train

There’s something intoxicating about long-distance train journeys. I think it has to do with the fact that, these days, it’s non-standard. It feels detached from the cattle-like experience of air travel: passengers enjoy a luxurious amount of legroom, there are private rooms with bunk beds, closing doors, some coaches even have exclusive toilets and showers.

But it’s impossible to deny that it’s also an aging mode of travel. Trains are no longer the fastest way to traverse great distances, and can seem wasteful or frivolous when compared to the speed of flight. Fewer people every year choose to take the longer rail routes, reducing the money spent on the service by Amtrak and the US government. Surfaces are beginning to show this decline through wear and tear—hinges creak and things made to fold-out or extend can only sag limply.

Opulence fades, which is a shame, and yet when you’re sat in an observation car looking out the broad windows at the passing countryside, surrounded by the laughter and busy-sounding voices of a group of people doing something truly silly, it’s easy to get swept up in the romance of it all.

Colorado

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I removed the Oculus Rift and returned to reality, suddenly very aware of how ridiculous I must have looked moments before. I was helping test a virtual reality game that was experimenting with extrapolating the physical movements of the train. The idea was to exaggerate the rickety to-and-fro of the carriage as you run across its roofs toward some unknown end. My brain was supposed to merge what was being shown in the VR headset with the physical motion felt through my body. When the real train shook and rattled it was meant to help me believe in the existence of the virtual one projected in front of my eyes. Throughout the demo, I was crouching to duck under tunnel arches, leaning left and right to avoid giraffes for some reason, and jumping over the gaps between cars.

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Train Jam is an annual game jam that occurs on the Amtrak train from Chicago to San Francisco in time for the Game Developer’s Conference (GDC) every March. More than 200 game developers, designers, artists, writers, audio engineers, and people with other game-adjacent skillsets come together from all around the world. United, they make small videogames to the backdrop of innumerable corn and wheat fields, snow-capped mountains, and endless deserts.

This is Train Jam’s third year and organizer Adriel Wallick is in full swing, walking the length of the train’s nine cars, handing out portable 3G hotspots, explaining to non-participating passengers what all the laptops and VR headsets are for. She stops rarely, but does so to drink in the atmosphere of the event she has created, painstakingly, from the ground-up.

It’s easy to get swept up in the romance of it all

“It means a lot to me, but it’s hard to put it into words,” Wallick tells me during one of the quieter moments. “There are times where I’ll look back at photos, or videos people have [made] about Train Jam, and my eyes just start watering. I just feel so many emotions!” Wallick is heavily invested in Train Jam, both emotionally and financially. She sinks a huge amount of time into creating the event, locking down sponsorships, managing ticketing, and trying to teach an aging organization like Amtrak just what the heck she’s trying to achieve. It’s this effort that makes her “misty-eyed” when thinking about it, especially when seeing people carry on the relationships they establish in the carriages on social media, or anywhere else. “It makes my little heart swell,” she says before laughing. “I’m not going to cry. You’re not going to trick me into crying.”

If nothing else, Train Jam could be said to be about making connections. The physical journey itself connects two sides of America; the endured proximity inside the carriages connects people; the games created connect the whole experience to people outside of it. Wallick stands at the center of all this, and yet she still takes the time during the event to speak with the other passengers and staff on the train. She explains to them what a game jam is, why it’s important. “The way I normally explain a jam to people outside of the technical field is that it’s very similar to a band jam—where a bunch of musicians will get together just to play music and explore their creativity,” Adriel told me. “For Train Jam, specifically, we take it one step further and put ourselves in a particularly creative environment that tends to be a bit out of everyone’s comfort zones.”

As people come around to the idea, she offers them a “Fun Meter,” a badge worn by all Train Jam attendees that has a moveable dial to show how much fun is being had at any given moment. Fun Meters become a lovely expression of inclusion and acceptance of Train Jam as a concept. They identify the wearer as being one of only 200 among the 26,000 con-goers at GDC. They also become a person of authority at the Train Jam booth where jammers can exhibit their creations at the largest professional gathering of videogame creators in the world.

Robin-Baumgarten

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I’m writing this piece while sitting in my cabin, watching Middle America pass by my window. Iowa gives way to empty Nebraskan corn fields, expanses of loam and dead stalks awaiting seeding. I can see for miles in every direction, the mountainous horizon only interrupted by grain stores, barns, and farm equipment sitting idle. Despite their desolation, these views hold a captivating beauty to someone from a hilly region with very few opportunities for such open vistas.

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Train Jam presents a dichotomy between the typical pressures of a game jam—deadlines, collaborating with new people, hacking out creativity—and the soothing rhythm of train travel. Most of the jammers work together in one of the two observation cars available on the train, their attention divided equally between their work and the views outside. Built into the very structure of Train Jam is the expectation that people may not complete their games. The journey is as much about enjoyment and creating relationships as it is about making games. Tied into this ethos is the fact that Train Jam is also about ensuring its attendees feel safe—no matter who you are, where you’re from, or your level of experience with making games. It employs a rigorous and enforced safe space policy, which is important because Train Jam attracts a very diverse crowd. A set of tickets reserved for underrepresented genders, and a broadly international attendance means that the games being made on the train come from a much wider set of worldviews than at most game jam gatherings. During the trip I’ve met attendees from Zambia, the Netherlands, the UK, Pakistan, Australia, the US, Sweden, and elsewhere. Some have come before, for others it’s their first time. All agree that Train Jam is a uniquely inspiring trip.

“It’s a very different environment to a normal game jam”

“It feels very cliché to say ‘oh it’s so inspiring to see the mountains and the fields,’ but it really is!” says Wallick as she looks out the window, gesturing to a lifeless wheat field. “We haven’t even gotten to the really pretty parts yet, we’re in the midwest right now, but soon we’re going to hit the Rocky Mountains with all the snow, and it’s beautiful. There are animals, eagles, moose—it’s just really inspiring and different and beautiful.” We sit, rocking from side-to-side with the movements of the train, one of us trying to conduct an interview and type up notes, the other awkwardly speaking into a voice recorder. “It’s a very different environment to a normal game jam, and that makes a lot of really good ideas pop out of the little hidden parts of your brain.”

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Walking through the train affords many opportunities to see creativity in action. Some people are busily tapping away at their laptops, a few wear VR headsets, a good many sit idly by the windows enjoying American culinary atrocities. One is wringing music from the bones of old Game Boys.

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After nightfall, the numbers in the observation cars thin out. A few of the teams have opted to work in shifts, some plan to pull all-nighters, others choose precious sleep. One team has set up camp in my cabin with a bottle of whiskey and a disregard for my neighbours. I attend what they refer to as “The Nightlight Lounge,” which I’m told started as a legitimate planning meeting, but soon devolved into frivolity and shenanigans. Some cabins on the train have a night light, a blue light that’s designed to not wake your cabin mate should you need to get up during the night. Awash in its blue glow with jazz playing loudly from a portable Bluetooth speaker, we drink and share together, becoming fast friends. We were soon joined by Campo Santo’s Sean Vanaman, who seemingly has a tracker’s nose for whiskey fumes.

Sierra-Nevadas

Train Jam’s connection with GDC makes it unique in that, not only does it attract game makers from all over the world, it attracts all levels of experience. Vanaman teamed up with fellow Campo Santo programmer Ben Burbank and a pair of students during Train Jam to create an adventure game in the style of the much lauded Firewatch. “We’ve been working really hard, but it doesn’t feel like hard work, y’know?” one of the students tells me. It showed. Theirs was one of the most accomplished games to come from Train Jam 2016, but that isn’t really the point. Sure, they get to put a game on their portfolio that shares credits with two members of Campo Santo, but they also got something more. “It’s all about making new friends. It’s been so great to share this experience with such wonderful people.” Separated from the larger world by sparse internet access, swaying to the beat of the rails, you can’t help but smile at your fellow passengers turning from computer screen to nature scene. Oh, and Wallick was right, the Rocky Mountains are beautiful.

Body photos credit: Izzy Gramp

Lead photo: California Zephyr by Cleapreso

Republished from Kill Screen.

Architecture

Yesterday I spent the afternoon casually strolling around New York City.

That sounds like a brag, but there are a few factors to consider. Factor the first: “casually strolling” is a euphemism for “this place is so expensive, walking around and being in awe at the scale of it is the most economical option available to me.” Factor 2: I’m alone in a strange city, without my family, my friends, or any pressing purpose to distract me from the fact that I’m half a PLANET away from the people and things I hold dear. Factor 3: The fact of my being in New York City is exciting to me, it’s an interesting place. So much to see and do, so many little observations to make about the structure of it, its culture and people, and the experiences I’m having. But every time I post about them I’m acutely aware of the privilege inherent in my being here.

There are a lot of people at home that would dearly love to have half a day to simply wander around New York City, without needing to rush home to the kids, get back from their lunch break, or get on with the housework. For those people, my photos and anecdotes are a series of barbs pointedly highlighting the fact that they’re unlikely to have the opportunity to experience the same. I feel as though I’m rubbing their noses in it with every photo I post.

Then, there are those for whom photos and anecdotes about foreign places are hugely inspiring. I have a friend that specifically asks for photos of other cities to help fuel their artistic endeavours. Some are desperate to soak up as much as possible about other people’s travel in order to fuel their own future travel plans. Others like to step vicariously through little windows into parts of the world they may never get a chance to see for themselves.

And then there’s my own motivations: I’m lonely, and sharing these experiences with people helps me to see them as real, somehow. Every otiose Like and Reaction gives the associated experience some semblance of legitimacy, inching me closer to actually believing that I’m here and this is really happening. And, they give me a connection to home.

So, I’m torn. I want to share my photos and stories because it helps some of my friends, but I don’t want to share them for the sake of those friends that find them disheartening. Let alone the fact that sharing these experiences has actually helped me to get over what I suspect was perhaps my first ever bout of actual for-reals anxiety.

I arrived at my hotel in NYC on Saturday at about 6pm. I had been on planes or in airports for more than 24 hours by that point, and was desperate for sleep, and food that didn’t come microwaved in a rectangular plastic container. I messaged Austin to get some suggestions for nearby places to eat, and despite a thoroughly tantalising and proximate response, I opted to get (what turned out to be just powerfully average) room service. I did this because the very thought of interacting with anyone in person at that time was more than I could bear.

I’m generally fairly outgoing and sociable. Sure, I get nervous and awkward around people I don’t know sometimes, but for the most part I’m okay with meeting people and doing the small-talk thing, but this time it was all just too much. I was here, in New York City, looking out at the incredible architecture and vibrancy of the place, and yet I couldn’t muster even an ounce of enthusiasm.

This feeling was alien to me. I was in New York! But Amy wasn’t. There was so much to go do and see! But no-one to share it with. I wanted to do everything but it’s expensive and it feels wasteful to spend money on experiences I can’t share with others.

On Sunday morning I arose, showered, and went downstairs for the complimentary “continental breakfast” included in my hotel costs. This consisted of bagels, doughnuts, pastries, glazed doughnuts, and two types of terrible coffee. I had a bagel, because bagels are great, and retreated to my room. The day was mine to do with as I wished, but I felt trapped by my dumb brain. The constant pressure to fill my day with excitement was mirrored by the pressure of having a lot of work still left to get done, and the fact that I felt so out of place and alone. I decided to get some work done to alleviate that pressure somewhat. I worked away for a couple of hours, at which point my caffeine addiction proved a boon.

Stumptown

My work was slowing down as my jet lag and lack of caffeine got the better of me, and I was forced to investigate my options. As luck would have it, there was a Stumptown less than a block from my hotel. My desire for good coffee, coffee that reminded me of home, was what eventually drove me out of my sullen, anxious stupor and out into the wintery New York morning. With a familiar espresso-based beverage in hand, rather than the standard drip filtered coffee available in most of the country, I ventured out into the city to see what I could see.

I walked for 18 blocks, just marvelling at the simple fact of being there. I watched the interactions of passers-by, drank in the salty-savoury smell of hotdog stands, listened to the detached and practiced pleas of the homeless, and pondered how so many desperate people were making ends meet in such an expensive city. The place is just lousy with knock-off electronics stores and the like, awash in the neon shadow of grotesque lightshows advertising businesses worth innumerable orders of magnitude more. Skyscrapers full of men in suits, towering over the people dressed in layers, sleeping on sewer grates for warmth. The unflappable optimism of Broadway musical theatre, contrasted against the desperate men and women bussing tables waiting for their big break on the stage.

I had an hour to kill before going to see Avenue Q in an off-Broadway theatre in Hell’s Kitchen, so I sat down for a bite to eat in a small café next door. I was desperate for conversation after a day alone with my thoughts, and got to talking to the gentleman behind the bar. We compared countries, customs, and experiences, and eventually got to talking about tipping. I was confused as to how it worked when using a credit card to pay. During his explanation, he admitted that he earned $5 per hour for his work. Five dollars. Per hour. Now, this could have been a ploy to engender a larger tip from me, but nevertheless it got me thinking again about privilege. Here I was, drinking a martini, and about to go and throw more than he would earn in 10 working hours at two hours of entertainment.

Times Square

New York City is a strange place, full of large and small dichotomies that speak fairly directly to the nature of western society. The small slice of it I’ve seen is full of beauty and ingenuity, decrepitude and destitution. It embodies the idea of “the land of opportunity” that so many films and books have portrayed, in that by simply standing in place and turning full circle, you can observe people living their lives at the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. I feel and am privileged to have had a chance to visit, and feel thankful that my home is nothing like it. But equally, I know I’ll be sad to have left. What a strange place.

Hello, my name is Jason Imms and I am an idiot.

I do, say, and think silly things all the time. My feelings and thoughts on, well, any subject at all are very much my own and founded by my experience of the world and the people around me. I am a human person, much like any other. I am a thirty-something straight white male, who enjoys spending time with his family and friends, and plays a lot of video games. I didn’t finish my university degree, and as such generally assume that I mustn’t be particularly intelligent.

I am powerfully, overwhelmingly average.

These are the noises my brain makes at me on a regular basis. They are the sort of noises that many people’s brains make at them whenever they consider doing anything remotely creative or risky. They are the anchors that keep us in place, stagnant. They breed comfortable complacency, ultimately leading to the discontent and regret of a life unseasoned by – to quote Ms. Frizzle – taking chances and making mistakes.

When I was 16 I attended Elizabeth College. I studied things that I thought I could pass, as opposed to things that would challenge me or take me out of my comfort zone. I would look forward to free periods and skiving off into the city for cheap pizza. I would do the bare minimum on assignments, and just generally not live up to my potential. In my downtime, I would consume films, TV shows, books, and video games and discard them without learning from them.

If time travel were possible, I would love to go back and tell my 16 year-old self that one day he would get to play video games for a living. That one day he would get to write about one of the things he’s most passionate about. That he would be passionate about something! That in 2016, he would return to that place as a guest lecturer, speaking to around 50 students from a newly-minted game development course about the Australian games industry, critical analysis, and the importance of learning to truly appreciate creative works.

One of my favourite things about working as a games journalist is the fact that I get to dive deep into the games I’m playing to find interesting ways of writing about them. I learned to do this as a function of necessity – if I didn’t find interesting and different ways to respond to games, I wouldn’t get commissions to cover them. The result is I’ve learned that the critical analysis of content is not only interesting, it has allowed me to glean more enjoyment from the content I consume. Subsequently, I spent a significant portion of time during my second lecture talking about Mad Max: Fury Road and how it is The Citizen Kane of Movies.

Speaking at Elizabeth College was thoroughly enjoyable. I have previously spoken to high school students about video games, and it was interesting to note the differences. During my first lecture, it was quite difficult to get the college-age students to respond to open questions, or to ask questions of their own. I put this down to normal teenage anxieties about ridicule and standing out, but I still decided to spend some time planning ways to make my second talk more approachable.

The first lecture was very much about delivering information. I was asked to brief the students on the current state of the Australian games industry, and on the mobile market. My second lecture was to be about my job as a games journalist, critical analysis, and media appreciation. For the second talk, I incorporated some discussions that would allow us to argue with one another about objectivity and subjectivity, how games should be reviewed, whether or not the people that want reviews to have numeric scores are idiots, and we played two rousing rounds of the wonderful Push Me Pull You. By the end of the lecture, students were quite happily raising their hands to engage, and a few came up afterwards to ask further questions and seek advice.

Bullet Farmer

The slide on Mad Max: Fury Road, aside from being an excuse for me to talk about one of my favourite films, was a chance to show the students that there is more to a creative work than you may realise at first glance. At the superficial level, Fury Road is just one big post-apocalyptic car chase, with explosions, a flamethrower/guitar combo, and some rad cars. But, with just a little bit of thinking you can start to see that there’s a lot more to experience. Did you ever think about the fact that Max isn’t the main character of the film? That he’s actually just a lens through which the audience can experience the stories of the characters around him? Did you notice that the entire Mad Max series plays with the concept of fluid identities? That characters in that universe create for themselves entire personas based purely on their function in the world? Did you observe the Bullet Farmer (y’know, the guy that farms bullets and has bullets for teeth, a bullet crown, and a car with tank tracks) completely changing character – everything from name to appearance – when his situation changed and altered his function in the world?

Some students noticed some of that stuff, some of them hadn’t. Some of them decided that watching the film again might be a good idea. Some had observations that I’d never considered, precipitating my next viewing of the film.

This was a hugely rewarding and educational experience for me. Finally, something I am doing or have done has felt right. It felt like it fit. I didn’t feel like a fraud, or that luck must have directed me into a fortuitous circumstance. I felt that the work I was doing was of value, over and above the part where it earned some money to put food on the table. Maybe the stuff we discussed would help someone to find a way into the games industry? Maybe it would help another to decide for sure that the games industry wasn’t for them, and they could move with confidence into another field of study? Maybe they could see a future for themselves doing something they love without the normally assumed requirement to flee to larger cities in other states?

Or maybe none of those things happened? Maybe no-one was affected by what I had to say, and maybe nothing has changed. But y’know what? For the first time, I don’t care. I know for sure that striving to help young people find a creative career path is something that I want to continue doing. I want Young Me and kids like him to hear every once in awhile that you can take risks, that you don’t always have to take that next logical step in education or career, and that there is more to life than maximising your earning potential.

COqoOO8UwAA04ub

Spanning September 12-13, 60 participants across 16 teams came together for Tasmania’s first-ever statewide game jam: Tasjam. The themes of the jam were “Voices,” and “Access,” which were designed to evoke discussions and thinking about diversity, and the importance of having a voice and being heard, no matter who you are or where you’re from.

Tasjam was organised as a joint venture between the Tasmanian Game Development Society, and Startup Tasmania, as part of the Startup Spring festival. With venues in both Hobart, Launceston, and a satellite venue in Burnie, the event was truly statewide, and included participants of a wide variety of ages and skill levels. The event was featured in both the Mercury and Examiner print newspapers, and also on the ABC Drive program in both Northern Tasmania, and Hobart.

Tasjam was a huge success, honestly at this stage I’m still completely overwhelmed with just how well it went, how great our attendees all were, and the quality of the games that were produced! In fact, all of the Tasjam games are available to play over at the jam submission page hosted by itch.io.

Events in Hobart, Launceston, and Burnie went off without a hitch, which is pretty exciting for us, given that this is the first time that we’ve run a game jam. We had 60 participants across 16 teams, and a large number of observers dropping by in both Hobart and Launceston just to see what it was all about. This included Minister Michael Ferguson, who went on to speak of highly of the event, and the full Startup Spring festival, during standing parliament. Thanks for your support, Minister Ferguson!

Minister Michael Ferguson

I think my favourite thing about the event was the inclusion of the Hobart CoderDojo team, helmed by John Dalton and Ruth Howard. Ruth and John project managed a team of 8-12 year olds to produce Quest for the Lost Voices, a game about a world held together by music, which has since fractured. The player is tasked with gathering musical notes and finding the last recorded music in existence, and using them to return power to the machine that can make the world whole again.

054

The CoderDojo kids, Oliver Dalton, Sebastian Dalton, Harry Howard, Gypsy Polacheck, and Leo Wang worked tirelessly throughout the weekend, and eventually produced a game using Scratch which included a cutscene, voice acting, and a beautiful hand-crafted aesthetic.

All of our attendees were amazing, and have produced some truly impressive games for a total of 32 hours of effort. It was fantastic to have Secret Lab in attendance, both for their experience, and the fact that they immediately disqualified themselves for choosing to spend the jam working on a game that not only didn’t meet the jam theme, but also had been in production in the days previous. It’s great that they decided to come along to soak up the atmosphere, and provide help over the weekend. Thanks Paris and Jon!

The Giant Margarita team were on site, and despite having their game idea crippled by a technical problem, forged ahead and produced a game that found a new angle on the theme.

I’m really in love with the concept behind Josh Bush‘s submission, Voices of the Past. The idea of concentrating on an elderly person’s fragmented memories, and the fact that often the elderly feel that their voices aren’t really heard in the wider community is a beautiful treatment of the themes of the jam.

Many lessons were learned, and even teams that didn’t reach their self-directed goals have said that they felt really positive about what they were able to achieve, and the new relationships they’ve formed with people of a similar mindset. It’s late and I’m tired, so I won’t continue to go through the submissions from our other teams. Suffice it to say, though, I’m ever thankful for the efforts and attendance of all of our participants for helping to make the inaugural Tasjam such a massive success.

We’ve had numerous people asking when the next Tasjam will happen, and all I can say at this stage is that this thing was far too excellent to leave idle for long. Stay tuned!

I would like to thank our amazing judges and mentors, Kamina Vincent (Tin Man Games), Katie Gall, and Lauren Clinnick (Both from Lumi Consulting) for making the trip down to Hobart from Melbourne to be with us. I believe their attendance and the role they filled is something that makes Tasjam unique, with many teams praising them for their constructive input on design and mechanic choice.

mentors

I would also like to thank our volunteers, and my co-organisers Eloise Macdonald-Meyer and James Riggall for their efforts to bring Tasjam to fruition. Their endless wells of enthusiasm and energy are an inspiration, and I very much look forward to working with them on future projects in Tasmania and more broadly!

Tasjam wouldn’t have been possible without the support of our generous sponsors!

  • The Australian Computer Society
  • The Tasmanian State Government
  • Startup Tasmania
  • Surprise Attack
  • PAX Australia
  • Bitlink
  • Lumi Consulting
  • Tin Man Games
  • Mighty Games
  • Y’all
  • The Typewriter Factory
  • The Queen Victoria Museum & Art Gallery
  • TasICT

Tasjam_poster

Confidence

Generally speaking, self-confidence is fickle. We can sway from highly effective, confidence-fuelled motivation, to the depths of discouragement with little more than the passing word of a stranger. So much of our self-worth is affected by our reflection in the mirror of our peers, that many of us use ritualistic affirmations or mantras just to tread water, and some are forced to resort to a chemical bolster.

In my time as a freelance writer, the bulk of my work has been published online. This comes with a built-in feedback engine, but page comments are often little more than an echo chamber for assholes, so reading them can be tantamount to taking a bath in bad tidings. This depends on the quality of the community associated with any given website, of course, but Internet comments regularly present as an outlet for maladjusted monsters, hiding behind anonymity, with nothing better to do than shout at the world for its great many imagined slights.

When I first began releasing my work to the slavering maw of the anonymous Internet, every negative comment caused me physical pain. I felt every slight and correction to my core, and began to fear for the future of my newly formed career. Over time, I calloused myself to their stinging words, and like a fisherman in waders, eventually learned to stride through their murky waters without fear, dragging my prizes from the mud and silt.

By far the most effective method for shoring up one’s confidence is to seek feedback, but feedback is inherently risky. Publishing a creative work is an act of courage, like blindly setting forth on a path that is equally likely to be lined with barbs as moss. “Feedback is vital, I think,” said David Rayfield, my friend, and overlord of raygunbrown.com, in an email on the subject. “The obligatory ‘good article!’ tweet is fine but doesn’t really convey anything other than ‘I read this, and now I’m telling you,'” he continued. “One of the best pieces of feedback I had was for a live music review. It was for a Noel Gallagher show. Since it was for print, someone wrote an actual letter to expand on something I said I wasn’t sure about in the review. Not to criticise, but to say they enjoyed the review and help me with a bit of local history that they were experts about.” This experience really affected David, and gave him a serious boost in confidence, ” it shocked me someone would go to this effort (who the hell writes letters anymore?) but also that they liked what I wrote enough to help me out. It made me want to write more which is the ultimate result of good feedback.”

The feedback you receive could inspire your next great work, or send you forever into the slough of despond. The trick, of course, is to seek feedback that you are confident will encourage, whether praise or criticism, to pierce the blindfold and better help you to seek the mossy side of the path.

When I wrote my first article for a print publication back in 2013, I was not confident. My brief was vague, and this freedom soon began to feel like a noose. Had I overreached and strayed too far from my original point? On submitting my first draft, my editor’s response was “not bad,” and included an attached copy of another writer’s work as an example of what I should be aiming to produce. My heart sank. Confidence low. My initial instinct was to drop everything and disappear into a cave. Thankfully, common sense prevailed and I decided to sit down with both articles and take comparative notes. I realised that some of my fears had proven accurate. I was correct to worry that I had gone off-brief, so I rewrote my conclusion to better answer my introduction. Aside from that, and a few grammatical niggles, I decided that second draft was worth submitting. Confidence rising.

When that draft went to print, I was incredibly excited. I bought two copies from a local newsagent before my subscription copy could even make its way to my desk. I marvelled at my words, laid out for the first time in traditional print-format columns. I pointed out my byline to any passing colleague that would look, and drank in their congratulations like a refreshing draught. Confidence high.

Days passed. Had anyone even read my column? Why hadn’t I heard anything? Is it so bad that no-one wants to mention it, hoping that eventually I’ll get bored and go away? Negative feedback is one thing, but a dearth of feedback is a special kind of torture. The adulations of friends and family rang hollow in my ears, dulled by the social contract that requires them them to be encouraging. What I needed was feedback from an honest source, but how would I find it? If I had requested feedback, the response couldn’t be trusted; either the responder would deliver more hollow positivity, or they would feel compelled to pick holes in order to make themselves relevant. Frustrated, I gave up on my search. Confidence low.

More time passed, until a tweet caught my eye. A conversation between two people that I follow made reference to my article. I clicked to view the entire conversation, only to find that it was started by someone that I didn’t follow, who had hoped to pitch an entry to the column I had written for, but had read mine and feared that it was too hard an act to follow. Wow! Confidence soaring.

I was struck at how much I was affected by this unsolicited feedback. Before I’d seen it, my confidence in the article was so low that I wouldn’t even bother to include it in my portfolio when pitching work to new publications. Now, it tops the list. Where once I would wince at every unnecessary adjective and overlong paragraph, I now see some solid work, with quirks from which to learn and improve. My entire perspective on the article was changed by fewer than 140 characters, written by someone I had never met. Feedback is important.

I was initially frustrated by how much of an effect this tweet had on my confidence in the article. I worried that the opposite could easily occur. I was annoyed that there was no objective method for assessing whether or not a piece of my own work was ‘good enough.’ As a response to this, I am putting together Feedback Loop, a community of writers that wish to both give and receive high quality feedback to those that seek it.

Members of Feedback Loop understand that good feedback is hard to find. For the most part the best feedback we get tends toward the negative, especially from time-pressured editors that just need to get content published. Truly helpful feedback needs to teach the author to evaluate themselves, to be able to positively and objectively assess their own work. Feedback shouldn’t conform to arbitrary rules that turn positive feedback into a cloak for negative feedback, rather it should be designed to edify the author. Seek to teach a writer to view their work through the lens of the audience and the editor.

In closing I charge you with a task: if you see a piece of creative work that you like, please find a way to let the author know that you like it, and why. If you see something that could be improved, find a way to constructively describe how. If you know the author, find a way to give them feedback without it seeming hollow or obligatory. Most of all, when you are providing feedback on a creative work, remember that the author has far more of themselves invested in that work than they may know. Your words are powerful, please use them wisely.

Header artwork by the incredible Cal Skuthorpe, aka @buzz_clik. Go tell him how great he is.

Confidence

High quality feedback is hard to find, no matter the creative endeavour. In my capacity as a freelance writer, I’ve been a part of many a frustrated conversation with my peers about the fact that no matter where we turn, the feedback we receive is either wholly negative, or cursory at best.

These conversations happen with such regularity that we began to dub them “Freelancer Support Group,” and it occurred to us that it would be valuable if we were to put together a community of like-minded creators seeking truly valuable feedback.

The trouble with the feedback that we usually receive is that it tends to take one of three forms:

  1. Online comments – for the most part, these are either vitriolic morsels of hate, or positive but perfunctory acknowledgements.
  2. Responses from editors – Generally the most positive feedback we receive from editors is simply that they publish our stories with few to no changes. Aside from that, it’s either short rejections, or sweeping changes. This isn’t their fault, it a fact of the compressed time that comes with the job, but it doesn’t do much to help a writer to improve themselves.
  3. Feedback from family and friends – “Good job,” and “great post,” are positive responses, but ultimately all they really tell us is that they read the post. Honest or not, family and friends have a social obligation to positively respond to your creative work, which makes it hard to view it as a source of edification.

Feedback Loop was built as a response to this, a collective of creatives that believe that our current social framework for feedback is broken, who wish to enter into an environment where feedback is open, honest, and focused on building people up, not breaking them down.

Members of Feedback Loop understand that positive feedback is a key part of responding to a piece of creative work. It isn’t a tool to help soften the blow of the the more ‘important,’ ‘valuable,’ or ‘necessary’ negative feedback, but rather it is key to helping people to improve. We hold fast to the truth that positive feedback directly leads to creatives being able to positively assess themselves and their own work, to know their strengths, and to learn how to cater to them.

The simple way to do this is to ensure that when you’re giving positive feedback, you don’t just tell the creator that you liked their work, but why. Tell them what exactly it is about their creation that you enjoy, what it made you feel, what it taught you, how it suits the form they’ve chosen. Anything that occurs to you.

Negative feedback will certainly continue to exist — it’s important that we also ensure that people are helped to identify their missteps, but it will not be the cornerstone of the collective.

Most importantly, Feedback Loop is a safe space for creatives to make themselves vulnerable to their peers. It’s a community in which feedback is delivered with the sole purpose of helping its members to better themselves.

If you would like to join Feedback Loop, please send an email to info@feedbackloop.in, and we’ll ensure that you’re added to the tool that we use to facilitate communication. Come join us, and help us make feedback something to celebrate, not to fear.

Header artwork by the incredible @buzz_clik. Go and give HIM some wonderful, life-giving feedback.

Gratification

February 13th, 2013 | Posted by Jason Imms in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

After two unsuccessful attempts, today we were some of the lucky few to make it into Crumb Street Kitchen. I still don’t know how I feel about the implied need to queue up before the doors open, but the intensely delectable food on offer does take the edge off the frustration of being turned away twice previously.

On offer today was an eighteen hour slow roasted brisket, and pulled pork. At Crumb Street, you can order the meat du jour in 100g portions, and also have the choice of a few meals which make use of these meats, as well as a few sides. Between three adults and two children, we ordered 100g of each meat, two brisket and southern Carolina bbq sauce sandwiches, a pulled pork and home-made bbq sauce sandwhich, a pulled pork taco, and a few sides. This totalled a trifling $46.50.

What followed is now only a hazy memory of meat and happiness, but I can tell you that I will be back, and that the food I experienced today stands at the peak of my own charcoal grilling/roasting aspirations. I sincerely hope that Crumb Street Kitchen becomes successful enough to deal with the scarcity issue, and will become a permanent fixture in a city previously devoid of such necessary delicacies.

Detritus

January 16th, 2013 | Posted by Jason Imms in Opinion - (5 Comments)

The following began life as a Facebook comment, which then somehow turned into a manifesto. So I guess it belongs here too?

While shuffling rooms around at home, I had to PICK UP and move FOUR boxes of audio cassettes to a place that WAS NOT the GARBAGE BIN.

Y’know how it sucks when you’re moving house, and you’re packing up bookshelves and thinking “Ugh, the last time I even touched these books was when I was unpacking them after moving in here,”? How much more for cassette tapes, a technology invented to solve a problem that NO LONGER EXISTS, a medium that cannot be played-back by any device in our possession, a lossy simulacrum of music we once enjoyed and yet now scarcely remember.

Dear readers, shed these dusty media tombs. Free yourselves from the entirely self-inflicted burden of nostalgia, and make space in your storage room for some other useless piece of life’s detritus.

Animus

July 11th, 2012 | Posted by Jason Imms in Opinion - (7 Comments)

Today during yet another aimless lunchtime rumination with friends, I was spitballing the idea of a website that is not only entirely crowd-funded, but also crowd-directed. The site would essentially be a blank slate, with no inherent direction or mission. It wouldn’t be a site specifically about videogames, technology, cars, music, or world news, but it could be about all of those things. It would be focused utterly on topics suggested, developed and chosen by the community.

Users would be asked to fund the site through donations, in a fashion similar to Kickstarter, with every donation over a certain dollar amount garnering that user a single vote. These votes could then be spent to either pitch a commissioned long-form written piece on the topic of their choice, or to vote for an idea that has already been pitched. This means that the entirety of the site’s content would be driven by the community, a community that is engaged enough to pay for the content that they want to see produced, and they would have actual agency in its production.

Site contributors would consist of a dedicated team of editors and writers, supported by community members that wish to try their hand at writing pieces themselves. Users of the site would also be able to apply to write pieces that exist in the list, given sufficient evidence of their experience with the topic. Site staff would then work with these community writers, helping them by providing contacts, advice, stylistic guidelines, and an experienced editorial voice. Pieces would also be sought and published from well-known guest writers from around the world, obviously subject to availability.

The idea isn’t without its flaws, here’s just a few:

  1. Getting started would be the most difficult part. Users will only contribute to a site that they have confidence in, how would we initially build that confidence, and support ourselves while we do so?
  2. Given the generally acerbic nature of Internet feedback, how would the editorial team measure and act on feedback?
  3. How long would it take before the list is completely dominated by porn-related pitches?
  4. Considering the fact that money is involved, how much power would site staff have in dismissing pitches that were deemed uninteresting or distasteful?
  5. How would the community funding work with advertising before the site becomes self-sufficient?
  6. How would we encourage return readership? An RSS feed may prove frustrating, as the content would probably be incredibly varied and difficult to categorise.
  7. All that the site would be able to guarantee is a high quality of writing, and excellent presentation. The content itself is almost completely unpredicatble.
  8. Perhaps the funding side of the idea is crazy? Should we just focus on the community-driven content aspect? Aside from the obvious, there are numerous advantages to community funding:
    1. A community that invests financially, invests passionately and often vocally.
    2. Trolls and other malcontents would be discouraged.
    3. Sufficient community funding would negate the need for advertising, producing a cleaner, more pleasant site.

I’m still not 100% convinced that this is a good idea, but the fact that my initial dismissal has subsequently brain-wormed its way into this blog post, I can’t shake the feeling that there might be something there.

It’s a community-focused site, so I guess the best thing to do is to post the idea and see if the nebulous but evidently powerful “crowd” takes to it. Right at this very second I’m pretty excited by it, and I hope that you see potential in it too. I’ll post more as the idea matures.