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“Shyness is nice and shyness can stop you...”

What can you do if you find yourself locking up in front of a group of people trying to come up with new ideas at a GameJam. This was the question I was asked and the discusion explored not just practical tips but the role of introverts in brainstorming.

Oscar Clark

February 18, 2014

13 Min Read

If There Is Something You'd Like To Try

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m the classic extrovert. Standing on stage in front of thousands of people... arguing against speakers opinions from the back of the crowd... Water off this ducks back. But for many the idea of talking in front of others is terrifying and some people can lock up and feel completely incapable of thinking under those conditions.

I mention this because I was recently asked by someone who attended my Creativity In Games Design Masterclass at Game Connection Europe for some advice on brain storming. As I hope you will come to understand I will avoid giving specific details that might identify them here; but we both felt that their experience and our discussion about it might help others; especially people who want to make the most out of Game Jams and similar events.

The email opens by this person telling me that they had just been to the Global Game Jam and found themselves shutting down during the brain storm session; “again” they wrote. At first they had the assumption that it was about the language barrier (this person isn’t a native English speaker; but they communicate very well in my experience). However, despite understanding every word that was being said; they struggled to understand the concepts being discussed.

The GameJam had started well enough and they had even kicked off an idea that was discussed around the table. But very quickly after the start they went blank and nothing would come out of their head. They tried to listening to what other people were proposing but the longer they were quiet the harder it was for them to engage. In the end they just resorted to agreeing to anything.

Throughout the GameJam this continued and they kept trying to find a way to contribute with an idea to improve the game, but still nothing came. Instead they found themselves just coding everything the designer told them to without even offering an opinion.

Don’t get me wrong they enjoyed attending Game Jam, but were left feeling disillusioned... “how can I be a game developer when I can’t design a game?”

Ask Me I Won't Say No

How do you answer an email like that?  Especially you are someone like me who has the opposite problem; it’s is almost impossible to get me to shut up. That being said I am extremely aware of the problems with dealing with a second language; not that I speak any other languages well enough and every time I try to speak my very limited French or Japanese I stall immediately and can barely remember how to say ‘Bon Jour’ or ‘Konichi-wa’. Comprehension isn’t just about confidence and knowledge of a language of course. I know several people who have a problem connecting with ideas when they are explained verbally and instead prefer visual stimulus to help them understand.

Knowing what it’s like to lock up like this, and having seen it in others, helps me understand that being aware that you might shut down is a double edge sword. Obviously, it makes it harder to think (the physiological response to stress), but knowing it's coming means you have the chance to prepare coping strategies.

The first thing to remember when working in groups it’s important that everyone accepts that it’s in their own interest to get the most out of each other.  We all bring a valuable perspective and it’s everyone’s responsibility to help draw that out.  Having good moderation can help but everyone involved in a project or brainstorm needs to give each other a chance. That’s not some kind of woolly ‘Be Nice’ mantra. Effective creativity requires all participants to accept a set of shared objectives and bring their alternative perspectives to the process. Moderators can help by providing space for different members of the group to communicate at a pace which suits them; but we all have to play our part.

There is no special innate skill or person who has the exclusive power to have brilliant ideas.  Everyone can be creative as long as they have the ‘space’ and safety to freely explore the problems and concepts.  Brainstorming has become one of the techniques that many of us have associate with creativity; despite there being evidence that individuals can be more creative (at least in terms of number of ideas) than groups. This is because even when you have more people involved, even when everyone is being fair and reasonable, we are still inhibited by social constraints. Ideas presented by others influence our thinking and that can lead us down particular directions; sometimes dead ends. If you think differently or take longer exploring ideas more fully before sharing them with others, even if you are not introverted, you may not get heard in a group. That doesn’t make your ideas less relevant or those individuals less intelligent.

That Will Keep Us Together

Don’t get me wrong Group creative exercises, especially well moderated with clear boundaries and objectives, can be extremely effective not least as it brings different voices together to explore avenues that alone we might simply miss. But we can’t afford to drown out the quieter voices and when moderating it's vital to give time for individual thinking too (and not just for Introverts).

Of course, as I explained to my friend, we can’t put all the emphasis on how a group creative session is moderated. And as if you know you have concerns it’s often useful to write down any questions and ideas as they come to you. Even if you never get the chance to talk about those ideas at the time, even if you aren’t happy with the quality of them, you will be able to see that you did have something to contribute. The more you do that the easier you will find it and gain the confidence to start to tell people about your ideas when the time is appropriate. That might happen quicker than you might think as well because, as I have found, writing things down gives you time to get your head around what you want to say.  It’s a technique I learnt during PR training and in that case it was something that helped me learn to try to keep my responses short and to the point (so even extroverts can benefit).

Another technique from PR training I find useful when you can’t think of something to say is to simply ask people to repeat what they said. This gives you time think and of course that helps you feel more confident.  If your own ideas still don’t come, don’t worry there is also the classic technique used by consultants who have no idea what they are doing; ask more questions. It’s always possible to find a way to ask open questions about 'Who’, ‘What’, ‘Where’, ‘How’ or ‘Why’ for the ideas you are being asked to consider. The most curious thing about this approach is that this genuinely helps everyone because it encourages people to continue to explore every idea more fully. Even the person who had the original idea will probably find that the act of having to repeat it forces them to make sure you understand it properly. That may sounds crazy but when taken in good faith asking questions seem to work for everyone involved. Group Creativity is like a living creatures and the right questions can help us breathe life into the discussion.

These techniques may seem pretty generic and, I suggested, you may want to find more game focused ways to be involved in the creative process; even if you are still feeling awkward about your own ideas. When considering a game idea and you want to make sure you understand what it’s about why not ask the others in your team to think about the first time user experience. This forces us all to think about how the game really works and how it’s communicated as an idea. It forces us to think how players will actually need to interact in order to play in the game.  Another question I like to ask is how the team think they can make the game repeatable, meaningful and joyful. Think about what happens if you ask questions like that about game ideas.  These are exploring questions that we can ask with no fear, ideal if you see yourself as someone who is shy or otherwise lacking confidence. These questions contribute to the creative conversation and stimulate discussion and you never know it might be all that it takes to start to relax and then your own ideas may just burst out of you without you realising. I’ve seen that happen when I ask those questions as a moderator and the effect it can have on most introverted people (as long as you still give them space of course).

But in the end my advice was simply that it was important to “give yourself a break”. Sometimes ideas will come only when they come and forcing the issue will simply make things harder. If you are unsure about something remember you are entitled to tell people; and you are equally entitled to not articulate your ideas as long as you are respectful (of course). 

Breaking inhibitions is really hard stuff to do but trying is usually very worthwhile. 

Coyness Can Stop You

My Friend came back the next day telling me that they had read my email back and forth to try to understand how to make a best use of the advice. They told me how they were “shy and unconfident in anything”.  And that they had pinpointed their real problem was a ‘bad habit that when they can’t think of anything they try to push it harder’, making them more introspective and that cut them out from the whole team making everything worst. They did realise that they should ease up and start ask some questions to keep them in the flow but then had started to worry about how, feeling this way, they could practice their game design skill?

My reaction to this email was quite emotional as here was someone I had seen do good creative work in the Masterclass who clearly found it hard to value their contribution.

The first thing I said was to remind them that there is no crime being shy and to give themselves a break.  They have valuable ideas to contribute and when they relaxed about it during the Masterclass they had demonstrated that.

One of the things I talk about related to creativity is that being introverted is not the same as being shy.  My understanding of Introversion is that it’s more about the way some people think ‘inside their head’; which is different from Extroverts like me, who tend to think outside their heads.  I’m surprised sometimes that I managed to read a book without moving my lips.

What’s interesting to me is that Extrovert thinking (not necessarily just extrovert people) can often contribute most quantity of ideas and not just because they are loud.  Extroverts in my experience anyway seem to be able to firing off lots of different ideas rapidly. This volume increases the likelihood that the group will find something useful which they can later focus in on; something which resonates. Introvert thinking (again not just introvert people) seems to be different and requires more time for the individual to explore the consequences and the implications of that idea; and sometimes that lends itself to higher quality. I understand that this happens even for me. When I am in article writing mode I need to be alone and woe betide anyone who breaks my chain of thought; but place me in person with a group and I’ll quickly end up holding court (a very bad habit!).

Doing All The Things In Life You'd Like To

Once you can appreciate that there is value in all these different approaches, and that sometimes it’s not a race to be the first with an idea, I hope this makes it easier to feel confident to engage with teams and to use the coping strategies to give yourself the time you need to explore ideas without letting the noisy extroverts take over the conversation. Of course there is no reason not to get a head start and to think about the game ideas you like before you get involved and find ways to explore them for yourself in advance. At GameJams and conferences reach out and find people you feel you can trust and try to explain how your own game ideas might work. Even if as a team don’t end up going down that route you will have had a chance to express what you like. There is always value in preparation if only to build your own confidence in communicating ideas or to help refine why those elements work for you.

Understanding what you would like to make before you go to an event is also important to help you create a kind of design vocabulary. Try working out how each of the elements which define the kind of games you love (and want to make ourselves) function in terms of their flow and joy and you are half way to being able to talk others about them. More than that if you can think about the emotions you want to create as well as what you think you might want to add to vocabulary of game design yourself then you have the basics of a vision. The difference between a vision and an idea is that the vision is a way to navigate what you do in order to end up with the best possible outcome; it’s not a destination itself. This is a more flexible approach to thinking about what you want to bring to games and can help as a framework so you can more quickly adapt to new ideas and new collaborators.

Whether my advice was helpful or not, and I’m very interested to know what other people think!, what impressed me most about the conversation was that my friend was in reality already doing the best thing they could - getting out there.  I think that’s a brave act for someone who describes themselves as shy and unconfident. 


Oscar Clark is evangelist for Everyplay. To find out more about what Oscar is evangelising about go to blog.everyplay.com

And if you are interested in finding out about Games As A Service his first book is due for release shortly and can be pre-ordered at www.routledge.com/u/oscarclark and you can get a 20% discount if you use the discount code FOC20 before its release.

If you would like to attend the UK Launch party for the book go to https://gaas-launch.eventbrite.com where you can meet the author and listen to a live podcast recording with games journalists Jon Jordan, Guy Cocker and George Osborn.

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