Creativity and Self-Doubt

There have been some studies recently that look at the way social networks affect our perception of ourselves in relation to others. Some of the studies have talked about how since we tend to share only the best of ourselves online, it can lead us to feel bad about our own lives, as they seem so much less perfect than the lives of those around us.

I’ve noticed that this can happen when we talk about our work as creative individuals. We like to talk about our successes, but we leave out all the hard work and failure that came before the good parts. Maybe we don’t like to think about the difficult parts. Maybe we’re afraid of appearing weak. Maybe we’re afraid of looking like we don’t know what we’re doing.

Five years ago, when I was new to the indie game development scene, I was working on my first game, Dapple. I had been working on it for a couple of months, and what had started with great ideas and enthusiasm had turned to a place where I was starting to doubt every decision I was making about the game design. Should I match three colours or four? Does the game need power ups, or will it work better without? Should I let the player choose their colour each turn, or should I pick one of the available colours at random for them? I was getting stuck inside my own head, convincing myself that every decision I was making was bound to be wrong.

I decided to reach out to a game designer I respected and ask for advice. I sent an email explaining who I was and my situation, and asked for advice on how to get through periods of self-doubt. How do you make a decision when you feel like all your ideas are wrong, I asked. The response I got amounted to: “Sorry, this doesn’t happen to me. Can’t really help you out.” As you might imagine, this was pretty crushing. Now I felt even more incompetent and I started to feel like “real” game designers must not ever doubt themselves. What was wrong with me that I doubted my own abilities?

But the longer I worked, and the more game designers and developers I’ve met, the more I’ve come to realize that either this individual was, by far, the exception, or wasn’t being honest with me. I have shared my feelings of self-doubt with many other designers since then, and invariably they have similar stories. We all doubt ourselves and our decisions from time to time. We go through periods where we think our work is terrible and will never be good. We become convinced at times that no one will like our game.

What I’ve learned is that, for me, it’s just part of the process of making a game. Making a game is about making a huge number of decisions, and it’s only natural to feel at times like I’m making the wrong ones. And hell, sometimes I am going to make the wrong decisions. But that’s ok. The important thing is to take the information I have available and make a decision.

An old boss I had once said to me “don’t worry about making the right decisions, worry about making the decisions right.” At the time, I didn’t really understand what he was saying, but I do now. Sometimes you just need to make a decision and move on, or you can become paralyzed by it. If you realize later that the decision was wrong and makes the game worse, you can go back and fix it. But don’t let yourself get into a situation where you refuse to make decisions for fear of being wrong.

I wanted to write this in case any new game designers happen to be following me on twitter or read this blog. I didn’t want someone working on their first game to feel like the doubt they’re experiencing is unique to them. I wanted to say to you that self-doubt is common. It’s ok if you experience it, because everybody does. What’s important is that you find ways to work through it and move on.

Over the last few years I’ve found that a few things can really help me when I get stuck on a problem:

  • take a walk outside, preferably in nature
  • exercise
  • visit an art gallery and remind yourself of the beauty we are capable of creating
  • go to a movie and see something great
  • go to a movie and see something terrible
  • work on something unrelated for a few hours, or a day or two (but be careful not to jump indefinitely from project to project when things get hard, because things always get hard at some point)
  • do a game jam
  • just make a decision and start working on it. If you hate it, you can change your mind.

I hope that helps. And, if in doubt, read and re-read this quote from Ira Glass:

Ira Glass on having a creative career

Ira Glass on having a creative career

If you have any suggestions for what helps you get through the hard parts of development, let me know!