Seeing what's really there
This blog post was originally published on the Develop:Brighton website on 26 June 2015.
I remember as a choreographer at dance school showing my choreography teacher my first dance piece. I'd spent a term making this dance, working with three dancers who were studying with me. This was extra-curricular activity but I wanted to make this dance and I felt good about it. So, in search of praise I asked my choreography teacher, Ingegerd Lonnroth, to look at it.
We gathered in a dance studio. I started the music and the dancers danced. I watched the dance and I watched my choreography teacher, my gaze flicking between the two. Then, unexpectedly, my chest tightened and my stomach flipped. This dance was not good. Specifically, the section I was watching was not good. And I was acutely embarrassed. How had I not seen this before? I looked across at Ingegerd but she was impassive. Had she noticed?
When the dancers finished Ingegerd said something supportive and encouraging, to them and to me. Then she said "Show me again the section about a third of the way through, starting from the upstage right corner." Yes, she'd noticed.
I learnt two things that day.
- That Ingegerd is a very perceptive critic, a skill I made full use of during my time at dance school.
- That it is very difficult to see what you have made the way the audience will see it.
When I look at a dance I've choreographed or a game I've designed the tendency is to see what I want to see, to see the work as I intend it to be, not as it is. Faults are ignored as my imagination smooths them over and delivers to me the experience that I expect, because I expect it.
My tool for overcoming this hazard is in that early experience with Ingegerd. Show it to someone whose opinion matters to you. Watch it with them. Imagine what it looks like for them. Imagine what they are thinking. Don't wait for them to tell you, don't rely on their feedback. Empathise and feel it for yourself.
In theory you can do this without the other person there but it is hard. I find that their presence, watching the dance or playing the game, and my anxiety over their reaction helps me to empathise, to see the work as it really is.
With my new game, Freak Factory, I have shown it to numerous people. Family, friends, other developers. In many cases I watch the screen over their shoulder, imagining what they are thinking and feeling, and I smile as my chest tightens, my stomach flips, and I add another issue to my to-do list. It's not traditional user testing and for you it may not work, but it helps me a lot.
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Also in the collection Lessons I Learnt as a Choreographer and Apply as a Game Designer