On Criticism: An Opinion Piece About Objectivity
Criticism isn’t a dirty word, when used properly it is simply a tool to assess a piece of work. Providing critique and advice to other indie devs is a great way to contribute to the community, as well as improve yourself; it will force you to think critically, and you may re-evaluate some of your positions in the process of writing. Used improperly, however, and you might just be hurting someone’s progress. This goes both for overly positive and overly negative critiques, and includes self-criticism. I firmly believe that when you take on the huge responsibility of critiquing someone’s work, it should only ever be approached from a position of truly wanting to help the person improve.
Being critical of yourself and your work can be really handy when you are trying to be creative.It can push you to work harder, improve your work, and not accept past mistakes. There can be a point, however, where it can backfire: In my case, I am critical to a fault. Being too critical is debilitating and has a negative impact on your work. You should always be striving to reach that happy medium between criticism and acceptance, for both improvement and mental health.
I went ahead and made a completely unscientific chart based entirely on my observations of people I knew from art schools:
On the chart, it is arguable that every level can have some kind of value. On the extreme-end of the less-critical side, if that is what the person is trying to achieve: there is nothing wrong with that. However, if they hope to sell their work, become a professional in their field, it won’t work out with that level of self-criticism.
The ideal spot, of course, is as close to reality as possible, combined with the ability to accept the level you are at as your skills pertain to your goals and the willingness to continue improving. Attaining this obviously isn’t easy and it can be difficult to assess your level on your own sometimes; which is why people look to others for critique…
Critiquing the Work of Others
I’ve known a lot of people who would pride themselves on their “honesty”. This always sounds like a really good quality until you realize that most of the time it was just an excuse for them to be a jerk. The majority of what they would say would be dramatically phrased negativity toward someone or something, and worst of all: it was usually subjective.
Let me give you an example of what I mean: Imagine you are hanging out with your “honest friend” and a mutual friend of yours walks in wearing a peculiar looking dress. Your “honest friend” immediately exclaims how “ugly” that the dress is and that it looks really bad on your mutual friend. If the dress-wearing friend has any objections to the honest-friend’s criticism, the honest-friend will then give everyone a speech about how they are just honest, they don’t sugar coat things, and this makes them a good friend for being real – so you’re welcome.
What your “honest-friend” doesn’t get:
1) They didn’t express a truth; they expressed an opinion
2) Using words like “ugly” is subjective and does little more than hurt feelings
3) No one asked them for their opinion in this case
4) They aren’t being helpful, they are just being hurtful
The same goes for criticizing all aspects of the work you see posted online by other indies. If you truly want to help someone or help them improve, then you necessarily need to be mindful of their feelings. This does not mean you need to sugar-coat things or give them undue praise. Doing that is completely counter-productive and I’m entirely against it. This means you have to work on your own interpersonal communication skills and learn how to give objective criticism. This blog post by April Klazema does a fantastic job of explaining how to develop this essential skill. I highly recommend giving it a read if you truly believe in helping out other artists, designers, and developers.
Make It Come From a Place of Love and Respect
Always keep in mind that you have no idea where someone is on the scale of self-criticism. You may think their work is suffering because they aren’t critical enough and that you can ride in on your horse, called reality, and get them to be better by slashing away their failures with your sword of hard-truth; but you have no idea if in actuality they are suffering from being too self-critical or even simply: they are new. You can’t assume laziness or arrogance because you could really over-do it and destroy their motivation altogether. You could rob humanity of someone or something great. That’s why sometimes, the best way to love and respect art and artistry is to separate yourself from your own emotions and posturing. Keep it objective and always approach your critique with the purest intent to actually help. Feelings may inevitably get hurt, but they’ll forgive you if you play your honesty like Frank, rather than Dick.
Why do I care about this so much? I’ll tell you a story about a time I saw a professor go out of his way to destroy a young artist. He asked the student to show him some of his work: the student did. When the professor saw the student’s human anatomy drawings were weak and inaccurate, instead of giving objective feedback the professor decided to ask the student what career he was hoping to achieve. The student explained that he would one day like to be a character designer for a game studio. The professor then told him that it would never happen. That was it, there was no “unless” there was no “if”, just a cruel and damning, “You will never achieve your dream”. Just in case you are thinking that this professor was fed up with a student who was consistently not trying, this was the first week of the first semester of an undergrad program. I watched the student get crushed in that moment and for the rest of the day he looked wrecked. All the thinking, planning, and bravery that it took to set out on that path ended in an instant and that student dropped out soon after. No one ever objected to this professor’s behaviour because they called it “honesty”.
The world is cruel, the internet is more cruel, and the gaming world is often very toxic. Let’s work together to create a community that is truly supportive and aims to inspire great art and games.