Sharpness +1

I am absolutely fascinated by this video.  For one, I’m amazed that someone decided to ask the question, “What Do Game Developers Look Like” of a bunch of Russian women.  But I’m equally fascinated by the answers.

Let’s face it, my fellow game developers.  We have a well-earned image problem.  Game development started off as the very definition of the garage industry.  And the traditions that fueled the industry’s rise – long hours, cheap food, near-religious avoidance of the sun – let’s just say that these aren’t habits that are conducive to side jobs as fashion models.

This may strike some people as a trivial subject, but games are a real business now, and all the lessons that get beaten into you during your first crappy office job tend to get skipped by people who go straight into games.  Appearance matters.  Whether it’s the look and feel of a game, or how long you go before washing your black t-shirt with a white game company logo on it,  appearance matters.  In the game that is your career, it’s entirely under your control.

I have a knack that my wife dislikes.  I am terrible at cleaning things, but I am awesome at straightening things.  If we’ve got company on the way over in five minutes and the living room is a mess, I have a great eye for picking the five most egregious things that are out of place and quickly fixing them.  (Vacuuming is never on the list.)

If you walk into an unfamiliar office and there are four identical cubes, three of which are occupied by guys wearing jeans and a t-shirt, and the fourth is occupied by a guy in a button-down shirt and khakis, who do you assume is the team lead?  Who do you assume has the most experience out of the group?  We make snap judgments on appearance.  They’re not the most accurate judgments we make, but we make them.  We can go back later and overwrite them, but not entirely.  First impressions are huge.

When you get up in front of a room full of people to speak, there’s a confirmation bias at work.  That guy is up on stage giving a talk, therefore he must know what he’s talking about.  Otherwise, he wouldn’t be up there! Now, some of the most talented designers, engineers and artists I know look like they’ve crawled out from under a rock each morning.  Appearance doesn’t change their ability to get their jobs done.  But each of the people I’m thinking of have been pigeonholed by their organizations in ways that their less talented (but sharper looking) colleagues are not.  Confirmation bias will have a thousand tiny impacts on your career, and you won’t even notice it happening.  Keeping appearances up is about maximizing future opportunities.

I do not recommend completely changing your wardrobe and approach to appearance.  That smacks of cleaning.  I’m suggesting some straightening. Here’s an exercise.

Make a list of all the people in your immediate work environment who do roughly the same work you do.  Rate them on snazziness from one (actively covered in mustard) to ten (James Bond).  Take the average of the group.  How do you compare to that average?  Let’s say the average in your environment is a low 5, (Jeans and t-shirts, mid-level scruffiness) try to envision what one to two full notches above the average would be.  (Nice jeans, button down shirt and a belt.)

Dress the +1 way for two weeks in a row, and take note of what happens around you.  In most organizations, that’s all it will take to start seeing some subtle but meaningful results.  Sometimes it’ll be blatant.  People will outright ask whether you’ve got an interview or some important meeting.  More often it’ll be subtle.  Make note of how people address you, especially outside your immediate department.  Notice how much people swear around you compared to how much they did before.

The first time I did this, I was surprised by just how dramatic a difference it made.  I remember thinking at the time, “how unfair!”  The idea that the way my job ability was perceived was altered by something that had nothing to do with my job ability struck me as wrong somehow.  But in time, I came to realize the following truth:  If it’s in your control, it’s fair. You may not like the rules of the game, but as soon as you understand them, you can be plotting a strategy to win.

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6 Responses to Sharpness +1

  1. Katie says:

    I have 2 points.

    1) The clothes we wear every day (or don’t wear if that’s your thing) are no less a costume than actors on a stage wear. If you want to play a role properly, you need to dress for it. It would be hard to take Hamlet seriously were he dressed as a surfer dude. Clothing is a costume, no matter what it is.

    2) When it comes to first impressions, I actually have to dress down to be taken seriously. As a woman, if I’m too well put together, it undermines people’s perception of my ability and knowledge. Fun fact, eh?

  2. Kelly W says:


    I work in the industry on the admin side. Numerous times I’ve had to have a talk with a co-worker about laundry habits, shower habits, cleanliness of their workstation. There have been shirts that have not covered bellies or shorts that have not been long enough to cover the dark sides. Your words ring true. But is it nature or nurture that creates these folks?

    • Nik says:

      I think a lot of it stems from the fact that at one level, game development is a meritocracy in a way that a lot of other types of work are not – you can be judged on your talent, based on what you produce – and you can let your work speak for itself.

      That works up to a point. And that point generally comes as soon as you want to advance in your organization, or at the very least, get someone to sign off on you leaving your unlit office to go represent the company in public.

  3. Dave Mark says:

    A colleague of mine (ours) tells a great story about how, every time he let the red streak in his hair fade out and his natural salt & pepper hair show, the team changed how they dealt with him. People would ask him more important questions, they would listen more carefully, they would wait until he was certainly done speaking before they would respond… basically a lot of deferential treatment simply because he no longer had a “punk streak”.

    It doesn’t matter how many times you say “it shouldn’t matter”… on a subconscious psychological level, it does matter — even to the most allegedly open-minded people.

  4. *nods at Katie*

    I’d love to see you expand this post to include the variations that affect women and other non-traditional game devs, Nik. In your example with the four men in cubes, for instance, what’s the assumption if one of the guys in a t-shirt & jeans is actually a woman in clothes of equivalent female scruffiness (which in generally not t-shirt & jeans)? What if the woman is wearing +1 equivalent female clothing? Can we even compare the male and female scales of scruffiness without wandering into the scale of appropriateness? Or does scruffy = inappropriate?

    I also need to take some exception to your bolded statement at the end. While I agree with the point I think you are trying to make – learn the rules if you want to win – it is demonstrably not true that “if it is within your control, it’s fair”. If it’s within your control, you can control it to your benefit or not as you choose – and that is important to recognize! – but that doesn’t make it fair.

    Example: A transwoman who conceals her identity to pass as a male at work will be less affected by non-ability related judgments than one who doesn’t. That’s not fair. It’s a fact of life and something that needs to be recognized and dealt with, one way or another, by the woman … and I think that’s what you were trying to say. But it’s not fair.

    Semantics quibbles aside, I do hope you expand this article to address non-traditional game devs as well.

    • Nik says:

      I can agree with a bit of exception-taking at the word “fair”, but I’ll stand by the general assertion. If it’s in your control, it’s your responsibility, even if it’s outside of what you’d expect from an ideal world.

      Yes, appearance shouldn’t matter as much as it does. Yes, all people should be treated on the basis of merit and the quality of their ideas and character. But we don’t exactly live in that world. There’s a fine line between idealism and denial, and my point is to keep people on the right side of that line.

      I would love to comment more about non-traditional (and by this, I guess you mean non-white male) game devs, but alas, I’ve only seen this issue from behind one set of eyes. I’d love to hear more about other peoples’ experiences, though.

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