On life and influence and impact and death and responsibility and legacy and also videogames
At A MAZE Johannesburg 2013 a few months ago, I decided to do a bit of a different talk. Most of my talks tend to be about videogames, but I wanted to do a talk about “me”. About why I do this, and what the thoughts behind my actions are. I have often been slightly overwhelmed by the podium that I’ve been granted, and I desperately wanted to explain to the developers and people in Johannesburg that I am just some other human being, like anybody else. After my recent surgery, I felt now would be an appropriate time to post this online. While I normally am less prepared since I like being able to adjust my script on the fly, I fully wrote out this talk. This is the full script:
One of my earliest memories is being taught how to play chess by a man named Piet. He was chosen by my kindergarten teacher to basically entertain a group of annoying, bored kids. Piet would play chess with us every week, on Tuesdays, if I’m not mistaken. Piet would tell after another lost game that my strategy was solid, but that I was reckless and often didn’t consider my opponents thinking. He told me that even though I did understand the systems of chess, I needed to consider my opponent as an integral and chaotic part of the system.
We got our first computer when I was five years old, an IBM system with floppy drives but no hard drive. On it my father had installed a GUI that allowed us to easily reach the programs he needed, like WordPerfect and some spreadsheet editor. The engineer that installed the computer had refused to remove the ‘Command Line’-option, so that one day, I found myself staring at that C-prompt that many fondly remember.
My name is Rami Ismail and I’m one half of Dutch independent studio Vlambeer. We’re best known for games like Super Crate Box, LUFTRAUSERS, Ridiculous Fishing and Wasteland Kings. I spend most of my days coding on airplanes and in hotels as I travel around the world giving talks about games, marketing, the business of making indie games and community management. I want to preface my talk with that while I normally would just sort of wing my talk, the fact that I’m reading this is not a sign of disrespect – I only wish to properly express my thoughts to you in the best wording possible.
Because I want to talk about something slightly different today, because one of the things you become while traveling all over the world, meeting all sorts of people and seeing the impact of your words and actions, is existential. Actually, I’m not sure that’s true for everybody, but it definitely is for me. And maybe it’s more that in airplanes you have a lot of time to think without distractions. The clouds underneath definitely help getting all philosophical anyway.
In other words, I want to talk about life and influence and impact and death and responsibility and legacy and also videogames.
Vlambeer has changed my life considerably. Three years ago, like many that I talk to, I was an aspiring student with ambitions to become somebody who actually makes games, instead of studying books on how to make them. I was reckless, dropped out and started working with the one person that also decided to drop out. We never really liked each other, but Jan Willem and I respected each other’s craft more than we disliked each other for our differences. Vlambeer was born on September 1st, 2010.
Fast-forward three years and we’ve released 15 games and we’re about to release our 16th, LUFTRAUSERS – and we’ve just announced our 17th, Wasteland Kings. We’ve won dozens of awards, we’ve spoken in rooms that are as small as fifteen people and as large as three-thousand peering eyes. The press suddenly listens to all we say, and our opinion has slowly shifted from being the underdog shouting to becoming a significant opinion that people in all sorts of positions of the industry care about.
There’s no way you can go through these changes in life without changing yourself. All these events have given me a sense of purpose, a sense of direction I did not have before. They have also deeply humbled me towards my personal achievements.
I can see all the little moments in my life that influenced this outcome. I can see all the way back to the beginning of everything, since when not a single moment has contradicted my existence. None of my grandparents died before meeting each other and extending their bloodline to eventually reach me, which isn’t even mentioning the amazing improbability that they all met each other. I can see my mother meeting my father after she decided to go out in a faraway city some rainy Saturday night. I can see myself reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History Of Nearly Everything ten years ago, his introduction informing a large part of my life philosophy. All the way back to the beginning of time, tiny interactions, miniscule decisions, have led to all of us being in this room together. I can imagine my kindergarten teacher deciding to take a stroll and run into Piet, who taught me just how important empathy is, how a game is not whole without players. I can see the engineer deciding to not disable the DOS-prompt, leading me to discover QBASIC and GORILLAS and editing my first line of code.
I see every person that has ever shaped me, my thoughts, my ideals and my work. I see the indie developers that supported us over the past three years. I see Canadian Chevy Ray Johnston coding away at night to create FlashPunk, a framework we used to create our first game. I see the people that I’ve spoken to, the people that have had a profound effect on my understanding of games or life.
I do not see them separately, but as a cloud of influencers. In a way they are the things that keep my achievements from being solely my own – but I do not say that with regret or grudge – I say that with the greatest respect and gratefulness. Without them, I would not be able to do what I do. I am merely the final push in an effect that has been building forever.
In a way, existence itself creates impact. Your mere existence means that you’ve influenced millions, that you’ve made empires fall in the distant fringes of time, you’ve influenced the first emperor of Mars, you’ve inspired people and influenced their opportunities and thoughts, you’ve made relationships shatter and brought people together.
We often think of our influences in a temporary, dramatic way – saving a life, giving a speech, becoming famous and well-known – but we do not consider the unseen effects of our actions. There are many people that are not nearly as visible as I am that have been a large part of who I am today. Without them, I would likely not be standing here. But as humans, we tend to think that if we cannot see these effects, they do not exist. If our actions don’t make it to the history-books, our legacy is as temporal as the people that remember our existence. It’s an idea bred into us over centuries, the notion of memory as extension of our existence can be traced back far beyond Greek and Egyptian mythology.
Nothing can be further from the truth – much of our impact on life is hidden behind the chaos of endless variables, ripples through reality that are infinite and unending, amplified by any decision your choices informed or made possible.
In a way, I realized, this reflects in videogames. As a gamer, our actions, however small they are, lead to the final experience or outcome of a game. As a designer, our tiniest choices reflect on every aspect of the game, the systems and the experience. These are important ways to look at your game, the way your designed interactions affect both the systems itself, the experience and the player. Often, minor actions and changes affect the whole in ways one cannot predict unless tried. Life is not unlike that, although we are not the designer, but the player.
In a game, you have to suspend your disbelief. Let things engulf you, embrace the systems that govern the simulation. Life is no different, although it is governed by chaos. Chaos is not a bad thing, it is the random generator of reality – not truly random, but never entirely predictable.
And as any game eventually ends, so does life. Life being finite, death being the final destination we all share, gives us a limited time to make our impact as positive as possible. In a game, we try to further our goals as much as we can before eventually breaking away from it. In life, the goals are not set. The effects aren’t clear. But it is without a doubt a given that we all affect any moment of future reality in immeasurable ways, just by existing, and I feel we might as well try and make our impact as positive as possible.
For me, that establishes itself in how I try and make games that are new, creative and interesting. It reflects in how I run Vlambeer as a company, how I interact with fans and friends alike. It reflects in my cooperation in the Indie MEGABOOTH, or the creation of presskit(), or in many initiatives I work on in both existent and emerging indie scenes. It reflects in my eagerness to meet all of you, in the hope that I will affect you, and in the hope that you will affect me. It reflects in every aspect of my existence, because I want to be a force for good and get enough perspective on things to figure out how to best do that. I want to be able to make the most informed decisions, to most effectively spend my limited time alive.
Life is about making informed decisions, not good decisions. There is no such thing as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ decision, because there’s no way to make a ‘bad’ decision. What you can do is make an uninformed decision, but it’s impossible to make a decision that isn’t one that you believe is the best choice at any given time with the available data. As such, fear of making decisions is not a useful way to spend your time, while careful consideration is. And since your decision was the best you could make, regrets about the outcome of your choices are also a useless thing, although learning from mistakes you might’ve made is not. Hindsight is powerful, but it’s something that you should consider informative, not leading.
There’s a tendency to base our sense of self-worth on where we’ve been and what we’ve done, instead of what we could do. There’s a tendency to base our perception of our own potential on what we’ve done, instead of what we could do. Instead of asking myself what I’ve achieved in the past years, I often ask myself, if I only had five more years to live, how would I want to spend those to die happily?
And to be honest, there’s a weird realization in me, a notion that I will never grow to be older than thirty years old. It’s not a fear of death, nor a dark omen that terrifies me – it’s just that the time between now and then is too large for me to really think about. Anything after 2018 is simply a void, because I have too much to do between now and then to even consider what’s after that. There are so many things I want to do and see and achieve between now and then, there are so many uncertainties, that I’d rather embrace the chaos of life while I figure out how to best achieve the goals that I set for myself.
If you don’t know what drives you to do what you do, maybe spend some time trying to figure that out. A sense of direction in life, a grasp of self and a notion of reality can only help steer you to whatever destination you prefer.
As for me, I do what I do for many reasons, and those reasons are life and influence and impact and death and responsibility and legacy and also videogames.
It is the idea that I can spend every living moment talking to people and try and make things better for them. The idea that I can spend every living moment creating things that make people happy, or make people think, or that makes their lives easier.
I often end my presentations with the imperative to make games. While I won’t break tradition for this talk, I want to emphasize that the games you make are a result of ‘everything’. The more ‘everything’ you engage with, the better, the more informed, your games become. You are, however, never limited to what exists. You are not bound by the past, but given the canvas of the future. A future that, without you, would simply not be the same.