Sea of Creativity

(posted originally on tumblr)

We've all got cool ideas and plans to tell stories, draw artwork, produce games, something that ends up reaching numerous people and get many kudos for having created something a little bit meaningful. (I guess we wouldn't be on tumblr if we hadn't had that wish at some point.) And we've sure tried to produce stuff, some of which isn't even half bad.

But there's no payoff. After months or years of work, if we're even able to stick with it that long, it gets maybe a dozen likes if we're lucky. Or just the echo of our own release announcement bouncing back and forth. If a lot of our self-worth has been tied to our creative output, finding that validation is not forthcoming naturally leads to questioning that self-worth, and thence as far as "why am I even trying anything".

There's a stereotype about any amateur writer at some point realising they're not going to write "the great American novel", a depressing but pragmatic realisation that allows them to focus on making the most out of however life is working out for them. I'll never be one to discourage realism or practicality, but it'll be a sad life that doesn't allow itself room for creativity too. However, expectations are best tempered.

I guess Maslow's hierarchy of needs has been criticised for various reasons, but I still like it as a tool for understanding the general shape of human needs. For optimal happiness, needs from all categories should be met. Weightings between categories vary individually and over time.Diagram of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

Image credit: Wikipedia, by Androidmarsexpress, CC BY-SA 4.0.

In our western societies, our basic physical needs are pretty universally met. (Although capitalism is working on that.) Psychological needs revolve around social relationships, broadly a desire to feel like an appreciated part of a herd. And a need for self-actualisation manifests in wanting to create things and becoming more than we are. A failure to meet various needs can lead to stress, desperation, loneliness, and depression. (There are of course many other ways to end up with unhappy states.)

Creating something artistic is great for fulfilling the need for self-actualisation – creating stuff for its own sake. But it's very unlikely to satisfy social needs, so if we don't already have a sense of belonging and esteem from somewhere else, being creative won't fix that loneliness. This is where a reality check may be useful. Even if we can't fix the problem, at least we'll know which need is the problem. And we can detach the expectation for social prestige from creative pursuits, making them enjoyable and worthwhile in their own right.

I am more of a programmer than a content creator; that is, I will spend a ton of time writing game engine code, but when it comes to actually making game content, I will procrastinate the project to death in short order. Nevertheless, I have several fun game ideas that I'm a little sad I'm unlikely to get to explore. And, when younger, I had hoped for some recognition for having made a cool game or song or webcomic. Or at least a nifty text adventure...Screen capture from my half-baked text adventure.

However, in order to get recognition, my creations would have to stand out. And as I look around, I realise that humans are amazingly creative in every possible field, and modern digital and networking tools enable that sea of creativity at an unprecedented scale. This is not a bad thing at all in my book - it's impressive how much creative effort my fellow humans are able to put out. (A greater belief in the good humans can do is good for the soul.)

I can't deny it was a bit demoralising at first, when I was browsing through GOG's list of new games and it hit me just how many of those damn things there are. (Or, looking through Fitgirl's repacks site for stuff that's not on GOG.) I mean, who is creating all these games?? And, more importantly, who's playing them? If I created one, who would even notice it? There are literally a dozen new games being made every day, not all of them published, and it's not possible for a single person to even try every new game, there are so many. So it's reasonable to assume that the total playership of these beautiful work of art games that their creators poured their hearts into probably typically measures in the dozens, hundreds of people at most. Not to mention all the shovelware that casual game developers put out, who actually have some marketing in place to buy attention.

Having a business degree, and having worked around the game industry, and having read indie developers' thoughts on game publishing, I can safely conclude that I will never make a game that nets me fame. More specifically, I think I understand the scale of development collaboration and marketing effort required to have a chance at publishing a famous game, and I don't think it would be worth it for me. Creating a game is fun – designing and executing an impactful marketing strategy for it is very much not.

The same applies to other artforms. There are more talented artists offering commissions than I can shake a stick at. The internet has been bursting at the seams since the 90's as even more try their hand at writing. For any single individual to stand out in that is not going to happen.

And that's fine! Creativity is a need, and a well-optimised person fulfills that need for its own sake. There is no way for that creativity to fulfill other, social needs. So seek contentment by whatever other means possible. And keep creating reasonably-sized works and ensure you have a circle of acquaintances who will appreciate it. Our works may be small and seen by few, but we're still adding to the total sum of human culture and, anyway, it's fun to create.