We hope that these words will be burnt into your memory superimposed over the backdrop of a four-hundred-thousand dollar train wreck.
They were addressed to me last Thursday by Matti Leshem, lights hot and cameras rolling, on the set of “GAME_JAM” – a YouTube show in the style of “Iron Chef” created with the intention of showcasing the magical world of indie game development to a public audience. Only instead of making meals, we’d have four days to prototype and demo a game idea. From casual conversations with the crew, I picked up that “GAME_JAM” was one of Polaris’ most ambitious and most expensive project to date – costing about $400,000 to produce. It came crashing to the ground after a single day of shooting.
We are lucky that reporter Jared Rosen was present to document an offensive assault on everything I and my friends in this community hold dear. This article is a response and personal elaboration of his much more comprehensive story. My intention is to show you the dark cloud’s silver lining: how powerful we are when we let our actions be guided by our integrity.
“GAME_JAM” set out to demonstrate the magic of “indie.” It was to be a public platform to showcase, not only our work and our personalities, but the ups and downs of the creative process, the bonds that we build to support ourselves and one another, and the challenge of staying true to ourselves under pressure. In the end it succeeded more elegantly than I could have formerly imagined.
It would have been naive to expect “GAME_JAM” to be a perfect window into our process. There were four teams, and I’d been brought on to lead one of them. Two would be developers of my choosing and one would be a surprise youtuber. From the onset I was prepared to make compromises for showmanship. The game-show structure seemed forced, but a worthwhile compromise to reach a wider audience. The team casting, with me arbitrarily chosen as a leader, was definitely a little weird but made sense because telling four stories is easier than telling sixteen. I saw each of these things as an exciting leadership challenge. I saw each compromise as a worthwhile trade-in to reach a wider audience both for the show itself, and for my in-development game SoundSelf. At the very least, I’d spend the weekend hanging out with and making a game with my friends. The stakes were low.
The same could not be said for my “GAME_JAM” competitor and real-life dear friend, Zoe Quinn. Zoe had stakes that were more real than the competition itself: As the only female team-leader and one of only two women in the whole competition, if she kicked ass she could be a beacon of strength to those who needed it. But if she failed, or if the show were edited to make her look like a failure, her performance would resonate with existing stereotypes at the root of those inequalities.
If you’ve read Jared’s article, you know what happens next. Anything true to what it is that I do was merely incidental to a production that was quickly and deliberately swan-diving into “The Real Housewives of Indie Games.”
The hours that I’d expected we’d be able to spend making something we could stamp our names upon were instead siphoned off to polish a lie. “Back to one, look more surprised and excited for the grand prize of a year supply of Mountain Dew.” Meanwhile, actual game design drama happened with the cameras turned off.
My team had settled upon two wildly different game ideas. There were interesting conversations, compromises, and decisions discussed as we weighed and respected one another’s priorities. But that wasn’t the kind of drama that “Pepsi Consultant” Matti Leshem had in mind.
Matti: followed by a cameraman and a boom operator.
Matti: ordering us around like he owned us.
Matti: banning drinks that weren’t Mountain Dew from the work environment.
Matti: “Do you think you’re at an advantage because you have a pretty lady on your team?”
I declined to answer. He pressed. Adriel curtly told him that his question was offensive.
The day rolled on and I felt a fog of misery and confusion quicken around us. My team was not happy. I was not happy. Surrounded by lights, lawywers, professional entertainers, cameras, humiliation, I felt like a rat in a cage. I didn’t know that the feeling was shared amongst all eleven developers.
On the one hand this is the story of one asshole bringing months of hard work crashing to the ground. It’s an incomplete picture of course: Leshem had a reputation of being an asshole before the show began. But the production’s failings are only part of the story. “GAME_JAM” didn’t crumble because of Leshem, and it didn’t crumble because of the dishonest production.
It crumbled because we, the developers, killed it.
I’ve come to think of ethics as a useful system for making complex scenarios easier to cut through. Ethics are like simple “If, then” statements that you program yourself with. Imagine yourself in a scenario where lying would help you avoid a difficult and unpleasant conversation. It’s one thing to think that lying is generally wrong, but if you’ve previously committed to a code like I do not mislead people, you’ve given yourself a tool to make doing the hard thing easier.
When you’re in the thick of something difficult and confusing, as we were on the set of “GAME_JAM,” it can be hard to know what the right thing to do is. On the one hand, none of us were having a good time. On the other hand, so what? I had an expectation about what being on a game show would be like, and that expectation wasn’t met? Oh how very sad, poor me.
With hindsight, we have the benefit of knowing how powerful we actually were. But at the end of that first shooting day, all any of us had were our private and mostly uncommunicated discontentments.
Adriel had quietly decided to leave the show. She’s outlined that decision in her own lengthy and powerful article on the subject. But I speak here for the bravery I observed in Zoe Quinn because contractual obligations prevent her from speaking for herself. Which is honestly all for the better, because she’s too modest to do herself justice anyway:
If Zoe left the production, she could easily be painted to look like a weak-willed coward for “GAME_JAM”’s potentially massive viewership. It would compromise what she came onto the show for in the first place. But if she stayed, she’d be standing behind and supporting a production operated by a man who tried to isolate and humiliate women for the sake of entertainment.
A particularly useful ethical code is knowing where your loyalties lie. Zoe’s loyalties lay with the young girls she teaches game-making to. She could be beacon for a safe and expressive community if she were publicly shamed as a coward, but she could not do that as an actual supporter of misogyny, lies, and the unsafe creative environment she claims to be fighting.
I think her code went something like this:
If your actions will directly support an unsafe space…
Then jack out. That’s it. No matter what. Abort additional consideration. You’ve found the right thing to do. Leave.
Exhausted from the production’s pageantry, all eleven developers, the show’s creative leads (as disappointed as we were), and the liaison between Polaris and the developers came together to hear one another.
There was a lot on the line for everybody. Most of us had traveled from out of town for a valuable opportunity. Zoe and Adriel were already checked out, but was there a way to walk out of this with something of value? There was debate about what to do, and counter-debate over what degree we could even trust Maker Studio (the YouTube giant that owns Polaris – now a subsidiary of Disney) to follow through on our demands. Possible solutions were aired, and while we had an honest space to communicate, we didn’t get a clear solution until one of the developers asked for a show of hands of who was definitely leaving.
Zoe was out because her ethical code wouldn’t indulge the hippocracy of staying. Adriel was out because she didn’t feel she could safely be herself on the set. Davey Wreden (creator of The Stanley Parable, and a member of Zoe’s “GAME_JAM” team) was out because he was there to support Zoe, and wasn’t interested in participating without her.
Being asked if I was definitely out made me query myself, and there was a split-second of fog. On the one hand, if I left the show it could be edited to look like I was ashamed of my thus far poor performance in the competition. I risked burning bridges with YouTube institutions. And because Adriel was already leaving, if I left we’d be abandoning my one remaining team-mate who’d flown in from Toronto.
If ethics are a personal line of code that helps us stay true to who we want to be, then leadership is articulating that line of code in a way that inspires people to adopt it as their own. Zoe’s impassioned articulation of the problem as she saw it reminded me of my own values and gave me the courage to make them a priority. She turned a vague discomfort of mine into a personal line of code that I could reference to cut through that split-second of fog.
I had been worried about the lack of women among the contestants from the beginning. So my code was easy:
If you will be standing by a representation of my community without gender diversity…
Then do not stand. Leave. Abort additional consideration. You’ve found the right thing to do.
The four hands alone would have hindered the production. But together, they were unified by a shared cause: an unsafe space for smart female developers. From this point there would be no stepping back to redefine what the problem was about, and there would be no compromise. Matti had secured the sponsorship with Pepsi, so even if he was fired, choosing to stay would help save his reputation. The movement to quit production had a flag and it had a leader. It took only a few minutes for a dissenting minority to become a production without a cast.
When we trust our community, we trust that others hold that community in their loyalties. The integrity of a community is a function of how true its members stay to that code. What made Zoe’s ethical code contagious was that it resonated with the community-serving values of those who were present.
This last year has seen me lose faith in myself. I’ve lost track of who I am and why I deserve my own love. I’ve seen my bad habits alienate the people I’m close to. Writing this article has been for me a meditation on my struggle with self love and self respect. I wonder if knowing oneself is an act of building oneself by means of codes like these ones. By extension, I wonder if trusting oneself is an act of being true to the code you wrote.
Developers don’t just create games – we create an ecosystem in which it is safe to be expressive. As this ecosystem grows, it will inevitably fracture. The work we do now to set a standard of holding ourselves individually accountable to the health of the whole defines the seed from which future healthy communities will grow. In the last 48 hours I saw the true colors of my friends who are a part of that seed. They’re good colors. They speak for a bright future.
Until the facts bubble up to the surface, all we have are incomplete personal stories like my own. Each one shows a different angle and shines a light from a different perspective:
Jared Rosen was the only person present with the intent of reporting. With a long history of relationships both with Polaris and with the developers present, Jared’s article is the most comprehensive telling of this story currently available.
Adriel Wallick, the programmer on my team who this story is in many ways about, knows what a game jam looks like at its best because she’s the organizer of one. She’s written about holding those responsible for this disaster accountable.
Zoe Quinn is restricted by contractual obligations in what she can say, but this event is just one chapter for her in a long story of activism. She’s written about the personal cost of balancing her loyalty to the community with a loyalty to her own work.
Between our four stories, there are people whose role in coming out of this safely could not be given the nods that they deserve. I tried to fit them into my story above, but could not do so without compromising its flow and readability:
Aaron Umetani was the director of “GAME_JAM” – it was his baby, supported by producer Jason Serrato. As the project grew in scale, they made compromises that they shouldn’t have, but when those compromises were manifest on set as the unsafe and unfriendly environment the four of us have described, they were as horrified as anyone else. One of the difficult parts about being on set was not knowing who we could trust, or to what extent. Over the course of the weeks leading up to the shoot, the single shooting day, and the days since, these two were the only beacons at Maker/Polaris who I believed I could trust. They have assumed personal responsibility for what went wrong and repeatedly demonstrated their integrity. I would happily work with them again, and sincerely hope that one day Aaron’s baby will be realized as it was imagined.
Akira Thompson is a living demonstration of the supportive and inclusive power of this community. His M.O. is to support our abilities to support one another. He was hired by Polaris to act as a liaison with developers, and his first job was to recruit four team leaders. When the production was clearly no longer a service to us, he assembled the the developers with Jason Serrato and Aaron Umetani present so that we could all hear one another, in a conversation that culminated in killing the project. Without Akira’s actions, we would have remained in the dark about the extent of the production’s toxicity for much longer. Without his reminder of our power as a unified group, and without his private encouragement to be true to our values, this could have ended very differently.
Before beginning work on SoundSelf, I spent most of my time making sound effects for independent games like Antichamber, The Stanley Parable and Capsule. In this video, I go through some of the unique sound design challenges SoundSelf presents to me, and how I’ve approached those challenges.
Special thanks to the awesome Tina Rodriguez for her musical generosity.
Here are some more ideas I’ve been experimenting with. Aside from “fields”, I think all of these are pretty beautifully successful, and I look forward to exploring them more fully in game.
This is based on a wind-powered sculpture a friend of mine posted on facebook.
This is the most direct exploration of mandala forms I’ve experimented with so far. It began as an attempt to create gravitational orbits, but I abandoned that in favor of greater symmetry, which I think works well for SoundSelf in general.
This one’s really meh. I was experimenting with interference and aliasing, but it just… meh. That was a rabbit hole that lasted most of the day… but once I abandoned it…
This came out much more awesomely. It was inspired by this weird thing.
BTW, I totally love it when people send me cool trippy gifs and artstuff. It really really inspires me. So if there’s a thing you’d like to share, please do so in the Greenlight comments! A soundselfy version of it may end up in the game.
SoundSelf currently has one audio-visual form (or “story”, as we call it) – a tunnel of light with an orb in the center. Exploring this story has given us a lot of leverage to fine-tune the interactivity. But we want SoundSelf to contain many different stories and seamlessly move between them as you play.
I’ve spent the last week jamming on new ideas. Most of them are pretty uninteresting, but some have a lot of potential! Below are some of the first sketches that could be expanded into future stories.
I’ll be live-streaming the rest of the jam this week! You can tune into my twitch.tv channel and click “follow” to be alerted when I start the broadcast. Don’t be shy! I want to hear your voice!
This form comes from creating an array of simple shapes, and have them constantly rush towards the player.
This is a radically different sort of visual form, and it’s super elegant. By determining the particle’s shape based on its location in x/y/z space, the center being zero (no variation), a blinking circle appears in the center. Totally accidental, but awesome emergent beauty like this is what makes these systems so powerful (more on that from Evan in a future blog post). This form could be expanded to feel like star systems, oceanic particles, or geometric forms like grids and spirals.
Normally, when I use the harmonograph the resolution (how many lines make up the curve) is like a ceiling limiting the complexity of the shape. Here, I’ve tried sharply reducing that ceiling, so changes in resolution itself have a dramatic impact on the shape. I don’t necessarily see myself building a story around this, but knowing that adjusting resolution is itself an aesthetic tool is valuable.
Let’s work together.
Returning from the weeks of festival hopping, we’re becoming increasingly aware of the therapeutic potential of SoundSelf. I’ve had the great fortune of meeting people with stories of either themselves or close relations struggling with any number of neurological challenges, from autism to schizophrenia. They’ve told me they believe SoundSelf could be a tool for them. I would like to be able to help, and I would also love to use your knowledge to make the experience more powerful.
While I have some reach in this quirky corner of the game world, I don’t know how to navigate the web of conferences and blogs that medical and mindfulness practitioners use. Additionally, researching the means for applying SoundSelf therapeutically, and then executing on that knowledge, have an uncertain time cost that we must balance against development.
If you believe you can use SoundSelf to help yourself or a friend, or if you think it would be valuable to your field of expertise, please let us know. I am eager to share and learn.
This week’s blog post is brought to you by Food House and GameCity.
I’ve just returned from the wonderful GameCity festival in Nottingham. Part of my contribution to the festival was this short talk on hacking perception, hypnosis, and illusions. If you’ve been following SoundSelf for a while, we go into some detail in what makes the experience get under your skin. For those of you who haven’t been following SoundSelf, this video is a lovely and brief introduction to the project.
(25 minutes, plus conversation at end)
PART 1 – HISTORY
PART 2 – ILLUSIONS
PART 3 – THE PERCEPTION OF SELF
PART 4 – HOW WE HACK IT
Since Burning Man this year, most of my SoundSelf time has been spent showing SoundSelf, describing SoundSelf, and developing new ideas. We’ve been preparing our Kickstarter rewards, showing the game at Indiecade, and in the coming two weeks we’ll be at GameCity (Nottingham),Gamercamp (Toronto) and MineCon (Orlando).
But while software development has slowed down, research has not. Here are a few of things that have excited and inspired me in the last few weeks:
I discovered this album through a Radiolab short devoted to it. I absolutely recommend checking it out.
Trance states are accessed through repetition. This is why many meditation techniques include a mantra, it’s why trance music (and music by definition) is based on repetition repetition, it’s why SoundSelf uses chanting (repeated voice) as it’s controller, and it’s why you see delusional people repeating the same words again and again.
Dawn of Midi’s album is as much a tribute to repetition as Ravel’s Bolero. But that repetitive structure is reduced to an elemental focus – the beat.
As a student of trance, of particular interest to me is the way the different beats work together. In stark contrast with shamanic drumming, there’s no global tempo in Dysnomia. Often three or four percussive patterns will be in play at the same time, each instrument following its own distinct beat. I found my mind shifting between the different instruments: as I rested my mind on a new rhythm, a formerly dominant rhythm would phase in and out of synchronization and syncopation.
Listening to this album has given me a new frame of reference for thinking about rhythm (and repetition at all, for that matter) as a tool for trance induction in SoundSelf.
The LACMA has a retrospective right now for light artist James Turrell. If you’re in LA… DO NOT MISS IT!
Most of Turrell’s pieces occupy an entire room, as they are designed to envelop participants in unique and sometimes illusory experiences of light.
The pieces are difficult to describe because they are not symbolic in nature. They are unique experiences of light and perception, as indescribably experiential as floating in a sense deprivation chamber is.
Turrell’s current project is (and has been for the past twenty-something years) converting a volcanic crater into a sort of modern-day Stone Henge: temples paying tribute to the sun, the sky, and human perception at dance with the cosmos.
The Singularity Project is artist David Tamargo’s entry in the Indiecade / Oculus VR Jam. It takes abstract fine art and explodes it into kinetic 3D. If you’re into SoundSelf, you’ll be into this.
I really love it when art makes me feel small and puts my life into geological scale. This is a to-scale puppet of a prehistoric ichthyosaur that once lived in the now dried lake bed that plays host to the Burning Man festival. And it’s pregnant.
Daniel Kahneman puts his long career of brain research into this deep but accessible model that describes the brain as simultaneously working in two radically different ways: fast and slow. It’s a wonderful read for anybody interested in biases and learning.
A short book with a deep and narrow focus: Trance. How it happens, the flavors it comes in, how to control it, and how it is often used irresponsibly.
Evan Balster here. I’m SoundSelf’s back-end engineer and co-designer. Helping Robin to understand new mathematical concepts that play into the design and development of the program is a big part of my job, and today I’ll be doing some of that explanation for you. Consider this the first installment of…
What you see below is the beginning of a new visual generative system for SoundSelf. Click it to visit our interactive ShaderToy page.
This is the default formulation of the shader, which can be manipulated with the mouse.
It’s loosely based on a concept called Cymatics, and computed as a sum of sines much like our existing harmonograph system. Instead of geometry, however, the sum computes an intensity value per pixel which is represented as color.
Move the ring of control nodes near the center for more regular, intense shapes.
The sine waves being summed in this demonstration are functions of distance from a point. Like ripples in a pond, they spread out and weaken. As more are added in regular or irregular arrangements we can get complex shapes as seen above. The default arrangement is a ring of control points arranged using the golden ratio.
We’re also experimenting with other wave functions which may offer more possibilities, as seen here:
This uses a combination of three circular ripples, a horizontal “bar” ripple and a vertical “bar” ripple. Symmetric patterns can often resemble faces.
The shader above was produced in a short time yesterday after a long discussion about what emergent system of visuals we should explore after the harmonograph. Emergence is a concept that is fundamental to the creation of SoundSelf; it is the phenomenon of complex behaviors or manifestations arising from simple rules that interact. The simpler the rules, and the more complex the manifestations, the deeper the emergence runs.
Because the harmonograph is deeply emergent, we very frequently see things in SoundSelf that we’ve never seen before. Interesting, sometimes beautiful forms that were not intentfully designed into the system are a common occurrence. Every oscillation has the power to transform the entire harmonograph, and with many tens of these at play the range of possibilities is immense.
Cymatics is one of the systems we discussed. In essence, if sand or dust is placed on a plate and that plate is subjected to harmonic vibrations, the plate will form standing waves as a function of the vibration and ts overlapping reflections. The sand will pile into intriguing patterns of points and lines which represent areas of stability, which differ based on the plate’s shape and size and the vibration’s source and frequency.
For a very simple home demonstration, fill a wine glass with water, near to the brim, dip your finger in the water and slide it across the lip to make the glass “sing”. A nearly full glass produces a deep sound and standing waves can be seen in the water, rotating in time with the vibration source (your finger).
This model, unlike the others, simulates the reflection patterns seen in square-plate cymatics. However, it’s expensive.
My initial evaluation of this system was discouraging — the actual forces and behaviors at work are prohibitively complex. However, the underlying concepts of waves and reflections, cancellation and stability are somewhat simpler. Distilling this process to a more representational method without concern for physical realism gives rise to a number of possibilities for simple, emergent systems. It would be accurate to say these are “inspired by cymatics” more than anything.
The experiments above are just scratching the surface of what can be done here. We’ll see what else we can find in this peculiar world of ripples. And of course, we’ll make sure there’s far, far more to be found in SoundSelf through the power of emergence.
Last month we brought a unique installation version of SoundSelf to [url=burningman.org]Burning Man[/url]. Making this unusual architectural iteration of our video game took a lot of work, a lot of sacrifice, and was only possible because our generous Kickstarter backers pushed us $7,000 past our goal.
Check out the rest of the loving messages visitors left in our Guest Book on our Facebook Page!
Photos by Dimitri Kouri and Michael Nusbaum.
For the first time since our Kickstarter, you can now pre-order or buy alpha access to SoundSelf!
Gone is the Windows-only prototype of yore! We’ve still got a long way to go, but this is the beginning of something special that’s already exceeding my expectations. Here’s what’s new from the KickStarter prototype:
- COMPLETELY overhauled music, COMPLETELY overhauled imagery.
- Much more intimate reaction to your voice. It feels more alive now than it ever has before!
- Oculus Rift support!
- More lightweight – won’t necessarily melt your machine – not literally anyway!
- Mac and Linux support!
We’re also migrating our forums to Steam! So come say hi on our Greenlight community page.