Thursday, February 10, 2011

A Defense of Mediocrity

So, my good friend Ryan Macklin had a great interview over at the Jennisodes about establishing an Internet presence. It's well worth a listen if you're curious about such things, and as my first exposure to the Jennisodes, it left me curious to go check out the archives.

What inspired today's post is a bit towards the end, where Ryan was given free reign to voice a concern, and he spoke about his hatred for the rewarding of mediocrity. His thesis, in my words, is that too many products which might excel in one category but utterly half-ass it in others are given a free pass and even praised as if only the excelling category mattered. An example might include an RPG with excellent rules, but which has not been edited and has been very poorly laid out, but his objection is not limited to RPGS.

So, before I lay down some disagreeing beats, let me make some key statements about what I am pretty sure he's _not_ saying.

First, he is not saying you need to break the bank on these things. Yes, in an ideal world you have the budget to pay for top notch illustrations, editing and layout for your game, but the reality is that it's expensive enough to just get a game printed in the first place, and people are under no obligation to put themselves in debt for a labor of love. Rather, he is just asking that each of the elements of production be given your thoughtful attention and genuine effort. To use layout as an example: the difference between a bad layout and a good layout is profound, but it is very rarely a difference of cost. It is, however, a difference in time and effort. It takes more time to read a few good websites on layout and fonts or to really go through your file to check how it looks than it is to dump it all into word and apply a few headings. Yes, great layout is something else entirely, but a good, solid, readable layout is something that is within everyone's grasp if they want it to be. Other design elements are similar - professional editors are nice, but just being willing to have your game be read by a non-gamer and, most importantly, being willing to fix it based on the feedback, can work wonders[1]. Printing can be expensive, but there are less expensive options. The point is, it's not about cost, it's about how invested the creator is in every element of his creation.

Second, he is not discounting learning experiences. He comes out and says as much, but I want to re-underscore it because it's such a critical point. There is a difference between not doing something well because you don't know any better and because you half-assed it. Ultimately, the only one who can truly judge how sincerely you tried is you, but that truth won't keep people from drawing conclusions.

And that, there, is where I shift gears into objection.

See, first and foremost, a lot of this is very easy for Ryan Macklin to say. He's blessed with the gift of hindsight and a range of experience that gives him a very clear understanding of how a committed creator could address any or all of the mediocrity concerns. And more, were you to ask him, he would be more than happy to share these insights, because he's a generous spirit. But that also means he suffers from the curse of perceived difficulty. The solutions to these issues are so clear and obvious to him that it's difficult to differentiate between the person who didn't try and the person who saw this as insurmountable, and just did what they could.

Now, I call Ryan out for this, but the reality is that I know of literally no one (myself included) who does not fall into this trap. Once we perceive things as easy, it is really, really hard for us to understand the perspective that it seems impossible. This is not an argument in favor of mediocrity so much as an assertion that it's not always as easy to spot as you might like.

Now, this, here, is the actual defense of mediocrity.

Do you know what makes something mediocre? By and large, it's a result of something that's not good, but which is close enough to good that the viewer can clearly see how it could go from point a to point b. It's the "Billy has so much _potential_" reaction, and it makes us crazy. When things are genuinely bad, we're usually much more tolerant of it because the reasons are usually clear - the person just didn't know how, but they tried, so we're sympathetic. We've all been there. We get it.

But when they get close, we can't explain it so easily. We see that they got 75% of the way, we cannot so easily dismiss it. If they could get that far, we ask, why couldn't they have just tried a little bit harder and gone all the way? It's not rational, but it's a strong, instinctive response.

And that's the problem. The very fact that we're more tolerant of the actively bad than we are of the mediocre is totally illogical while still being very emotionally true, and that's a problem because we want people to suck more.

Ok, that's not technically true. We want people to be awesome all the time. But in the absence of that, we want them to be willing to take risks - to be willing to suck - in pursuit of their passion. And by and large, we're pretty good at it, especially when these brave individuals truly do suck. But for them, the danger is that they'll work hard, do better than merely sucking, but not do well enough to excel, and end up in that band of mediocrity.

That would not be so bad in its own right. If you end up in the zone of mediocrity then yes, you want to get out of it, but that depends on two things: first, you need to recognize it (which is hard, especially if you really put 100% into it) and second, you may well need as much support (or more!) as you could hope for if you had totally sucked out. So the danger of our emotional response to mediocrity is that we might end up shooting down these projects at just the point when we, as a community, are in the best position to help.

Anyway, all that said, I should add that, like many of Ryan's broad statements, there's a core to it that I agree with. There _are_ people out there who decide that these other things (layout, editing, production values, whatever) are unimportant, and commit less effort to them. In and of itself, this is totally reasonable - it is entirely normal to prioritize things and put more effort into the things you think are important. But for all that, I do agree there's some baseline good-faith effort that one can expect from the products we're expected to buy and play. Where the line for that effort can be drawn is, I fully admit, almost entirely a matter of personal taste. This makes it hard to really draw any broader generalizations from it beyond "I know it when I see it" (which, as I've noted, is a pretty bad metric because we suck at seeing it).

So I think the takeaway from this should be one of encouragement, not criticism. If you love your game (or whatever) and you want everyone else to love it too, then turn that love into effort. Figure out how to make it work. Push yourself to mediocrity, then find a way to pull yourself up past that. Whether that pull comes from other people, more research or just hard work doesn't really matter. If you can get to the end and know that there is no part of your work that you let slide because it wasn't as exciting or interesting to you, then you can rest on a rare but powerful confidence.

1 - So, I put great value on editors, and I know how talented many of them are, but over and above their keen eyes and steady hands, they bring something else to the equation - an implicit willingness to change. When you write something you love, and part of it doesn't work for a test reader, there's an instinct to blame the reader. We're all guilty of this to one extent or another, and the real reason you want an editor is because you need someone who won't let you get away with that.


  1. Excellent post, Rob. This interview also inspired me to take up the pen and Ryan said on my blog that he wishes he had been more cogent on the issue.

  2. I have been meaning to write a bit about mediocre-good-great lately but haven't quite gotten around to it because life has been hectic.

    The line between mediocre and good is in the details. Great writing but lousy presentation is a dropped detail. Good writing and okay presentation but an unreadable font is in the details. You can do good /cheaply/. You can even do great cheaply. But it requires getting all the details of what it takes to get from A to B in line, writing them down, and giving each of those details their own priority and attention.

    The trick is knowing all those details before sitting down to the project. That is the trickiest bit because when one wants to write or draw or think, one may not be thinking about all these other moving parts. And when you are, say, writing, you are not thinking about fonts. When you are done writing you are bored and you don't want to think about fonts. You figure hey, the writing is great, why not?

    The details are the really important bit and it takes discipline to get from mediocre to good. I think anyone can given a roadmap. It's all about starting with that map in the first place.

  3. Greg: Not exactly what I said, but the Internet is nothing if not a game of Telephone. :)

    Rob: You already commented on my follow-up, but here you go anyway:

    - Ryan

  4. @ Ryan

    I didnt mean cogent in a judgmental way.

  5. This shift of emotional response from "tyro doing their best" to "virtuoso phoning it in" is the Uncanny Valley all over again.

  6. @ed *laughs* I hadn't thought of it that way, but yes, it absolutely is.

  7. Good post, and as one of those people who will be suffering from mediocrity if they don't get their ass in gear, a damn good thing to see now.

    I do have to say that you nail it on the head, the "post-writing" phase is daunting. I know I've been dreading it with every section in my WIP I've finished. It almost feels like the book will be out of my hands, and I'm not sure I like that.

    Effort can be put in to learn layout, editing, fonts, sure, but at some point it does have to leave your hands, and I'd imagine some people have a lot of trouble with that step.


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