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Something every game program should teach you
by Rami Ismail on 10/11/13 07:10:00 am   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.


Developing a videogame is a technically advanced, highly skilled and mostly experienced-based job. It’s an industry of design, code, art and sound – a myriad of crafting unlikely complex systems to work together trying to establish a certain experience.

This is what many universities, schools and self-study books that I’ve visited emphasize. They’re focused on taking a technical enthusiast up to the level of a highly trained specialist. The best schools and programs deliver people that fit directly into the traditional games industry.

Game development is decreasingly homogenous and increasingly diverse, but many programs are not adopting to that new reality. Although we’re not nearly at the point where making a game is as accessible as say, writing a story or taking a photo, the recent surge of easily accessible game development tools has led to an increased democratization of game development. Now, more than ever, the reality of game development is not just about technical skills, but more about emotional resilience and an understanding of one's place within the creative process.

That’s not to argue that technical skills are irrelevant, or an academic understanding of design is useless, it’s an argument to combat the lack of emotional support a lot of game programs offer. More than any of my technical or business-related challenges, the biggest challenges I’ve faced during the past three years have been deeply emotional or personal.

A lot of our modern society is built around the idea that success is something you earn, and not having success is something you deserved for not trying hard enough. From the first moment we’re born until the moment we realize it’s a societal construct, we’re taught to avoid mistakes to score high grades. We’re being taught to be ashamed of failure and proud only of success. We’re taught to think in highly optimized, repeatable structures and not in the messy exploration of the unknown.

As such, a lot of modern education is built around technical, measurable skills. They’re often focused on a lot of those same concepts that lie at the very core of society. That’s simply how education has to work. But game development is a creative field, and like many creative fields the reality simply is that there is no objective measurement of success. There is no ceiling to what you can expect of yourself.

The biggest obstacles I have faced are related to that. I only learned the value of avoiding crunch and establishing a healthy balance between work and life after I had relationships fall apart and friends become estranged. I’ve learned about dealing with demotivation and crippling fears of failure. After many months of struggling with that distinct feeling of being a fraud, I finally took the step of talking to fellow developers and realized that feeling of not knowing what you’re doing is common.

A large part of any creative endeavor is about confronting yourself. Instead of explaining just ‘how to make games’, I feel more educational programs and tools should spend serious time exploring ‘how to cope with being you making games’.

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Rick Hoppmann
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You're absolutely right. I'm doing myself research in fields of productivity & happiness besides my researches in the fields of design and business.
I discovered some helpful sites including: and

I'm sharing the articles about increasing efficiency and happiness I found the most helpful on my Twitter account: which may interest you as much as they do me.

It's fantastic that you took the courage to speak up. Have a good day :)

Michael Joseph
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With all due respect, this notion of increasing efficiency/productivity and keeping everyone happy is science fiction. To be clear, I'm not talking about helping people learn how to maintain focus and discipline because that has nothing to do with happiness. The question of happiness only comes up when we're talking about a relationship (employer/worker) that has inherent imbalances in it that the employer wishes to mitigate at as low a cost as possible so that the worker will be as productive as can be afforded.

If you're not your own boss with a successful practice/studio/whatever or if your work is little more than a survival necessity, then all you can do is decrease your anxiety and misery by climbing higher up the food chain if possible.

But in terms of real happiness.. having a sense of fulfillment and contentment, I don't think you'll ever get that by just being an industry cog. But you can at least be comfortable. In the words of Immortal Technique "rather be rich and unhappy than broke and miserable."

And I don't expect for instructors in the "worker certification industry" to teach people how to cope with the future madness they've volunteered for. Their job isn't to help you avoid a mid-life crisis, it's to get you a job. The actual solutions might involve dropping out and re-thinking your future.

but there's always soma-holidays and entertainment diversions. Hmm, maybe if you're a game developer it can be helpful to think of yourself as a salve/balm for the industrious society. Just try not to think about whether salves do more harm than good by making an intolerable situation tolerable.

p.s. as an individual exercise, as you go about your day to day existence, pay attention to the people you encounter who are at work and ask yourself if they look happy. You may find yourself thinking "well they're at work, why should they be happy?" lol.

Kevin Bender
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You make a lot if interesting observations, but at the core i don't think i agree with you.

"I don't think you'll ever get that by just being an industry cog."
I think anyone can find satisfaction and contentment in their work. As a cog, you can create something much more then you could on your own. Sure i don't always LOVE my job it has it's highs and lows.

But as a software engineer with a video conferencing company, my effort each day, in some small part furthers the technology of communication. Sometimes i'll be watching a HD conference call between american and italy and just marvel about how far technology has taken us. And know that even if i never get mad famous, or crazy rich, i will have been part of something.

I think everyone can understand they play a part like this wherever they are at, and find some satisfaction in the work they do. But for some reason (in america at least) we are so obsessed with becoming rich/unique/famous.

Also note i don't want to start a discussion about religion on a game dev forum, but i think (at least in my experience) it plays a large role in finding purpose/meaning/satisfaction in life

Rick Hoppmann
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To reach happiness, no matter if you are self-employed or an "industry cog", gratitude is essential. Make the best of what you have..
It all depends on you as person and the organization you work for, whether you can be happy as employee or not.

I'm currently studying, but already decided to take the risk of financial failure to found my own business. A normal job would be likely not to offer enough diversity for me I think.. well.. maybe a creative leading position.
I know it will be hard and not always fun, but also worth it's efforts.

We have different opinions there.. I prefer the opportunity to follow my passions over money, while you want safety first.

Here is an interesting article on the topic:
"10 Reasons Why Following Your Passion Is More Important Than Money":

You may also consider reading this one:
"How To Find Your Passion":

Adam Hunt
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Would you agree that your point is generalizable across education as a whole - this isn't a game dev (or even a creative industry) specific thing? "How to cope with being you" sounds like the something we should all be taught at some point.

Rami Ismail
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Yes, but I am under the impression that it's more relevant to creative industries.

Koen Deetman
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Hey Rami,

Thanks for this great observation.

I Agree, many institutes want to deliver graduates that can occupy decent jobs descriptions. They want to 'arm' the student with enough skills to survive in this industry. For example: All programmers are not only able to work in a game development environment, but are also employable in software companies or web development. All of this is indeed focussed on the student's 'succes rate' after their graduation.

As you said, I aswell learned a lot when failing miserably. If we try to define 'succes' in game development, would mean your game sold well. Why did it sell? Because apparently a lot of people 'share' your idea of creativity with this game. Measuring this creativity is indeed something of the 'unknown'.

Aaron Oostdijk
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Interesting read! I can definitely agree that the "feeling of not knowing what you're doing" is pretty common and not exclusive to game development (I often feel the same way as a teacher). I rarely have a very good idea of what I'm doing, but sometimes you catch a glimpse that you do at least know something when you're talking about things with other people and you surprise yourself a little bit. I tend to express it as feeling like you are a clown, that people simply haven't yet realised is actually a clown, and have been taken seriously by mistake.

I think that feeling is generally healthy, except of course when it becomes crippling (which I'm no stranger to). It usually keeps me self-critical enough to be able to look at my own work somewhat objectively. I know some people that are incapable of that, and they do not share this feeling.

The focus of educational systems on discrete, measurable skills is something we currently have to work around, because how else will you grade individuals? There are mild alternatives, obviously, for example: don't have one "examination" at the end, but rather an overall score for the entire educational period. There are some grade schools that do this already. This rewards consistent involvement with educational material, rather than the usually counter-productive binge learning/working, and is probably a lot healthier.

The ironic thing is when parts of the education system that do allow for failure, and actually applaud being able to recognise and potentially overcome these failures are not a part of the final exam. The projects at the HKU for example do not appear on your final diploma, which is sometimes very tragic because students will often fail, or perform poorly in, regular classes to spend more time on these projects.

Benjamin Camenker
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Rami, given your very unique experiences in the industry, I'm surprised you didn't include a subsection on dealing with the parasites. If these folks are aiming for hits, they'll have to learn how sooner or later to deal with the negative consequences of success.

Xihui Ng
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Some "lessons" are best learnt through experiences, and most effective when you have reached a certain stage in life. A 16 yr old might not even get what you are trying to convey with this article.

Wes Jurica
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Thanks for this. I'm on the verge of writing a post-mortem for our game. After reading this, I think I will probably come off as being in an emotionally fragile state in the writeup. After some contemplation, I realized that, ya, I am.

I wish I knew another game developer. It'd be nice to have that kind of support structure. Someone to share these experiences and feelings with. If only I could move to Austin, NYC, SF.

I think I'll get started on that post-mortem.

Gil Salvado
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One of my Don's taught us, that he would prefer people who failed at least once with a project, than someone who'd been so lucky to always work on successful titles. Simply because he knew, these people would've asked themselves "Why did we fail?", "What did I do wrong?" and "How can I avoid this in the future?".

As I'm currently not in the best position myself, I have ask myself even more often why I do this job. I got out of the frying pan and into the fire. Do I keep on struggling or do just give up? Do I regret entering the games industry or do I still enjoy it? Will I ever have a family, if I continue this path or will I die lonely?
I choose to struggle. I do not regret. I'm curious to find out, if it'll be better some day. Whatever better will be like.

adam anthony
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Very well written, and it definitely hit close to home. Thank you for writing this.

Ian Young
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An interesting, and insightful article, but It's not just designers who feel this overpowering pressure to succeed. Programmers feel this internal conflict as well. Many of us(I am a programmer, in case you haven't guessed), spend most of our time during education, trying to outdo our class mates, so that prospective employers will see us stand out from the crowd, or that managers will see us for our work, when the reality is that most graduates from computer science courses, are employed on our ability to take on new skills, rather than the skills we currently hold. When we enter the workplace, we often find ourselves asking similar questions about our ability, such as "Do I know enough about this subject to hold onto this job?" More often than not, this self doubt is also self inflicted, as we misunderstand the nature of the job. We are not being trained to know the right answers, we are instead being trained to know the right questions to ask, and at the right time, in the right place, and to know where the answers may lie.

Yet, our education system focusses on, and tests, retained knowledge, rather than creative problem solving ability, with the assumption that understanding comes from use of knowledge. Being able to think creatively is a learned skill that only the best schools teach. Those schools have realized that you can't just throw facts at someone like paint at a canvas, and hope it sticks. We only learn in adulthood that the ability to solve a problem is not the same as having the answers.

The best advice I ever got from a friend, on being a technical/creative thinker, is that in school/college/university, you learn how to learn. Then when you get a job, you start learning, and pay your dues. This means working with people who know more than you, and learning from them. When your dues are paid, and you have learned enough, you get trusted with the big jobs. Paying your dues can be tough, though, so going back to your final point, I completely agree. Students should be taught, that when they graduate with their degrees, they are going back down to the bottom rung again, and that the degree entitles them only to an interview, not a job, or more responsibility. This might seem like a harsh viewpoint, but once students understand this, taking rejection from interviews etc, becomes a much more constructive process. The college taught you how to learn, so if you don't have a skill set, you know how to acquire it, so you know your next step.

tldr: Knowing what you are doing isn't as important as knowing how to figure it out.