games

a beautiful game

Some time ago I finished Patrick Rothfuss’s book, The Wise Man’s Fear, the second volume in The Kingkiller Chronicle. It’s not a book I’d recommend for everyone, but I did enjoy it. Now if only Rothfuss would hurry up and finish the series instead of working on all those side projects! I only kid (mostly).

Anyways, there’s this game in the story called Tak. Though only briefly described in the story, it bears similarities with Go. I only just learned that notable game designer James Ernest actually worked with Rothfuss to create a real life version of the game, which was successfully funded on Kickstarter. Neat, huh?

Anyways, in the book, the main character Kvothe plays Tak against Bredon, a mysterious acquaintance who later becomes a friend. Though Kvothe is ingenious and a quick learner, he has a hard time beating Bredon. At one point, Kvothe celebrates after a near victory, but he receives no congratulations from his opponent.

Bredon instead corrects Kvothe’s approach. He’s been going about it all wrong. The point of the game is not to win, the point is to play a beautiful game.

Obviously, this isn’t just about the game, it’s a metaphor for life, and one I find profound. 

There are so many ways we can “win” at life (I mean the real thing, not the board game with the same name).

Winning (at least in the world’s eyes) usually involves acquiring wealth, property, possessions, fame, family, or even making significant contributions to society.

There is nothing inherently wrong with any of those, but it is possible (I’d even say easier) to gain them without having played a beautiful game. On the other hand, it is possible to have not gained those things, and yet to have played (lived) beautifully.

But what does a beautiful game look like, exactly?

I think the Apostle Paul says it pretty well in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

When the goal is to live and love beautifully, we are the only thing standing in our way.

No loss, no defeat, no setback can deter you from it. The beautiful game, much like Tak, is simple yet deep. It is easily understood but takes a lifetime to master.

So, how’s your game going?

practice round

While playing board games—something I try to do regularly—there’s a little tactic I’ve found helpful for new players: the practice round.

When one or more people are unfamiliar with a particular game, it’s useful to play a round or two of a pretend game so they can get some idea of the rules and strategy of the game. Then the pretend game is over and the real game starts as if the practice had never happened. This helps beginners avoid making costly mistakes right at the start.

Now, I don’t do this all the time. Some games are easy enough even for the uninitiated. But some players will request a practice round and sometimes I’ll suggest it  for more complicated games or when I know the person playing may need a little help.

Practice rounds are great and occasionally they’ll go well enough that the players decide to just continue on as a real game rather than starting over. But I’ve never just stopped playing a game after a practice round. Any game worth playing is worth playing for real, right up until the end where a winner is determined.

When it comes to the creative calling, there are those who live in a continual state of practice round and those who play for real, win or lose.


I’m currently reading Pressfield’s The War of Art and in it he writes about the difference between the professional and the amateur. I think the practice round serves as an excellent example of an amateur’s mindset.

Don’t misunderstand me. There is a time for practice rounds, a time to test the waters and see if you’re ready to commit to learning a craft. But at some point you’ve got to decide whether you’re going to lay it down or go all in.

I spoke with a friend a few weeks ago who told me of the expensive recording equipment he’d purchased in order to begin making films for his business. It was a big cost, and he hadn’t anticipated some of the purchases. Still, he knew it was necessary if he was going to make top-notch videos for his work.

There’s no doubt in my mind whether or not he was serious about his pursuit. For him, practice time had ended and the games had begun.

I’d also like to point out that I’m not dogging on practice itself. The time and patience it requires to learn a new skill through repetition is all part of the game. What I am saying is that you won’t create something worthwhile by merely dabbling. You’ve got to get serious.

I once heard Brandon Sanderson relate the act of creative writing to a performance art, something you rehearse over and over until you’ve got it down just right.

Perhaps every creative undertaking is a performance in some way, even when the creator is both actor and audience. It’s a determination to go through your lines, reveal the inner workings of your character, and tell your story the best way you know how.

Even if it’s all an act, it’s not just for show. Whether you’re memorizing your lines and placement, sitting down to write the next scene in your book, or trekking around town with a camera and microphone for interviews, it’s all part of the buildup to the big finale, the final score.

Sure, commitment is hard. Games take time to learn and play. Any game worth playing has risk—the possibility of losing. But that’s what makes the win feel so good. Even a loss can be a valuable lesson, one that’ll equip you for the next game. 

When you really love the game, you have fun playing no matter what the outcome. Because sometimes a win is more than just a victory, it’s knowing you played the game well.

Besides, nobody wins in the practice round.

success secrets

It’s not hard to find a ten-step list leading to almost guaranteed success in just about any field. While these lists don’t always have exactly ten steps, they’re pretty common nowadays.

I’ll admit, they can be helpful in breaking down an otherwise complicated process to its bare essentials, but such guides often do not lead to the success they promise—at least not immediately.

Here’s the problem: there usually isn’t just one formula that works all the time for everyone. Otherwise we’d all be rich, famous, bestselling authors with amazing six-pack abs.

There are just too many factors and too many complications to know for sure that the same course of action will yield predictable results for everyone.

Like it or not, most of our long-term goals will take a good amount of time and dedicated effort. Those promised shortcuts may exist, but they’re few and far between.

That said, I got a lot out of this article from Paul Kilduff-Taylor on The 10 Secrets to Indie Game Success (and Why They Do Not Exist)

Even though I’m not an indie game designer, I discovered some great insights that could be applied to creative design in general.

To entice you, here are a couple quotes from the article that I quite liked:

Your sojourn on this plane of reality is incredibly short and your perception of time accelerates as you get older — you will not have the hours, or the mental space, to work on everything that matters to you in your lifetime. If you can, spend your time creating a legacy that you will be proud of. 

 

Confidence, rather than arrogance, comes from being able to see the true value in yourself and in your work. You can be polite and humble but still have high self-confidence: in fact, these traits often go hand in hand. You do not have to become an all-singing all-dancing extrovert, but if you have issues in this area then you do owe it to yourself and others to work on them: the rewards will extend well beyond game development.

flavor

The idea for this post came about after an experience I had playing the game Skyrim. In case you aren’t familiar, it’s an immense fantasy game from the Elder Scrolls series. 

In the game, I was visiting a small tavern when a serving maid walks up and asks if I’d like her to play some music. I reply yes and pay her 5 gold to do so. She plays some soothing music for a time on what I believe was a lute and then she’s done and walks away. Nothing else happens.

Her family isn’t troubled by dragons. She didn’t lose her brother’s favorite sword. None of that. She just walks away.

In Skyrim, as in many games, just about every interaction you have with anything bears some sort of significance to the overall story of the game. It seems like nearly every person you talk with has some quest they want you to go on, usually with the reward of some advancement such as a new item, skill, gold, more quests, etc.

But, in this case, all you got was the opportunity to hear some nice music for a few coins. Nothing more. 

I was a little disappointed at first. But, when I stopped to think more on it, I felt admiration.

This bit of flavor without function made the world feel more real, more vibrant. 

It got me thinking how flavor serves no immediate purpose yet without it our worlds (both real and imagined) would be quite dull.

You could survive just fine on flavorless food as long as it had adequate nutritional value. In fact, they often seem at odds with one another—flavor and nutrition. But to live such a way seems almost unbearable to me. 

I heard they invented a loaf for prisoners that had all the necessary nutrients to sustain life while being utterly flavorless. In the end, it was considered cruel and unusual punishment.

I remember a point in my life where the only part of the day I really looked forward to was when I got to eat. Draw what conclusions you wish about my mindset here, but I couldn’t imagine having that pleasure taken away.

Taste aside, even the way food is presented adds a whole 'nother level of flavor. The value of going out to a nice restaurant comes from the fact that you aren't just paying for good food, you're paying for an entire eating experience.

Personally, I'm a sucker for plates where the food is arranged to look like a face. I love it when my wife lays out my sandwich and accompanying sides to look like a happy person with a mustache. And I love doing the same for her or my daughter just as much. I would even argue it does make the food taste that much better.

A life without flavor is as dull and gray as a day without the sun.

Flavor pumps lifeblood into an otherwise ordinary story.

Flavor is the extra bling in your attire that gives you style.

The flavor text you may read about a product provides a description to entice you to learn more. It’s exciting.

Flavor is that little bit of detail you add to your art, which, while unnecessary for the work as a whole, is the spark that sets it on fire—especially if you’re really into pyrotechnics. 

Sure, flavor alone may not be enough to fill your belly, warm your body, or engage you in the story. 

Still, I hope the next time you have the opportunity, whether you’re building a bicycle or baking butternut squash biscuits, you don’t forget to add a bit of flavor—just for fun.

progress

One key factor I’ve found in every game I’ve enjoyed is a sense of progress. As time passes, the player becomes stronger, better equipped, more resourceful, more capable, and just plain better. 

There is one game I can think of with an exception. In the mobile game Sword & Sworcery, your character actually loses total health points through the adventure, due to increased exhaustion. It’s an interesting twist, but even though your character, the Scythian, becomes weaker and more easily defeated, she still progresses in other ways such as learning songs, unlocking new areas of the map, and defeating powerful triangles (no joke).

Without progress, I imagine a game would get dull quickly, since you'd just be doing the same thing over and over with little change. It’s like getting stuck in a grind.

Progress is the evidence that our efforts produce results.

Ok, we’ve talked about games, now back to the Bat Cave, umm, I mean, creativity

What does progress look like for the creative? It’s a steady shift toward improvement. It could be getting better at a skill, like painting or playing piano. It may be gaining further understanding of how something works, such as a circuitboard, or building a connection with another creative person of influence. It might be learning more about a problem, such as why a town’s water source has become contaminated.

Anything that allows you more opportunity to practice creativity is progress.

But here’s the rub (is it just me, or are we both thinking of a delicious dry-rub on some tender barbecue meats right now? Oh, it’s just me, right) progress can be slow. Sometimes it can feel like you’ve put in many, many hours into a particular creative pursuit, like balloon animals, and you still only know how to make a wiener dog. All the while, the bunny remains hopelessly out of your grasp (in a very real sense).

Yes, it can be frustrating when progress is slow and you feel no better today than yesterday or even last week, but I’ve found as long as you stick to a goal with determination, you will eventually get there. It’s only when you stop trying that progress (and that elusive bunny balloon) becomes unobtainable. There is something valuable I've learned about progress:

Slow progress beats no progress every time.

Much like the Scythian from Sword & Sworcery, we are faced with setbacks and weakness, such as sickness or the effects of aging, but that doesn’t mean we can’t continue to make creative progress. I urge you, press onward and, at last, that bunny of progress will be yours. Then you can move on to something like this. That may be a very high bar to reach for. Hey, just take it one step (or balloon) at a time.

 

Creatively yours,

A.P. Lambert

 

Hey Creatives, have you been frustrated by a lack of progress? What was your response? Let us know in the comments below.

 

the grind

Gamers understand grinding as much as anyone (and no, I’m not talking about dirty Jr. High dance moves here). In a game, grinding means performing a repetitive, monotonous action over a long period of time in order to acquire something of perceived value.

Grinding has been in games for a while now and it seems to have only increased over the years. Many online RPGs are built off this concept: maybe you have to fight a bunch of low-ranked enemies just to level up and then fight a bunch of slightly harder enemies. Perhaps you've got to slowly, painstakingly collect gold or other materials so you can eventually obtain some special item which helps you be better at collecting gold and such. Or, as with many mobile games, you simply log in every half hour so you can repeatedly tap a button, which will unlock new buttons for you to tap repeatedly. That sort of thing.

But you know what? Grinding is not fun. Ever.

So why do we do it? Games, after all, are supposed to be for our enjoyment, right? From a game designer standpoint, it’s a cheap way to keep people playing your game longer. From the player’s standpoint, they believe whatever reward they get is worth the effort. But, from my perspective, it hardly is. Most of the time all you’re doing is grinding in order to do more grinding.

Sometimes life can feel this way. After all, we call work the daily grind (especially if you’re in a coffee shop). For some folks, they get up, go to work, and come home, with little change in their daily routine. Often the work itself is quite repetitive. I’m not dogging on a consistent and reliable job, but when the majority of your life is spent in repetitive monotony, it may be time to rethink where you’re heading.

Creativity, on the other hand, is all about embracing change; it’s like diving headlong into a big rushing river and not knowing where you’ll be swept away. It’s scary, challenging and fun—nothing like the grind. 

But even creatives can fall into a grind. And you know what, sometimes it’s ok, for a time. Even if you enjoy the outcome, some parts of being creative just aren’t very fun. Sometimes you have to stick that nose to the grindstone (sure sounds painful) and get a hard job done. Just make sure you have an exit plan, a reason for the grind that makes the trouble worth the effort. 

Once the grind is over, it should allow you to do something fun and exciting once more. Even better, find a way to avoid the grind altogether: develop a process so the further along you are on your creative journey, the less grinding is necessary. If your life seems like nothing but a grind, throw in an element of the unexpected, do something new and different, even if it's small and simple. 

Whatever you do, avoid an endless grind-cycle at all costs. Because if all you do is grind, eventually you’ll be ground away to nothing. That would be a stone-cold shame.

 

Creatively yours,

A. P. Lambert

 

Hey Creatives, has creativity ever felt like a grind to you, what have you done to change it up? Let us know in the comments below.

playing the dragon

Original Photo: Numinous Games

Original Photo: Numinous Games

Today’s Fun Friday isn’t exactly fun, but it is about a game. I recently played and finished the indie video game, “That Dragon, Cancer.” 

Really, it’s more of an interactive experience, but there are certainly game elements to it.

This is something I’ve been thinking about playing for a while but have put it off because, well, I wasn’t sure how it’d make me feel—or perhaps because I had a pretty good idea how it would make me feel and I didn’t want to feel that way until I was good and ready.

If you haven’t heard of it, That Dragon, Cancer game is about … oh, I’ll just let the wikipedia article tell you:

“… the Greens' experience of raising their son Joel, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer at twelve months old, and though only given a short time to live, continued to survive for four more years before eventually succumbing to the cancer …”

It has won some major awards and has been very well received. It’s moving, beautiful and raw. It paints some very powerful visual metaphors and much of it deals with the dad’s, Ryan’s, own faith and struggle through the experience. Though I often felt deeply moved while playing, there was one line in particular, toward the end, which especially resonated with me:

“I think greater than my fear of death is that of insignificance, rather my default assumption is that my thoughts and passions, loves and the stuff of my being are insignificant.
How could the creator of all that is and ever was love my son as he did Lazarus and could my soul stranded on this blue raft awash in a sea of stars, ice and dust matter enough to Him to turn his hand in mercy?”

 

I’m glad I played it and, while it dealt with some very heavy issues, it leaves the player in a good place, one of tranquility. The story it tells is an important one—one I believe could be very healing for those who have been though similar hardships.

I came away from this with two thoughts: 

First, I appreciated how the game really opened the doors to a consideration of what exactly makes something a game. It invites one to think about what the purpose of a game is to begin with. Is it solely for entertainment or something more?

Second, I’ve considered my own hesitancy to engage with the forms of creativity I know will stir up strong negative emotions like grief. Sometimes it’s easier when you don’t know what’s coming, like watching a movie you haven’t heard much about. I think of Grave of the Fireflies, which is probably the saddest movie I’ve ever watched (and a Japanese anime nonetheless). But even though it’s hard, I believe it’s very important we give some space for works such as this, whether we’ve been through the same type of experience or not. It rounds us out and opens our eyes to what life is like for others as well as prepares us for or encourages us through our own hard times.

If you’ve a mind or heart for it, I highly recommend That Dragon, Cancer and hope more creative experiences like this continue to surface, even if from a well of tears and tribulation.

improv(e)

I read an article by Leigh Anne Jasheway with suggestions on how to improve creative writing using some improv activities. In it, she laid out some ground rules before getting started. After reading the rules, I realized, hey, these could apply pretty well to getting started with any creative project. 

Instead of exercises, she prefers to call them games, because they’re meant to be fun, not work, to get your brain thinking. 

  • There is no wrong way to play. And you can’t fail—so there’s no reason not to jump in and just see what happens.
  • Don’t wait until you have a great idea to move forward. Move forward and great ideas will come. Creativity is like a rusty spigot; you have to turn it on and let the gunk run through the pipes in order for the clean water to eventually pour out.
  • Nothing is too silly to try. As the scriptwriter Beth Brandon said, “Opening your imagination to the ridiculous opens your mind to what you’re not otherwise seeing. In other words, it makes room for the genius to come through.”
  • Whatever happens, explore without judgment. Improv is all about shutting down your inner critic and not measuring your work against anyone else’s (including your own previous writing). Yes, you’ll end up taking some side trips, but who knows what you might discover along the way.

Creative exercises (or, if you prefer, games) can be a great way to not only come up with some fresh ideas, but also to explore avenues you hadn’t yet dreamed of. They can help you refine your work before exposing it to the light of day, as I wrote about earlier. They offer a safe place, free of judgement, in which to explore and discover something wonderful before you share it with the rest of us. Then again, they can be just as fun to do in groups and laugh at the results. Don’t believe me, try a mad-lib or two with some friends and you’ll see.

 

Hey Creatives, do you have a favorite creative exercise? Let us know in the comments below.

gamers

[original photo by  lalesh aldarwish ]

[original photo by lalesh aldarwish]

If you’ve read the little tagline under the main page banner, it lists story, art, game and life as categories of discussion. Well, we’re gonna talk about games today. Gamers specifically.

I think gamers often get a bad rap (and I don’t mean Vanilla Ice) as the term “gamer” has a lot of negative connotations to it. Then again, gaming has become so pervasive in our culture, it’s hard to find anyone who isn’t involved in some sort of gaming activity on a regular basis. Be it mobile games, console games, board games, sports or WarGames (hey, it’s still a great movie), just about everyone has some attachment to gaming.

But gamers are different, they are the dedicated, the ones who have made gaming a lifelong pursuit. Typically, this label is reserved for people who play video games, but the“video games” category itself sure has changed since the Atari.
Now, I’ve got a lot of mixed feelings about video games. I mean, I absolutely love them but also feel like they can be a total waste of my time if I’m not careful. Let’s shelve that convo for another day.

Back to gamers. They’re dedicated to games in a way most people aren’t. Are there dangers to such a lifestyle? Sure, as with any hobby or activity which can become an obsession, but I also see the potential for good in gamers. Consider the following quote by Justin Gary, maker of the card games Ascension and Solforge.

“I’ve been a gamer my whole life and I know what it means to commit to a collectible game.  The reason I played Magic for so many years wasn't just because it was a good game or because I got to travel around the world playing on the Pro Tour.  The main reason I stuck with the game is because of the friendships I made and the experiences that we got to share together playing a game we love. I make games with the hope of providing that experience for others. Solforge only survives because of the strength of the gameplay and the bonds created amongst our community.”

To be fair, my interests in both of his games have decreased dramatically lately (though I used to really enjoy them). However, his quote is one reason I love board games so much: the sense of community they bring. If gamers let the games they play lead to real and healthy relationships, I think that’s a pretty good thing. So let the games continue, but hey, try to take a break now and then to work on your own creative product instead of just enjoying someone else’s. And maybe get a little more sleep while you’re at it.

 

Hey Creatives, what have been your experiences with gaming? What advantages or dangers do you see in that field of entertainment? Let us know in the comments below.