Creative Fights

SONY DSCThe past week of discussion on Vampire 20th Anniversary Edition reminded me of this topic, but I’ve been meaning to talk about it for a while now.

I’m certainly no stranger to debate and discussion. I don’t have any formal training in debate – I can’t tell you what the Latin for “I called you a motherfucker” is, for example –but I have been in my share of conversations in which I have one opinion, someone else has another one, and we’re trying to sway each other.

I’m also no stranger to having these kinds of conversations in my job. When I worked at Procter & Gamble, the company encouraged employees to challenge processes and think of new ways to be more efficient or to produce better results. The culture of innovation wasn’t as omnipresent when I worked at the Washington University School of Medicine, but in my particular department I was given a fair bit of leeway to bring up new ideas and try new things. Sometimes I got my way, and sometimes I didn’t, but most of the time the conversation was completely in the realm of objective factors – this will save us a certain amount of money or that amount of time, or that will allow us new functionality that would bring more value to the company.

When I started working at CCP, I found that the company also encouraged employees to self-motivate and find new ways of doing things (sometimes to a startling degree). In fact, just yesterday I was in a meeting, and said that if there’s one thing I’ve learned at CCP, it’s that everyone has a fucking opinion.1 So, naturally, I’ve been in a lot of conversations where one side is trying to convince the other of something.

Quick side note about actual fighting. While I haven’t personally been in a screaming match at work about work things, it has happened. People can get really passionate about their work, and some people deal with that by using volume. At most, I’ve been a little curt and grumbly, but I titled this post “creative fights,” and I stand by that.

The reason why brings me back to my original thread – in a creative company, you can have meaningful debates on not only the kinds of objective matters that I mentioned above, but also on purely subjective ones. Just yesterday, I had a lengthy debate with someone about what word we used to describe something. I have had discussions about the angle of a particular piece of artwork. I have argued with people about dice mechanics because of how they felt just as much as how they worked at the table. And while I try to avoid it, I have told my freelancers that I’ve changed their words just because I like my way better and for no other good reason.

The more subjective the topic, the more the conversation moves from “debate” to “fight.” You’re not really exchanging information for a more detailed understanding of the nuances of the problems; you’re slinging opinions back and forth until someone gives in. That doesn’t mean that subjective opinions can’t have objective nuances (such as the time I discussed the aesthetic impact of a website with the designer who was trying to make sure it hit certain thresholds for color-blindness), but at some point, an opinion has to change in order for the project to move forward. In my personal experience, 95% of these fights are resolved amiably, either through synthesis (“Okay, I see what you want, why don’t we try something that answers both of these problems?”) or voluntary retreat (“Well, you’re the boss, so let’s try it your way.”) Also, a lot of fights are often resolved by trying it out both ways and changing the subjective problems into something that can be objectively debated, usually through a prototype or a draft of some kind.

The one thing that took me a long time to wrap my head around is that this is normal. There are very few creative things that I’ve argued about that haven’t been somehow improved by the argument. I know that the person I’m arguing with is just as passionate to see this project succeed, so I end up not caring quite as much whether I win or lose, because at the core we both have the same goal – to make the project better. This is why a writer has to move from fearing criticism to embracing it – if someone isn’t annoyed or update at something you’ve done, maybe your work isn’t engaging them enough to care about its faults. (This does tie back a bit to my post on analyzing the sting of criticism, now that I think about it.)

Of course, people are people, and we all get wound up in trying to be right over being productive, and in the heat of the moment it’s easy to lose that focus. Even harder (because game design is an unholy blend of art and science), once in a while you get those strange situations where one person is having a subjective argument, and the other one is having an objective one. This happened to me recently – without going into details, I thought I was having a discussion about how something felt and what it implied, and the person I was arguing with thought he was having a discussion about objective facts as he saw them. Because I thought I was having a creative fight, I kept pointing out how things felt wrong and the implications of the topic, while he kept bringing up the faults in my logic. It did not end well.

Let me circle back to the Vampire project. In case you weren’t aware, we’re doing “open development” for the book, where Justin and I post drafts from parts of the book and we collect feedback on it. I’ve gotten a lot of conflicting and sometimes aggressive feedback on some of my chunks, but I’ve been loving every part of it. With every conversation, I know the book is getting better. It’s maddening and crazy and time-consuming and repetitive and sometimes even just flat-out irritating, but that’s what the process is about. Iteration through conflict, and success through iteration. And I love it.

If you find yourself in a creative fight, try to keep things about the project, not the person. If you find the conversation has stopped being productive, walk away from it or try to get to something objective, like a prototype or an action plan. And above all, try as hard as possible to remember that the person you’re fighting with wants exactly the same thing you do – to make the best project possible.

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  1. And yes, I said “fucking.” To the President, even. It’s just that kind of work environment.