People have been tweeting about their “path to gaming” this week on Twitter – meaning their path from being just somebody who might want to make games to being someone who does, and maybe even makes some money or a career out of doing so. I think it’s good to share stories, but I also think the very nature of these stories are tricky. They can be tools, but they can also be lies. All stories are, after all. And they only make sense after the fact. I could tell you that as a kid I was so desperate to own my own copies of games that I tried to make them from whatever I could, even trying to assemble thousands of trivia questions to make my own Trivial Pursuit. But it’s only now, looking back, that I can see that having anything to do with what I do now. To say that is part of my path is to suggest a cause and effect, and if there was one, it never felt like it. And that, I think, is what we’re really looking for. A sense of cause and effect. Of what we might do to get where we might want to be.
Or even more so, what we might be to prove we are who we hope we are. We’re searching for a Dumbo feather.
If you’ve not seen it, Dumbo is a Disney animated film from 1942 which depicts a large-eared elephant who turns his disability into his power when the ears grant him the capacity to fly. It’s a film that’s deeply important to me and, like most good stories, is about psychology. Dumbo can’t fly until some helpful crows give him what they call the “Magic Feather” which lets anything fly. While holding it, Dumbo can fly. At the climax of the film he drops the feather and his companion Timothy tells him the feather is a lie, it was a proxy to get Dumbo to simply believe he could do it. It was that belief that allowed him to permit himself to learn to fly, without self doubt getting in the way.
It’s a cliché, but we keep talking about it because permission, self-belief, self-conception, these are core concepts of who we are. Artists and writers who go to work for Disney are almost certainly looking back at their past and seeing a young creator who wondered if they are permitted to dream. So naturally it comes up a lot in their films.
For me, the place I sought the Dumbo feather was in pathways of other writers. When I maybe should have been reading more or writing more or going to art school – but couldn’t, because I could not permit myself – I still wanted to be someone great. I craved fame more than skill, always have. And the only way I could sympathetically align myself with that, permit myself to believe it was possible, was to read the histories of writers and look for similarities. It was vooodoo doll magic: if I found that Tad Williams or Douglas Adams had done this or that thing as a young person, and I too had done those things, why then…by association, I could be like them. It would be allowed. Or at the very least, I could see those parts of myself as not signs of failure or cowardice.
So when I think about my path, what comes to my mind is what it was like going through the story. I can tell you the story the way it seems to be now, from the end. Of course I can. It’s not very complicated or hard. I wrote a bunch of stuff for roleplaying games I wanted to work on, and when they put out open calls for submissions, I submitted that stuff. I made myself useful and a friend online. The two helped me get freelance work, and I’ve been a freelancer ever since. After about twenty years of doing that I finally had enough mental health to permit myself to design my own games, and I just put them on the web and hardly anybody has found them so far, but I enjoy it anyway. I like having permission to feel like they’re okay games and I love that a few people have played them and had emotions as a result.
But the story from inside it, that’s a story of a dark and brutal war with my self and my demons, of agony and fear and confusion, of never knowing where to go or why, of never knowing what would take me where I wanted to go and never knowing what I wanted to begin with. When you ask me about my path, I think about that. I think about the mental journey I had to go through. I think of Dumbo feathers.
If I can tell you something that is your feather, then that’s a miracle. And I can tell you that it’s okay to be confused, to not know where you’re going, to not know what you want or what to do when you get there. And I can tell you that not only are you allowed to dream, you can not dream also, you can just do whatever, life isn’t going to punish you for not reaching whatever goal the movies tell you to aim for.
In the meantime, do what makes you happy, learn what you can, ask questions, be a helper, show up often and take the leap. Forgive yourself, love yourself, and love one another. The road is going to be rocky and weird and unclear, but if you do those last three, it doesn’t have to hurt. And it shouldn’t hurt. You should be having fun. You should enjoy the bumps where you can.
It’s a stupid cliché, but we keep saying it because it’s true.