Tips On Surviving the Mental Landscape of Game Audio

So much great information exists on the business of finding work, the mechanics of songwriting, how to capture proper field recordings, audio middleware, etc. I wanted to contribute to a different aspect of the game audio community. One mentioned far less - usually in footnotes of articles about other things. I want to discuss the psychology of freelancing in game audio. 

Below is an analysis of the intrinsic psychological experiences you’ll encounter as a freelancer in game audio. It’s general enough for all freelancers (looking right at you game devs and artists). But it’s specifically for us sound designers, composers, and audio implementers. It contains some tips and encouragement for mentally enduring this challenging lifestyle. It is my hope that you’ll see parallels between my experiences and your own. This may help illuminate certain changes you’d like to make in your own work habits.

Me

For the sake of transparency and to hopefully help give you perspective, I’ll share a bit of personal background info. I’m not a psychologist, at all. I graduated from Ohio State University with my Bachelor's Degree in Astronomy & Astrophysics. I’ve been officially working as a freelancer in the game industry for 2ish+ years - have had some successes, a few nominations and a lot of failures. The majority of my experience comes from the myriad of bands I’ve been in, produced, and recorded over the years. Mental health is a topic I’m intimately familiar with and I’d like to share what I’ve learned with you.

Why?

The mental environment we embody as audio storytellers plays a tremendous role in shaping our habits. It deeply affects us as individuals, which impacts how we interact with others. This alone warrants a deeper understanding of how our brains work. But understanding it helps us avoid the various blackholes we create for ourselves. Knowing a bit about the mind goes a long way toward sustaining a fruitful career in freelance.

Know Thyself

First things first, I recommend taking a Myers-Briggs test. This one is free, insightful, and very-much in line with Carl Jung’s original theories and ideas. The man was eerily correct about many things. In a nutshell, the Myers-Briggs test is designed to inform you of your specific psychological preferences. In more meta terms, it is a description of the tendencies with which you construct your own reality. Be honest with yourself when answering the questions, there are no wrong answers. 

You’ll be informed of your inclinations in various aspects of life. Romantic relationships, friendships, career, work habits, parenthood, etc. Knowing your tendencies can do wonders for your state of mind. It will in turn have a positive affect on you as a person, which in turn will affect those around you. 

Above is a simplified version of the Schachter-Singer theory of emotion. Extrapolating from it, the important take away is this: events do not affect your mood, it is your perception of events that affect your mood. If your perceptions are distorted, your emotional responses will be inaccurate. Negative moods simply reveal that you are thinking something negative AND believing it. This is actually good news because it means if you develop the skills to regulate your perceptions (which you CAN do), you will better manage your emotions. 

Developing an awareness of your tendencies will serve you well when encountering road blocks. Difficulty finding work, frustration when your skill level doesn’t match your taste, lack of consistent income, unhelpful feedback, project cancellations, knowledge gaps, etcetera. Recognizing your habitual reactions in these scenarios is a first step toward viewing the world honestly and regulating your emotions accordingly. You'll develop a much-needed resilience to endure this line of work.

Free Your Mind

When you know how to listen, everyone is the guru.
- Ram Dass

You can learn from anyone - you can ignore 99% of what they say and still learn something insightful. This is also great to keep in mind when dealing with rejection, or creative criticism. Remembering that your perceptions may be distorted or incomplete makes it a lot easier to hear critical feedback. And since you’ve legally agreed (you signed a contract right?) to work for a project, not solely for yourself, but for a project, you have to remember that it’s not necessarily about you or your vision, it’s about the project itself. You are simply part of something bigger.

For the first 12ish years of writing my own songs, I look back and cringe at how over-protective I was of every single note. I had a hard time actually hearing feedback from people, even those I trusted with constructive things to say. Because I was so emotionally involved in that music, everything felt personal and it was heart-breaking to hear the tiniest little suggestion. It held me back and certainly convinced others that I was too sensitive and difficult to work with. One of the ways I improved on this was simple: I wrote more music. The more you create, the less precious you feel toward your work and the more receptive you’ll be toward valuable feedback. 

Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.
- Stephen King

I have since completely adopted every aspect of this great piece of advice in my work habits. Typically, I begin writing music mostly from a place of inspiration. I work on it, mold it, and when it comes time to editing, I seek out every piece of feedback I can from fresh ears. Then I go at whatever I’ve written ruthlessly with a sledgehammer. I usually spend more time erasing notes than adding them. This approach has helped me sidestep many of the personal insecurities that always come up in creative work.

Avoid Superficial Advice

Even with the best intentions, certain advice can be critically damaging when you’re starting out. Plenty of books written by knowledgeable authors offer valuable insight - not all of it is relevant to you or your situation. What worked for them is what they tend to recommend to others. How you interpret the information presented in these sources is paramount, because you will be constructing long-term goals based on this information. You want your thoughts to be as clear and undistorted as possible. Aren’t you glad you’re more familiar with your own tendencies now :)

The habits of 'effective’ people (usually famous ones) is certainly an interesting topic, albeit a superficial one. From time to time I do enjoy reading about the routines of various people. But I caution you not to try and adapt their habits under the illusion that it worked for them, it'll work for me. I love Alexandre Desplat’s music. But if I (hypothetically) read somewhere that his favorite instrument was the saxophone, and that information was presented in a way that suggested if only you liked the saxophone more, maybe you’d be a great composer too, I’d ignore it. It’s just scientifically illiterate click-bait, and the internet is FLOODED with this kind of vague advice. His music and career aren’t great because he prefers particular instruments, there are a million factors why he has the life he does. Some of those factors apply to you, some of them don't. You will have to adapt/ignore information based on what’s right for your needs and goals. Behaviors of ‘effective’ people aren't better or worse than your own, they're just adaptations to different environments.

By the way, you should really establish your needs and goals as soon as possible. You need a beacon, something you can focus on through all the ups and downs you’ll experience. Write the specifics down somewhere, a notebook, Evernote, whatever, just keep it fresh in your mind and available. 

 

On Stress

However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.
- Stanley Kubrick

There will be moments where you may long for more stability. A certain amount of mental risk is involved in freelance game audio, and not just the risk associated with financial stress. Whether we realize it or not, we are giving a large part of our time and soul to a very specialized field that most people do not understand. This can be isolating. Not only does this job necessitate long hours of solitude, but when you interact with others, outside of your niche, finding common ground can be a real source of anxiety.

There will also be times when you’ll simply have to sacrifice your social life because of your work load. I can’t recommend enough that you get comfortable with this fact as soon as possible. A way to help is to answer these questions for yourself: are my aspirations important enough? Will they keep me motivated when this job becomes really demanding?

Dealing with this stress can be challenging. One of the most comforting things I’ve ever read was in a corny but insightful book called Feeling Good. I imagine a lot of us have had this thought at one point in our endeavors: Why am I doing this? Am I losing my mind? Sabotaging yourself repeatedly with these questions is unhealthy, but it does provide you with the best possible evidence that you are not losing your mind: almost no one who "loses their mind" is aware of it as it's happening. It is a near certainty that this thought, and these questions are caused by nothing other than anxiety. Not some defect in your brain or some existential cross you must bear, just simple garden-variety anxiety.

There are practical things you can do to handle stress. I experience tension in my ears after long days of writing and recording. Every unwanted background noise becomes intolerable. I could write a whole book on noise pollution and the negative societal impact but it’s not going away anytime soon - so we need to find ways of coping. One way I manage this ear stress is to meditate. There are plenty of great sources (I use Insight Timer), podcasts, apps that will help you if you’re a noob like me. Most of them are free or inexpensive.

The Social Network

Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.
- Mark Twain

You’re going to hear toxic things, even from people within your specific niche. It always helps to remember it’s the statements themselves, not the person, that is toxic. Things are said in frustration and they’re not really about you (even if directed at you). People are weird. And that's cool, we all have things that we struggle with. You’re still the one in control of how you react. Responding to negativity with compassion by trying to understand their point of view, will always help you. And it just may help them as well.

Interacting with developers or directors, you’ll encounter scenarios where understanding your habitual thoughts will serve you well. When I meet with a developer for the first time, I have a specific thought that I always try to keep in mind. I don’t know how many composers or sound designers this developer has interacted with, but I want our interaction to be a positive experience for them. I want this creative person to have a favorable memory of working with me, because in some ways, I’m representing the entire audio/music community in their eyes. If I get lazy, or deliver bad work, or act arrogant, that has the potential to negatively affect someone else in the game audio community later on - I don’t want to be responsible for that. It would devalue our craft, which honestly breaks my heart just thinking about it. 

Be aware of what you don't know and realize this is perfectly normal. Our western culture tends to stigmatize people for not knowing certain things. It also tends to ignore learning potential. This isn’t necessarily common in game audio (this community is ridiculously supportive) but so many of us have diverse backgrounds where this negativity is more common. No one is born knowing everything. We are taught things, we have experiences and we remember some of them. Discovering new and original paths, by definition, means you will not know how to do them at first. Embrace the unknown.

I encourage you to join a group of peers with similar interests. One of the main differences I’ve noticed between working long hours at my day job and spending time at local audio meetups - everyone at the meetups is there by choice. Choosing to spend your free time discussing audio and musical ideas with others, who are also there by choice, is a very empowering circle to be part of. And if you have the ears to listen, you’ll learn from everyone. Think of it as a support group filled with people who ALSO care about that one scene in that movie with poorly-recorded dialogue that drives you nuts, or all those chair squeaks in the Star Wars soundtrack (which I love btw, fight me if you must).

In Conclusion

Opinions aren't truth, and nearly everything you’ve read is a barrage of informed views (mostly mine) aimed at understanding some of the issues we've all probably felt (or have yet to feel) at some point in our heads while working as audio storytellers. Take everything you read with a grain of salt. Take every thing I say with a grain of salt. Now that you're more familiar with your own mental habits, you'll be equipped to handle the negativity that holds you back from sharing your amazing work with us : )

If this information was helpful to you, please let me know. I’d love to cover more topics like isolation, cynicism, noise pollution, creative roadblocks, etc.. and will do so if this sparks any genuine interest.

TL;DR People are weird.

p.s. Thank you to everyone that proofread this for me. You know who you are!

Kyle Preston