After I got to play a game last night, I ended up spending some great time talking to one of the players about career planning, the game industry, and burnout. (More time than I should have on a school night, but hey).
That left me with thoughts about burnout I wanted to share, so rather than sleep I typed them up and set them to post today. (Well, today if I set up this post-at-Xam thing correctly).
I’ve talked about burnout before, and given how large it looms in my life, I have to guess I’ll talk about it again. There’s a thin line between maximizing your writing/designing potential, and doing too much to be sustainable. Crunch time is a common threat in all levels of the game industry, and while bearing down and doing more than you’re happy with for occasional, short bursts is reasonable, sustained higher-than-healthy output is a different matter entirely.
Of course that’s easy to say, in the abstract, and harder to apply to your life in any way. I genuinely can’t tell you how to avoid burnout—that’s going to depend on your situation and temperament to a degree that makes any advice I’d give even less useful than normal. On the other hand, I do find that watching for signs of potential burnout—clues in my own behavior and thoughts that indicate I may be on an unsustainable path—useful tools. Seeing there’s a problem coming doesn’t solve that problem by itself, but it does arm me with the knowledge that I need to be looking for solutions.
So, this is a list of things I consider subtle signs of impending burnout. I need to note here that not only am I not a mental health professional, I don’t even consider myself a well-educated layman. These are entirely subjective, and based only on what I have experienced and witnessed. If you have a lot of these symptoms, and they don’t feel burnout-related, I recommend at most you engage in some introspection on whether you are in denial. But seriously, trust your gut over my generic list. Also keep in mind that I have a host of other mental health issues, from clinical depression to social anxiety to childhood trauma, that may cause me to view and react to my own conditions very differently than you (or anyone else).
But if with all that waffling on potential usefulness you still want to hear my thoughts, here are some things I have come to identify as subtle signs of growing burnout in myself.
- More reliance on caffeine.
If you find your coffee/tea/cola consumption is higher than normal, especially if it’s higher than you’re happy with, and it has been for some time, look at why. If you need the energy emotionally even more than you need it physically, that’s a strong indicator of impending burnout.
- Increased fatigue.
I’m dealing with various medically-induced fatigue at this point in my life, so this one is tricky for me. But that also means I’ve been charting my energy levels on a daily basis, and that’s lead me to conclude that when I am in early-stage burnout, I have even less energy than normal. It’s harder to get up, it’s harder to be energized, and it’s harder to feel enthusiasm for ativity, even activities I normally enjoy.
- Reduced enthusiasm.
Subtle signs can be subtly different. Increased fatigue is relevant when it’s time to actually do something, and I can’t find the energy. Reduced enthusiasm means I’m not even looking forward to things in advance. Now this can also be a sign of a depressive episode, so I have to be careful how I rate and respond to my own lack of enthusiasm, but I have certainly mistaken generic imbalances in my brain with those with external causal links before, and I now try to examine the why as much as the what, when I realize that issue is growing.
- Increased mental health symptoms.
Whether it’s more depressive episodes, more social anxiety, more nightmares, or more sudden rage, when I am beginning to burn out, all my other mental health issues get exacerbated when I am also beginning to go down burnout road.
- Decreased self-care.
Yeah, this is probably one of the causes of #4, but it’s worth looking for on its own as well.
- Setting aside recreational projects.
In my case, in addition to writing as a job, I often write for fun. That’s a very different process for me, and normally feeling like I have done all the “work” I care to in a day (or a week) doesn’t prevent me from having the urge to do recreational writing. Similarly, modeling, painting miniatures, doing holiday-based crafts or cooking, and playing games are all recreational activities that require some effort on my part, and if I find I don’t want to put in that effort over any sustained period, it’s a strong sign of burnout.
- Reduced creativity.
Being creative takes effort. If I have been pushing the part of my mind I depend on for good ideas, clever wording, interesting twists, or even just basic good writing, one of the first things I seem to run out of is general creativity. Normally, I am flooded with ideas—more than I can use for any one project—and many leap out of the dream-soup in my brain unbidden and without pre-planning. Since that ebbs and flows it can be hard to see early stages of reduced creativity, but when it becomes hard to come up with ANY ideas, that’s a nearly sure-sign of burnout.
A lot of things frustrate me, from personal failings to world events, but normally I can compartmentalize those to have a greatly reduced impact when I am writing. If my frustrations outside of a project begin to make it difficult to focus on that project, that’s a huge warning sign. If that frustration is turning into disproportional anger towards people or events, it may be time for immediate, drastic measures.
- Lack of focus.
If I can’t keep my attention on the things it’s most important I get done, that is a subtle but dangerous sign of burnout. Earlier in my career, I often found I could get more total writing done if I could hop between three or four different kinds of projects. Being tired of doing world descriptions didn’t necessarily mean I was tired of doing monster design, or GM advice, or creating spells. So if I feel an urge to move to a new project for a bit, I often just see that as taking a break while getting something different done. But if my muses are constantly talking me away from important, especially on-deadline, work it means they are likely suffering psychic burn damage.
So I need to watch for when I spend too much time writing outlines for projects not on the schedule, or character histories for characters I’m neither playing or publishing, or imaginary histories of worlds I have no plans for.
Or blog posts.
- Warnings from other people.
One of the interesting things about being very public about my thoughts, moods, hobbies, mental health issues, and faults, is that close friends and astute colleagues sometimes see shifts in my behavior before I do. The first time a friend told me it sounded like I was getting bummed over the direction of my work, more than a decade ago, I dismissed it. After all, how would she know what was going on in my head better than I did?
I forgot that many people in my circle of trust are much smarter than me. Ignoring warnings and burning out reminded me.
Now I DO often know things my friends and mentors don’t. If I have changed medications, or a someone close to me died, or I pulled a 100-hour week and finished something so I don’t have to do that again, a lot of things may come out that look like burnout but are just dealing with the fact life is often imperfect.
But I don’t ignore comments like that anymore. I consider them, contextualize them, and add them to the evidence of my condition that I take seriously.
Speaking of My Career
I have a Patreon. It’s how I justify taking the time to write a lot of this material on my blog. I’d love your support.
A list of 26 collective nouns for various aberrations. For those of you who find such things useful.
Not specifically designed for the Aberrant Empire… but clearly related to similar ideas.
An Ambush of Chuul
A Bushwack of Mimics
A Cacoethes of Intellect Devourers
A Drape of Cloakers
An Exlex of Gugs
A Flatus of Flumphs
A Grasp of Gricks
A Hybridization of Driders
An Iatrarchy of Mi-Go
A Jargon of Gibbering Mouthers
A Kakidrosis of Catoblepae
A League of Decampi
A Macropterous of Lurkers Above
A Noisome of Byakhees
An Origin of Aboleths
A Padrone of Incutilises
A Qanat of Delvers
A Rille of Moon-Beasts
A Strangle of Choakers
A Toadtality of Froghemoths.
An Umbraculum of Darkmantles
A Vafrous of Naga
A Web of Ettercaps_
A Xenagogue of Elder Things
A Yawp of Destrachans
A Zazzle of Carbuncles
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I am not a lawyer. None of this is legal advice.
I recently saw a post where someone noted the 5th Edition Compatible logo they had created for a company, which is therefore copyrighted art, kept being used by other companies without permission.
That’s a copyright violation, and it’s systematic of sloppy rights-checking and weak understanding of when you can use work other people created.
I cannot tell you how often a 3pp freelancer I’m working with has grabbed a logo, or art, or rules, and either not noted where they got it, or sent it to layout with a note “I don’t know what we need to do to use this,” or “I found this on the internet, I assume it’s public domain.”
NO! Bad freelancer! (Grabs the squirt bottle.)
(This illustration created by Jefferson Jay Thacker, from materials with free rights. Used with permission.)
If you didn’t pay for it, the *assumption* must be that it’s under copyright someplace. Only if a reputable source notes that it’s public domain (or even better-you do your own research to determine that it is) should you ever assume it’s public domain.
In most cases, I don’t think these violations and stealing of other people’s work is malicious. I suspect many people quite reasonable use things like online art to illustrate characters in their home campaigns, then make the leap to professional work and don’t change their behavior and expectations to match. They then see people using other people’s work using the OGL, Creative Commons, and in some cases terrible misunderstandings of Fair Use of copyright material, and without understanding what is and isn’t allowed those things muddy the waters further.
If you are used to working with Open Licenses, know that those licenses have RULES. Learn them, understand them, and know that what you can do under an open license is NOT the same as what you can do with material not released under such a license.
Creative Commons, similarly, has rules. Check the release and see what use is allowed.
Further, “I’m not charging for something” does NOT mean you get to use any copyrighted material you want. There are “fair use” exceptions to copyright, but whether you charge for something has NO bearing on whether you are allowed to use it–only the damages you may be liable for if convicted. What may be fair use if you hand out to your players is not necessarily the same as fair use for notes you put up on a website for anyone to see. That’s still publishing something, and the rules can be very different.
DON’T be the person who steal’s a company’s work, or degrades the value of an artist who is paid to create something!
ALSO SUPPORT CREATIVES
If you want more cool stuff, you have to pay for what is created.
For example, if you want more blog posts from me, you can back my Patreon!
As soon as any part of your career involves having your name attached to the things that make you money, you need to begin to consider who you are, and who do you speak for.
It genuinely doesn’t matter if that’s as a creator, or facilitator, or because your job comes with a nametag. Once your name is linked to your career product in some way, that should be assumed to follow you wherever you go, especially online. Of course with privacy, surveillance, and social media where they are today it CAN follow you whether your name is directly linked to your work product or not, but it’s far easier if that first step—publicly linking your name to your job—is handed out for free.
I’m not saying that’s universally a bad thing. Having my name be displayed on products I have had a part in and companies I have worked for has been a tremendous boon to me in building a career. (I am my own brand.) But it also creates a level of exposure. My anonymity is reduced. If someone doesn’t like something I say, they can easily link who I am to who I work for, and decide to take action based on that knowledge.
I try to make it very clear what hat I am wearing whenever I communicate in anything but the most private venue, and even for a lot of private communication. If I am working a Paizo event, I am speaking as an employee of Paizo. If I am writing a blog for the Green Ronin website, I am clearly communicating as a Ronin. And if I speak on my own social media, be that Facebook, blog, or Twitter, I am speaking as an individual.
But I can’t pretend that individual isn’t also linked to Paizo, GR, Rite, and Rogue Genius Games. Even if I feel my private thoughts should be judged exclusively on their own merits, rather than through the lens of who pays me, it’s been pretty solidly proven that may not be the case.
Now let me note that I am pretty experienced with this, and in general I have received a great deal of trust and support from all my employers, be that those that give me a regular paycheck or the ones who hire me for freelance writing and consulting. But that’s not to say over my 20-year career I’ve never had to defend myself for things I said in public, or that I am immune to blowback if I am seen as unprofessional or a liability. Mostly, the people I work with have my back. But when I speak, I need to remember that those words aren’t separated from my career by some invisible barrier. Even on my own time, even in unofficial venues, there can be consequences.
That isn’t all nefarious, either. If I make statements that make some perspective or current employer decide I’m an asshole, it’s perfectly reasonable for them to not want to work with me. That persona, of who I am online or who I am in business, is a fair consideration for people to judge me by. Indeed, I often boldly state that there are statements I make that if those cost me work, then I didn’t want to work with those people anyway.
But, being human, I also sometimes frak up and say things I regret. It’s worth remembering that more and more, I can’t depend on those things to go away because I erase them. And, just because I haven’t yet suffered from being targeted unfairly by bad actors for things I have said doesn’t mean I could never have that happen.
Of course as a cis white hetero male with an established career, I have a fair amount of built-in slack about these issues. Many people have the same privileges. I can’t really advise anyone on the “right” way to decide to handle these realities. I just acknowledge them, and decide what that means for me.
Because who I speak for means more than one thing. Yes, sometimes I speak for employers, and coworkers, and friends, and colleagues, and what I say or do can reflect on them. But I also have a pulpit, however small, and who I am is also defined in part by who I speak in defense of. When I am willing to take a risk. How I support my claim to be an ally.
I sadly fall short of where I think I should be on those points, but I do not forget them. A shortage of spoons, a risk-averse nature, a dislike of interpersonal confrontation, and even a concern that I am not the right voice to be raised on a topic often keep me silent. More often than they should, in fact, though I accept there are times where I am my best self by listening and learning, rather than opining and asserting.
I don’t expect I’ll ever be satisfied I have the answers on any of these issues. But I know know I need to keep asking the questions.
Who am I? Who do I speak for?
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I once heard one of the most talented people I know say, unironically and in all seriousness, “I don’t think I’m qualified to be on a panel abut impostor syndrome.”
Let that sink in for a minute.
Some of the smartest, most talented, hardest-working people I know often express to me (usually in private, so no one knows) how doubtful they are that they are really good at what they do. I’d say this is mind-boggling… except that I totally get it. My mental issues aren’t a secret, but they absolutely include being afraid that everyone who is impressed with me or my work has just been fooled, and at some point the “truth” is going to come out and I’ll never be able to sell game material or my writing ever again.
When I had just a few magazine articles to my credit, maybe that made sense. But now, after 20 years of this being my career? It just doesn’t jive with the facts in evidence. But even knowing that, I struggle with it on a regular basis.
That struggle has forced me to build coping mechanisms, many based on my pop-psych opinions on why impostor syndrome is an issue for me, and maybe why it is for other folks as well. In case any of that is useful to someone else (and, you know, why would it be given that I clearly have no idea what I am talking about), this article outlines some of those mechanisms.
Fake It Even After You Make It
A little humility can help you be likable and relatable. Too much humility gets you less work, less money, and less respect.
So, even when you have your own doubts, you may need to move forward on the premise that you actually can do the work, well, and are worth being paid for it. And paid well.
Sadly, no one else is likely to come along and be a great advocate for you. If you don’t stand up for yourself, no one else is going to do it for you. So when someone asks you your rate, or your qualifications, or your value, you tell them what you think an actual expert with all your achievements and credits would say, rather than equivocate and undercut yourself.
In my case, I often lean on the idea that I owe it to *other* people to have a good career, and to be compensated for the work I do. I can think about the impact of my being underpaid on my family, friends, and even society as a whole more easily than I can think in terms of what I am worth.
Luckily as a roleplayer, I can often think about how someone is confident in their value might act, even when I completely lack that confidence.
Trust the Mentors in Your Life
As I mentioned, I know a lot of amazingly smart, fantastically talented people. Some of them are mentors to me, varying from those who are better and more experienced in everything I do to those who are willing to give me guidance in one specific area where I’m lacking. While those people are often underwhelmed with their own accomplishments, they generally reinforce the public perception of my skills.
Even when I tell them all the reasons that perception is an illusion.
So, if I know these people are smart and wise and great, and they are telling me I’m not an impostor… there’s a logical conclusion there. Now, often my brain tells me the conclusion is “I have them all fooled, and when they figure it out they’ll never talk to me again.” But, since these really ARE people smarter than me, that just doesn’t make sense.
No, if I value their opinions, and I do, that has to include their opinions of me. Intellectually at least, even if I still reject the idea emotionally.
Good mentors can also be a great resource when trying to decide if you are terrified to take on something slightly different because you are your own worst critic, or if it’s a legitimate concern about something that needs skills and/or experience you lack.
Be A Mentor to Others
Obviously mentoring others is a good act for the industry as a whole, and if you have mentors, it’s only fair to pay it forward by providing the same service for other.
And that’s the best reason to become a mentor. But it’s not why this is a good coping mechanism for impostor syndrome.
Nothing proves to your subconscious that you actually have value like helping others find their own value. You may well end up convinced the people you are mentoring are smarter, more talented, and better-liked than you are (that often happens to me), but being part of that process is still helpful to fighting off feelings you are somehow getting by with less skill than people think you have.
Analyze Failure Fairly
This one is particularly tough, and I’m bad at it. But it’s also crucial, so I feel I have to mention it, at least as something to work on.
When you fail, and everyone fails sometimes, you have to analyze that failure in a fair, even, and balanced manner. Otherwise, it just becomes one more reason to not trust or believe in yourself.
For me personally, that means waiting a bit from point of failure to analysis, because until I get some space from the frustration, anger, and embarrassment of failing, I can’t possibly do a balanced analysis. This doesn’t have to mean letting yourself off the hook if you made bad decisions, but it does mean giving yourself some benefit of the doubt on how circumstances played into things going wrong. Since I am bad at giving myself the benefit of the doubt, I try to focus on identifying what I want to do differently in the future to prevent a similar failure, and what signs I should look out for to try to identify potential failures before they happen. By framing my mental efforts in ways that seem useful in the future, I am more likely to be fair to myself.
That DOES mean that when I am done analyzing a failure if the answer I come up with is “I was stupid, this was entirely my fault,” it stings. But that pain can also help me prevent being stupid in the same way ever again, and that knowledge—that I have learned from the experience—can help fight feelings of total incompetence.
Don’t Compare Your Secret Apples to Other People’s Public Oranges
I am personally convinced one major cause of impostor syndrome is the tendency to take all the things you know about yourself—your struggles, your doubts, your dissatisfaction with what you produce—and compare it to only the public, successful face of other people. After all, if you know you could have done better on a project, and no one else ever talks about how they could have done better on any of their efforts, that means you’re worse than them, right?
But it doesn’t.
Especially as social media has become ubiquitous and especially in creative endeavors where having a reputation as a smart, well-liked, talented, successful creator can mean better opportunity and more pay, most people you are comparing yourself to have no incentive to air their doubts, problems, or failings. So if you take the sum whole of all the problems you know you have, and compare that only to the public face of other people, you’re not making a fair comparison.
Everyone has problems now and then. Most people have doubts, and the ones who don’t are honestly often assholes and/or people suffering from the Dunning–Kruger effect. But since such things are often taken as weakness, not a lot of people discuss their problems in depth. And even those who do often frame their doubts and struggles in a positive way, or hold back the truly painful or embarrassing things they’d rather not be well-known.
That means that when you look around at your peers, you are certain to see their achievements much more clearly than their letdowns. If you try to compare that to everything you know about yourself, including all the things that aren’t obvious from the outside, you’re grading on a negative curve. Of course all of your reality doesn’t compare to the curated public appearance of other people. Especially since you are most likely to [ick people with the highest visibility to compare yourself to, and those are the people who do the best job making themselves look good.
This is another place where having a mentor, or even just a trusted peer, can be extremely helpful in maintaining perspective.
Celebrate Every Achievement
Ultimately, I think impostor syndrome is more about fear and gut feelings than rationality and logic, and as a result all the well-reasoned efforts to talk yourself out of it in the world can only go so far. For the emotional component, you also have to make sure you celebrate your own achievements.
Every publication. Every interview. Every review—even bad reviews mean you impacted someone enough for them to take time to write about it. Abso-damn-lutely every award or honor, even the ones you think are dumb or should have gone to someone more deserving. You celebrate all of it.
I recommend celebrating it publicly, because private celebrations often seem less impactful, but you do you. It doesn’t have to be a big deal, but you DESERVE to be proud of everything you make. The very voice telling you right now that no one wants to hear about your new book, or the blog post you wrote, or your review of an obscure fantasy movie from 1973, is the same one that tells you that you aren’t a “real” creative, and that you don’t measure up to other people.
The fight to take the credit you have earned IS the fight against impostor syndrome.
Don’t Sell Yourself Short
Yes, or course, that’s the entire point of rejecting impostor syndrome. But here I literally mean don’t assume you aren’t monetarily worth the best rate you can get. I have seen people actually undercut the price agreed upon for a project before anyone else mentions money.
Don’t do that.
On very, very rare occasions offering to do a job for less might be appropriate. If it doesn’t meet some aspect of a contract and it’s entirely your fault is the main one… and even then it’s rarely something you should bring up without the other party at least suggesting things need to be adjusted.
Instead, as for raises. See if your per-word rate can be increased. Suggest you deserve perks, like more free copies, bigger credit, more advertising for the project, or opportunities to cherry-pick assignments.
I can’t tell you if you need to fight impostor syndrome. There are people who are legitimately trying to punch above their weight, and for those people this advice could do more harm than good.
But if a lot of your fans, or a few of your peers, or even one of your mentors keeps telling you that you’re more awesome than you can possibly accept?
Then you probably are.
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One of my soft spots is when something I loved as a child is presented as being important.
This is, of course, mostly the case with fictionally important.
The new Godzilla trailer takes something I loved (and am still quiet fond of), and presents it in a way that tells my subconscious “This matters. This is important. Your faith in this is about to be rewarded.”
It’s nostalgia as a form of wish-fulfillment validation. I’m not just reacting to the idea that I get new stories about thing I like, I am enjoying the sense of being *right* to have enjoyed those things before. My personal preferences are (fictionally) affirmed as worthwhile and (within the fictional context) world-changing.
I’m not claiming this is a good thing. Indeed, i suspect it is strongly related to the feelings that can become toxic fandom, which is one reason why in entertainment, I try to focus on things I like, rather than things I don’t.
But to me, it’s an interesting reaction worth analyzing and considering. ESPECIALLY if it is related to the kinds of feelings that can lead to toxic reactions.
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So, we took a capiekie to the 4th of July gathering we went to.
That’s a cake, stuffed with a pie, stuffed with cookies.
It seems complicated, but making one isn’t that difficult.
The first step is always to pick complementary flavors. In this case, it’s a rum-glazed yellow cake, stuffed with a cherry pie, that is itself stuffed with chocolate cookies. Cream pies don’t work well for this. Sometimes, to see if it’s a good three-way match, I ask myself if there’s one flavor of ice cream or sauce that would go with all three dessert elements.
So, construction is in steps.
First, bake your cookies. It’s okay if they are only lightly done. Then bake the pie crust by itself, without filling, in a pie pan. Then make the cake batter, and pour about 1/3 of it into a springform pan. Then lift the crust out of its pie pan, and settle it into the batter. Then a layer of pie filling goes into the pie crust, then a layer of the cookies (just one layer—you can set the rest aside for a second capiekie if you want), then the rest of the pie filling. Then the top crust of the pie (just set it on, no need to crimp it or anything), and then the rest of the cake batter, which should cover the pie crust.
Then, cook as directed for a square cake, though realistically you’ll need to check doneness with a toothpick at the edge (since the center is gooey pie when the cake is solid).
In this case we went with a rum glaze, but you could frost it. Just… only frost the top. A capiekie’s sides don’t have a lot of structural support.
Then cool in the fridge overnight, and remove from springform pan after a good 12 hours of cooling.
Make sure you are taking this thing to a party. It’s not a leave-it-on-the-house-to-snack-on kind of dessert.
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I have often described my freelancing career as being a “Content Provider.” Because for some of the things I have written for 1 to 29 cents/word, “writer” sounds too pretentious. My job is to give the people paying the bill the content they want/need, not to create my vision of high art and argue with the client that they should appreciate it.
Now, that doesn’t mean I keep my opinion on what is good a secret. When someone is paying me a contract rate to give my best effort, that includes letting them know when I think they are wrong on something. And I do–once per wrongness. After that, I give them their money’s worth with my best efforts applied to the way they want it done.
Writing exclusively the way I think it should be done is reserved for when I am in charge of the project, and even then I keep an eagle eye on whether I’m the one out of step with the target audience. Generally speaking I am working with smart, experienced people. I don’t want to dismiss their opinions even if the ultimate call is mine. And, to be clear, that is very much the exception in this business.
Obviously there’s an exception if I feel the content I am being asked for violates my ethics or is damaging for me to work on. That’s happened maybe once over 20 years, but I certainly have decline jobs for fear one of those two things would be true. And in that case, it’s time to refund any monies paid, apologize, and move on.
And as I noted this is for freelance contract work. If I am a staff writer or the publisher, my relationship, and responsibilities to my employer, changes.
So I don’t think anyone should be burning bridges or tearing their hair out over disagreeing with what the best game mechanic or writing style is with freelance writing. I DO think a polite note on when you think your idea is better (along with acknowledgement you are happy to do it there way if they don’t agree) is worthwhile.
But at least in my case after that? You provide the desired content.
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Gridiron football grew out of older games, and became a hobby sport. At that point, the money in the game was in producing the materials (equipment) for it, and to a lesser extent selling books with the rules.
Now, far more people watch football than play it, and the money is made by forming professional-level exhibitions and controlling the viewing of such, and related licensing. Making generic football equipment and rulebooks for it is a far, far less lucrative business.
This may just be the natural progression for all games.
In which case, adventure game companies are looking at the hobby they largely created giving someone else most of the money generated by the game.
(And hey, speaking of making money elsewise, please sign up to my Patreon so I can afford to keep making posts like this!)
A lot of creatives are very engaged with the public nowadays, myself included (to the degree I can manage it). That can have lots of rewarding interactions, but it can also lead to people giving you very public feedback. That feedback may be valuable to your work, or it may miss the point entirely, or it may actually cause you problems in being seen as open, or competent, or paying attention. If you want to be a public professional creative, in my opinion you need to respond to your viewer’s feedback professionally.
And here, I am specifically talking about responding to true feedback. If someone is trying to threaten you, or your right to exist, or your livelihood in a comment disguised as feedback, you are in a much more serious situation that’s flatly outside the scope of this essay—take steps appropriate to their intent, not steps designed to respond to a normal comment that’s well within the reasonable back-and-forth of the public creative.
My most recent public feedback? So, my mother (Empress of the Geeks) called me out on twitter about my Laser Dress design. “If laser dresses are weapons. aren’t they forbidden at all important (diplomatic etc) parties? What use is that?”
First, let me say how much I love that I live a life where I can do a fairly silly, opening-of-an-80’s-animated-series-inspired, a co-worker threw the idea over a cubical wall and I ran with it, off-the-cuff design for a piece of armed formalwear for a roleplaying game… and my mother can (and will) critique it online. Most of my fellow game designers have to mourn that their families don’t really get RPGs, or what they do for a living. My mother’s connected enough to tell me if she thinks I’ve missed a bet. ❤
Regardless, that’s feedback in a public venue. Now, how to respond?
First, personally, I believe in staying polite. Don’t ever be the one to escalate, it doesn’t help anything. If you think someone isn’t worth responding to, just don’t respond to them. You can try ignoring them – most people lack the time to hunt down and pester every creative they question, so this often works. However, it’s not universally effective. If you feel you need to be clear you are disengaging, I recommend not beating around the bush but not being rude. “I appreciate the question, but that’s not something I am going to go into.” or “That’s outside the scope I of what I want to get into.” Have both worked pretty well for me. The point is to be clear to someone who doesn’t want to let something go that you don’t want to get into—just tell them you don’t want to get into it. They don’t get to decide what conversations you have unless they are paying you directly under some kind of contract. (And no, buying your stuff doesn’t count for this purpose—they are a customer, not an employer.)
In this case, I’m happy to engage and respond with my mother, so I wrote a response.
“First, that assumes that they aren’t designed for diplomatic parties among races where going unarmed would be an insult. Judge not aliens by our own cultural norms, Mom. :)”
So let’s be clear, my mother has a point. The main reason I didn’t address her point in the original write-up is that it’s as much a joke as it is a serious piece of equipment… and my mother isn’t the right audience for that joke. But I did go to all the trouble of writing it up as useable equipment so… why? Why did I bother?
My unofficial material for Starfinder is very much third-party publisher material, and in general I trust GMs to figure out what they want to use that material for. Maybe laser dresses are rare, and no one normally knows what they are. Of course if that’s the idea, the rules should have covered how to identify them, so listing that invites a further debate, which isn’t what I am looking to do here. I want to respond, in an engaging and friendly way, without leaving a huge opening for other people to jump into.
Now, in this case I have an advantage of knowing my audience. She raised me, after all, and introduced me to science fiction (and fandom, and cons, and her brother introduced me to RPGs, and she was my DM for many years when I was a kid – we’re a pretty geeky family). So I know she’s read a ton of classic science fiction, which often asks questions like, “what would it be like if an alien culture was radically different than our own?”
So, I can use that to craft a response that notes she has a point (“Yeah, laser dresses aren’t going to be legal in most high-end parties based on our culture”), while pointing out that doesn’t mean it’s not a reasonable item (“Starfinder is set in a whole galaxy of adventure—there are tons of cultures not based on ours!”).
But, I made a mistake.
It being my mother, I ripped off a response on-the-quick, and didn’t think about it again until this morning. When I re-read it, it felt… a tad patronizing. I didn’t INTEND to be patronizing, but the tone and wording are more dismissive than I meant them to be. And that’s one of the risks of communications online. All you have is the words, cold and hard on the screen, and missed tone is all too easy. I included a smiley face, which has become the punctuation of emotion in e-missives, but I don’t think that’s good enough. I should have carefully reread my repost, as I often do when talking to new folks, and made sure the tone was friendly and polite.
Sorry, mom. I’ll try to do better. 🙂
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