When I was about 9 I was given my older brother’s AMSTRAD CPC. It came with a manual which taught you how to code some simple games in BASIC. My dad encouraged me to work through some of it and before long I had found an enjoyment in making things this way. I got to the point where I was writing and saving little text adventures with several rooms (graphical games were a bit more of a pain in the ass).
A little later I was given an old acoustic guitar by a family friend. I never excelled at it – for me it was really just for chords and singing – but I enjoyed playing it. I spent my teenage years covering the songs I enjoyed singing, dabbling in electronic beatmaking, and dipping back into game-making via RPG Maker and various PC games’ level editors.
Although I dabbled in music I didn’t really get into trying to play lead or write songs until I joined a band in my twenties. This experience taught me that the kind of external pressure you get from collaborating with others is an accelerant to practice. I like doing creative practice as a solitary thing. I find it soothing. Learning a new software or instrument occupies my hands – and the anxious neurodivergent brain which operates them.
But I’m also quite approval seeking. I’ve always been a person who felt a bit out of place and weird, so making bits of art or sound which had some sort of impact on people has always been a big thing for me. It’s something which made me feel some sort of belonging when I felt excluded from other areas of our culture; namely sport and anything “laddish”.
There’s a reason why I’m writing all this down and reflecting on it now. I’ve realised I’ve got quite a big empathy gap with some of the young people who come to me for an education in game making. Most folks would not consider joining a degree-level course in music having never learnt any sort of musical instrument or at least some creative software… and yet this is what we often get in games. People think they can just pick it up at 18 with no prior experience.
There’s no reason why you shouldn’t try, but to expect to become professionally competitive at something in three years is bananas. I’ve been making both music and games for 25 years and I only feel barely capable at either. This is how most creatives feel if they are pushing themselves.
It’s just deeply odd to me that people don’t try things as a hobby first before putting themselves into debt for something they might not enjoy. I know the real reason is to do with university as a perceived rite-of-passage; the obvious “what’s next”. Often, a universty applicant’s choice of course is secondary to just “going to uni”. And for some, they see the word “games” and think that it won’t involve work.
We tell our students that we can only show them basics of any given tool or technique, whether that’s something hands on to do with art or using a game engine, or something more conceptual like a game design principle. They have to want to take these tools away and play with them. If we have to force someone to practice, force them to work, then that person is already losing.
The addage “find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” rings very true to me, and I sort of cringe at the idea of people forcing themselves to do creative things that they don’t really like. If you don’t like doing it, you’re not going to get a job in a field where everyone else would be doing it for free if they could afford to.
Practice should be your happy place, a form of play, something you find equal parts rewarding and soothing. My previous games studio job wasn’t gotten by studying games at university. I didn’t do that; my time at university and grad school was in traditional, theory-heavy humanities stuff. My value as an entry-level games worker came from a portfolio of game jam entries and other personal projects I’d made just because I wanted to.
When I’m stressed, I play the piano and sing, or get my notebook out and work out little sections of whatever game I’m working on. I use game design to work through my ideas about how the wider world works, as well as my ideals about how it should work. I use songwriting to process more personal things.
There’s nothing wrong with having the odd Netflix or TikTok binge when you’re at a low ebb, but the production of art is not meant to be a chore. If your creative practice is something which is central to your being – which you do for the sake of it – you will get better. Showing what you do to critical friends will speed that up, but you have to have that innate desire.
I have this empathy gap with many of my students, because I taught myself how to do these things. Most creative people I know only learnt a fraction of what they can do from being formally taught it. That’s because you can’t really teach the desire part. And if you have the desire part, you are likely already teaching yourself our of curiosity, because YouTube tutorials exist and most game engines and art software have free versions.
I have this empathy gap with many of my students, because once you hit noncompulsory education and you’re paying for it, my assumption is that you should come through the door with dedication and enthusiasm. This isn’t primary or secondary school, where the government forces you to attend, and then teachers must try and make their subject exciting and fun in order to appease you so that their jobs are easier. Entering the field is optional. If it feels more like work than play, if there’s no pleasure, no compulsion, why are you here?
If the creative practice you are financially commiting to feels like a chore, you should reinvest in something which at least pays better than being a media worker. You have to have enough desire to outweigh whatever fears you have. And that desire can’t be for the end product; it needs to at least partly be about the enjoyment of doing the thing and wanting to keep doing it.
I have not invested all of my learning time into one thing, and I am weaker at most of the things I do as a result, but that’s ok by me. I do these things not because I’m good at them (although that feels good sometimes) or because anyone else values the things I make (they often don’t) but because if I did not do them I would go insane. I have made miserable music when my life has been miserable, and I’ve had times when the music I’ve made has been joyful, but I have never stopped making music. I pursue jobs where I can do and think creative things for a living purely so that I can spend a larger percentage of my time doing them, because they are what make me happy.
There is no cap on the variety of things a person can do, and you’ll also tend to find that aesthetic rules overlap between realms. Fine art theory has a place in makeup artistry. Most of the people I know who make a full-time living in the creative arts are freelancers who grab jobs even if they don’t know if they can do them, and then “wing it” and do OK. That is desire winning out over fear.
Do you feel demotivated by anything you’ve just read? When I was in my early twenties I had alraedy written off working in any sort of media or entertainment or artmaking capacity as a silly pipedream. This can be particularly common for people from working class backgrounds who don’t get to go to artschool or ever speak to anyone who makes stuff for a living. I did creative things as a hobby in the background, but moving into a games studio and then becoming a practice-based lecturer and researcher in a university took some serious life adjustments, leaps of faith, and in some cases the cutting off of unsupportive people.
“Quitting my day job and starting my life as a writer was a tremendous risk. It was a fool’s leap, a shot in the dark. But anything of any value in our lives, whether that be a career, a work of art, a relationship, will always start with such a leap. And in order to be able to make it you have to put aside the fear of failing and the desire of succeeding. (…) Because things that we do without lust of result are the purest actions that we shall ever take.” – comics author Alan Moore
I recognise that my “meh” is often someone else’s “wow”, but that I have to show things to people or I’ll always just think it’s “meh”.
I want to finish my board game. I want to start another one. I want to mix, master and release more of my songs. I want to sell a painting. None of these are dreams; they are all in-progress tasks which are a decent % toward completion.
I’m working on an album with a friend. I just wrote some of what I think is the final track. Part of it goes like this:
I can’t give you any words of wisdom
You want a fortune cookie cutter guy?
Free fall ’til you pass out plummeting
Find your wings or fall into the light
This machine never shuts down
Never slows up, never stops moving
I don’t dream, I just do what I need to do
To stop my mind screaming