The Role of the Ear-Lopper

Incorporating the outsider as a source of innovation (Creator Styles, Part 2)

Some commented on my previous article on creator styles that I was comparing apples and oranges—individual artists versus the team dynamic at work in video game development—but was I? Actually, schools of art provide something of a corollary. In these schools, individuals with shared goals work closely together, learning from one another to advance the aesthetic they are trying to achieve. As David Galenson notes in Old Masters and Young Geniuses, we should remember that:

[A]rtistic innovations are not made by isolated geniuses, but are usually based on the lessons of teachers and the collaboration of colleagues.

Certainly, there remain differences in the contexts, as the artists are still creating their own individual works, but there are also situations like studios where works would be executed under the name and direction of a master by various artists, etc., and the Brothers le Nain even worked on one another’s paintings, to such an extent that art historians are still trying to puzzle out which of the brothers is responsible for which paintings.

And so, as I continued to peruse Galenson’s work, a passage leapt off the page at me:

What appears to be necessary for radical conceptual innovation is not youth, but an absence of acquired habits of thought that inhibit sudden departures from existing conventions.

He’s talking about van Gogh, an artist instrumental in the Impressionist movement. Obviously, using van Gogh as the example here is somewhat charged due to his mental instability and eventual suicide, but it’s also inarguable that he was an artistic genius. Because he had his own ideas, he moved to the middle of nowhere, perfected his style, and then unfortunately went a bit crazy.

And, in the team-based creation process of games, a van Gogh sounds like a troublemaker, right? There needs to be unity, everyone on the same page, rowing in the same direction. Wrong:

[W]ith astonishing speed van Gogh gained a knowledge of the methods and goals not only of Impressionism but also of Neo-Impressionism, and he became acquainted with Paul Gauguin, Émile Bernard, and a number of other young artists who were developing a new Symbolist art.

And, yet we know that van Gogh clashed with his contemporaries, as well as his brother Theo, repeatedly. When he left Paris for Arles it was partly from exhaustion from his work, having produced some 200 paintings during this time, but also because his personal style was diverging from Impressionism and he knew the group would never accept it. In his own words:

Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I see before me, I make more arbitrary use of color to express myself more forcefully. […] I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of the red and green […].

This passage shows how he is moving past the strict dictates of the movement to explore new territory that was to show the way to Symbolism, Fauvism, and Expressionism. But the clashes still weren’t over—when Gauguin came to visit and paint with him, they had a massive quarrel: van Gogh threatened his colleague with a straight razor and then used it to slice off part of his own ear.

In the world of game development, I have championed passionate people, and especially those whose views are not mainstream. This can be a tough row to hoe: management typically dislikes disruptions and sees “company culture” as monolithic; a world where everyone plays nice and gets along. My view is that different perspectives, devil’s advocates, and clashes, as long as they can be kept constructive and no one loses an ear, make a team stronger.

In my brief encounters with Hollywood, I’ve seen how sycophancy can distort the creative process: those who should be challenging an artist instead simply say “yes”. I’ll provide one salient anecdote: when a colleague of mine and I were on the set of Antitrust an actor improvised a line about creativity saying, “Use the left side of the brain”, everyone over each other to confirm that this was correct. It’s not.¹ My colleague, another pilgrim in this unholy land, looked at me imploringly. “We’re not here to fight this fight,” I told him, sotto voce, “they’ll just have to fix it in post.”

Perhaps I relate to the ear-lopper role because I’ve lived it. When I got into game development, I did so very much as an outsider, in terms of nearly everything: influences, experience, values, goals. I was perhaps even more of an outsider than van Gogh—he at least was attracted to a school of painting, while I entered a medium wherein various genres and styles coexist, many times even within companies. On top of this, my first real development role was in Japan.

Working in Japan was pretty crazy—basically nearly no one in the company had the intent to make games, instead they were recruited as unskilled workers graduating from university to be sararīman (サラリーマン). Derived from English “salary-man”, the term refers to white-collar workers for corporations but also implies lifetime employment, for whichever company made the best offer, including banks, or electronics manufacturers, or whatever. Whether they came to have passion or even aptitude for their work was a matter of complete happenstance. And indeed, even those who did succeed often did so only to see their ambitions crushed, as they typically had little control over the strict hierarchy in which they worked. Of the handful of Americans I worked with in this organization, none were on the creative side: they were either translators or programmers, just as likely to fit into their roles as their Japanese counterparts. I’m not sure if any besides me continued in the field of games—I certainly haven’t run across any of them.

Then there was me. I’ve already detailed some of my background in earlier posts, so I won’t belabor the point here. On top of all that, I came from art school, believing in the integrity and grand potential of the medium, rather than thinking of games in terms of a set of genre-defined components.

And indeed, although I clashed strongly with many teams, especially early in my career, I feel it is appropriate to credit the successes of games I’ve worked on to my nontraditional approach. The very name of this blog, which comes from the Japanese expression, deru kugi wa utareru (出る釘は打たれる), reflects this; the phrase roughly translates to “the nail that sticks up gets pounded down”, though I’ve taken only the first part.

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 3: Closing the Circle

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: Passing on Picasso


  1. The pop psychology notion on the lateralization of the brain holds that the left side is logical and the right creative, but science doesn’t bear this out, so it’s actually kind of doubly wrong.

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