I teach a course at the Southern Methodist University’s Guildhall program on Software Development for Games. In the syllabus I have a section entitled Cryptic Advice. One of the bits of cryptic advice offered there is this: “Practice contempt for shoji.”
My students usually get around to asking me what this means by the middle of the second term. Here’s what I tell them.
In 2005, when I was still working at Gearbox Software, I shared an office with the honorable Neil Johnson, a fine programmer and all-round excellent person. Neil and I and a handful of others had just begun work on Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway. One day Neil and I were talking about life, the universe, and everything and we came to the topic of variety and the problem of getting stuck in a rut.
All around us are new and fascinating opportunities. Oddball stores we’ve never visited. Intriguing-looking books we’ve never read. Mysterious officemates we’ve never said more than a few words to. Around every corner there’s the opportunity to do something new—to experience something, to learn something.
The world is full of surprises and delights. Yet most of us stay in our ruts. We keep passing by the shop. We leave the book on the table. We give only a nod to the officemate when we pass him in the hall. Even those opportunities that would take almost no effort to explore are left lying for another day. That day usually never comes.
Programmers are more aware of this problem—or should be—than others. You read article after article about how cool PHP or Ruby or XML is, yet never bother to spend the hour or two it would take to try them out. You know that C++0x/Boost offers strong and weak pointers but you find it easier to delete memory manually. You know about pixel and vertex shaders but you’ve never downloaded nVidia’s free FX Composer and spent half an hour playing with them yourself.
People often tell me that they would love to make games for a living. I reply: “If you want to make games, the first step is to do it. Have you ever made a game?” Nine times out of ten, they haven’t.
And that’s rather odd. There are opportunities to make games all around us. Download Adobe Flash CS4—the trial is absolutely free—and you can have written a game before your head hits the pillow. Or run to the store and buy Unreal Tournament 3, which comes with all the tools you need to build your own games—powerful tools yet quite simple to get started with. Or if you own an Xbox 360, this very afternoon you can download all the tools you need, including tutorials, to make your own XNA game. If you want to make games, there is nothing stopping you.
Here we have a great tragedy. All around us are amazing opportunities, yet most of us never take them up. We let them pass, day after day, while we complain of feeling bored—even “trapped.”
An image came to me while Neil and I were talking about these things. “It’s as if you’re in a Japanese house,” I said. “You’re walking down a hallway and on either side of you are those paper walls—what are they called?”
Neil knew because he used to live in Japan. “Shoji,” he said.
“That’s it, that’s it!” I continued. “And as you walk along you hear a party going on behind one of them. It sounds like people are having a terrific time. But you’re too polite, too embarrassed, too afraid to go in. There’s this awesome experience waiting, just a few feet away, and the only thing between you and it is shoji. And yet it stops you. You don’t open the door, you don’t break through. You just keep walking down the hall.”
That seemed like a terrible shame to us.
A few months later I left Gearbox to pursue a master’s degree at DTS. Neil gave me a wonderful gift, a book on Japanese architecture that was full of illustrations.
In the book was a note, and the note said to turn to a page. On the page was a picture of shoji, along with another note. This one said, “Congratulations on breaking through your Japanese wall.”
When my students ask about shoji, this is what I tell them. Never let inconvenience bar you from discovery. Never labor in ignorance when illumination is a button-click away. Spend some part of every day barging into unfamiliar places. Then you will be practicing contempt for shoji, and you will never lack opportunity.