Meeting Cara Ellison: Key Takeaways
I first contacted Cara Ellison in September 2017: I'd read her book ("Embed with Games: A Year on the Couch with Game Developers") and really liked her writing for The Guardian, Rock Paper Shotgun, Paste Magazine, Kotaku etc. Resultingly, I started to get curious to get insights about her work as narrative designer - a job title that certainly sounds very contemporary: what tasks and challenges does she usually face, and what originally moved her from writing to game design?
Apart from these specifics, I was also interested in how Cara understands creativity, and what makes her creativity thrive as a writer and narrative designer (showing her wide interest in the medium, Cara also co-developed a gaming TV-show for kids - "Last Commanders", released in 2018, for the CBBC - trailer below).
How Twitter hurts Creativity
When we first skyped, we also discussed Cara having left Twitter, where her tweets were followed by over 30k people. Cara very openly talked about the empowerment she got from leaving the platform - about her wanting to become less visible, in order to have more time in general - but also specifically to have more time to make mistakes, and progress through having made them. She was talking about creativity, and how it Twitter hurt it.
We finally met Cara's hometown in November 2017 - at that time, she switched between living there, and Guildford where she worked with Media Molecule on their upcoming title, Dreams. The conversation ended up having two main topics:
- narrative design of computer games, and how she got into game design, as well as
- a broader discussion about the tech industries' struggling with how best to embrace the world holistically - instead of creating tech to impose on the world (which very much feels to be today's status quo).
Ultimately, this was a discussion about sensitivities, and against absolutes - a topic that emerges in nearly every of the interviews I've conducted for this project. The most creative people, it seems, are those who're the most open about embracing ambiguities - who are confident but humble, and know theur action's risks and potential gains.
Here are my personal take-aways from this discussion:
- Although you have to live in the present, don't imagine your future self in today's position, with today's limits: you'll grow so much! Cara started as tester for Rockstar North - and today writes for some of the industry's most relevant magazines and websites, receives awards for her game design work and care, working on a variety of projects small and large.
- Pursue your passion professionally, independent of whether you make money with it. Everyone expresses themselves creatively - and so can you. Do it.
- Storytelling helps us to be empathetic and understand other people's experiences. It helps us to have a common human experience.
- Games should be part of a healthy media diet: Consider all sorts of media that let you experience content and narratives - whether it's books, theater, movies, games etc. Otherwise, you'll miss out on so much!
- Computers can help kids want to read and write better, to expand their vocabularies. Find age-adequate computer media for kids, so they can expand their knowledge.
- Power of Failure: failure and mistakes are essential to creativity - in the interview, Cara talks about not wanting to hide mistakes, but instead wanting to feel empowered by them. While failure will always also be frustrating, know that it ultimately moves you forward. Don't be afraid of making mistakes.
- Be aware of the fine balance required to tend your public persona: while having amassed big followings on social media helps your personal branding, and will result in business deals that you otherwise wouldn't have gotten - it also limits your personal freedom, and can become challenging creatively.
This is a topic that a lot of successful creatives struggle with: have few followers, and it's often a narcissistic problem. Have lots, and your creativity dwindles.
- Know that if interested, the technology is there for everyone to develop games. "Hobbyist tinkerings" are no longer a futuristic dream - you can get started with your own game project today.
- There's still a very strong separation of technology and humanities, which seems very much based on today's universities' curriculae - tech teach tech, humanities teach humanities. It's important to transcend this separation, which doesn't reflect actual realities outside of universities.
This separation can even be seen as harmful, considering how tech products (Facebook, Twitter, but even the attention-grabbing operating systems of our times) are flawed from their roots.
- All media in a game work towards creating a feeling - like in a Pixar film, where you already understand everything just from the animation - even without dialog. Resultingly, dialog is often not the most effective way of letting someone feel - light, sound, animation etc can be way more efficient. Find those things in your specific game, or outside of gaming, in your specific medium.