Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Chad Moore. He is an author, technical art director in the video game business, and aspiring minimalist.
“Creativity… requires limits, for the creative act rises out of the struggle of human beings with and against that which limits them.” - Rollo May
I work in an industry that is by nature counter-intuitive for single-tasking and minimalism– both in the products we make and how we make them.
In most video games the goal is to amass as many items as possible and through various mechanisms “level them up.” Leveling-up refers to enhancing a quality of an item: the distance of arrows fired from your bow, the strength of your armor, or unlocking the bird that drops bombs are some examples of this. More and more. Bigger and faster. Everything from Angry Birds on your phone to the biggest deepest multi-player games out there follow this model. It’s what keeps the player engaged in the game.
Video Games are made by talented people pushing the limits of technology, art and design often without enough time to do it properly. From the smallest start-ups to the largest publisher, game development is a collaborative, creative and technical endeavor. This is the great part about the business… and the reason I stay with it.
But the way video games are made can be unfriendly towards simplicity. Most of the game developers I know are people that “need to multitask,” both by their own admission and because it’s expected in the video game culture.
First, most folks have headphones on. They’re listening to music, pod-casts, or audio-books. Some people even watch movies in small windows on their second monitor for “background noise.” As a manager, it’s my responsibility to make sure each member of the team is efficient and effective. From the outside, it doesn’t seem that productivity or efficiency is suffering… but I have begun running several experiments to see if quality does increase when the movie watching, music listening crowd is “unplugged.” The results are still being compiled as I write these words.
Second, office geography has the entire team sitting in cube farms. These close knit cubes are designed to “enhance communication.” For example, artists can quickly look over the half-wall and ask a programmer a question. This is great for immediate problem solving, however, the creative tasks we perform require dedicated and focused work in order to be fully realized. And the constant interruptions hinder our productivity.
Third, everyone is “always on.” We have our email open all day and internal instant messaging clients humming – not to mention the external social networks and IM clients. In video games that are persistent worlds, dedicated staff is needed around the clock to keep everything running. If the server goes down, people can’t play. If they can’t play, they’ll look to play another game. So I see “always on” being needed in those roles. But most of us are on digital leashes of some kind even when we don’t need to be. Remote access into the office from home, work email on your phone. IM open all day. And all this multi-tasking is being proven to be actually bad for business, and maybe our brains too.
Some studies even postulate that people can be addicted to the micro-endorphin rush we get when we get an email or tweet notification. That’s why we can’t stop checking our phones when we’re away from work or when we’re driving. Most folks agree that these short bursts of interruptions are even changing our brains. Interruptions are a reflection of today’s corporate culture where we create emergencies that aren’t really serious. While most of this is unconscious, and not malicious, it is still a distraction nonetheless.
As an aspiring minimalist in both my personal and professional life, I have begun asking myself the following question: How can we level up single-tasking in the video game industry? And if we can do it in our industry, how does that translate to yours?
Consider these three immediately practical solutions applicable to almost every industry:
#1 Wait your turn. Can you wait a while to talk to the artist? Look at him, does he have his headphones on (game developer code for “Do Not Disturb”) and is obviously “in the zone” sculpting in the 3D modeling application with a ton of reference images on the other monitor. Don’t interrupt him asking for his hours spent this week on his tasks. Let him do his job. That User Interface Engineer who’s sliding her chair back in forth from her development kit and her two-screen computer rig? She’s fixing a bug in the UI on her computer, testing it on the kit, and she’s obviously busy. Do not walk over and ask her how it’s going right now. Let her do her job. Your opportunity to ask your question will come… but you may need to wait your turn to ask it.
#2 Use team signals to tell others “do not disturb.” I’ve seen flags put up by artists to denote when they are in the zone and to please come back later. I’ve also seen tech teams have one team member wear a hat signaling that he/she is the person on call for help that day. Workers in other industries may close their door, work off-site, or tell their secretaries to hold their calls. But the signal has been made and we should learn to recognize them and respect them.
#3 Protect your industry’s most valuable asset. The most valuable asset any company has are its people. People make the art, tech and design of a game. They support the game or the other people making the games. There are certain parts of the day when creativity runs wild and other parts of the day that are more suitable for less creative tasks. As a manager, I need to balance the need for creatives to not be disturbed with my duties as a manager. I have to talk to those people at some point about management issues. But what’s the best time of the day to do that? How do I best protect their creative time while still accomplishing my needs as a manager?
I certainly don’t have all the answers. But in my pursuit of both minimalism and my commitment to the video game industry, I’ll be communicating with one person at a time, handling one problem at a time, or working on one idea at a time. All as a part of my effort to bring the principles of minimalism and simplicity into my personal and professional life. And if we can accomplish simplicity in this industry, you can certainly accomplish it in yours.