This is one of those blog posts where I pretend I'm writing for a stranger to read, when I'm actually writing for myself. You see... or I see?... by doing this, I distance myself from myself, and am able to reason more clearly. Maybe with enough navel-gazing, I'll learn something from myself.
I'm in a mid-mid-life crisis.
I don't know what I really want to do.
Right now, I'm committed to creating Nothing To Hide. Make no mistake, I'm still excited about it! But Nothing was originally created as a guinea pig for another guinea pig. As a Thiel Fellow, there's expectations for me to create a startup, and for the past year, I've created a few one-off crowdfunding sites as MVP's for whatever startup I was going to eventually create. Guinea pigs.
And for those crowdfunding sites, I'd make another guinea pig. First, a bunch of game art for The Juice Box. Then, organizing a bundle for the Gamedev Garage Sale. Then, organizing a bigger bundle for The Open Bundle. Finally, making a freakin' hour-long game demo for the Nothing To Hide crowdfunding campaign.
Lots of people were confused why I was running my own crowdfunding site for Nothing, instead of using Kickstarter or Indiegogo. And in retrospect, I really should have used those. Heck, I should have at least used Selfstarter.
But I didn't. Now I'm stuck with a bunch of broken payment API bullshit. I don't really regret my decision to roll my own. It wasn't something I would have easily chosen otherwise. It was a bad decision that was one year in the making.
That's the thing about rationalizing - you don't know it's rationalizing.
I bet Nothing To Hide's funding on my guinea pig of a startup. Which, by the way, was some crowdfunding site with a "milestone pledge" mechanism. I lost many potential backers, and many actual months of my life, by doing this in the name of "startup".
I now realize, too, this was another root cause of why Craftyy failed. Jason Church and I "founded" it at a Startup Weekend in San Diego, where we won 1st place. We were going to be like Unity for HTML5, no, like Wordpress for games, no, like Github for level designers.
Again, I don't regret any of this.
With Craftyy's demise, I learnt things (or maybe unlearnt things?) I wouldn't have gotten through my thick skull otherwise.
1) Don't build the whole thing upfront.
2) Test what we make with a real audience.
3) Actually know who that "real audience" is.
The sad thing is, I've already internalized these lessons when it comes to game development. But not startups. With the end of the Nothing To Hide campaign, I learnt:
1) Don't build guinea pigs upon guinea pigs.
2) Don't reinvent the wheel.
3) Don't reinvent guinea pigs.
Oh. Here's another big lesson that I just realized, literally as I was typing up this blog post.
Don't "make a startup".
For both Craftyy and the un-named Crowdfunding things, being a startup was my goal, not my means. Few successful startups started out explicitly as being a startups. Many times, it just starts out as someone hacking and tinkering with a thing for fun. Why do people like me get into the startup scene just for the sake of it?
I blame The Social Network.
I no longer design games thinking "this has to be like other games". That beginner mindset usually leads to creating clichés, building boring bullshit, and making yet another Minecraft clone. Why do people get into indie gamedev just for the sake of it?
I blame Indie Game: The Movie.
If I wanted to be more accurate, I would say to myself and/or you the theoretical stranger reader... Don't "make a startup" for the sake of "making a startup". But I know having that qualifier would allow me too much rationalization room, so I'm cutting it off.
I blame myself.
And again -- again -- I do not regret this. These past few years have been the possible best way for me to learn from my mistakes. Learning lessons, such as...
Don't do things for the prestige.
And I did go into startups for the prestige, to be the next Mark Zuckerberg, to fit the idealized story of a kid genius rising. I don't think at any point did I realize that "Follow successful people's footprints" and "Take the path less travelled" is mutually contradictory advice. And Peter Thiel -- whose Fellowship I benefit greatly from, and I'm grateful for -- wonders why Silicion Valley's stuck with incremental innovation.
I'm trapped in the bubble of startups, which is itself in a bubble.
"Do what you truly believe in."
...is a thing I would say if it was really that easy to know what you believe in. It's very, very hard to separate what you actually want, and what you want to want.
What do I think I want?
- Make games
- Make art
Make tools to make games
Make a startup
Make a startup to make tools to make games
- Be a free culture activist
- Be a digital rights activist
- Help other free culture artists
- Tell stories
Be a "thought leader" (what the hell does this even mean?)
? Social entrepreneurship
? Create a non-profit
? Create a lifestyle business
I know that, over the last two years, I felt the most fulfilled when I was making games, (Nothing To Hide) helping other people earn money, (The Open Bundle) and doing creative forms of activism. (The Public Domain Jam)
Maybe that is what I want, but is it who I am?
Freaking mid-mid-life crisis.
I don't know the answer. I don't even know if I would want an answer, because that would be pigeonholing myself to "I am an artist" or "I am an activist" or "I am an entrepreneur", when I'm most certainly a bit of everything. Maybe instead of trying to "figure out my identity", I should just embrace my loose, nebulous identity. At which point, what's the point of calling it "identity"?
Identity will not save you.
Keep your identity small. Oh son of a bitch, I'm quoting Paul Graham again.
Hold on while I go on a brief tangent.
Over the last five years, I've been struggling with another kind of identity: sexual identity. Everyone goes through the confusion stage at first, as did I. Am I gay? No wait, I can't be, I still like girls? And when I finally did find an identity, I was proud of it. Hey everyone! I'm bisexual! I swing in all the directions!
It felt liberating. Until it wasn't.
Despite identifying as bisexual, my sexual encounters have been (so far) exclusively with men. Despite identifying as bisexual, I've only ever been (so far) romantically attracted to women. An identity that once brought be pride, now brought me guilt. "I am terrible at being a bisexual" was not a feeling anybody told me I'd have.
Now, I just go by the all-inclusive "queer".
Maybe even that is too specific.
Alright, we're back from this tangent. The point is this. Whether it's startups or queerness, identity can be exhilirating, liberating, and build a united community... but it can also be constraining.
I need to reap the benefits of identity, while avoiding its pitfalls. I need to start thinking "X is important to me," rather than "I am X."
Drop identity. Drop the constraints.
Consider what I did with this blog post. I didn't come into this with any set topic in mind. I started out talking about how it felt I was building guinea pigs on guinea pigs. Then how I was suckered into the prestige of startup culture. Finally, a realization that a lot of my life's guilt is due to the feeling I have to do or say or like certain things "as part of my identity".
Just flow down the interesting path.
Maybe I should be like this blog post. Forget creating a set topic for my life. Just keep going forward, flow towards the most interesting directions, even if it may seem like a tangent or bad metaphor. I should cut down on the Paul Graham paraphrases, though, since "flow interesting" is also from his essay on essays.
From the beginning of this blog post:
"I don't know what I really want to do."
Heh. "What I really want". As if what I currently want isn't what I actually want, no no, I want what I am supposed to want. What I want to want, but don't want in itself. If this paragraph seems like convoluted bullshit, maybe that's because it is.
What do I currently want?
I want to make socially aware games, like Nothing To Hide, Coming Out Simulator 2014, and Skin Deep. I want to help free culture flourish, as I did with the Public Domain Jam. I want to help others make money, as I sort of did with NTH & PDJam.
What did I use to want two years ago?
None of what I want now, except making games. But back then, I made dumb games. Nothing wrong with dumb games, but I like my artsy-fartsy "ooh it's got a message" work nowadays.
I just flowed interestingly.
And I'll keep doing that.
But from now on, I won't let identity or prestige pressure me into going down the path "I'm supposed to". That's the road more travelled, the cliché path, uninteresting.
And I sure as hell won't let it guilt me anymore.