Solo Home Videogame Development as Meditative Practice

Oct 31, 2014

The other day I read 3 Sources of Happiness That Aren’t Tied to People or Stuff. It’s a pretty short article, and well formatted to be easily skimmed if you don’t feel liking giving it full attention. Heck, the first two sentences pretty well lay it out:

It’s incredibly important to find sources of happiness in your life that aren’t tied to people or stuff. Because you can’t always depend on “people” or “stuff” to be there for you all of the time.

About half of the game and entertainment software I’ve worked on – especially a large fraction of the more recent half – was built as a team effort. But as much as I enjoy making games with collaborators, solo game development is how I started, and from time to time I’ll always return to fitting in smallish, non-commercial games on which I get to handle all the parts.

For people who maybe started making games on teams and have only ever done so with teams ever since, perhaps not seeing value in backtracking toward creating less impressive games working alone, I’m going to suggest it may be worth exploring the solo experience for certain benefits entirely disconnected from the resulting game’s relative quality.

There are simple routines and comforting rituals to making games alone for $0 that become a great deal more complex and inconsistent as soon as people, no matter whether they’re collaborators or customers, get added to the process. It’s stabilizing to have something to focus on any time we need or wish which doesn’t directly involve the whims of others. Coming back to it each day, or week, we find it still just the way that we left it. We also find that we’re able to continue tinkering on it exactly as we were thinking about right when we last left it.

The mind has a special way of hanging on to puzzles that we’re in the middle of working on. It’s called the Zeigarnik effect, and it means our minds don’t easily drop unfinished tasks. Videogame development creates tons of those kinds of partly unfinished tasks at any given step. The unfinished parts remain locked tightly in the same incomplete condition when you’re not working on them, even as other things around us change. The unchanging puzzle serves as something stationary to come back to, a sense of progress that doesn’t undo or turn into something else all on its own.

When life moved me to different places, solo videogames that were in mid-development connected thinking in locations A and B. Whenever the people that I knew best left, making videogames stayed. When little surprises in life would from time to time knock me down in a way that left me disoriented, aligning my headspace back to an open project helped me come back from it, giving me a way to pick back up where I left off in other areas of my life, too. Though incomplete around the edges, a videogame during development is also at least complete in grouped chunks, some of which are connected to or adjacent to other fragments of what we’re thinking at the time.

We’re getting more out of game making than the games that we’re making.

Any blocking issue that we run into along the way will hold us up until we learn our way past it. Game creation provides a continual series of goals, alternating unevenly between logic puzzles, creative struggles, design decisions, artistic techniques and more, each given unique personal meaning by becoming a tiny piece of something bigger that we’re imagining and tediously inputting into existence. Much like any sort of crafting or performance activity, the difficulty of doing it at all, let alone doing it well, can open us up to deeper appreciation of other hard work around us daily that before we might’ve too easily taken for granted.

For anyone who didn’t opt to read or skim Handel’s article mentioned in the opening, the 3 sources of happiness he identifies that are not tied to people or stuff are: (1) learning new things (2) pursuing meaningful goals and (3) stopping to reflect and appreciate.

Of course, this isn’t meant as an argument or claim that there’s any superiority of videogame development as the way to this. Way more people find these exact same benefits in some different ratio and depth through creative writing, playing piano, mastering new recipes, practicing a sport, learning to fix cars, knitting, studying classics of literature or philosophy – gradually developing any skill, or diving ever deeper into any interest.

Home videogame development is just another source of this out of many, although those other hobbies among the many make for respectable company. Though videogame development happens to be my preferred way (perhaps yours, too), and the one I know up close, it hasn’t been around for as many generations to take on the same air yet of normalcy as something in our lives other than (not less than) a vocational aspiration or dream of fame and riches. I’m or we’re of course far from alone in this doing it for its own sake, more people than ever are already doing it now and some people in prior generations have been doing it a couple decades longer than us, but it’s certainly still a less understood or familiar reason recognizable to peers, family, or newcomers coming from outside the process.

And this likewise isn’t an argument or claim that there’s anything better about videogame developers than those people who practice or study anything else in which they too get completely lost in what they’re doing. It’s not the only way, but it is a way, and an under-recognized reason for solo, zero budget, home videogame development. It’s a healthy way to think about the activity that I think too often gets overlooked as a valid reason to begin. Game development is so often thought of primarily in terms of the game’s effect on or purpose to the other people who may play it, or if it’s something that we aspire to sell and otherwise capitalize on then the game’s considered in terms of its potential effect on our access to stuff. It doesn’t need to be either. It can be because it keeps us grounded.

Making videogames, especially when done alone and deliberately (not merely unintentionally) non-commercially, can be just another way to stay sane and ensure the brain stays peacefully pushed, productively occupied, prepared for problems for which it might otherwise be caught slowly falling sleep. The making of the game in this context has little to do with the game, and much more to do with the making. The game is a byproduct, a complex picture that comes together from the process of solving a chain of connected problems that are each unlike the end result, problems which individually get hidden invisibly in their combined solution.

First find the corner pieces. Create a separate pile for edges. I’m looking for a piece with two protrusions, both pretty narrow, that has a stripe of red along the opposite side. If I find another light blue piece I’ll see which of the growing light blue islands it fits around, or if it’ll be the start of another until they all connect.

What do we do with a jigsaw puzzle after putting it together?

Was the point to have the picture, to offer the picture to someone else, or simply to have some peace of mind, reason to focus, and something to do while doing it?

I think most people recognize that the right answer to what to do upon finishing a jigsaw puzzle is to pick out and start another one.

In some ways the game that we make is the reward for our making it. Materially, at least to the extent that we can abstract software as material, that’s the case.

Considered in another way, the game itself is the least valuable thing to come out of making it. In terms of personal growth, at least to the extent that we can regard learning, goals, and appreciation as things, that’s the case.

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