Wednesday, June 27, 2012


An amazing number of teenagers dream of making games for a living, if my informal surveys at local schools and colleges can be expanded to the entire generation.

There are all kinds of individual delusions (see ), but I’m talking about the big dream: “I’m going to be famous (and rich) as a video game maker.”

Perhaps the dreamers fall into two categories, those who dream without having any idea how to get there and no plan to get there, and those who dream while doing something to try to get there.  The first group is much the larger, as is likely true with any kind of dreaming.

Teachers are “stuck in the middle” when it comes to dealing with dreamers.  I’ve heard many people say “you shouldn’t destroy their dreams” while others, including me, think that people of adult age (as are college students) need to understand reality, and the ones who dream strongly and are willing to do something despite the odds still have a sufficient chance to succeed.  In other words, they won’t be put off because one teacher or even all their teachers show them that their dream will be very, very hard to attain. 

We have a K12 school system (in the USA) that has endeavored for years to avoid the negative, to pump up student self-esteem without requiring any action to earn self-respect.  People are awarded for participation, and competition is discouraged.  It is the opposite of the real world.   When students enter the real world they're shocked that they're not special, that people won't do things for them "just because" of who they are.  Part of a college teacher's job is to help students realize what the real world is like, to help students learn to take responsibility for themselves and to *earn* respect.

When kids are quite young then they’ll have many dreams and a teacher is probably going to encourage them to find dreams that really fit their personalities and desires.  When the student is close to graduating from high school or is in college then they need a big dose of reality so that they don’t waste years pursuing something that they may not be suited for.

A disconnection with reality seems to have become the norm amongst pre-adults.  In 2007 I had a class of high school students taking a college course in Web design.  We had a discussion about fame and about famous people, and I asked them to think of famous people from the local county.  In the end we could only come up with three football players, all of them retired by that point, and one deceased governor, out of 300,000 people.  We did a little math to show that it was quite unlikely that anyone from a group as small as the class would be famous.  Then I asked them how many of them thought they would be famous in their lives and about a quarter raised their hands.  I understand that this is not an unusual proportion for millennials (Gen Y).

This is an extreme of dreaming.  You can dream of being really good at something and enjoying it but that doesn't make you famous; these folks dream that they're going to be famous.

The tremendous lack of initiative of young people as a group (there are of course many exceptions) has really impressed (or depressed) me.  A "generation expert" speaking at a teachers’ conference described the "ambitious but aimless" tendencies of millennials (Gen Y). They have a goal, but not only don't know how to get there, they may not even be willing to pursue a path to it when the path is available. The expert's example: millennial says "I'm going to be an astronaut".  Well, that's very praiseworthy, but that requires a lot of work, you'll likely need at least a master's degree in some science-related subject, you have to take physics, math, etc. "Nope, I don't do math," says the millennial. Then how can you be an astronaut? "I'm going to be an astronaut". They don't see the connection between where they are and where they're going, but somehow it's going to happen.

Dreams are not a bad thing--as long as you DO SOMETHING about them.  Dreams should be about goals and how to attain them, not pure fantasies.  Talking about dreams isn't likely to go well, as you'll get a dose of reality from those with more experience.  Dreams on their own are empty, vacuous even.  You need to try to get results.

It’s common to hear people say “well, I could do as well if I tried that”.  But they never try it.  And while it’s usually not true in practice that they’ll do as well, sometimes it is, as with the 35-year-old Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan, Barsoom) in 1912 when he felt he could write stories as good as the ones he was reading in magazines.    The difference is, ERB went for it, he didn’t just talk about it.

Sid Meier, talking about the original Civilization game, said  "Most of the letters we'd get were almost a standard form.  They were like, 'Dear Sid.  I liked your game Civilization.  Here are the five things I would change to make it a much better game.'"  People who almost invariably had no clue about game design, but thought "I can do just as well as he did," told Sid where he went wrong. Ridiculous.  (And that’s as much the previous generation as millennials, in the early 1990s.)

Fantasist-dreamers can get to the point that they're personally offended by someone who describes a reality much different from the one the fantasist-dreamer would like to imagine.  And blames the person "delivering the reality".  For example, many people love RPGs so much and imagine what great work they can do, then meet the reality of a market that used to be very active, but collapsed several years ago leaving only a few companies able to make much profit.  Some of these folks are actually offended when someone describes how and why the market is quite small (beyond the efforts of those few big companies).

Before I taught curriculum game design, I was at a college where I mainly taught computer networking, and taught a game class on the side.  I was able to find enough students for the curriculum (for college credit) game class, even though there was no degree, but when I tried to do a continuing education (inexpensive, not-for-credit) class almost no one signed up.  A 16-year-old who did sign up said he tried to get some buddies to come as well, but they were "too busy".  I'd bet a lot of their busy-ness amounted to killing time playing video games; but if you're a person who thinks that somehow things will just work out, you're not likely to take the initiative to change the state of affairs.

Admittedly, this lack of interest in learning isn’t confined to younger people.  At my Origins seminars about game design this year I asked people how many had read a book about game design.  Very few.  Admittedly, until my book comes out, there is only one book that begins to discuss tabletop game design (though it’s free), and most of my audience were interested in the tabletop, not video games.  The audience did take the time to come listen to what I had to say.  But surely, if you’re really interested in game design, wouldn’t you read at least one of the well-known (video) game design books?

Remembering that this blog is about game design, my point is this: it won’t just come to you, you have to do it, you have to pursue it, you have to take every opportunity to learn about it (read!).  Then again, if you’re reading blogs like this, you’re already ahead of most of your contemporaries who dream of being game designers.
"Always do right--this will gratify some and astonish the rest."Mark Twain
"A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." Antoine de Saint-Exup'ery

"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." Albert Einstein

"Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler." Albert Einstein

"The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal." -- Aristotle