24 April, 2016
In an email exchange with a friend, we brought up disagreement. We had talked about some hot issue topics before and disagreed with each other, but we came away from that still being friends.
I think there’s a certain art to disagreeing, and that art can help one become a better game designer.
Tribalism and the bubble
It seems common for people who should be allies to have a major falling out over what seem like minor disagreements. We see this in politics, for example, where candidates in the same political parties start going after each other with exuberant vigor. Minor differences become magnified into huge rifts.
Likewise, we see people get into ugly disagreements on social media. I wrote last Blaugust about how social media encourages tribes and helps people reinforces a bubble that people construct around themselves. People identify with a tribe, and part of what defines the tribe are the people denied membership into the tribe. If you really believe that tomatoes are a vegetable and have joined a community of people who agree with you, you will start to see those “tomatoes are a fruit” whackos as oppressive assholes attacking you and your friends. You’ll start to construct a bubble around you, unfollowing and defriending people who dare to attack your fervently-held belief.
Really, this is an awful attitude to have! You close yourself off to new experiences, and you reduce people down to one over-simplified attribute.
In reality, people are complex and complicated things. Someone who believes that tomatoes are a fruit probably doesn’t let that one belief define them entirely. Looking beyond their attitudes toward tomatoes may lead you to understand there is a whole person behind that attitude.
To me, one of the important parts of disagreeing well is maintaining respect. My friend and I had our disagreements on a topic, but at the end of the day we both realized that we both wanted the same thing. We might disagree on how to accomplish that goal, but it doesn’t mean one of us is right and the other is wrong. And, neither of us really stood in the way of the other in working toward that shared goal. And, we had a lot of other areas in our lives where we did agree.
Saying, “if you think tomatoes are a fruit, you are DEAD TO ME!” generally just ends up harming you, anyway.
Yeah, but what about…
As always, there are exceptions to the rule. What happens if someone believes that some group of people deserve to be lined up against the wall and shot? Well, it can be hard to maintain respect for that person, especially if you are part of that classification they believe should be exterminated.
On the other hand, if they’re not actively lining up a certain class of people and pulling a trigger, it’s possible that you could change their minds. Recent studies have shown that talking to people can change minds about hot-topic issues. If you don’t talk to someone and if they never get to really understand that the people they hate are people, too, then attitudes won’t change.
But, yeah, it’s hard to summon the energy to talk to someone who seems to prefer shouting slurs than talking. In cases like this, removing yourself from harm can make more sense.
Disagreeing in game design
So, what about game design? Well, usually the topics are a little less sensitive than advocating harm to a class of people.
But, a lot of game design comes down to opinion and personal experience. For example, I might have a certain experience about how hard-core Meridian 59 fans act in a certain situation. Someone who worked on another game may have another experience. If we’re designing an entirely new game (not directly related to M59 or the other game) that has that same situation in it, which person is right when we share our experience? In this case, it comes down largely to a matter of opinion.
And, this problem can be exacerbated when communication breaks down. The person who calls Meridian 59 “old and irrelevant” is not likely to get my best response. If I were to discount that other person as being too naive, I’m not going to maintain a healthy working relationship with them, either. If emotions run high and harsh words are shared, it will not be a good experience for either of us, and we’re not going to deliver the best game experience either of us want.
However, if there’s a healthy amount of respect underlying the working relationship, it becomes easier for us to discuss this disagreement. Perhaps we can break down the different elements that make each of our experience valid and look at how we can apply this to the new game. We might even be able to work together on a compromise that suits the situation better than the particular solution that one or the other is advocating. Or, we might be able to stop and realize that the situation is a lot more similar to the past experience of one or the other, and someone can gracefully concede the point to the person with more direct experience; but this works best and smoothest when there’s the respect between us.
By learning to disagree and maintain respect, we have a chance to come up with the best solution for the problem at hand. And, that’s what real game design is all about.