Sim City and Creativity.

SimCity_(2013)_logo
SimCity logo, 2013.

I am a child of the early home computer era. I played text-based games on my dad’s Apple IIE, and I continued to play games as the capabilities of the hardware available steadily increased.

One of the games that I never lost my appetite for  was (and still is) Sim City. I played the original Sim City, and I’ve played each of the subsequent versions, including the newest one.

The newest Sim City is quite pretty, but I believe it is outclassed by Cities: Skylines, a game that has had me thinking a lot about city sims lately as my laptop won’t run it, and I am grieving that fact.

Sim City was a thing I sat down at thinking that it would be a chance to explore a new world, test guesses, take on imaginary responsibilities in a low-risk context… in other words, a chance to be creative. And it always started out that way. But the game is structured in a specific way to keep you increasing your city population in order to unlock new types of buildings and new aspects to gameplay. This means that you don’t get to play the full game until you’ve reached a series of benchmarks.

This is the carrot that gets you to continue the game. I’ve played city sims in sandbox modes, and I’ll say from experience that they’re not as fun, because the challenge is removed, and creativity thrives on overcoming challenges.

But that kind of challenge also changed how I played the game every time. Every single time. I would start out by choosing a map, and initially I’d want something interesting, with features that naturally divided the play area into what I could envision as neighborhoods or city districts. Maps with mountains, mesas, coastlines, rivers, and islands. But since the classic benchmark for Sim City games is city population, these plans, and often entire nascent imaginary towns, were abandoned in attempts to reach more of those benchmarks faster.

Since the kind of land that is most useful for increasing the city population is flat land, the pristine coastal communities and sprawling mountain views were left behind in short order for expanses of flat, unobstructed, featureless land.  The most efficient way to pack the most people in the city play area would, of course, be grids, so curving neighborhood streets became rigidly structured grids, sized so that the highest density of residential apartment buildings would nestle in between the roads perfectly, and as little land as possible would be wasted.

This happened every time.

Why?

Because I wanted to play with the higher level buildings. I wanted to play with the higher level buildings and as a result a more complicated style of gameplay as quickly as possible. But by the time I got those higher level buildings, I had a sad, overpopulated flat plane of gridded streets and grim apartment blocks.

So I would start over with a new city.

This happened over and over again.

Is this starting to sound familiar? Repetitive activity, increasingly high but consistently simple benchmarks to reach before one could move forward…

It, quite frankly, sounds like a lot of jobs I’ve had. And it is the secret to why a job can be simultaneously crushingly difficult and soul-killingly unchallenging. And it is why so many of the jobs we work in the modern day suck, and why our managers and/or our employees within these jobs suck.

Now, I don’t want to go off the deep end and say that Sim City and a good number of the other Sim games that have come since it are designed to teach us how to be good capitalist drones, and the reason I don’t want to say that is because I don’t think that it’s anything so intentional as that. I simply think that these games cannot help but model the dominant culture of those that made them.

Much like stories in any form, be they part of an oral tradition, movies and television, novels or poems or songs, these games are communicating culture, and it takes an intentional effort and an acute awareness of what’s being communicated in order to transmit anything but that dominant culture. This is how culture replicates and spreads. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing; it depends on whether what’s being transmitted improves the world and the lives of its inhabitants or worsens those things.

I’m actually not opposed to capitalism. I like it. I like that someone with a good idea can go into business and invest their money and/or time and effort in that idea, and spread it. But I do worry about certain aspects of corporatism and how they worm their way into the workplace and as a result our daily lives. I think it’s important to be aware of what cultural viruses you may be carrying and to be intentional about which of these you send forth into the minds of others, and how you send them.

 

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A Love Letter to my Writers Group.

I always considered myself kind of a lone critter.  I’ve never enjoyed group work, and I find it difficult to work without privacy… either the privacy of an empty apartment, or the privacy sometimes afforded to us in public places.  It’s one of the primary reasons I now prefer to live alone, and possibly one of the reasons that I preferred for so long to live with roommates.

But if the only voice you listen to is your own, your work steadily becomes more and more self-referential, and eventually ceases to add to the cultural dialogue.  This makes us creatively obsolete.  What becomes obvious is that we cannot work in continuous solitude, a tortured soul hammering at a typewriter beneath the bare, swinging lightbulb of our own desperate inspiration.

Creativity exists not in the generation of ideas, but in the synthesis of disparate parts into new wholes.  One must gather the parts, and one does this through a deliberate choice to participate in society.  On the production end, it’s vital for us to understand that our ideas, narratives, and sentences do not spring fully formed and beautiful from our brains.  Rather they stagger forth from our skulls like chicks from the egg, sticky, weak, clumsy, and weirdly ugly, but showing a kind of promise.

They need help.  If you leave that little bird on its own, it will get cold and die.  If you nurture it, however, it will have a chance to grow wings.

So we must enlist help from the outside.

The first group I tried was not a good cultural fit.  Only two of the group of five got through the submission I provided.  Some claimed it was too long, but it was the same length as the other submissions, and followed submission guidelines for the group.  They weren’t interested in anything other than strict genre-based fiction.

The next group was a mistake altogether… they weren’t workshopping at all, just drinking wine and reading aloud what they’d written to a round of polite applause.

I was about to give up, when an idea came to me.  I got in touch with a friend and colleague and asked:

Why don’t we start out own?

And we did.

And it’s perfect.

That’s one of the great things about writers groups, is they’re by nature small, because at some point the volume of work the group must get through in each session becomes impractical.  That means your town or city can support as many of these groups as it needs.

So here are some of the things my writers group does for me, and your writers group should do for you:

They will help you workshop your writing.  My group has literally had the punishing task of going through a novel of mine chapter by chapter, providing notes throughout each step.  They will help you to realize that that sentence that you loved just doesn’t work and was never as pretty as you thought it was.  They will tell you in glowing terms what part of what you’ve written really does work.

They will share in your frustrations and in your triumphs.  They have either been there, or are all too aware that they will have been there at some point in their lives.

They are uniquely capable of understanding the trials of being a writer.  When I was all fired up about a project, I tried talking to some of my civilian friends about it. I thought, these people are smart, they read, they’ll get it.

No.  Nobody who isn’t a fiction writer is interested in hearing anything about your book until it’s finished and available for purchase.  They don’t want to hear about character dynamics, or the structure of the narrative.  It’s not that they’re not smart, good people, it’s that this is a conversation that they cannot participate in with you as equals. They cannot perform literary analysis on a book that they haven’t read.  Moreover, they do not care, and honestly, they shouldn’t.

But your writers group will be interested.  Or they’ll at least pretend to be, because the next time they leap from bed scrambling for a pad of paper to write a new idea down on, they’re going to need someone to talk to about it.

They will help you refine ideas before the first draft is even started.  The writers group is a crack team of people who have experience creating stories, and if you go to them saying, “I want to do x, but I have a problem with y,” they will help you brainstorm a solution.

They are capable of the kind of brutal honesty that in strictly social circles would be considered rude.  They will tell you if what you’re working on is a dead end, and they will tell you if what you see as a particularly clever conceit is just a tired cliche.  They can see what you’ve produced without the rosy fog that sometimes clouds your own vision, and they will use that ability to help you.

Their most important role, however, is arguably that they will never tell you to stop.  No matter how much mediocrity you put in front of them, they will encourage you to try again and try again until things are working.

So to those in my writers group, who have taught me more then the entirety of my formal education, I say thank you.  And to anyone out there struggling in the directionless sea, I say, find yourself a good writers group.  Or hell, just make one yourself.

Failing Up.

I’m going to let you in on one of the things I really love about writing.

It’s almost impossible to fail at it.

When you write, especially with modern tools, you’re just a backspace press (of varying lengths, of course) from being back on the right track.  It can hurt sometimes to set yourself back like that, but everything can be fixed.  It’s very very rare that something that I’ve started has gotten to the point at which it just had to be scrapped entirely, and in those cases, the failure happened very early in the process, during conception.

Not all activities are like this.  Drawing and painting aren’t like this… once you lay down the wrong line in ink, it’s there for good.  Oh, sure… they sell correcting fluids and opaque white inks, and there are methods by which you can simply cut out the offending piece of paper and replace it.  These techniques only minimize the original mistake… the opaque ink isn’t entirely opaque, or you can see the cut lines in the paper, or the correction fluid is a very slightly different shade of white than the paper you’re using.  In painting, some media are more forgiving than others… watercolor scares the hell out of me.  Once that pigment is dry, you cannot pick it up, and attempts to cover it will always show a shadow of the original stroke.  With acrylic, you can generally paint over any mistakes pretty quickly, but if you’re a textural painter, the original brush strokes will never go away unless you sand them down.

Painting over a mistake is less practical with oil paints, since they can take months to dry fully, but that intractable wetness allows you the opportunity to simply scrape your mistake up with a palette knife, or to just repaint it.  Some of these mistakes, resolved through simply lightening or darkening the offending paint, or adding a different pigment, have given me some of the richest colors I’ve ever seen… paints featuring one pigment provide a bright but shallow color… a kind of monochromatic look that you don’t see in nature.  Color in nature, as with sounds and smells, is a thing of incredible variation, depending on the intensity and directionality of the light and in fact the composition of the surface itself, the roughness or smoothness of the surface, and depending on the sensitivity of the viewer’s eye.  This is why I love painting with oil paints… sometimes you just don’t know if a color is right until its on the canvas, and it may need to be adjusted.  Oil paints are so forgiving of this, and it lets you get the color, the shadow, and even the shape (yes, I have scraped entire lines and edges off of canvases) just right.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that oil painting thrives in the presence of human error.  Not error… let’s call it “human variability.”

We live in a world that demands compliance and consistency and homogeneity.  We perform jobs that expect the same performance again and again and again, regardless of whether you’re performing surgery or stuffing envelopes.  The unfortunate thing about this is that human beings are intensely variable little creatures.  It takes a lot of effort enforcing structure on us to get us to operate in this way, and that enforcement of structure, that training, starts in school.  This is why I tell my friends’ children that if they learn nothing else from finishing school, they’ll learn to work.

The effort that goes into writing, like oil painting, is much more forgiving of that human variability… in fact, as a writer, it pays to avoid doing your work the exact same way every time.  Our work benefits from innovation in ways that most work really doesn’t.  And thus, error in writing, even if it is deleted in the end (and believe me, a whole lot of it is) contributes to the finished product in ways that are incalculable.  In fact in most cases, the author probably doesn’t know what changes or decisions might be related in some way to a mistake made earlier in that piece, or even in a prior piece.  And I’m not just talking about learning from one’s mistakes, although that’s part of it, but a word that you consistently misspelled previously may influence word choice later on, or a word mistyped might alter the structure of an entire sentence.

This kind of variability, this brand of failure, can be practiced in everyday life, but it either has to be done on the back end, or has to be a part of a process that precipitates a policy change.  This is what makes working life so strange… employers will say that they value creativity, but they don’t… they want the benefit of creative employees, but reject the increase in variability that comes from divergent thinking.  Creativity inherently involves risk.  There is no way to get around that risk.  The ability to take risks and roll with the punches when the results come in is the very heart and soul of creative work.

And when you take a risk and fail in a creative setting, you have to start again from where the mistake was made.

This is costly for large companies or even government offices.  The efficiency that they treasure is a big part of meeting revenue goals.  If one person is less efficient, that’s not a huge effect, but if fifty thousand people are less efficient, that ends up being a much bigger deal.  So in our work, as people, we are not encouraged to engage in divergent thinking.

But when you’re writing, I would encourage everyone to embrace your mistakes and your failures.  They are going to make you a better writer.  It’s not a big deal to take a little longer than expected to pick up a new skill… in fact, I think that it may allow someone to gain a more complete understanding of the process.  In most cases, the risks are going to be low… nobody’s going to die, you’re not going to destabilize eastern europe, and you’re not going to cause a global recession.

In most cases, the cost is going to be just a little more time spent on whatever you’re working on, and your own pride.  This process is definitely worth the time, and we could all do with a little less pride.

And I think this carries over to other aspects of our lives as well.