violent however, so might be safe. Next week, if delusions continue, consider medication.”

The notes I’ve been reading from, these don’t reflect the whole story. Over those two weeks, I stayed up at night reflecting on this strange man and his strange understanding of the world. This could have been a basic case, but there was something different happening here. During the days leading up to his third session, I made notes to cover the different things that might come up. I slept horribly the night before his session—I didn’t sleep much, and what little sleep I had involved dreams of caves and magic and treasures beyond my wildest imagination. In my dreams I flew across the sky on a magic carpet, and I saw all the things he had talked about in his stories. It all seemed too real, and I must get to the bottom of it.

“Session 3: …never showed up to therapy.”

The instructions for this exercise were to choose a folk tale or fairy tale that I know well, and pretend I’m a therapist treating one of the characters from it. Then, write a scene in which I discuss the character and their life and problems. Hopefully you figured out who it was!

This was the first time in a long time that I’ve written something purely creative, and it was really fun. Very much looking forward to more writing exercises!

Thoughts and Questions From C2 Conference

Hi friends!

Last week I was lucky enough to get a ticket to the C2 conference here in Montreal (Creativity + Commerce, as I found out it was called once I was already there). There were a lot of cool things to see and do, but I wanted to talk about some of the inspiring thoughts I got from the talks that I heard while I was there.

The first talk was about “leadership for the innovation culture”, though I would argue it was actually about “how to encourage creativity and innovation”. The talk was interactive and involved playing with play-doh (isn’t that what all professionals do?) and interacting with people you don’t know at your table. A few different exercises led to a few different lessons, and I made a few observations that were unrelated to the lessons:

Task 1: make 3 shapes, whatever shapes you want – Observation: people are very different! It fascinated me that some people made cubes and spheres while others made thin pieces that they shaped into triangles and squares laid flat on the table. I’m curious to know what influenced their decision and what experience led them to make these different shapes instinctively.

Task 2: take a model you made, then cut it in half and swap halves with the person next to you. Then, put the two pieces together in objectively the best way. Then, take your creation and their creation and together, discuss what would be the best way to put those together. – Observation: it’s interesting to see the different personalities come out when discussing what is the best way to do something artistic. Are they assertive? Do they care? How much effort to they put in before giving up? Do they feed off your energy or fight it?

Task 3: make a model of a still-life in front of you, in our case this was a cloth, a lemon and a rose. Then, shuffle seats and try to add to the person’s model as if you were them – Observation: some people really tried to make the model “better”, as in more true to the original. Others tried to understand how the person was seeing the model and what they were trying to achieve; what was important to them, was it texture? Form? Proportions?

This talk also made me realize that often the discussion around the exercise is more exciting than the exercise itself. We had a whole bunch of emergent little stories that popped up as we thought about what the other person was thinking while making their model, and as well talked about how we felt giving creative control of our work to people we don’t know.

Another fun, more concrete bit of learning, was that the top two skills employers are looking for in 2020 are creativity and fast learning when looking to hire (from a survey of a bunch of tech companies).

The second talk, which was an interview about AI and work and a million other things, was highlighted by talking live with David St-Jacques who is currently on the International Space Station. So freaking cool.

The next thought came from the discussions that I had with someone who runs a company that makes educational apps for doctors. To be honest the field doesn’t matter much, but he said that when he interviews, the most important things to millennials that he’s trying to hire are the social change / meaning behind the work and the work-life balance. This isn’t surprising to me, but I think it indicates a general change in the way we view work. If this is the way that people see work, this makes me think that the CEOs of the big companies in 20 years will be the socially responsible, environmentally responsible ones with a focus on work-life balance, and that we’ll see enjoyable work conditions become the norm. This led to thoughts about the future of work in general, but that could be at least a whole post by itself.

The last talk was about branding and was fascinating! It was given by Debbie Millman, author of Brand Thinking, and basically told the story of branding from when it began. This, according to her, was long before we had writing. From the first time when we had symbols that represented something, and people agreed on what they represented, we had branding. A couple of fun facts I learned included the fact that the Marlboro man came almost a hundred years after Marlboro made their first filtered cigarette which was marketed towards women and failed miserably. Another fun fact was about how cartoon characters were drawn on cereal boxes. Look at the image below to see the old depiction of them vs the new one. Other than the colour (and the fact that the first one has grey spots on it because I couldn’t find a good image), what do you notice is different?

Look at the eyes! You’ll notice that nowadays, and since several decades ago, characters on cereal boxes look down at children, instead of up at them. This is because a child looks up at an adult and sees the eyes in the way these cartoon eyes are drawn. This gives them semblance of authority, and makes them more relatable to the children.

The talk was full of great and interesting points, but the final one I’ll talk about here was about branding and our effect on it. Millman talked about the fact that in this day and age, we have the power to control and change brands more than we ever have before. It used to be the case that a company decided their image, and you either chose to buy into it or not. With the advent of social media, influencers, etc., we’re in a place where we can influence a brand by choosing what we want from it. If a certain style of person starts wearing a particular brand, and that spreads within their circles, the brand will pick up on this and start catering to them. This can be powerful when a group that associates with a brand decides that they care about things like environment and social responsibility… the brands have to listen to their audience, and will change their image (and practices, if you’re optimistic) to reflect this. This can also be dangerous, as we saw with Lacoste getting roped into white supremacist outfits a couple of years ago.

There was a ton more that I heard and thought at the conference, but I figured I’d share a couple of these here so that I can better remember them and so that people who read this are (hopefully) entertained. That’s all from me!

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?

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