Peer Fear is the Mind-Killer!

The fear of failure stops many people creating. But there are ways to still their trembling hand and better yet they may already be doing lots of creative things without realising. So, how can you help a potential artist over the final few hurdles to sharing their work?

This story starts in a conversation with a writer friend of mine. We were talking about his currently stalled book, and then drifted onto my own novel. This is a novel I’ve been writing for five years. A novel of which I have written four hundred words. Right now I’m not even sure where those four hundred words are.

Why such a poor effort? Well, truth be told I don’t want to write a bad book. What I should do is sit and write and for better or worse get it out of my system so I can move onto the next, better novel. What I do instead is distract myself with drawings or graphics design and perpetually postpone the work of writing.

I would love to recount a pivotal preschool story that neatly sums up where this fear comes from, but I can’t remember anything specific. Suffice to say we all gain pleasure form the recognition of our peers and therefore dislike an absence of recognition or even worse derision. At some point we realise that pastime X does not evoke the same lovely praise as pastime Y, so we simply cut back on and eventually stop X. This feedback loop is active throughout our lives, narrowing what we try and altering what we feel capable of. We all draw and sing and take part in plays as kids but very few continue once we have left school. In fact I suspect many of us have our horizons so narrowed that we spend much our time wondering what exactly we are good at. Drinking or watching HBO box sets tends to be a common answer.

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So. What can developers do to encourage people to overcome peer-fear. What can they do to lower the essentially self-imposed barriers people place around themselves, and encourage them to share their creative side?

A devil’s advocate would ask if we have to. While developing LittleBigPlanet, and especially while making its sequel we often ended up designing for creators and non-creatives as two distinct audiences. I also have no doubt that no matter how easy you make it for people to create there are some who will never make anything. The assumption goes that some people create and others consume. But if you talk to this consumer audience you will find a middle ground, a group of grey shaded people who given the opportunity would love to create, but are often so paralysed by the fear of sharing that they rarely even start.

(Briefly: tools are important, and there is no doubt that software like Photoshop is so arcanely obscure that unless you have a real drive you are unlikely to persevere. But I think developing the perfectly inclusive art tool is the subject for another essay. Or at least until I have some idea of how to solve that problem. And once I have solved that problem I’ll want to make a ton of money with my solution. Then I’ll write about it).

But many of these grey people who struggle to create are creative! The snobbery of art education that pervades our society may make them feel otherwise, but if you take a photo then you are creating. You frame the scene, you chose the moment and imply a narrative. And no doubt once you’ve taken that shot of your friends, your dog or your genitalia you will then share that with somebody. And there are even smaller creative particles at work that we can harness: Opinions. Hitting the “Like” button expresses something about the person. The list of things a person has liked says something about them, so why not present it as such? Indeed this nascent curation mechanic already drives many sites like Tumblr or Twitter. But it has yet to convincingly manifest itself in a site or game that presents a closed loop of creating, sharing and discovering.

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By this point you have demonstrated to your grey shaded person that they have already created and collected a tapestry of items which when viewed from a distance is greater than the sum of its parts. While they are still heady with that sense of empowerment now is the moment to get them thinking about creating something bigger.

First remove the rating system. It is bad enough that you might post your first creation into an utterly silent world, it is soul destroying if the first person who views it gives you two out of five stars. An absence of feedback is feedback in itself, so it seems both redundant and cruel to let players give one another negative feedback. There are a number of ways you can present one click feedback that gives both the developer and the player useful information. For instance you can have a number of like-type mechanisms of varying strength (like, add to my favourites, share with my friends), or even simply a number of icons illustrating more or less abstract responses (as demonstrated by sites like Canv.as). For me it is telling that neither Google+ or Facebook use negative feedback (though they do have a mute button so the viewer can control what they are shown) and I predict that Youtube will adopt a similar mechanism in the next few years.

A lack of feedback is itself pretty depressing, so try to show the work to a receptive audience. The people to start with would be the creator’s friends, family or anybody with a close relationship. Friends are not only more likely to respond, but also more likely to supply useful, constructive feedback. Creators are more likely to feel comfortable sharing with close social contacts, so make this process explicit in your design.

Finally it might be useful to start everyone, regardless of innate talent, on a level playing field. Separating the creator’s sense of expectation and ideas about acceptable quality from what they are making will likely remove a lot of stress and help them worry less about sharing it online, especially if everyone else is going through the same process. There are myriad exercises you could try and they might not be applicable to all situations but they can be broken down and treated as basic patterns.

You could start by having the creator alter an existing image or item.Sticking two googly eyes onto the first household object to hand is silly, immediate and teaches us something about human cognition. Secondly you can take the creator through the requisite steps in reproducing an existing piece of work. Anyone who has seen a Bob Ross tutorial will realise that by a following a set of carefully controlled instructions it is possible for anyone to create a perfectly acceptable reproduction of a Bob Ross painting. Both the above examples and most other exercises can be modified by applying a time limit. Five minute poses will be familiar to anyone who has tried life drawingand are a useful way of stopping the creator from thinking and forcing them to do something: they relinquish responsibility and just start making stuff.

[This essay was first published in August 2011]

Mike Green

Glowmade Ltd, 77 Walnut Tree Close, Guildford, England, GU1 4UH