[as yet untitled]
A blog type thing
In 2017 Austrian designer Klemens Schillinger attempted to pioneer what some were calling “nicotine gum for smartphone addicts.” His invention? A brick of plastic. I may sound like I’m mocking the thing, but there is an element of genius to it, especially because it was designed to mimic the shape and feel of having a smartphone in your hand, and even outfitted with ball bearings strategically placed to allow users (holders? What would the right word be here?) to convincingly mimic the motions of compulsive swiping and scrolling.
I wish I could say I knew about this before doing a little bit of research for this piece and claim that invention is what inspired this whole post, but I can only really say that I was just Googling an idea I’d had about why I can’t stop scrolling through the same fives apps every three seconds or play the same five YouTube videos on loop to sate my newfound compulsive need to have a human voice or some sort of background noise playing when I do anything. You know, the mark of a true scientist. Decide on an answer and then retroactively devise questions that make it look like you knew what you were doing the whole time. #unscientificmethod
Anyway, the point is: My smartphone addiction is just a “fidget” behavior. That is to say: My brain isn’t the entirety of the problem here. My hands are, too.
I’ve known I have a smartphone problem for a long, long time. But I was never fully conscious of it until one of the moderators at the accountability group I semi-regularly attend at Noisy Nest (I swear Noisy Nest is not paying me to say this, but seriously, check them out if you need some help with goal setting and sticking to said goals; they’re fantastic) asked everyone in the group to do an exercise: Sit for ten minutes without inducing any sort of external stimuli.
I couldn’t do it. I absolutely could. Not. Do it.
I’ve known for at least a little while meditation in the traditional sense isn’t really for me, at least not now; my brain is just too damn noisy and impatient for it, so I’ve had to develop different practices that I find meditative even though they aren’t really thought of, and really probably aren’t active meditation. For me, this involves keeping my hands occupied, and my high school days spent performing close-up magic badly for my peers in lieu of just trying to strike up a conversation with “Hey how’s it going?” or something similarly perfectly normal and fine immediately drew me to the idea of shuffling a deck of cards.
And it works; it seems to calm my brain down because I’m too focused on what’s in my hands and the task of refining a particular shuffle or flourish or sleight is involved enough that my focus becomes pretty singular and I can shut out the noise. Which is kind of the goal of meditation, right?
Anyway, really, earnestly attempting it one more time forced me to connect new dots. When I was just sitting with myself for a bit, it wasn’t just my brain that ached for activity. It was my hands, too. I felt like I needed to have something phone-shaped and responsive to my hands in my hands.
And so I realized: I could trick my brain into thinking it was getting what it wanted by giving it something kind of like what it wanted inasmuch as it was constantly keeping my hands and, to and extent, my brain, occupied. But it did so in a nicer, quieter way that was eventually satisfying.
And it makes sense. Addicts frequently discuss the value of replacing a destructive compulsion with a healthier one. Maybe there’s something to be said for the idea of finding our personal smartphone nicotine patches. It doesn’t have to be cards. Though it certainly can be; if that works for you, do it! But it could be something as simple as rolling a coin in your hands, or an actual fidget spinner. It doesn’t necessarily have to be anything that imparts a new skill, but that said, I can attest to the value of that aspect of my personal smartphone patch. It requires just enough mental effort to fool my brain all the more into thinking its getting what it wants.
Remember, our brains, smart as they are, are also really dumb. I wrote a whole post about that. They’re as easily tricked as they are prone to problematic habits. Which means there are ways around said habits that involve some simple trickery.
I remember when I was really little and I saw my dad shaving his face, I thought it was the absolute coolest thing in the world for some reason. I think it was mostly the idea that I got to play with the shaving cream because I was four so of course making a mess was my top priority. But I also, in my tiny, four-year-old brain, was able to understand that the razor was an essential part of the process, though I had no idea why.
So of course, I begged my dad for one. His solution? Take the blade off and give me the handle to play with. And I was content. I was convinced I was getting what I wanted.
That’s about how smart our brains are. They’re loud, they’re powerful, they’re stubborn, and they’re doggedly determined to sate their cravings even if those cravings kill them. But they can be tricked. Mine can be fooled by something as simple as placing a deck of cards on top of my smartphone, thereby exploiting both its stupidity and its love of the path of least resistance because why go to the trouble getting the thing underneath when it could just grab the thing on top with half the effort?
Why indeed, my stupid subconscious canine lizard brain friend. Why indeed.
Don’t worry about it. Conscious Brain’s got this.
You just go play with your “smartphone.”
This is something I’ve wanted to do for a while now. It’s a game review (skip to the image of the game title if my preamble doesn’t interest you). I realize my branding of this blog isn’t exactly consistent. Am I giving advice? Am I journaling out loud? Am I discussing the experience of being an audiobook narrator? A voice actor? An actor in general? A businessperson? A person in general? Am I suddenly changing careers and starting from square one in independent media criticism (no, definitely not that one)? What exactly am I doing here?
Well, first of all: Indulging an age-old passion of mine. I’ve always loved discussing games as an art form and critiques thereof, and it’s my blog, so why not?
Second, I think if I had to describe what my aim is in writing these seemingly disparate posts, I think would be this: I want to transcribe anything that I, as any of the aforementioned professions/states of existence, find generally useful in my pursuit of bettering those things. And I’ve become really obsessed with the idea of healthy recreation lately, and there’s a very important reason for this.
I have an addictive personality. I have never had a drop of alcohol nor experimented with any mind-altering substance not out of any moral opposition to these things but simply because I know how my brain is wired. Yes, there are those who would correctly state that things like family history, genetic predisposition, and data gathered from observations of my own tendencies toward addictive behavior are not necessarily a guarantee that partaking of these things will go badly for me, but I see it as rolling a pair of loaded dice. Yes, there’s a chance I could roll the game-winning double six (I don’t know a lot about dice games, so I’m just making up rules), which is already unlikely, but the dice are also weighted not to roll a six. If we’re being completely honest, there’s a nonzero chance of winning this game. But given the stakes and the odds, I choose not to play. That’s it. If you can enjoy these things in healthy moderation, fantastic. I’m happy for you. Truly.
For someone like me, I’ve had to learn to be very careful about how I enjoy myself. The parts of my brain that demand a quick fix are really active and borderline insatiable, and the fact that I spent the vast majority of my childhood wolfing down terrifying amounts of sugar and carbs while video gaming away so many hours of my life I ended up neglecting most other aspects of it is including school, romance, friends, maturity-inducing introspection, community involvement, and family, is a testament to that.
At that time in my life, I wasn’t sure about a whole lot, so maybe it could be argued that I, a kid, was, as some kids do, seeking certainty and comfort, and I found that those things when I was reminding myself that yes, indeed, sugar and carbs taste nice, often while wielding absolute power over some sort of virtual space empire or another (maybe an ancient Roman empire if I was feeling academic), which, come to find out, is a remarkably convincing simulacrum of existential agency.
But I think, especially given recent developments in the game world, like the controversies surrounding the introduction of Totally-Not-Gambling-on-Fundamentally-Meaningless-Digital-Paraphernalia-With-Actual-Money-to-a-Genuinely-Horrifying-DegreeTM to forms of entertainment ostensibly meant for children, it’s worth considering some potentially uncomfortable ideas about the standards by which we value our entertainment.
So I ask:
Why is “addicting” a good thing?!
That descriptor comes with warning labels for most everything that isn’t a video game/sugary foodstuff. Legislative wars have been fought to draw attention to the effects of substances like nicotine (and before any fellow game lovers that might be among my as yet minuscule readership dive for the comment section to tell me games aren’t drugs: I know. I get it. I’m not looking to be the next cynically motivated alarmist here; I’m simply calling into question our weirdly inconsistent valuation of a word). Whole groups have formed to combat the addictive effects of gambling, or narcotics, or alcohol. But suddenly, when we’re perusing reviews and comments for our next game, we’re actively looking for sentiments like “I can’t stop playing” or “This kept me up until 5AM 3 nights in a row” or “Trapped in digital rapture. Send help. Or don’t; I kind of like it here. Work can wait.” I was among those that would consider these indications of an apparent dopamine drip that keeps on giving hallmarks of excellent game design.
But seriously. Why?!
I can’t speak for every one of those reviewers or players, but I can guarantee that, were any of those comments left by me, they would immediately be followed up in my real life with “why the hell did I do that?!” or “Why can’t I stop playing?!” or “Oh s**t I actually needed that time I spent chasing the dragon to work on my actual life which will now be appreciably more stressful for several long, painful days while I catch up on what I would have otherwise had time for had I not done that” or “well there go those healthy sleep habits that were tangibly improving every aspect of my life that I was working on.”
The more I think about this design ideal, the more I realize that it’s a dopamine drip that keeps on taking, at least for me. Maybe a differently wired brain that isn’t susceptible to repeated overindulgence would have no idea what I’m talking about, but wouldn’t a game that demands you keep playing and playing and playing and playing until your recreation time becomes a new source of stress actually be a game designed to be un-satisfying? Food is eventually supposed to make you feel full, right? And the varieties that don’t are the really sugary ones that set off the same pathways cocaine does and ultimately harm you if you keep indulging in them, right? And sure, there’s always the question of personal agency involved, but the longer I live, and the more I think about and listen to experts on this topic, the more it seems like agency is best exercised manipulating one’s environment to pre-empt problematic stimuli (for example, hiding the cookies and moving the veggies to a readily visible place in the fridge) rather than calling upon what increasingly appear to be apocryphal willpower reserves in the hopes of going Life Coach Super Saiyan and “just stopping” or “just doing it.”
So this would mean that, in order to indulge in a medium I enjoy healthily, I would essentially need to prominently display the…dear god, I am not calling this segment “the Vegetables of Video games.” One, that’s not really an apt comparison anyway; I don’t think vegetables are a universal symbol of recreation, two, I might review more than just virtual entertainment at some point in the future, and three, that title is probably the surest way to convince myself and anyone else not to try out what I’m going to discuss here.
So, instead of attempting to come up with a catchy title (a mildly unsatisfying and possibly temporary excuse for which you probably already read when you read this post’s title), allow me to explain the sort of game I’ve come to really value, and what you can hopefully expect from both these semi-regular reviews and the games I discuss within them.
1. The gameplay loop must be satisfying. That is to say that, after a while, I want to stop playing. I have had my fill. The more I learn to healthily recreate with my activities of choice, the more I realize that a sort of built-in timer that leaves my brain going “cool; I’m good now” is a strength. It’s inherently conducive to work-life balance. Yes, there are plenty of great games that possess the mythical “just one more turn” quality. You’re (hopefully) not going to find those here. Frankly, as much as I used to love playing such titles on the regular, I just don’t have the time for them, or the associated smackdown with my brain’s busted reward centers that inevitably accompanies my playing them anymore.
2. Said loop must complete inside of an hour (give or take a small grace period). The point of these titles is that they feel like a complete experience that doesn’t eat a lot of time.
3. They’re probably all going to be games I really like. Most likely, I will, of course, not love anything and everything about them, and I hope that I’ll be able to give you a clear enough picture of what exactly the experience of playing them is like that you’ll be able to judge whether they’d be fun for you. But on the whole you should expect the sentiments expressed towards games discussed herein to be positive. I’m not working for any publication, which means I have complete control over the titles I play. I’m also probably going to be taking several of my actual breaks by playing these titles to help me write these reviews. Which begs the question “Why would I torture myself with stuff I hate?”
4. I’m going to break these into two segments. First I’ll discuss the overall feel of the game, including what I like about it, what I don’t like about it, the gameplay mechanics, the aesthetic, the general “vibe (and stuff)” for lack of a better word an actual games critic might know, and so on to help you judge whether or not this is something you might enjoy. Second, I’ll discuss what makes this uniquely suitable to someone with a busy schedule and/or tendency towards overindulgence. What about this game is satisfying? How long does it take to get that feeling of “I’m good” that we too often malign as “getting bored?” What gameplay mechanics do I think contribute to the satisfying nature of the gameplay loop?
5. These are most assuredly not going to be timely. If you’re looking for reviews of the latest and greatest, don’t look here. I’m hoping the value of this segment will come primarily from the way I’m going to discuss these games as outlined in the previous point.
6. I’m not going to give numerical scores, because, like I said, anything I discuss here, I already like, so I’d be operating in the 7-10 scale not due to fear of reprisal for uttering a word of disfavor, but rather because that’s actually how I feel about everything here. So even if I liked the idea of attempting to force quantitative measures of quality on the most subjective elements of the already subjective, it would just be redundant. I will, however, give a TL;DR at the end consisting of a quick, bottom line summary, as well as two categories: “For the Weekday” and “For the Weekend,” as these games may not be on the whole suitable for someone especially prone to the “must keep playing” mentality. Maybe certain game modes are great for a quick break, and others are best left alone unless you plan on spending an actual, honest day off on an extended play session (nothing wrong with that, of course; but I think we’ve all been through the pain and stress of the domino effect of a day off we didn’t properly plan for).
Anyway, preamble done. Hello, if you’re a new reader (and if you’re from the future, one I hope is inching ever closer to cyborgs and spaceships, and you’ve been linked back to this explanation by a future article because you’ve never read one of these before, you may now return to whatever review you were reading), hello again and thank you for your recurring readership If you aren’t, and to audiences new and old, I hope you enjoy!
So, if you read the long-winded “why” of this whole thing, thanks! Hope it fulfills its purpose! If you didn’t, I still hope you get something out of it.
Today's Selection: Void Bastards!
Part 1: The Game
Void Bastards is, without a doubt, one of the most stunningly beautiful games I have ever laid eyes on. There is a reason players and reviewers alike liken it to a comic book come to life. It is one. From panel one, I was immersed in its world, and taken by its thoroughly British dystopian cynicism. This a world of brutal corporate indifference, thoroughly stratified, despotically administrated, unapologetically bleak, and absolutely hilarious for it.
Rather than opting for the sad tale of a lonely, lost spacefarer scavenging spaceships in a desperate bid to survive a la Out There (its own brand of beautiful for sure, but a decidedly melancholy one), Void Bastards is a source of narrative pleasures as masochistic as they are sadistic. It is as much an exercise in enjoying the pain this game inflicts upon you as a member of its world as it is in delighting in the suffering of its inhabitants.
As I played, I was both fascinated with what fresh, senseless hell I was going to be coerced into enduring in the name of running increasingly stupid errands for an AI trying, failing, and utterly not caring that it is failing to motivate me with boilerplate corporate cheerleading, but I was also taking a twisted pleasure in watching just how deep the comically cruel corporatism of this world ran. It was a decidedly bizarre, morbid joy that only got more delightfully sick with every turn of the comic cutscene page.
But of course, it might help to know what exactly this game is even about and how it plays to understand why I love it so much, and why you hopefully will too.
You play as a prisoner, or “client” in true euphemistic re-branding of the awful fashion, aboard the Void Ark, a vessel carrying one million passengers charged with offenses that range from severe enough to understandably warrant some form of reprisal (like “detonation of an explosive device in a public area”), to the unsettlingly petty given their punishment (such as “failure to pay cafeteria bill”) to the completely bonkers (“breaking warranty on mobile phone” comes to mind).
All are equal in the eyes of the mega-conglomerates that rule the stars. All must be subject to “dehydration.”
Yes, clients are stored for transit by being desiccated into powder and sealed away in packets. To revive, just add water! Boom, instant gofer for BACS, the impeccably voice acted artificial intelligence determined to navigate the Ark through the Sargasso Nebula, the spaceborne fogbank of derelict vessels, ruthless pirates, gargantuan space monsters, and mutant horrors in which the ship has somehow gotten lost.
Your goal? Hop from vessel to vessel salvaging whatever random crap BACS asks for, knowing full well that everything you do is in service to the greater objective of escaping the nebula and seeking safe harbor in…space prison.
And if you die, perhaps impaled on the spiky growths fired from the hulking, twisted form of what was once a security guard, or blasted to paste by the detonation of one of the many fedora-clad slug beasts that were once just especially demanding passengers? No problem. There are 999,999 more of you waiting to be rehydrated. Whatever equipment you’ve gathered will be passed on to them, and they’ll continue your mission, reassured delightfully unconvincingly by a prim and proper AI that sees you as nothing more than a squishy means to its grim end that you somehow matter.
And that, strange as it sounds, is all part of the fun.
This is a game that dares to imagine a future in which life is so thoroughly, pointlessly, regimented by corporate overlords, and so irredeemably hollow and miserable as a result, that the only rational response is to laugh at it. Lest you go wonderfully, beautifully insane.
I’m not a reviewer with years of experience (or really a reviewer at all), and I don’t fancy myself a particularly amazing player, but I can say that, but for a few questionable moments when I was somehow shot by a gun turret despite being completely obscured from its line of fire by a wall, any instances of complaints about gameplay were virtually nonexistent. Each weapon feels unique to wield, devising tactics to either avoid or, if necessary, murder citizens (the game’s similarly lovely euphemism for those unfortunate Sargasso denizens warped into monsters by prolonged exposure to whatever is going on in the nebula) is a compelling challenge that never fails to satisfy when you succeed.
The metagame, building up an arsenal of improvised weaponry, from a cobbled together pistol to a makeshift cattle prod, to my personal favorite, a medical stapler turned grotesquely lethal shotgun, is similarly rewarding, and provides a real sense of connection from client to client. It was fascinating to note how much each client came to mean to me despite how little each person matters to anything and everything in this game’s universe.
At one point, I grew especially attached to a character who managed to clear a frankly absurd amount of ships using tactics so reckless there was no reason she should have lived that long. Coupled with the gameplay-altering traits the game assigns them, traits often relevant to the character’s “crime (for example, being arrested for running in a CNT facility often comes with a trait that enhances the client’s running speed),” it’s shockingly easy to anthropomorphize them in a way that makes the game that much more fun. And with that, I must say:
RIP Harris; you shall forever be the giant upon whose shoulders my eventual escapee (she ended up being named “Allen;” she had a cybernetic jaw and was cool) will stand.
This effect was so pronounced, I actually resented Harris’s immediate replacement, and I’m ashamed to admit I might have been a little bit glad when she finally died. Sorry, King. You didn’t do anything wrong. You just weren’t Harris. But at least I got Allen out of the deal, so your death wasn’t for nothing.
Part 2: What makes this a good break for the busy?
First, this game makes a narratively understandable use of an oft-maligned gameplay mechanic: timed missions. Anybody who grew up in the 90s like me probably remembers just how overused this idea was. Why did Mario only have 10 minutes to reach the flagpole, Nintendo?! Huh?! Was it going to explode? Was Wario gonna blow up the mushroom kingdom he expended all that effort to take over?! No! Stop it! It was often a crutch of false tension that just served to frustrate, especially when you reached the end of a level literally one second too late and were forced to start the entire thing from the beginning, fueling that toxic cycle of determination that compels one to complete the level because damn it, now it’s personal.
But Void Bastards uses this brilliantly. You’re exploring derelict ships. They’re damaged, stripped down hulks left to drift in space. Of course there wouldn’t be any oxygen on them. And of course that would necessitate a spacesuit. And of course that means you only have so many breaths to breathe. It’s a brilliant system that not only introduces an element of strategy - it’s often advisable to plan your route around a ship so that you’ll pass through the atmo module, where what little oxygen remains aboard can be siphoned into your suit, thereby buying you precious time to grab what you need, be it fuel, food, or that form BACS is insisting you need to fill out before the Void Ark can legally be allowed to leave the nebula - but also creates a gameplay loop that completes in a reasonable amount of time.
At most, your oxygen supply is going to last you 30 minutes, and that’s once you’ve really built up your equipment in the metagame. And most of the time, if you play well, you won’t need all of them. I was in and out of a ship in less than 10 minutes most of the time, having either grabbed only what I needed, or even, on occasion, utterly ransacking the vessel for every last valuable aboard. I should mention I was playing on normal difficulty; I found the more manageable difficulty less frustrating and thus more fulfilling; I’m sure many gamers can relate to a pathological hatred of losing compelling just one more run until we finally, after emotionally exhausting ourselves win, but ultimately either end our play sessions in a foul mood, which is the opposite of the point of playing a game, or press on until we win enough to satisfy our borderline insatiable pleasure centers, which is the opposite of what I want from a game nowadays.
This meant that I could get the full experience of exploring a derelict spaceship full of monsters, experience this game’s masterful world-building (the ship announcements are amazing and provide so much insight into just how comically awful life in the Void Bastards universe is), and get to engage in a fulfilling metagame in 10 minutes. I could do this two or three times and still have spent a perfectly reasonable amount of time away from work, and then return to said work having had my fun and given myself a much-needed mental rest. It’s brilliant.
Second, this game is not frustrating or stressful. Since death is so meaningless, aside from the aforementioned attachment, which is probably something a player can take or leave - it’s just something I enjoy doing - it’s not the sort of setback that makes me want to play until I win so I don’t leave in a huff. Death of clients is the point of the game. Seeing how far you can get is rewarding, but it’s equally funny when a string of clients drop like flies just so BACS can find itself that pen it needs. Because of this, I found the death of a client was as satisfying a stopping point as a successful raid. It didn’t matter which happened; both were narratively rewarding, because in their own way, both edge you closer to your goal. Even the horror elements are more fun than anything else because the game doesn’t go for jump scares. It goes for suspense, and in suspense lies strategy.
In true comic book fashion, citizens telegraph their movements with visual onomatopoeias, and over time, you’ll come to recognize that “STEP STEP STEP” indicates one enemy type, “STOMP” indicates another, tougher one, and “TAP TAP TAP” can indicate one of two things, forcing you to then listen to what the creature is muttering to itself to get a better sense of what you’re up against.
Finally, it’s repetitive. The whole game is just:
1. Pick ship to fly to.
2. Find stuff on ship you need. Or maybe die. Then someone else can do this.
3. Bring stuff back. Or maybe die. Then you lose the stuff but there’s other stuff elsewhere.
4. Use stuff to build new stuff.
5. Repeat. Or maybe die.
That’s it. And you know what? That’s amazing. It means I don’t have to worry about spending a bunch of time constantly learning new gameplay as the story progresses; I can just dive in, knowing exactly what I’m doing, raid a ship, maybe two or three more, revel in the narrative whether a client lives or dies, and then be done.
As I discover games like this (and I have a lot more to come), I’m gradually coming to appreciate a game that becomes repetitive after an hour or less. Because that means I’m satisfied after that time. I’ve had my fill. I’ve had my fun. I know what I’m getting into when I play again. And now work awaits. I am, well and truly, “good.”
The verdict: Aesthetically stunning, brutally funny, and just plain fun. If you’re in the market for a good sci-fi shooter that’ll test your discretion as much as your valor, this is it.
For the weekdays: Up to three or so raids usually do it for me.
For the weekends: Lends itself perfectly well to extended play but is often satisfying after said two or three ships. Enjoy either way; it’s amazing for both!
The Jack. The fourth-highest (sometimes third-highest depending on the game) card in the deck. I think most of us would be more than content to be the third best at something. So why the hell is the phrase “jack of all trades, master of none” used so pejoratively? Because, in true human fashion, we tend to bastardize the hell out of the original intent of pieces of wisdom.
See, my girlfriend has this uncanny reserve of knowledge that includes the original, non-truncated versions of aphorisms many of us aspire to heed, and the funny thing is, were we to know what these originally said, we would realize we are doing the polar opposite of what the saying is telling us to do. Remember “blood is thicker than water?” Yeah, the whole thing is “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.” To me that sounds like the status of “family” is, in many ways, earned, not assumed, and that the happenstance of birth in no way inherently entitles relatives to your reverence. You know, exactly not what most of us have come to assume it means.
You know what “Jack of all trades, master of none” really says? A jack of all trades and master of none is better by far than a master of one.
There is an argument to be made that society as it is structured now is more geared toward total specialization. After all, there are more people now and thus it is increasingly practical to rely on others to do what we can’t while we simply focus on doing the absolute best we can on the one or two things we dedicate our lives to. But you know what? Even if we accept that, I maintain that the third position in the deck is not only perfectly adequate, but often vastly preferable.
Consider what would happen if I, a voice actor, was an absolute virtuoso of the accent, the character study, the whatever-else-I-don’t-know-there-is-to-master-because-I’m-a-Jack-damn-it. But I knew nothing about audio engineering. I knew nothing about business. Nothing about branding. Nothing about salesmanship. Nothing about relationship building. Nothing about anything else. Yes, this is an extreme example. But the point stands. There are things that we can never guess would be relevant to our lives as professionals in any field that we absolutely have to know about.
How would I know the post-production expert I hire is doing a good job if I wasn’t able to properly judge audio quality? How would I know how to fix whatever problems there were with my final product if I didn’t know how to work a DAW? Or even what a DAW was (look it up if you don’t; be a Jack)? How would I drum up new business if I couldn’t sell myself? Or make a real human connection? How would I be able to run that business sustainably and legally above board if I didn’t know at least a little about tax policy and money management? What if I’ve got a friend who can’t afford to hire an engineer quite yet but has an amazing idea for a project and needs someone at least competent to ensure it’s presented in the best manner possible? Great! I can step in, help out, and do a favor, thereby generating good will and building a valuable relationship. And probably not once have employed my principal skill of voice acting.
What about skills that stereotypically rankle creatives? Like math? I love math. How the hell does that help me act? Well, it makes me quite desirable for narrating projects that feature it heavily, doesn’t it? It drastically cuts back on the amount of research I have to do for such projects, allowing me to make more money because I can not only get it done faster, but better than most despite the speed with which I’m able to do it.
What about my card magic hobby? I’m not virtuoso, but I can present a mean illusion or two. Sure it would be weird of me to break out a deck of cards in the booth. What purpose would that serve? None in that case, but: Ever come across a competent magician at a party? Especially when slightly buzzed? It’s a fun time, right? I’ve made amazing connections and friendships, both fleeting and lasting because of magic. My business is all about connections and friendships. Parties are a nice way to make them, especially those involving people in similar fields to you. Or dissimilar fields. What if I meet a math teacher who’s written a book and wants an audiobook made? Who better to narrate such a book than a narrator that knows about math?
What about writers like Andy Weir? You can’t argue that his knowledge of engineering made The Martian any worse. We appreciate Mark Watney’s genius because, but for a few stretches, most of what he does can actually be done. Many great science fiction writers come from STEM backgrounds. Not something typically associated with artistry (though it absolutely should be). Their books are revered for their accuracy and plausibility. Their books have inspired actual technology that we actually use.
But here’s what is hard to accept: Every skill you learn that isn’t your primary skill necessarily comes at the cost of time spent mastering your core professional skill set. That’s math. You can’t argue with math. But you also can’t let that fact deter you from pursuing the development of skills that make you happy and skills that develop you as a person. As an actor, I can say that the single most valuable thing I can do for myself is become a well-developed person. And I think that’s true of any profession. My acting and writing abilities come in handy whenever I tutor math, for example, because they help me present the material in a way that is memorable and fun rather than stifling. One of the best math teachers I ever had, the man that awakened my love of the subject, had a pretty extensive theater background, and it absolutely showed, and made his class so much better.
Yes, there are those annoying people we all revere that accidentally had the “god mode” cheat switched on at birth and can just be a “master of whatever they choose (if such a person is reading this: You’re not annoying; that’s just insecurity talking),” but I’m not one of them, and neither are most of us. And there is no shame in never quite being an ace, queen, or king, because you never really know what skills are going to improve your performance in your chosen profession in new and unexpected ways.
So if you’re a jack of all trades and master of none, just remember that, a lot of the time, you can be better by far than a master of one.
You may notice the lack of a comma. This is intentional. I am not instructing you to train your brain and then attempting to endear myself to you with a canine nickname.
I am, however, instructing you to train the dog that is your brain.
How is your brain a dog?
Our brains play at being unrivaled feats of biological coalescence. But they’re idiots. They’re motivated by the consumption of things that destroy them, they hate things that improve them, and they’ll make spurious connections between completely unrelated phenomena in a vain attempt to make sense of an entropic world their measly aggregate of squishy electrical components cannot begin to fathom.
And said connections bring me to Pavlov. Setting aside his deeply upsetting lack of empathy or ethics as far as his test subjects, the now-infamous “Pavlov’s dogs,” were concerned, his discovery of psychological association is both valuable and the reason for this post’s bizarre title.
I’m certain most of you reading have at least a vague idea of what Pavlov’s big contribution to psychology is, but for those that would like an introduction or a refresher, here you go:
Disturbing specifics aside, Pavlov’s work consisted of bringing food to dogs and observing that they salivated every time he did so. Had this been his only contribution, we wouldn’t be discussing this, of course, but where things got interesting was when he began to introduce a second stimulus alongside the food. He rang a bell every time he fed the dogs. Soon, he discovered that the dogs had come to interpret “bell” as “dinner time,” and he only needed to ring the bell to induce salivation. In other words, the dogs’ brains had developed an unconscious response to a stimulus unrelated to food but for its timing.
And that brings us back to training the brain dog. Our brains do the same thing. The American Psychological Association rates a dog’s intelligence as roughly equivalent to a human toddler, and while our conscious brains eventually grow beyond that level of intelligence, our unconscious brains, consisting in part of our faithfully immature amygdalae, never do.
They are every bit as stupidly prone to association of coincidentally simultaneous stimuli as a dog, our lives are a massive Pavlovian laboratory, and stress is a very real and very problematic potential association.
Throughout my career up until more recently than I care to admit, I have been a chronic procrastinator, and I still must very diligently fight this tendency more or less every day. And one of the biggest reasons for this is that procrastination inevitably leads to massive amounts of utterly avoidable and completely unnecessary stress.
Think about what this means. If you procrastinate on doing work, be it school work, paying bills, cleaning, or growing your business, when you finally get around to it, the task will be exponentially more stressful than it ever needed to be. We all know this. Most of us have done this. Most of us still do. And while your conscious brain knows that the stress induced by this tendency stems strictly from the timing of the task, your toddler-y lizard brain doesn’t. And guess which one fires off the good old stress response when it comes time to do work again? Hint: It’s not the one with any degree of self-awareness.
Which means that the more you procrastinate, the more you’ll come to view otherwise mundane and eminently doable tasks as more stressful than they actually are, the more you’ll avoid them as a result, the more you’ll induce the undue stress that comes with working under crunch (something else we’ll talk about in a future post. Teaser: Crunch doesn’t work and is stupid) at the last minute, and the more you’ll reinforce the cycle.
So what does this look like? Let’s use myself as an example. As a voice actor I have two very clearly defined workspaces. My booth, and my desk. If I induce excessive stress by procrastinating, then the overwhelming percentage of the time I spend in either space comes with a steaming dollop of cortisol. And eventually, I won’t even need the stimulus of last-minute operation for my brain to soak itself in stress hormones. I’ll just need to sit at my computer with Reaper open or stand at the threshold of my booth, and boom, instant flight response. Which makes staying ahead of schedule much harder because now I have to muster the energy necessary to tamp down the worries the screaming dog lizard that for some reason gets to dictate how I feel about stuff before I even have a chance to shake a can of pennies at it and tell it to lie down.
So what’s the secret? Well, anybody that says “just stop,” clearly hasn’t grasped the point of this article, and is beyond my help. Maybe one of you out there who does get what I’m driving at can make them get it? Because I really don’t care to. My point is, and this is one I will probably make frequently, we don’t exercise the degree of control over what our minds do anywhere near as much as we want to believe, and developing the humility necessary to acknowledge that limitation is key to developing awareness of our dumbest unconscious habits. Now awareness is not, on its own, curative, but it is the first tool in an arsenal of tools we can assemble to gradually dismantle the faulty lines of what could only very generously be called logic the reptilian dog-child at the helm of half of our brain poised to turn our mind into a needlessly fearful cognitive Voltron (whose catch phrase I like to imagine is “and I’ll form the stupid!”) upon working its way into our consciousness routinely assembles in an attempt to protect itself from nonexistent threats.
For me, an additional tool is exposure therapy. On my worst days, I’ll record one audition or a couple sentences that take all of two minutes or less to record, then step out, breathe, and repeat. Maybe take a quick walk, and gradually extend the length of time I spend in there until the scaly ball of furry idiot brain puts itself to bed.
I don’t know what tools you’ll need. Feel free to use mine if it works. No need to reinvent the wheel if you’ve already got one, right? But whatever ends up in your toolbox, the only way you can really hope to assemble one is if you recognize the problem for what it is. Until you do, you’ll probably just end up trying to pound nails into metal tables with the plastic part of a cordless drill, which not only won’t accomplish anything, but will probably just lead you to believe the tools you’ve already got are broken.
So know you brain.
So you can train your brain.
Hey everyone! Welcome to [as yet untitled], my blog about all things…well…me I suppose. At least all things I think are worth publicly chronicling.
I’ve always wanted to journal. And I’ve always sucked at it. My brain is one of those brains that never shuts up, and follows every tangential pathway it can, so the slow, laborious process of handwritten journaling has never proven viable.
Similarly, typed journaling has never really worked because I will always find an excuse not to do it.
But public accountability has always worked for me, be it the public accountability of a small group or the world at large (or rather what infinitesimal slice of it pays attention to my own, even more infinitesimal slice of it). So maybe if I commit to shout at a void that might have a receptive or, even more excitingly, eagerly awaiting, ear or two, I’ll stick with it.
I’d like to dedicate this to covering insights I’ve gathered throughout my career as an actor and businessman for two reasons:
1. Putting stuff on paper, or out into the digital ether, makes them “real” in a way. It makes them stick. Maybe if I start saying what I’ve learned, I’ll actually start taking my own advice.
2. I hope that, in some small way, it’s helpful to someone who needs it. I can really only speak from a place of “what works for me,” as the last thing I want to do is presume that what I’ve discovered to be a viable business or life strategy is universally applicable and in so doing ignore the life circumstances of those for whom said circumstances would nullify the validity of my methods. If it helps you, I’m really happy for you. Truly. If it doesn’t, my only wish is that something, somewhere down the line does.
I have a few ideas for future discussion topics, maybe even for recurring segments reserved for topics I’m quite passionate about, but for now, I think writing this post is milestone enough. Here’s to a long and happy career that affords the security we need to pursue what fulfills us, for both me and any potential reader. Because we’re worth it. #treatyoself #responsibly