Making games as a family taught us to ignore work-life balance

I quickly learned that the direct honesty that served me well as Art Director was a poor fit for business meetings. My producer would kick me under the table to get me to stop talking once they finally allowed me into important meetings with publishers.

“Time and place, Mister Stark,” my producer would tell me. “Time and place.”

The creative process is split up into pieces in big-budget production. Design is separate from production is separate from marketing. Messaging is tightly controlled. Non-disclosure agreements place a sharp limit on what we can talk about. Our opinions are not the opinions of our company.

My wife, Nicole and I had spent years absorbing the same AAA philosophy. We worked at the same studio, though our lives were still surprisingly separate. With four kids, the overlapping routines required to to drop them off and pick them up from school meant we didn’t actually travel to work together. And for reasons never explained to us, our company was adamant that Nicole and I never work on the same team, often keeping us on entirely separate floors.

To this day we’re not sure what they imagined would happen if we worked together.

When we finally moved to the beach to start our own company, Disparity Games, we did it with the same AAA attitude. We would maintain a clear separation between work and home life. There would be set hours for working and there would be time for family.

This has spectacularly failed to work.

WHEN YOUR HOME LIFE IS YOUR WORK LIFE

We started Disparity Games attempting to fit the often chaotic existence of independent Games development into a steady routine. We woke up at the same time each morning to start bundling our daughters up for their respective schools. Lunches were packed, school bags checked and homework frantically finished.

Once they’d left the house, it was work time. Nicole and I would spend 8 hours pretending that we didn’t have children and focus on making a game. We wanted our kids’ lives to be “normal” and we wanted our work time to be productive. No work talk with children in the house. No talk of our kids while working.

Starks working

In retrospect, this was always a ridiculous plan. Our work PC’s were crammed into a kitchen corner, literally overlapping the family spaces. Our kids loved video games and wanted to talk about what we did all day. We’d have long work conversations over dinner that inevitably ended with arguing over the fact that we shouldn’t be talking about work.

Real life constantly interrupted development with a succession of school events or sick children requiring one or both of our attention. We’d get frustrated and upset. This was work time. What was life doing intruding on our work time? It became impossible to put the two aspects of our life into discrete compartments.

All the marketing jargon that I’d absorbed during my time in AAA development was equally ineffective. Our press releases were littered with statements that sounded ridiculous coming from a two person team.

“Disparity Games is proud to announce…”

Who was Disparity Games? Why did we expect people to know who Disparity Games was when we obviously didn’t?

There was no singular moment when the answer came to us. It was a slow journey towards figuring things out. And it was a journey we made as a family.

FINDING AN ARTIST

Our second daughter Raven was 15 when Disparity started and she was just beginning her senior years at high school. She’d spent every spare moment since she was tiny either playing video games or drawing, so when she expressed an interest in contributing to our games we tentatively gave her some work to do, emphasizing that it was not to interfere with school.

We may have been indie game developers that had packed up their lives and moved to the beach but we were determined to be sensible parents. Our irresponsible career choices weren’t going to interfere with our daughter’s future. Raven was going to finish high school and “keep her options open.

So we gave her had no real deadlines and no real direction. We emphasised that her work “wasn’t important” and that she should make school a higher priority. This is a terrible way to treat any artist, much less your daughter, and of course it resulted in less than stellar work and an unhappy artist.

Raven was also miserable at school. She’d been bullied her whole life and by the age of 15 this had destroyed her ability to make friends or socialize. A packed school hallway is terrifying when you’ve been taught to see other kids as enemies. She came home every day scared and exhausted. She flinched away every time we went to hug her or pat her on the shoulder.

“I was just tired all the time and felt completely empty” she told me later.

Eventually we realized the absurdity of the current situation. What did “Keep Raven’s options open” even mean? She had two options in life — make art for a living or be miserable. We decided to stop keeping her at arms length from the business and put forward an “all-in” proposal. Did she want to drop out of high school, attend a local art college and properly work for us part time?

She didn’t have to think about it for long. “Hells yes.”

This finally started to turn things around. Real deadlines and proper art briefs pushed her abilities while I started critiquing her work like I would any other professional artist.

“I never finished anything I drew and it was interesting to be expected to finish things. It really improved my art actually,” she said.

Art discussions became a regular staple of dinner conversation. We connected her with other creatives in the games industry. Local dev events prepared her to be an public member of the team at PAX Australia. Helming a booth in a crowded room of people, lights and noise can be intimidating to anyone, but Raven rose to the occasion and showed a side of herself we’d never seen before.

“PAX was great! It was nice to find people that I could actually understand and not feel threatened by,” she said.

She’s since been interviewed several times and featured in a few major gaming publications. We’re proud of everything Raven’s achieved but sometimes worry that the attention is too much for our naturally shy daughter. When I ask her about it, her answer revealed her fears but also her maturity.

“It’s a bit frightening to think that my words will have impact on other people but of course I don’t want to live my life invisible and not worth that much in the grand scheme of things,” she said. “It’s an artist’s job to get their thoughts and feelings out there — even if it is scary.”

FINDING OUT WHO YOU ARE

When we started Disparity our third daughter Yukari was six years old and pleased to be part of a game developing family. Our work requires us to acquire a number of toys both advanced (iPads) and simple (LEGO bricks) and she was quite happy with her library of entertainment. Being able to watch anime and play Street Fighter with her parents was a happy bonus.

This all changed the night her school held a “geek” themed dance. In preparation she asked us what geeks looked like. We were honestly stumped by the question and told her that geeks looked like whatever they wanted to look like but they probably wore comfortable shoes.

Yukari was satisfied with our advice and set off to the dance only to find a hall filled with kids wearing obviously awful-looking clothes. Many of them had the letter “L” scrawled on their forehead in marker pen.

The effect on our little girl was sudden and profound. Yukari partitioned her life, determined to hide her geeky family from her friends. She stopped playing Street Fighter. I was no longer allowed to make jokes or “be weird” when walking her to school. I was no longer allowed to hug her goodbye in front of her friends. The word geek was banned from the house. She started coming home from school drained in a way that reminded us of Raven.

Kari’s path to self-acceptance took her through the world of board games.

She saw us playing Carcasonne one day and was intrigued. We taught her how to play, and she had a fantastic time. She also insisted we teach our selection of more complex games. She discovered she had a natural ability and enthusiasm for complex strategy and racked up hours of play time.

She was playing a game of Suburbia with Nicole one weekend when Nicole casually remarked how nice it was that Kari could enjoy a geeky hobby without worrying.

Yukari was confused. “But board games aren’t geeky.”

Nicole chose her next words very carefully. “Some people think board games are geeky, but I like them.”

Board games

Yukari froze. There was a moment of tension before she relaxed. “Fine,” she said.

That was that. She let all her anxiety and separation in her life go. She started playing Street Fighter again, she started to look forward to attending gaming events. She no longer worries so much about labels.

“I’m just a person who likes certain things. That doesn’t make me a nerd or a geek or anything. It just means I’m someone who likes games,” she said. “Even Chelsea (her ‘cool’ friend) plays Just Dance.”

She still recognizes the difference between her life and her friends’ life but the differences are a source of pride to her now, rather than shame.

“I get to test Ninja Pizza Girl and design hair styles. I get to go to meetups and play the games and talk to people. Most kids don’t even know where games come from. They just download them from the app store,” she explained.

She sometimes gets bored with our work conversations so we’ve started including her. We discovered that she has very strong feelings about us potentially getting a proper office.

“That would be horrible,” she said. “We wouldn’t be making things as a family any more.”

YOU CAN’T ESCAPE, BUT WHY WOULD YOU WANT TO?

Our youngest daughter Violet is five. Being part of a game developing family is the only life she can remember and she’s embraced it. She alternates her evenings between watching the original Sailor Moon anime with Yukari, assembling pets from rocks and art supplies or sitting cross-legged on the couch playing games with Raven. If asked she’ll happily tell anyone that she loves her family making video games.

I was surprised though when I asked if that’s what she wanted to do when she grew up.

“No.” she told me. “I’m going to get a job finding diamonds and magic rocks.”

She seems very confident in her career selection and we don’t try to convince her otherwise. It’s not really any stranger than what the rest of us do.

Our eldest daughter Alia was 19 when we started Disparity Games. She was in her second year of university and she stayed behind when we moved to the coast. From the outside she seems to have escaped the family business. She lives happily with her long-term boyfriend and is completing a Master’s degree in Speech Pathology.

She works part-time at a helpline service for abused children. It’s a job that’s worlds away from making video games. She helps real people in the real world, listening to their stories of horror and offering what comfort she can. It’s often gruelling.

But in between the pain that Alia encounters, she hears moments of hope. It inspires her to spend her spare time writing interactive stories of hurt and healing. Stories that are already becoming the beginnings of our next game project.

Alia’s a little sheepish about her involvement. “I’m really happy with my life and having a career that lets me help people. I’d just like to write video games that help people too.”

I guess there’s no escape after all.

Nicole and I started making our current game with a clear idea of what it would be —  a conventional platform game with a quirky title, Ninja Pizza Girl. If we’d continued keeping our daughters away from our work, that’s all it ever would have been. It was only when we stopped pushing our kids away and started listening to them that Ninja Pizza Girl found its depth and meaning. The game has just passed its funding goal on Kickstarter.

We’re sometimes asked how we manage to run an indie games studio with so many kids. The truth is, we couldn’t do it without them.

A few nights ago Nicole was being interviewed via Skype. Our office is more or less in our kitchen. Violet and Yukari kept running past and saying hello to the interviewer, having fun interrupting Nicole’s answers with answers of their own. Raven was trying to unobtrusively shoo them away while Nicole apologized and tried not to laugh. The interviewer laughed herself and said, “That’s fine. It sounds wonderful there.”

I’m absent-mindedly making dinner when I hear this and I suddenly stop with a goofy smile on my face. It is wonderful. There’s no shame or embarrassment, no line in the sand, no boundary between who we are and what we do and what we love. There’s just life and family.

Being sensible and dividing our lives into pieces had only made us miserable. It was only when we let go of our self-imposed boundaries and embraced the craziness that we found happiness and some kind of success. There is no home life, and no work life. There is just life. And it’s filled with games and love.

I’m currently typing this on an ipad on my way to a local convention where we’ll show off Ninja Pizza Girl while appearing on an online show via Skype while managing a Kickstarter campaign with a daya to go. Some might call that crazy. We just call it life.

(via Jason Stark on Polygon)

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