You don’t need a life improvement book to tell you that the more you do a thing the better you get at it. This should be common sense. You can elaborate on the specifics more, as Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” does by stating that it takes, amongst other things, 10,000 hours of work and effort to “achieve international stardom,” but the core idea is simple: practical experience defines skills.
There’s a corollary to that. The better you get at something the more interested you become in how other people do that thing. You can only go so far on your own. After a while, if you want to continue to improve you need peers, that have been where you are, to offer collaboration or mentorship or even, simply, inspiration. While it’s completely possible to get through without any support, that community helps you through the problems, pitfalls, and general funks you might encounter. The cumulative effect of that is that you get to spend less time reinventing the wheel, to discover solutions that others have already documented, and more time tuning your central skill. Outside inspiration is a lubricant. It might make it easier to progress, but you still have to do the thing to get going.
My photography comes to mind. I might not have aspirations to become an “international star” or even a professional, I’m perfectly happy keeping it a hobby, but it is something I enjoy and an activity I want to improve. Having spent a lot of time working on it over the last few months — it helped to be in an inspirational setting — I’ve noticed a marked improvement in the average quality of my photos. I have also noticed that I’m far more interested in other photographers and their work. I spent time scouring the web for photographer sites, visited numerous shows and galleries, and browsed through many books.
Here’s some photographer sites I’ve enjoyed recently: Mathieu Bernard-Reymond. Raoul Gatepin. Ida Borg. Cameron Wittig. Guy Sargent. Yelena Yemchuk. Kim Holterman (I really like these.) Ye Rin Mok. Yoann Lemoine. Tim Gasperak. Peter Franck. Maximilian Haidacher. Gigi Cifali. Holger Pooten. Simon Roberts. Christophe Gilbert. James Wendell. John Minh Nguyen. And these are just the sites I’ve bookmarked since I got back to Canada. The list of sites bookmarked while abroad is far more extensive.
Here’s the problem. With game design and development, which is something that I do want to be professional with, I’ve been going at it backwards. I consider myself opinionated on the subject. I have an extensive library of game design books and an even more bloated RSS reader pointing to all sorts of game design weblogs. I write about it, to varying success, and I talk about it and I have great friends, who do it professionally, to draw great inspiration from. I’ve been lucky in this regard, but I haven’t made the most of it.
That’s not to say that I haven’t made games over the last few years. I have made quite a few — mostly small web-based games, save for a couple exceptions — but I don’t feel any ownership with them. While in some cases I was given relative free reign, most of them were built to other people’s specs. I’ve completed nothing of my own in years. There’s been no application of my game design ideas and no refinement of my philosophies. There have been ideas, but no tests, no failures, no successes, and no feedback. There have been no excuses either.
I’ve been hoping for a job with creative control to come my way — or a commission or a client or anything with full trust in me — while I’ve been off doing other things like building sites for cereal companies and animating e-learning tools and working with content management systems for female contraceptives. They were all great learning experiences, but not what I want to do and not exactly the ideal setup for getting people to trust me with what I do want. It’s easier to set things aside when you have nebulous goals and delusions. Concrete thinking, and action, is needed.
My photography has been a catalyst. I don’t do that for anyone but myself, without expecting anybody to give me a wad of cash for it, and yet it has already rewarded me: one of my photos won me a free ticket to SXSW Interactive 09. And since I’m going to be down there (barring any financial disasters), I figure I’d make a vacation of it and head down to San Francisco for IGF too. I intend to have something to show to somebody for that.