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Hope Is The Message

by Laralyn McWillams on 11/30/15 07:55:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

In mid-March, 2013, I wrote The Metrics Aren’t The Message here on Gamasutra. It reflected on how going through a cancer diagnosis and treatments changed the way I viewed the world, and more specifically how I viewed my job and the role of metrics/statistics in game development. The article ended with this:

My PET scan in September was all clear. As of now, I'm in remission. I see a specialist once a month to have a scope stuck down my throat so he can see if the cancer's back. I'll have ongoing PET scans and checkups for five years, and after that I'll be called "cured." When I feel a tickle in the back of my throat, like I have the past few weeks, I have trouble sleeping.

I still find myself looking at statistics from time to time. Many say there's a 90 percent cure rate for this specific type of cancer. It's a fairly new area of research, though, and there's a small set of evidence that it may have a much higher than expected rate of metastasis to the lungs. Lung metastasis is tricky business, even if you can have radiation a second time.

But this isn't about survival statistics, and the median isn't the message. This, like life and like metrics, is about evolution. It's about change. It's about picking new behaviors based on the results of previous behaviors.

It's about how an understanding of the endgame can change the way you play.

It’s two and a half years later, and as I write this I’m in the middle of my third week of lung cancer radiation and chemo.

There's no sense crying over every mistake.

I’ve been meaning to revisit this topic as my thoughts evolved over the intervening time--as I evaluated the endgame more closely. My journey led me interesting places after the original piece. I’ve spoken at at several conferences about the need for a more holistic, emotional understanding of our players to pair with metrics--for the need to remember and cultivate the emotional side of our players.

Over time, it started to take root in a single concept: the very clear way many metrics-driven decisions are really, at their root, fear-driven decisions. We see the results of what players are doing without any idea what they’re thinking. We try to direct their behavior in the ways that will increase profit or theoretically boost their joy in the game but we do that without any idea what they’re feeling. We’re looking at numbers and acting as if seeing those numbers change means we understand the holistic, organic players they represent.

We’re still making the metrics into the message.

It coalesced into a bigger picture for me over the past few months as I contemplated how employers handle the profound life changes that happen to all employees: divorce, childbirth, aging parents, illness. These changes are deeply disruptive--so much so that there are stress scales dedicated to weighing them. I was going through one myself, of course: trying to figure out what cancer treatments would mean for my ability to work steadily for the next few months.

When I decided to talk and blog about dealing with cancer in 2012, my debate over speaking about it mainly revolved around losing my introvert's keen sense of privacy. I didn’t talk about myself at all then--not at GDC, not in articles, not even much on Twitter or Facebook. Was I ready to invite people I didn’t know into my actual daily life and the ins-and-outs of cancer treatments? Could I bare my soul that way? I don’t think I understood the profound effects of that initial decision to speak until very recently. It was a part of what changed me.

While I’d thought about how talking about cancer treatments might feel personally, however, I hadn't really considered the effect it might have on my career. Would potential future employers worry about rolling the dice on someone in cancer remission? Having been through this once, I’m much more aware of that question this time. Who wants to bet on a two-time cancer fighter?

Here’s the brutal truth. Yes, if you hire a cancer survivor, especially one within the first five years of survival, you're taking a risk. There's no doubt. The cancer might return, or the employee’s health post-treatments might be more fragile than previously. As with all life-changing events, the employee might change his mind about the kind of work he wants to do, or she might decide to retire and move closer to family. There’s a non-trivial chance you may lose all the sunk costs and work of training and supporting that employee.

If that line of reasoning sounds familiar, it’s because it happens all the time and about much more than cancer. It's the same "Will I get my employee back and what about lost work?" argument we hear about hiring women because they might become pregnant. You even hear it come up about sending employees to conferences: “They’ll just interview there and we’ll lose them.” We even restrict side projects at our companies partly because we’re scared employees will build something they believe in and leave us. We’re genuinely frightened of our employees’ success--sometimes even within our own teams--because that might lead to us losing that employee.

So here’s another brutal truth for you: the question isn't whether you're going to lose that employee--to cancer or parenthood or another studio or indie life--but when and how. My intuition and experience say the average game company employment length is three to four years. That’s probably optimistic (because I am, as always, an optimist). Folks who work at the same game development shop for ten years or longer are rare.

We all know this, and yet we act like the risk of losing an employee outweighs the benefits they bring while they’re with our companies. Is that really how we should be making critical hiring--or even creative and technical--decisions? Are risk and loss avoidance really the answer? Or is that a sign that we’ve lost sight of the endgame?

You just keep on trying until you run out of cake.

We can’t avoid risk. Risk is everywhere. We can’t avoid loss, either.

I was trained as a lawyer (among other things) as I wandered through my pre-dev life. Lawyers learn to think through every possible outcome, often centering on the worst possibility in order to better understand how to avoid it or begin mitigating potential damages right now. That way of thinking becomes ingrained.

It’s a deceptive trap, the longing to treat the future as knowable or even understandable. It can feel like there’s an odd comfort in expecting the worst because at least then you have an expectation against which you can act. How can you act against the unknown? How can you mitigate the possibility of complete loss, whether that’s an employee with cancer, or a pregnant employee who decides not to return, or an employee with an unexpected hit solo iOS app?

It feels natural to respond with what’s easy to call “caution” but more honest to call “fear.” And it goes beyond HR decisions. Let’s see if this sounds familiar.

  1. There’s a persistent myth that a complete GDD means you have a clear path when in fact, it simply means you have clear goals. That myth survives because we’re afraid to admit (to partners and ourselves) that we don’t really know what we’re building until we start digging into it.

  2. Once it’s in place, fear of deviation often makes us cling to that GDD even when it’s leading us astray.

  3. We’re frightened to admit our mistakes and that we went down paths that didn’t work--sometimes with a full team for months. Often that fear is justified because our partners are reluctant to pay for “failure” when in fact that “failure” represents hard-won lessons that will make a better game.

  4. We cut risk from our projects like we’re cutting dessert not like we’re potentially cutting the main course--not like we’re cutting the very things that will make our work stand out.

  5. We insist on predictable schedules and outcomes for unpredictable inventive work and when that fails, we turn to crunch and worry which often starts the publisher-developer milestone negotiation cycle of doom.

  6. We jealously hold onto our learnings and accomplishments, because we’re afraid a competitor will exploit them better than we can.

  7. We send out resumes at the end of projects not because we’re unhappy with the company or the team but because post-project layoffs have become so commonplace we let our fear of them steer our decisions.

This lifestyle of fear infects all of us.

Look at me still talking when there's science to do.

Take a step back for a moment. Let’s talk about the specific example of how we handle employee life changes again. What is our endgame with that employee? I’d assume it’s something like this:

To train and support a talented employee who grows into a valued leader or skilled individual contributor over many his/her years with the company.

Now try to mesh that endgame with not hiring a woman because she might get pregnant, not sending employees to training or conferences because they may interview elsewhere, and banning side projects so employees can’t get “distracted” by potential success.

There’s where it all breaks down. If our goal is to have a productive, happy, acclimated, team-oriented long-term employee, then clearly supporting the employee through life changes, sending them to conferences, and encouraging their creative side projects would all contribute to that goal--to our endgame for that employee.

What I’m talking about here isn’t just being more supportive of employees, remember. I’m talking about letting go of fear that the employee may change or leave and instead embracing the reality of the unknown future with a sense of hope. I’m talking about optimism, which isn’t foolish--it can make an actual, measurable difference.

There’s solid data that positive visualization can improve performance and the eventual outcome. It’s true for sports. It’s true for medicine. I believe it’s true across the board. There’s a ton of science behind it. So that means we have solid evidence that a positive outlook--that sheer optimism--goes hand-in-hand with visualizing success to actually help create success.

Contrast that to how a fear-based approach to running our companies and our games limits us and limits what we create. It closes us off to the possibilities, to the joy and magic in leaping whole-heartedly into the unknown. For most of my friends who have gone indie, it’s that leap that creates the most profound change in their lives. There’s still fear, of course--there’s nothing quite like the sensation of freefall that comes from breaking out of habits and long-held beliefs. The sense of discovery, though, is leading them toward fantastic innovations and, more important, increased personal and professional skillsets. That same thing would happen if we let them innovate and experiment within our companies.

And it’s possible. There are studios out there, doing their best to operate from a place of optimism and hope. I joined The Workshop because I sensed they were one of them. They work with employees as life changes occur and are incredibly supportive of your (often difficult) choices as best they can. More important, they embrace the spirit of change, good and bad, and the new learnings and strengths it brings their employees and the company. They approach the future with the excitement of inventive optimism, and I can’t imagine being anywhere else. Think about it: if you don’t work someplace like that, I bet you have a friend who does. Take some time to investigate--what can you learn, and can you bring those seeds back to your company?

Because it’s time. It’s time to break free. Let the fear go.

Yes, understand what might go wrong and have a strategy in case it does… but don’t make that your main, go-to plan. Put it in the “if things go to shit” box and build your main plan around optimism. Build yourself around hope. Fill yourself with the wonderful things that could happen when you align your actions with the endgame.

That pregnant employee may return with new skills she picked up during her leave, excited to be back among friends and colleagues and reinvigorated to do great work. The employee you send to that conference may find a new job… and return to you three years later with valuable leadership skills and a new appreciation for your studio. The terrific talent who creates a small mobile game on the side and takes that indie leap may come back as a consultant when times get lean… and now she has invaluable experience shipping her own game.

The blunt truth is that none of us can ever know for certain what will happen to us--personally or professionally. Even playing the odds doesn’t work because it gives a false sense of certainty (and boy, do we game developers love to deal in statistics). You can never know on which side of a statistic you’ll end up until the outcome occurs. I’m living proof of that.

Ultimately we have two choices: we can greet our definitely indefinite future with fear, or we can embrace the unknown in all its potential to surprise, challenge and delight us.

I feel FANTASTIC and I'm still alive.

I can say with complete honesty that cancer changes you, especially a first bout. You come out a different person. That’s true of any major life event: it drives change, inside and out. I know Laralyn 3.0 will be different from the person I am now. And I wouldn't have it any other way: change is what makes us interesting, dynamic, unique creative individuals. It’s why we’re not interchangeable pegs.

It's also why we should make the conscious choice to remain optimistic even in the face of the mighty unknown: because the journey toward change is at the heart of each of our personal stories.

I’m just about to the halfway mark in my lung cancer treatments, and the early signs are very positive. I feel lucky and grateful for that, and to have the support of friends, family, and my colleagues at The Workshop. Lung cancer is still tricky business, and there’s no way to know what the future holds for me. That’s true for all of us.

But this isn't about survival statistics, and the median isn't the message. This, like life and like metrics, is about evolution. It's about change. It's about picking new behaviors based on the results of previous behaviors.

It's about how an understanding of the endgame can change the way you play.


 


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