Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Checkpoint IV

Checkpoint IV

As we leave the eighth week of classes and head into the final scramble to earn our grades and our pride, there is only ever one thing to do: it. What is 'it' you ask? An astute question, and one that I myself found pondering, rejecting, resenting, understanding, and finally accepting.

For anyone well-versed in Greek  and Roman mythology, Nike is the goddess of victory. For all other purposes it is a shoe brand, a shoe brand which borrowed Victory's name align itself with success. But Nike's well honed motto has nothing to do with the Greeks, Romans, Olympics, gods, or even victory itself. The brand's motto is: 'Just Do It.'

What the devil is 'it' and why is doing it so important?

Let's apply this to work, education, or creative problem solving. How does one suppose it feels to be in the depth of despair over how to develop a creative product in a very short period of time with no right answers and an unfathomable burden of work to do once 'pretend' answers are guessed at? One assumes it is life draining, frustrating, paralyzing, heart wrenching, and just plain difficult.

But one also assumes, given a hard working person of quality, pride, and fighting spirit, that anyone in such a position is working very hard every moment of their lives on the project, or at least thinking about it in those rare instances it cannot be worked on. How  must it feel then  to be told that the solution to one's dilemma, the way to get more work done, the method for solving those difficult problems is to, simply, 'just do it'?

Last year I downloaded an app called Unstuck. The goal of this app is to help a person diagnose where they were stuck on a project and what they needed to do in order to break free and accomplish what they originally set out to accomplish. Perhaps I was hoping for some insight into the human condition, some psychology or workflow 'secret' that everyone else knew but somehow I didn't.

Why were people able to complete projects I couldn't, to a level I couldn't? Why was I always frustrated and stressed; how could I avoid falling into huge pitfalls where I spent large chunks of my time solving problems that maybe really didn't need to be solved for the project to have a meaningful impact? How could I think properly and increase my own efficiency?

After I had answered its questions and gone through its exercises, Unstuck revealed the answer it presumed I had been waiting for: "Just Do It."

I was mad.

Earlier in the week, two separate people who I'd talked to about my difficulties getting the work done had both said the answer was to, "Just Do It," and I'd gotten similarly upset on both occasions. What do you mean?! I thought in offended exasperation. I've been doing nothing but working! I'm working so much I'm working in my dreams!

For you see, "Just Do It," rather implies that you haven't been doing what you're supposed to have been doing. The sound of those words implies that you were off playing video games, partying with friends, hanging with the BF, or skipping class to visit an amusement park, and that the secret magic answer to your problems is simply to stop goofing off and actually work.

Add this to a situation in which a person has actually deprived themselves of all games, comfort, companionship, and relaxation in order to slave and slave over their work, and "Just Do It" is an undeserved slap in the face. Anyone might be entitled to be a little mad.

And yet....

Perhaps, one might imagine, the problem is not in the advice itself, but the interpretation of the words. Maybe the problem is that when we hear 'Just Do It' we hear 'You're not trying,' but the advice being imparted to us is something different all together.

Let's look at each of the words in sequence. The first word is 'Just.' This word has a few meanings, but its connotation includes overcoming some kind of hurtle. That is to say that we use 'just' when we are trying to get past objections and uncertainties and throw down a finalized answer that undermines all opposition and distractions. Therefore we can already see that "Just Do It" implies that something, some kind of antagonist or unpleasant cloud is getting between us and our work.

Consider how a mother might say, "Just do your Homework," to a child who is playing video games. This is not the first thing she announces when she walks into the room and finds her gaming bundle of joy. Probably she said, "Do your Homework" first, and then the child offered some feedback ("But I'm fighting Dr. Zorgan! But I don't want to! But I did it yesterday!"). It is this obfuscation, this cloudiness, this set of distractions to which she then applies the 'Just.'

Consider this second example. "Mother, I don't know how to do this problem," says a child, to which the mother responds, "Just do it to the best of your ability, and then come to me when you're done." IN the first example, its easy to see how the word 'Just' could be misinterpretation as a termination of pleasure (And therefore "Just Do It" implies you've been goofing off.)

But here we see 'just' in a different light. 'Just' is used to banish apprehensions. It clears the way by some means or another, for action to occur. The problem, "I don't know how to do this," is shut down by simple means of the word 'just.' 'Just' negates the stopping points (And everything that follows after 'just' clarifies that no consequences exist for failure to perform perfectly, only failure to perform at all.)

This brings us to our second word, 'Do.' 'Do' is a powerful word, but it implies some kind of physically manifested action of some sort.  When we 'do' something, we create, we instruct, we attack, we bowl, we jump, we fish, we write a paper, we ask a person out, but we don't just sit in a windowsill with our fist on our chin and think for a long while.

However, I was already not in a thinking phase. I was in a working phase, and work simply was getting done incorrectly, inefficiently, unnecessarily, or just simply not fast enough. How could I overcome this with the word 'Do?'

Let's look at Nike brand shoes. The name of Nike brand suggests that victory follows in its wake, yet the company motto does not promise victory. The slogan isn't "Just do it and you'll succeed," or "Just do it and your dreams will become true." It is only, "Just do it." And yet the connection of Nike to its motto suggests that "Just do it" and victory are somehow linked.

They are. Unless you do something, you can't succeed. Nike doesn't promise success because it know there are lots of wrong answers. IN fact, you are going to fail to shoot a basketball a great many times before you learn to shoot it 'right.' Furthermore, in many cases we are looking for 'right' answers, when there are no right answers. Just variations on a theme. And some are more pleasant to us than other; but rarely is there a single optimal solution for any problem.

"Do" in "Just Do It" Means don't permit paralysis. Even if you must make a decision by flipping a coin, make it. Then stick to it. (This advice itself is problem-rift, you should always be able to quickly evaluate if a switch is going to yield you net profit or failure', but it's very important to realize that if you change your mind you're redoing work, and sometimes when you have a certain amount of work done you need to quickly re-scope and make something different than what you already planned that still meets your needs.)

"Do It" means you constantly have to act. You need to make decisions and then act on them. You need to constantly be putting yourself into a state of Flow, and minimize frustration between flow states.

"It." The final word is "It." It deserves a paper all its own. "It" is an undefined noun, genderless. Deciding what "It" is, that is, what you are making, what you are getting into Flow over, what you are carving away haziness and uncertainty in order to fail and succeed over, can be very difficult.

"It" needs to be simplified, reduced, possible, managed, recorded, and analyzed. Nothing stinks more than getting into a Flow state over the wrong "It"- except never getting into a Flow state at all. "It" needs to be decided quickly, decisively, with vision, and also furthermore it needs to be small and concise enough to be doable, with the core always visible. Before getting into a Flow state, know if "It" is really what you need, or if this is just you trying to make a perfect 'right' choice instead of the one that is going to get your project done.

Ah. After all that. We can now see that, "Just Do It," doesn't mean, "You've been goofing off and need to buckle down." Rather it means something bigger. Something about banishing fears, accepting the possibility of failure, identifying the core components, and falling into a flow state

Monday, May 6, 2013

Checkpoint III

It's checkpoint III and the stress has begun to roll in!

As per usual, I'm feeling a sense of general malaise concerning... well, conferring just how vague my game feels to me. That is to say that there is and always has been a lot of work to be done in defining the exact shape of my gameplay mechanics. Not only are there a significant number of technical hurtles to overcome, but those hurtles must be overcome in very programmatic and exceptionally creative ways.

My experience working with Augmented Reality allowed me to really familiarize myself in working with strange and difficult to define problem sets that have difficult to locate and difficult to implement answers. But, at the same time, the problem set still posed some very rigid constraints, and that greatly helped to get me up and going.

Constraints? Made it easier? Of course! Human beings don't work well when you give them too many choices. They get overwhelmed by all the potential options, particularly if they don't have any means of evaluating which ones are better, or if their initial assumptions have just been greatly questioned. Constraints give a person a foundation; an unmoving pillar on which they must base their design. Constraints concerning game mechanics, visual assets, multiplayer experiences, item usages, and monetization can all help inform the game design process.

I can give a few examples of this. For instance, assume two restaurants with menus that have only written titles, no pictures.  Is it easier to order an optimal or even acceptable choice from a restaurant menu that has five pages, or one with five hundred pages? What if neither are organized into categories?

The five hundred paged menu takes a lot longer and a lot more effort (research) in order to understand the range of options available to the customer and select one. In fact the easiest way for them to select an item may be for them to artificially restrict the menu to a smaller number of choices by only reading a few items on each page.

So it is that I am having difficulty designing my game. With the infinite range of all possibilities open to me, how am I to design a game that wants to do a thousand things, all of which have no definite constraints attached to them? I want to design a game for women, but saying so does not provide unconditional constraints for what I'm about to make. Saying "This game must be a platformer" helps definitively eliminate a huge range of options. But Saying "This game must be fore women" still leaves all options open, provided that they are executed properly. This is to say that the range of possibilities is not meaningfully narrowed down until at least five or six major choices have been made. And how can one know if any of those choices were the 'best' ones?

Part of answering this problem comes down to the simple fact that there often aren't any 'right' answers, just 'flavored' ones. For instance, the choice to make a first person shooter for women has a distinct flavor to it, and will result in one very unique outcome. And the choice to make a strategic knitting game for women also has a very distinct flavor. Neither is particularly optimal; though both feed different tastes.

One the problem at hand when speculating what women will want most is that everyone has a different idea than you; and truth be told you are all just speculating. When you specifically go out of your way to speculate that everyone else is wrong, (ie, you're not making a casual game for women and you're making a type of game that's never been successful with them before) you are not setting yourself up for an easy job to support your speculations. It doesn't really matter that everyone else 'going with the flow' is guessing just as much as you are.

In fact, their idea is the worse idea. If you were making a casual game that satisfied everyone's expectations and everyone already agreed your speculations were correct, you wouldn't be doing anything particularly interesting. Or opening new markets. Heck you probably wouldn't be making much money, either.

So one supposes that as long as one can quote everything I just said from an authoritative source in the realms of entrepreneurship and business, this argument/support is Thesis-worthy. But still.  That's a whole lot of research and quoting necessary when the argument boils down to: "The future of everything inevitably lies in the hands of Research and Development."

Alright let me backtrack because I do love to rant. I believe I was saying something about just how much the vagueness of my own project was torturing me. The thing is that I worked on Augmented Reality for a very long period of time, and while I understand that doing so was important, I don't always believe myself when I say it aloud. The truth is that I feel I have spent an utterly unacceptably small stretch of time working on the back end of my AI; and that I think my advisers take for granted just what sort of complex creation I'm interested in making. It even came out in my thesis proposal: Everything I've done has been related to AR when what I actually want to do is build an affective AI-driven adventure game that promotes gender equality.

I need/want/crave/lust-after more time to play with code and game mechanics, and now right after working with AR I've had no time to play and immediately have to work on my Thesis. But I don't feel like I have an accurate grasp on even what kind of game I'm proposing- not really- not how it works, not how it feels, not what it's capable of, not why people want to play it, not why they're going to have fun with it- so how can I possibly research how to improve it or write about how to build it?

I still don't get it. I want to play with it, and I don't have time. I need time to nurture it, not just think. I'm exhausted by thinking, by planning. I need to tinker. And for God's sake, I don't want to tinker with AR anymore!

There, I've gotten that out of my system now too. The truth is that this point is a constant weight on my mind, a great burden, a source of suffering.

But let's break down my suffering and look at the truth. The truth is that I'm paralyzed. The truth is I don't know where or how to start, and that everything I put forward as a starting point seems hollow an ineffectual at capturing what I want. The truth is: If I knew where to start, I would make time for my game. It isn't that no one's allowing me to play; its that I haven't come up with the very first toy I want to play with. And that scares the hell out of me, because I'm midway through writing a thesis paper and 2/3 of the way through my graduate program. Playing with Augmented Reality was easy by contrast; I knew what the end form had to look like. This? This  really don't get. And no amount of research or writing or drawing seems to be helping me get it.

Firstly, I'm paralyzed. Secondly, I'm exhausted. I'm exhausted by just how many times I've sat down and written out diagrams and explanations of my system. I'm exhausted by the sheer number of times I've done the same work over and over again in ever-different ways. I'm exhausted by the idea of sitting down again and working from the ground up all over in the newest draft- which I probably will get distracted from halfway through and never finish- and I'm terrified and exhausted by the possibility that the answer just might not come to me.

However I think that I know what to do now. I think I realize where I have to go next. The teacher feels like I need to be working on my thesis because I need to be able to think like a master's student. I get that. I understand it. I need to research. I need to grab sources. I need to organize my thinking process. I need to keep a journal. I need to track my progress. Okay. I do get that. And he's right that I need to work on the form of the research thinking, on the methodology, on the testing, on the citation.

At the same time, it is unacceptable that I go any further with my work without having something to implement, test, and iterate like Augmented Reality. It is unacceptable to continue onward without relieving some of the pent up stress, anxiety, uncertainty, fear, and paralysis surrounding the form of my game. It's impossible to go on without addressing these things; It simply can't happen. This paralysis and fear is giving me excruciatingly painful writer's block, it's stuffing up my thought process, and its making me second guess myself at every turn. As a result of this not-tinkering, I have been creatively handicapped and I can't think. I'm suffering.

What I need to do right now is make choices; even if they're guesses. And to make those choices, I need to narrow down the options.  I did a lot of research leading up to this point and a lot of thinking; I've absorbed a lot of information and even though I'm not going to use it all properly the first time, I need an initial base form off which I can iterate. I need to set the bounds for a work I can complete, test, and evaluate in a year's time. I need it feasible and on the ground instead of in the clouds. I need to be able to reach my hands around and inside its shape and feel it completely such that I know every part of it. I need an intimate knowledge of my own design that I don't yet have.

In sum, I need to take charge of my time and use not just to 'get work done,' but to work creatively at all times. I need to write, read, implement, test, tinker, and enjoy. I need to alleviate the stress; remove the bottlenecks, so as to let energy flow more smoothly. And part of that is in accepting that I need to be able to do multiple tasks at once and to manage my time for all of them; and if I can't or I think I'm bad at it, then I need to learn. Starting now.