Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Fanboyism And The Cycle Of Perceived Inferiority

I'm not known for being brief, but I'll try to keep it as short as possible for this post. Fact is, I have a ton of work I should be doing on Tidalis, but I was struck by inspiration today after watching the various shows of the Penny Arcade TV Show, which I hadn't managed to see until recently.

Some Of My Own Fanboyism
I love me some Penny Arcade, I've got all their books and have read most of their archives more than once, and even have three or four of their shirts, but for some reason I'd been putting off their TV show as being something I wouldn't like. Instead, when I finally got around to watching it, I discovered an insightful look into the work life of a company full of interesting people. It's rather like what some of the later anthologies of Bill Watterson and Gary Larson provided: insight into creative talents that fascinate me. Or the same reason that I enjoyed the two Michael J. Fox memoirs so much.

Sounds like I'm a real voyeur when you put it all together like that, right? I'm not, or at least I don't think I am. I'm not into celebrity gossip or whatever else. My own curiosity is mostly limited to a few creative individuals over a span of decades, and I'm mostly interested in their work, how they accomplish it, how their work affected them, and their outlook on life based on doing some sort of job that has impacted me in some way.

We're All Just People
This is a fact most people know, but few people seem to really believe. We're all just people, every last one of us on this planet. President Obama is just a guy who gets up in the morning and does a very difficult, very important job. Shigeru Miyamoto is just a guy who makes video games, and has been doing so for a long time. John Williams is just a guy who writes film scores. And, frankly, Einstein was just a guy that came up with lot of important ideas, worked really hard, and turned those ideas to a few practical applications.

This is not an attempt to minimize any of those people. On the contrary, I hold them all in the highest esteem. They are visionaries who do exceptional work, and have made notable contributions to the world in their lifetimes. What they are not, is mythical. These are just folks that have a lot of attention focused on them, for various reasons -- they are not, well, unicorns.

This is something that everybody knows, but it can be so hard to believe. I think it really sank in for me when I was in high school and had the chance to speak to Orson Scott Card for about 10 minutes at a library fund raiser. Lately I've come to realize that he holds a number of views that I very much disagree with, but that doesn't detract from the fact that he wrote what I consider the two very best books, ever. And yet while I was standing there talking to him, I was struck by just how ordinary he was; he had written these amazing books, but he was still just a guy, and once we were done talking he got in his car and made the drive back to Greensboro to be with his wife and kids.

Fanboyism Is Nonlinear And Relative
What I fully realized only today, while watching the PA TV show, is that Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins feel inferior. They were amazed that the guys at Naughty Dog thought it was cool to be in a Penny Arcade (PA) strip. And Mike, for years, has commented in the "braying and neighing" section of their news post on how he feels his art is inferior and derivative to the comic book artists that he particularly admires.

But it gets better: thinking back to Bill Watterson, I can remember that he definitely seemed to have at least a bit of an inferiority complex regarding much older comic strips (Peanuts and Pogo, mainly), and Gary Larson was in awe of the scientists that he was depicting in many of his strips. When he did a strip about Jane Goodall, there was a minor misunderstanding with some of her staff, and to make a long story short Larson and his wife went out to spend a bit of time with Goodall at her preserve. I think that each was a bit intrigued with the other, reading between the lines of Larson's account of the events.

The oddest thing is how this cycle of fanboyism is not linear. Goodall and Larson can be impressed with one another. The PA guys can be impressed with staff from a game developer, while I'm impressed with PA and yet likely to casually know someone from a game developer. I don't happen to know anyone from Naughty Dog, but I know enough people from companies like them that I wouldn't be at all starstruck. Seeing Gabe Newell's name on Arcen's Steam contract was a bit of a thrill for me, but come on... it's Gabe Newell!

See what I mean? This whole fanboyism thing, and why we humans tend to feel this way, is very mysterious and unpredictable. But I'm not done yet (predictably, this post has turned longer than I meant it to).

"Fame" Is In The Eye Of The Beholder
Well, first off, the obvious examples: Gabe Newell, or Mike and Jerry from Penny Arcade. I'd be a bit shaky talking to any of these folks, at least at first, as would maybe a few million other people. Generously, let's say 50 million. And then to everyone else out of the world's 6 billion inhabitants, to meet these guys would be utterly ordinary, possibly even boring.

Kind of puts things in perspective a bit. Let's take a more famous example, like for instance Tom Hanks or Brad Pitt. Either one of them probably has at least (I imagine) a billion or two people who would be nervous upon meeting them. The reaction of the rest of the billions of people on the planet would be: nothing. Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt... they're just guys. Maybe unusually funny, maybe unusually good-looking, but still just guys. There are funny and good-looking guys all over the place, though. That's less notable than people might assume.

Few People Seem To Feel Famous
Looking back at Mike and Jerry from PA again, Jerry made a comment that I found pretty fascinating: that he's not really famous, he's just "Internet famous." In other words, he doesn't feel famous at all, and the fact that a lot of people know who he is (and want autographs, come PAX), doesn't really change his perception of himself. He knows he's well-known, but Mike mentioned that both of them felt strange signing autographs until well into their careers.

In the Michael J. Fox memoirs, Fox talks about how his own super-stardom didn't really feel real for years. He was on the cover of multiple magazines in every US newsstand for a few years there, but he still felt odd when meeting other celebrities and expected them not to know he was. Of course they did. He was tremendously famous at that point. But that's still how he felt, and I don't think that he was unusually insecure.

Most Famous People Are Less Famous Than You Think
People overestimate the fame of everyone. Brad Pitt and Tom Hanks? I'm sure there are plenty of people who imagine those two are known to every last person on the planet. And yet there are plenty of people who don't watch TV or movies, or don't watch American TV or movies. Even with the most-famous examples I can think of, we're overestimating.

Apparently we do that. When I was in 8th grade, there was a new comic strip that came out in the local paper, called I Need Help. Do you remember it? I thought it was really funny, and sent the creator, Vic Lee, a snail-mail letter. That was one of the few times I ever sent fan mail, and apparently it made a huge impression. I don't think Vic had gotten much yet, and so he sent not only a lengthy response that was as witty and funny as it was informative, but also a signed copy of his first book (three weeks before it hit stores), despite the fact that I'd asked for no such thing. He also included his AOL handle, and we wound up chatting via instant messenger about a variety of things (that wasn't a taboo thing for a grown man to do back then, stop frowning -- he was just connecting with a fan that was excited about his work).

Anyway, the point is that I'd wrongly assumed that Vic Lee was as famous as Bill Watterson, who was the only other author I'd ever sent fan mail to (I got a note back from Watterson's publisher saying he doesn't accept fan mail). Anyway, if Watterson doesn't feel famous (and I'm pretty sure he doesn't), Vic Lee really didn't feel like he was famous. Yet he had a nationally syndicated cartoon that a lot of people felt was a promising new strip. He had a book that was in stores. What else was needed to make him famous?

Fanboyism Is A Dangerous Thing
Fanboyism is dangerous because it leads people to have unreasonable expectations. When I sent Bill Watterson a letter, I expected a response. It was a punch in the gut what actually happened, but it also wasn't Watterson's fault. A lot more people wanted to send him mail than he could reasonably reply to, and so he just didn't accept any mail whatsoever. I think that's why a lot of game developers also hide behind PR departments and private email addresses. It isn't that they don't want to talk to fans: it's that they need a buffer from the raging fanboyism (or fanboyism's inverse) that is pointed at them at any given time.

In the end it doesn't matter what anyone says, or what we intellectually understand. I still want to hear back from Jerry Holkins at some point. I'd like to know what he thinks about AI War, which he might love or he might be indifferent to. I'm mildly jealous of both Cliff Harris and Vic Davis, because "Tycho" played their games and raved about how good they are. It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking "why not AI War?" Thankfully, I have a daily reminder of why I shouldn't: there are enough folks who get mildly sulky and resentful when I don't have time to respond in detail to their communiques.

I have it easy at Arcen at the moment compared to what someone famous has to deal with, but it's already at the point where I could spend all day, every day, just responding to posts on the forums and still never catch up. My hope is that, perhaps, anyone who is starting to turn resentful can be referred to this post for an explanation. I still respond to about 50+ messages per day, but that no longer covers anywhere near responding to everyone. With luck, as Arcen grows I won't piss too many people off, and I'll keep my sanity, too. With luck.

Lastly: I Am Not Famous
This heading is a pretty obvious statement. I don't think I'm famous. Most people that I meet don't think I'm famous. In fact, I'm a bit embarrassed to tell strangers that I'm a game developer because they've never heard of my work.

And yet there are still people out there who, when sending me fan mail, clearly think I'm famous. It's all over the way they write, the exact same patterns of how I wrote to Vic Lee. It took me a while to realize what was going on, honestly, and so I have always simply responded like I would to anyone who gives me a compliment: saying thanks, making whatever comments are appropriate, and so on.

Fortunately, that response seems pretty appropriate, so I'm sticking with it. Better than getting a swelled head. Generously, maybe fifty thousand people think I'm some sort of super mild case of famous. Maybe half a million people have even heard of my games, and most of them still have no idea who I personally am. Most people who meet me from the forums or this blog seem to accept that I'm a regular guy, for which I am grateful.

This whole phenomenon is interesting to me, though. As a kid I thought that there was a very clear line differentiating the mythical famous people from the rest of us. I don't know when everything got so murky. But evidence suggests that's how it's always been.


Anonymous said...

Many years ago I worked at a small game development studio named Snowblind, working on a spinoff dungeon crawler set in the Everquest universe. Not huge-budget or anything, just a fun game, about fifteen people on the entire team at most. I left to go back to college, which turned out to last exactly one semester, then ended up on a Greyhound bus heading back home.

I got in a conversation with some random guy in the bus - really, the exact kind of person you'd expect to meet riding a Greyhound bus, I seem to recall he traveled around the country working temp construction jobs, getting drunk, and doing incredible amounts of drugs.

About two hours into the conversation it wended around to video games. Turned out he'd spent weeks playing the exact game I'd worked on. I'm pretty sure that if we'd been in a bar, he would have bought me a beer on the spot.

Weirdest damn moment of my life.

Fame is a strange thing. Today, I'm famous for a project that I'm largely not interested in, and completely unknown for the projects that I'm putting serious time in. Such is life.

Niels Nielsen said...

Dear Chris, you really are famous, if only among a select few. And that is all that is needed.

I can tell you that being really, really famous is generally not very well for your mental well-being. I have worked professionally with a lot of local and even a few global celebrities, and many of them, even the greatest of rock-stars, are very miserable people, who don't know how to deal with their own fame. Those who are able to cope are mostly people who are in it, not for fame and money, but for love of their craft.

Fame is elusive, craft is tangible. With fame you get fans, with craft you get respect. So my advice to you is to continue doing what you are good at, it is the best insurance against that widespread kind of bloated megalomania that is put up to cover a deep inferiority complex. Perhaps this will make you really famous, perhaps not, it is not important, except for the fact that a certain minimum of fame is necessary, if you want to make a living in showbiz.

But you seem to strike a good balance between self-promotion and humility, so just keep up the good work. You are a craftsman, a great artist in your field, and you have my deepest respect.

Yours sincerely

Christopher M. Park said...

In the end, I'm not too worried about how famous (or not) I am. That's not really a personal goal for me, same as I'm not trying to empire-build to get the largest staff I can and beat EA in revenues or whatever. I just want to be able to support myself comfortably doing what I love, and not have to rush all the time. So far I've got that except for the last bit, about rushing.

I guess the concern about how other people view famous people is what I outlined above, is that it either creates a barrier between people, or unreasonable expectations, or other bad stuff that can happen. Megalomania is certainly one of them. In all its various forms, George Lucas being one example of someone who feels too famous for his own good. I need people around to tell me when something I do sucks, like anyone.

Anyway, in the end the whole post was just some musing by me, and an attempt to explain the (kind of obvious) supply/demand problem in a way that I can refer people to if they start wondering why I can't respond personally to each one of their detailed inquiries, or whatever.

Many thanks!