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Dyslexic confessions of a Dad

I have a confession to make, it’s time that i told a little bit more of my story, which is really our story and what I’m tinkering with in my art studio this past year. Almost a year ago I dropped everything I was doing in my studio, the paintings, the children’s books and focused on one thing, a game I’m making to help my son (and others like him) with his dyslexia.

This is not a super easy subject to talk about, although dyslexia is somewhat common there is still a lot of judgement of both the child who has dyslexia and even the parents. The child is often judged as not being smart at all, unteachable is a word used, and the parents are judged as neglectful.

What people often fail to realize with dyslexia is that we have people who have brains that clearly work differently than others, and dyslexia is just one example of this. This doesn’t mean dyslexics are not smart, often they have ways of contributing beyond what others can because of a unique way of thinking.

One example is Jack Horner, the noted Paleontologist who has been the inspiration for the paleontologist in Jurassic Park, he graduated high school he says, with a D–. You may not be able to see that correctly, that is a D-minus-minus. In his words his teacher said that he “Failed, but I never want to see you again.”

Alongside the dyslexia is the fact that my wife and I homeschool our sons. We left Los Angeles, now almost ten years past, so that I wouldn’t spend countless hours working on film visual effects and have no relationship with my family. Over the years we have learned to juggle and share family life, and work life.

I moved from putting all my time in the entertainment industry and more time with my sons exploring museums and doing art with them. This is when I began to see the way we educate our children in museums differently, and started to come up with creative ideas for educating them visually, and interactively. I began sketching out ideas of how to use my visual effects skills in this way.

Like my son, I’m a very visual thinker and a tinkerer. Right now I like to think of more dynamic ways to get information across to people, especially when a museum display or some other form is failing to make people see it, and as a visual thinker I do think people have a failure of imagination when it comes to visualization what the world, and universe around us looks like. Listen to this veritasium video to get an idea of how the education system can fail to really inform us about just how vast our universe is for instance.

My family started out on a sometimes frustrating journey with my son’s dyslexia, which makes his own interaction with the world sometimes difficult, and can make even the smartest kids, feel like failures. It can lead to loving family members or friends being shaming and judgmental. It can lead to parents pushing their kids and asking why they “aren’t trying?”

Dyslexia is not related to the intelligence of a person, as we see with many very prominent dyslexics like Jack Horner and Richard Branson. Branson talks about his Dyslexia in the video below, and he like many see it as a positive, not a negative. I want to make it clear, I see my son as gifted, super creative, and his dyslexia as the most obvious unfortunate label that often gifted and creative people receive, making them feel unteachable and like they aren’t smart. Labels like this can undermine a person and make them give up. This is because we live in a world that only has one metric for determining intelligence (generic tests that squash creativity).

As an artist, I am well aware that the world has one metric for judging intelligence, and leaves out wide swathes of others whose brain works vastly differently.

Imagine for a second an alternate universe where instead of children being tested in school for math, memorization, and punctuation, they are encouraged to be creative, open, explore and be funny. They get to do art, build things, play music, and play and there is no test because you can’t test the best way to bring an individual’s gifts out. When you graduate you have to show your gift, a demonstration or sharing without judgement.

Perhaps in an extreme version of this alternate universe if you can’t draw, or play an instrument, make an invention out of a pile of stuff, or do an improv play then you fail. In this universe math, punctuation and memorization are not used as the metric to determine your intelligence, there is a celebration of many kinds of intelligence over memorization of facts.

Perhaps in some way in education we squash that internal education that may have been passed down over many generations. What if we are going against the very nature of a child and family that specializes in something over generations. The family of musicians, or the family that loves to study nature by scuba-diving. What if for every graduate we suppress another Mozart, another Cousteau. This isn’t about saying that we have a “genius” among us, or putting people who think differently on that specialty pedestal, but honoring something deeper in them, a specialty that their brain and spirit are working towards.

My point is that we often test people and give them the feeling that they are less than others based on tests that favor a particular brain type, a particular calling.

Before someone jumps in to suggest the many teaching approaches to “resolve” dyslexia let me say that we have tried several different approaches with professional tutoring that are very involved and take a lot of dedication from all of us, as well as mind/body exercises that are supposed to help balance the brain etc. I’m not saying that all these techniques shouldn’t be used, but so far for us, some have resulted in more frustration, and others in tears being shed. That isn’t to say that there isn’t a lot of great information out there, and a lot of good techniques that have resulted in very good results for children with dyslexia, or that we have stopped trying. I however am very skeptical when I hear that someone thinks they have the cure for dyslexia.

While trying these tutoring programs for my son, I began to tinker in my studio with a video game idea to help kids who struggle. This wouldn’t be a game like “reader rabbit” but a game more like Myst, that i hoped would be something a child would just want to play, and that in a way I could hack their brain by just getting their interest.

I dummied up a test of the game, in software I was just learning (Unreal 4) and showed it to my wife and son. I didn’t show too much, and although I felt I was on to something, I dropped it and returned to writing, while we tried yet another approach for the dyslexia.

After another round that was frustrating for all, my wife asked me one day, what about that game idea I had. I dusted off the game and dove into it fully putting all my energy into learning the software, and trying to bring my visual effects skills up to speed in this new arena.

I’ve worked hard on this game, and I test it with both of my sons, who enjoy playing it. There is still much I’m not saying about my approach except to say this, the idea is that I want my son to have an experience that is fun, that is enjoyable.

I am trying to build an entire world in support of his struggle, but also to celebrate him and other dyslexics like him.

I personally see my son. I see him as smart, I see him as gifted, amazingly creative. If I have problems thinking through programming problems sometimes I talk to him about it to get his insight into other ways of thinking. My son is endlessly creating, he is always learning, he is not afraid to try new things, I see his intelligence each day, and I know there is no way this is going to hold him back in life.

I don’t see my game as an end all to approaches for dyslexia, i’m hoping it can be used as another tool, hopefully a fun one, to engage a child’s brain and creativity rather than pushing them to memorize and work through frustration. I’m not even judging the various approaches to working with dyslexia, but like the variation in personalities and brains, they don’t work for everyone and I just want to tinker with this a little.

There is a lot I’m not saying in this opening confession, what else I’m doing in the game, what some of the goals are. I’m hoping to make something that is artistic, and helpful, but it’s a long slog, especially when you are creating alone. I work daily with sometimes self imposed goals, like how can i make this beautiful, but also have it playable even on not very good computers? How can I make this enjoyable and keep drawing the child in for the ride?

I still have much work to do, but I realize at this point it might be the time to begin talking about this game, and how a visual thinker is trying to work with something I perceive as a visual thinker problem.

Making Mistakes in Artwork.

I came up with a quick idea for a game this week. I wanted to mock it up quickly and I gave myself a mandate. Finish it by end of week, or kill it by end, one way or another. I have one day left, and although overall the game is close, I always feel this need to perfect it, improve my assets, etc. I start to spiral out quickly.

I know I talk about this a lot. I have this idea that creating a game, shouldn’t always be like making a tent-pole production film that involves hundreds of people and a budge of 200 million dollars. I have no problem with companies who do that, I think that’s awesome for artists and the gamers, and pushing the state of the art.

I’m more interested in the smaller, personal projects though. When I sit down to write a short story, I’m not thinking, “This will take me about a year to create!” I’m hoping I can finish a first draft of a story in one sitting, because when I’m in a flow that’s how it comes out for me often. When I have to force things, the story or artwork shrivels up and dies.

I saw this all the time when teaching, both in myself and my students. If there was a great expectation that a zbrush sculpt, or a drawing was going to be “it” then there is this stiffening that happens, and often procrastination. It drags out, and goes no where. I saw in my students this timid dabbling, instead of broad re-working of their drawings and sculpts. The reason is often because of risk. If you push too far, you may destroy the artwork, but by being too timid, it can fail to come to life. Another reason is that some art ideas become precious to us, and we can’t part with the initial concept and see what else “it” wants to be.

To me part of the creative process involves being loose when I sit down to work. This is difficult business in creating games, because it is in fact highly technical with lots of road blocks to get in the way.

My philosophy about the games for an indie person though is to create a sort of backlog of ideas and assets and get ready for the lightning to strike. You have to be sketching in the game world with those assets you have already, and not always be “experimenting” with some killer game play idea that would actually require six months to a year for one person to execute well.

When teaching, my students would pitch games in class. The goal was to choose one as their “pre-thesis”, each semester there was at least one person who pitched this idea;

“This is an MMO (Massive Multiplayer Online) game idea, and you can customize your character from one of several races..” The idea would go on, and often involve dragons, amazing powers and weaponry, and scores of animated cut scenes. I would try to steer them back to the ground. It’s not that those things are impossible at the student level, but starting simpler (single player for instance) is still a lot to accomplish when you’re talking about actually producing that product as your thesis.

In this vein I still try to counsel ex-students of mine, who are staying on the Indie path. “Don’t get too complex” I caution. “No, don’t think of your game as a triple-A title, please.” I beg. “Be nimble. Be fast – if you build an asset, test it in game same day.”

The reason is simply this. We need to make mistakes, whether that’s in a drawing pad, or writing short stories that we later realize suck big time, or a game that is oddly reminiscent of Kong. Doing those things, even if they aren’t a masterpiece, means cutting your chops and building a repertoire of skills so that there is improvement. It means you are doing, what you want to do, even if it isn’t triple-A caliber (yet).

It also means having some closure on something. The big things, the big games, the novels that are 300 pages, the massive oil painting, those things are sweet.

I’m just advocating for the sketches in between too.

Dreaming Out Loud

drming1

Having taken some time away from making games to focus on only writing, I am back to splitting my time between creating games and writing in my studio. So, I begin with a short story concept and then try to figure out how to deliver it, in indie fashion, without the huge over head that most “gamers” are so used to now due to the Triple A game titles that have ballooned now like the tent-pole movies that are made in Hollywood. Essentially, the belief that bigger is always better.

Being a fan of short stories (and not of endless games that go on forever) I approach the game as a place to bring people into a story. The images you see on this page are just some recent explorations in creating environments like a painter rather than treating the game world like pixels. To me there is a story even if the player isn’t aware of all of it, and a painted world, the style of the artist behind the brush. This is hopefully one difference that can occur in Indie games, and we see it clearly in games like Fez and Super Meatboy. Personally, If I don’t feel compelled by the painted world or the writing, then it all fizzles out for me as I imagine it does for many.

drming2

Aside from my goal of making a “short story format game” I am trying to enjoy the process of creating. In other words if the enjoyment of the process fizzles, then I’m going to let go and do something creative that will let me create without the technical road blocks.

As an artist and writer, I want to treat the game environment as a canvas that I’m painting on, and trying to bring my audience into that canvas. What I’m saying is that as an artist I’m far more comfortable with writing and visual arts rather than the technical side.

I can do it, but it isn’t where I thrive, and I feel that the game engines are still road blocks to more creative games because individual artists and writers cannot sit down like a pianist at a piano and just create from that unconscious place without the technology getting in the way. Imagine if every note a musician wrote had to be programmed, and they couldn’t actually touch a piano, but rather a robot played it in another room, with a glass barrier between artist and medium.

That is partly what making games is currently like to me and likely many who steer clear of it entirely.

This means trying to find my comfort level in this medium where I can created un-impeded by the technical constraints of the medium. It’s a tough nut to crack because in the end even with powerful game engines it’s still highly complex, and the promise even of engines like Unity and Unreal have their flaws which I won’t get into analyzing right now.

Part of the production process that I always talked about with students when teaching is building up a library of assets so that when it comes to the game, you can create environments and explore. I have hundreds of assets that I’ve made for games over the years and I’m trying to mix and match them to create this world. Making games is so complex compared to the act of designing a game or writing a game. To make an environment it often takes thousands of assets.

The approach I’m taking as an Indie artist is to NOT emulate triple A games, but rather to know my limitations. If I chose to have assets along the lines of Bioshock Infinite then I would need to realize I’m competing with hundreds of artists who have labored for years creating those worlds.

Having worked in production for years on animated films, visual effects and video games, I know what it takes to produce a big game and I’m trying to produce something with that knowledge so that I don’t fall into the trap that many do, which is to say biting off too much.

To me, knowing how to trim down your game as an Indie developer should be like writing short stories. Let’s say you want to publish in a Sci-fi magazine, so you have to obey the limitations of that publication. If a publication demands that you keep your writing to 3000 words or less, then that is the limitation.

Putting boundaries around the format of a game can be liberating. Putting some time structure around it can allow for an Indie artist to be more like the short story writer. Short story writers write many stories and submit them all over the place in hopes one will land. If you spend two years working on your Indie game, and it doesn’t fly, then you are stuck with beginning again.

I’m not even saying it won’t take me two years to finish an indie game, but my goal is to eventually make it happen like that creative flowing process that partly comes from that unconscious place while you do it. To do it in small groups or individually so that the work becomes more personal and more akin to literature rather than action movies with guns and gratuitous half naked women shots (think both recent Star Trek films or Transformers). Everyone comments all the time that video games are not an art form yet, but with the millions of dollars and talent going into them they aren’t likely to get there because there is too much riding on their financial success and because they are taking their beat from Hollywood films. Not to say that films can’t be art, but who among us thinks of Transformers as art? (Note this is not a critique of the artistry that goes into those productions – two different subjects).

Making indie games is daunting. This is why you’ll hear people like Jonathan Blow, who made the popular game Braid, talk about all the games he began, but never finished. Even for indie games there is typically a huge investment in time involved with making a game, which is why so many games with months of development end up in a scrap heap as people move on.

drming3

I’m not claiming to be the only person interested in this. At some point I should probably write about some of the short games I have played that I feel do fit the short story format. You can play the games in under an hour and feel like there is artistry and creativity unimpeded by delusions of being “triple-A”. These games I find far more compelling than the huge triple A must have games, which in the end feel like they are designed to suck up my life and keep me from doing creative work, sleeping or spending time of with my family all of which are priorities in my life, not “finishing” Halo 4.

In the end I’m not trying to talk about what people should do, in creating games. I’m just talking about how I’m trying to approach this, and why I feel compelled to bang on what I think is a visual medium still in it’s infancy, and despite the fact that I made my first game in the 80’s using Basic programming on a Timex Sinclair, I still find it technically challenging to bend this medium in a way that expresses what it is I wish to say.

If I can’t find my comfort level with the medium then it will be like other mediums that are not a fit for me, pastels or charcoal, things that litter the bottom of my art bin while I move on to things that resonate for me and allow me to continue living an active and creative life.

Writing & Game Short stories

I’ve spent more time in my studio painting and writing stories this spring. I’ve written two chapter books and a number of short stories. I’ve also written a new short story that I’m trying to turn into a video game.

The goal always being, “how quickly can I write a story, and produce it as a game so that it is creative and fresh, rather than technical drudgery”.

It’s not an easy thing, game engines still need to evolve more so that artists spend less time in technical hell and more time in creative highs.

The game idea is a short story based on my experiences having asthma as a young child, and the sort of fever induced hallucinations I would have when sick, the working title: Breathing Lessons. We’ll see if it ever hatches into something full. I will say that when writing, I chose my soundtrack first, and then knowing the chapters of the game I wanted to write, I would turn on the music, and write to it. I’ve already dummied up one level with the actual music (which I can buy the rights to easily) and so far so good. I’m trying to keep the technical challenges low, and focus on the mood and how to tell a story, gasp… without cut scenes, at least with very little animation.

The other writing I’m doing has taken up more of my time, but the sense of closure from writing always feels better than spending my time in that technical drudgery I speak of. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the technical side at times, it’s true I sometimes thrive there, but more and more I find that I want to spend my time being creative not being bogged down – the technical I can do, but I don’t enjoy it like writing, painting and drawing. In the end it starts to feel like a waste of energy, a dead end.

I’m going to post here a couple of test illustrations from my chapter book, Spring’s Equinox. The goal of trying to decide what the illustrations should look and feel like.

This is a sketch for one of my illustrations. When done writing, and ready to test on my sons I make sketches through out the document, so that my youngest son who is four, can follow along more easily.

equinox-sketch

Once I have a sketch like the above I start turning it into a painting, usually having scanned it and then drawing and painting on top of it.

equinox-stick

Trying to find the style for different books or games is always the challenge. These paintings are inspired by paintings by N.C. Wyeth who I admired when I was a kid, for books like The Black Arrow.

equinox-stegosaurus

The main challenge in writing and coming up with ideas for any of this is learning to relax into it all, having spent many years working in a highly technical industry under extreme deadlines I often push too hard for too much and am learning how to slow down and let things flow.