Tuesday, December 27, 2011

19 days to 40

The single biggest mistake I've seen so many managers make over the years is feeling the need to have all the answers. I've seen a bunch of potentially great people stumble because they feel that they have to be the one to come up with the great idea, and then execute on that same great idea while demanding recognition and celebration for the fact. It's a difficult thing to get past, and I can remember having plenty of challenges with this kind of stuff myself in my 20s. Who doesn't want to be the rockstar smart guy? That said, I think the main reason I've been able to keep moving forward, particularly over the past 10 years, has been by surrounding myself with great people, and understanding that when they succeed, it reflects well on everyone.

You don't have to have all the answers. No one, no matter how smart they are, can be that good. But by empowering people so that they have the freedom to be creative, and the leeway to make mistakes, the team as a whole will end up better off. Great managers, I think, refine and enable greatness. Sure, it's good to have an awesome idea and move forward with it, but it's more important to inspire, than try to take all the credit.

Monday, December 26, 2011

20 days to 40

When each of the boys were born, I bought each of them a nice Moleskine notebook and metal bookmark and decided that I would occasionally jot down pearls of fatherly wisdom that one day I could hand over. Rather than have the whole thing come across like some saccharine, fatherly riff on "Life's Little Instruction Book" (or whatever it's called,) I wanted to draw as much on real life experience so I could pass on truly authentic advice, rather than glib "just be nice to everyone" bullshit.

The past eight years have certainly been eventful, and I've been able to draw on a lot while jotting down those notes. I think (hope) the most poignant thoughts I can pass along to my boys concern the handling of mistakes. I've certainly made my fair share over the years, both personal and professional, but I've learned more from them than from my successes. Beyond the specifics of these, the overarching learning has been to take full ownership of mistakes. Deflecting blame, or denying the existence of a fault always leads to further problems and, in my experience anyway, never to a solution.

Thankfully, I've been able to rectify some of the biggest mistakes of my life by tackling them head on and taking ownership of them, rather than trying to avoid the consequences. To say that this has been difficult is beyond an understatement, and on more than one occasion I would have much rather hidden and ignored the problems rather than try and do anything about them. In fact, on numerous occasions I have denied my problems, and life certainly didn't improve as a result. I've faced the fear of loss because of colossal mistakes and have been able to ultimately stitch things back together by acknowledging what's important.

No doubt the boys won't fully comprehend this until they've lived through some mistakes of their own. The challenging thing about trying to pass along wisdom to your kids is realizing that you can't protect them from everything, and understanding that for them to really become fully-rounded people they need to face their own difficulties. If I can at least arm them with the emotional strength to proceed, then hopefully I've done a good job as a dad. 

Sunday, December 25, 2011

21 days to 40

Just three weeks to go. It's Christmas day. Whatever day of the week Christmas Day falls on is also the day that both New Year's Day and my birthday fall. So at least I know I'll be waking up 40 on a weekend.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

22 days to 40

When I first moved to the U.S. the intention was to stick around for about two years. I remember lengthy conversations with the HR rep that helped me through all of my immigration paperwork where she would ask what my plans would be when my visa expired. Because I never made it to university, Ziff Davis' lawyer had worked out a way to get me into the country on the O1 "exceptional ability" visa (it's the one they also bring hockey players in on from Canada) and the process was both long and complicated. Because it all seemed so obstructive, I figured I'd probably be heading home after a couple of years. That was perfectly OK. I was only 26, and the whole thing was something I was approaching as a big adventure. "If we don't do this now, we'll never do it," I thought at the time.

It's now 14 years later, and I'm still here. The likelihood of me ever going back to the UK on a permanent basis gets less and less each day. I miss my family and the friends I left behind, but I'm no longer homesick for the place, per se.

The difficult thing about moving to a new country in your twenties is that you lack a shared culture with the people around you. I don't have school friends here, I didn't experience any of the same things that the people I spend time with every day did (with the exception of some English co-workers) and my kids are growing up and going through things that I have no direct experience of. As they've grown passionate for sports, or specific American culture, I've had to play catch-up as quickly as possible so I can help guide them without looking like a clueless father.

On the flipside, on the rare occasions that I go back to the UK or I spend any amount of time with Brits through work or when they come to visit, the country has moved on and changed dramatically in the past 14 years. I no longer have the same cultural reference points, and when my parents, my brother or friends quote pop culture or comedy or whatever else is driving the group psyche in the country, I have no point of reference.

The net result is feeling stuck between worlds. I didn't grow up in the States, so I'm not "American" but I've lost 14 years of my native culture so I no longer feel "English." So what am I?

Friday, December 23, 2011

23 days to 40

Some things I've done that you probably haven't. Not to gloat, but simply to illustrate the uniqueness of life...
  • Played guitar on the soundtrack for the PC point-and-click adventure Normality by Gremlin Interactive.
  • Tested whether playing Quake was the most exciting thing imaginable, and whether the quote "it's better than sex" was an appropriate description. Article was for long-forgotten UK magazine, Escape.
  • Bungee jumped for the above article.
  • Had sex for the above article.
  • Had to masturbate in a room while men in lab coats observed in order to calibrate equipment for above article.
  • Appeared on the Star Wars Episode One DVD talking about the LucasArts game Starfighter.
  • Played in a band whose demo was number three on a radio station playlist. In Belgium.
  • Worked on the first (and only) weekly videogames magazine in the UK, called Games-X.
  • Had my first game review published when I was 14 in a UK Atari magazine called Page 6, which was later renamed New Atari User. The game was Winter Games on the Atari ST by Epyx.
  • Name-drop alert: Spent a lengthy lunch date with Mark Hamill (when he was promoting Wing Commander 3) and talked about his fascination with pornography.
  • Perhaps foolishly turned down a job on Edge magazine in 1994.
  • Had the keyboard player from Whitesnake, Ozzy Osbourne and (now) Deep Purple play at my first wedding.
  • Reviewed games on the UK TV show "GamesMaster."
  • Rode drunk on a golf cart with "father of the PlayStation" Ken Kuturagi.
  • Similarly rode drunk on a golf cart playing "Starksky & Hutch" with Ubisoft president Laurent Detoc. Of note: it's difficult to get any air with a golf cart.
  • Interviewed Lost/Star Trek/Prometheus/Cowboys & Aliens writer/producer Damon Lindelof live on-stage in front of 400 people.
  • Have run a whole bunch of different magazines over the past (gulp) 15 years - many of which you'll have probably never heard of: Mega Drive Advanced Gaming, Super Control, PC Player, Megatech, Sega Zone, and PC Zone in the UK before drifting stateside to run EGM and then later OPM, and finally GamePro.
  • Related to the above, I'm the only editor-in-chief to have run both EGM and GamePro.
  • Started my own company and helped define a sector of media that previously didn't really exist; games media for kids and families.
  • Raised over $2 million to start that business.
  • Had my photo on the front page of the Business section of the LA Times.
  • Did an eight-minute live segment on the Today Show about videogames for kids and families.
  • Got hugged by Meredith Viera.
  • Have also been on both Good Morning America and The Early Show along with a whole bunch of other news shows over the years.
  • Wrote the foreword to a book about iPhone games called "Buttonless."

Thursday, December 22, 2011

24 days to 40

I'm keen to assert before I go on, that this is in no way a declaration of favoritism. My children are the most important things in the world to me. That said, there's no escaping the fact that possibly the single most significant and life-changing "first" moment of the past 40 years was the birth of my oldest son. His presence in my life opened my eyes to a capacity for love that I wasn't previously aware of, and a sense of purpose that was clearly lacking before he arrived. His impact on every fiber of my being was so significant that when we learned we were pregnant with our second boy, I initially couldn't fathom how we could possibly supplement that volume of emotion. It was already almost overwhelming. Would it be divided? Would the power of emotion that we felt somehow  be redistributed? Clearly this was foolish nonsense, as the powerful feelings for my second son amplified the importance of my family still further.

My kids are everything to me. They're the reason I push myself to excel, and the reason, along with their mother, that I'm able to keep life's events in perspective and understand what's truly important. When things feel stressful or out of control, I simply look to them. As I look back on the past 40 years, if there's one thing I'm most proud of, it's the family that I'm a part of.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

25 days to 40

People that have been significant in shaping my career over the years, all of whom I owe a debt of gratitude. Most of them were people that hired me, or became my boss. All of them are important people in my life in one way or another.

My Dad
Without the encouragement he gave me to channel my love of videogames through my love of writing (and to follow his path of writing about what's dear to me) I never would have got started on this path. I've no idea what I would've ended up doing. Given what I was considering doing at University; perhaps a psychiatrist or criminal psychologist? A cop of some kind? Some kind of behavioral consultant thing? I have no idea. My dalliances with retail would certainly have been over regardless, I'm sure.

Les Ellingham
Editor and founder of Page 6 Magazine (later New Atari User) and the person that first put my work into print. Little did he know what he was unleashing on the world, I guess.

Hugh Gollner
Hugh gave me my first full-time job writing about games. He actually turned me down once (for ST Action,) but then came back with the weekly gig at Games-X. Later he gave me my first taste of the start-up life at Maverick Magazines in 1992 and my first editor-in-chief title.

Tim Ponting
My boss and good friend at Dennis Publishing in London. When Maverick went under, he very quickly (much to my surprise) offered me the job of running PC Zone, and it was a fantastic experience. Working at Dennis felt like being in a different league completely, and during my time there I was both editor and publisher of the magazine. With Tim as my group publisher, I was exposed to marketing, PR, circulation, sales and editorial all at the same time; an invaluable set of skills for the years ahead. The whole period at Dennis was pretty magical. I got to work with some amazing talent at a really significant period in the evolution of PC gaming.

Joe Funk
The reason I now live in the States. Without Joe's belief in me, and his absolute refusal to take "no" for an answer back in 1997, I can state with some confidence that I wouldn't be where I am today. His phone call to me, literally the day I got back from my honeymoon to the inaugural Mrs. Davison, was a turning point in my whole life. "Dude. Remember when you said that if Ed Semrad ever left EGM that I should give you a call," he said. "This is that call." Before I knew it, I was on a plane to Chicago to meet the team. That was the first time I met so many important people in my life, including the woman who ended up being the present Mrs. Davison. Little did we know that would happen at the time.

Dale Strang
Dale was my boss after Joe, and was the man that brought me to San Francisco. First he put me in charge of the Official PlayStation Magazine, then he put me in charge of the whole content group, and then he made me a VP at Ziff Davis. That was a big one. He's still a friend and mentor to this day.

Scott McCarthy
My next boss at Ziff. Scott came to us from Disney, and gave me my first exposure to the way larger media companies think about content, programming, and talent. After Scott left Ziff in 2007, he went to set up a VC firm, and ended up being the principal investor in What They Like. So, his impact on my career (and life) was pretty substantial. I haven't seen him for years, which reminds me that I must look him up. Last thing I heard, he was running ESPN radio.

Ira Becker
My partner in crime at What They Like. He and I quit Ziff together, and braved the wilderness of the startup scene as brothers. We were pretty tight before that experience, but the bond that formed over those two years will no doubt last forever.

Marci Yamaguchi-Hughes
Marci and I worked together at Ziff Davis. She later landed at IDG as the president on GamePro Media. Her confidence in me led to the most freeing and liberating management edict I've ever worked under; "Just make it cool," was the direction. "You have total freedom to do whatever you want with it." The 10 months I worked on GamePro were a lot of fun.

Simon Whitcombe
Simon and I had known each other for years, but had never really spent much time together and certainly not worked together. Previously he was at Future US, the sworn enemy of Ziff Davis Media. Later he landed at GameSpot as the VP of the games group. He approached me at an industry event and we started talking about the kinds of things we could do together. I'd actually flirted with some GameSpot opportunities in the past (a long time ago, back in the Ziff years) but never really got past the flirtation. Simon presented a fantastic opportunity, and a great new direction for my career.

My Wife
Her constant support, and belief that somehow I actually might know what I'm doing keeps me strong and keeps me going. Sometimes the pressure of being the bread-winner (particularly when you live in the Bay Area where things are expensive) can get a bit overwhelming, but she's always a voice of reason and encouragement.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

26 days to 40

I should probably try and tackle the weight thing at some point in this process. It's been something that's hung over me for what seems like forever, so it warrants discussion in the countdown to 40.

There was a brief period in my late teens where it wasn't really a concern, but I was a chubby kid, and have struggled to keep things under control for the majority of my adult life.

Outside of a brief period in my mid-20s when I was pretty sedentary, and partied far too much (thanks to living in London and hitting the beers nearly every night) I've always made a lot of effort to try and exercise, and I've always been fairly careful about what I put into my body. All the stuff that you read about as "life changes" to help with weight loss are either totally fucking obvious, or things I'm already doing, or both; "give up soda and candy" for example - well, d'uh. I haven't consumed either since I was a kid because they make me (guess what?) FAT. Similarly "replace burgers and pizza with vegetables and lean proteins" is something I've been (mostly) doing for at least the last 10 years, and is similarly obvious and not terribly useful advice.

In my late 30s, the whole thing has become much harder. Despite exercising much more aggressively, and taking up long-distance cycling (I do the Marin Century every year, which is a 60+ mile bike tour around the North Bay) and an even-more-sensible (read: boring) diet, the best I ever seem to be able to do is maintain my weight. It doesn't go up, it doesn't go down. I've been stuck at 207 pounds for two miserable years now. It doesn't seem to matter what I do, it just won't budge. I've seen doctors, trainers, and nutritionists and followed all of their advice, which is summarized here;
"You're not eating enough, eat more."
"You need to cut out carbs completely."
"You need carbs in your diet to kickstart your system."
"Eliminate at least 500 calories from your daily routine either through diet or exercise every day."
"Your baseline should be over 2,000 calories every day."
"Your baseline should be 1,700 calories every day."
"Your baseline should be over 2,500 calories every day."
"You need less than 1,500 calories every day."
"You might be allergic to dairy, cut it out completely."
"You might be allergic to gluten, cut it out completely."
"Do more weight training than cardio, it helps you burn more calories."
"Do more cardio than weight training, it helps you burn more calories."
Lots of contradictions. Which is irritating. Honestly, after two years of nothing really achieving anything I'm at a complete loss. And honestly, being allergic to both dairy and gluten is no picnic. I'd set a goal at the beginning of 2011 to shed 22 pounds and be 185 by my 40th birthday. I thought a year would be plenty of time to achieve that, and I've worked hard to try and do it. As I write this with 26 days to go... I'm still (unsurprisingly, because the universe is just fucking with me) 207 pounds.

It's starting to feel like some kind of cruel joke. If I had even a scrap of religious faith in me, this would have convinced me that the big man is just malicious. I've set a new goal; be 200 pounds or preferably less by my 40th. That's got to be possible, right?

Monday, December 19, 2011

27 days to 40

Some things that teenage me (specifically) would have wanted to have done by the time I was 40...

Be a famous rock guitarist, idolized by millions and adored by women everywhere
I was in a couple of bands, and we were reasonably popular in the small towns where each played, but I was hardly "famous." The only "groupie" of any kind was in Macclesfield, and she was the singer's girlfriend. She was all sorts of trouble, so the less said of that the better.

Have started my own company, and made millions of dollars
Did the first part, failed fairly spectacularly on the second part. Was an exhilarating experience, and I'd definitely be up for doing it again. Perhaps with something of the latter as part of the package next time.

Found the love of a beautiful woman
Done that. Miraculously.

Moved to America
Did that one too. Original plan was to come for just two years. It's been nearly 14. See above.

Possess a garage filled with spectacular sports cars
I've half done that. I've not had any of them at once, but there have been some good ones over the years. Maybe not Ferrari's or anything, but I've had; a Corvette, an Audi TT, a Mitsubishi Evo VIII, and a Porsche Boxster over the years. Not rock star stuff, but not bad I guess.

Created some work of staggering artistic genius that genuinely moved people in some way; either an album, a book, a movie, a song, or a game
Nope. None of the above. I guess there's still time though. Maybe a book?

Achieved some kind of fame
I'm not sure 15,000 Twitter followers really qualifies.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

28 days to 40

One of the most influential people in my formative years, outside of mum and dad obviously, was my Grandad (on my mother's side.) He taught me about life, pragmatism, hard work, and finding the logic behind things. There's advice that I remember him giving me when I was maybe seven or eight years old that I still make use of today, and I've lately noticed that I've been passing along to my own boys. Professionally he was a factory worker; building tyres at the Goodyear factory in Birmingham or Wolverhampton (or somewhere around there) but he clearly missed a calling as a teacher. His advice touched me deeply, and that's why I still miss him today.

Most memorable was his approach to maths; he had a knack for articulating how you approach things so you can simplify them and do them in your head. He taught me all about breaking down problems into their constituent parts, solving those parts as simple equations, and then piecing the whole problem back together again. It had a profound effect on me, and I'm sure it's a big part of why I quickly developed a talent for mathematical problems at an early age. The magic of this academic advice was that he also showed me how you can apply the same idea to pretty much anything in life. Things that seem complicated are usually much simpler than they appear, and all you need to be able to do is break it down and tackle it methodically. Without that foundation from him, I'm sure I wouldn't be the person I am today.

He also had a cheeky, glib side, of course. The other most memorable advice that he gave me concerned a general approach to dealing with others, particularly those that are either nagging, or being a pain in the ass. "Just say yes, and take no notice," he would say.

Sometimes that proves very useful too.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

29 days to 40

As I approach 40, that means it's perfectly OK for some things to make me irrationally grumpy, right? C'mon...surely that's one of the perks? To celebrate, I've started a list (in no particular order);

  • The confusion people seem to experience in differentiating between their, there, and they're.
  • Inappropriate use of the word "literally."
  • People saying "bless you" after every sneeze. Bonus points: The fact that I never sneeze just once.
  • The way that kids toys are twist-tied into boxes.
  • Trying to set up pretty much anything out of the ordinary on a Windows PC.
  • People reading/watching over my shoulder or just generally standing very close behind me.
  • PlayStation 3 updates (and, by association any other kind of PSN-related forced update.)
  • People reading stuff on their phone while talking to me, and clearly being distracted.
  • Wanton untidiness (I'm not a neat freak, I just think stuff should be put away.)
  • Whining, complaining and generally any kind of non-constructive repetitive negativity.
  • Being allergic to gluten.
  • And dairy.

Friday, December 16, 2011

30 days to 40

My first serious girlfriend dumped me before my end-of-school exams when we were 18 because the whole thing was "too stressful." We later bought a house together. Yeah... I know. She's now a druid or a witch or something, and is married to a ninja and living in Wales.

My second serious girlfriend was a little bit crazy and in hindsight probably wasn't really a serious girlfriend.

My third serious girlfriend became my first wife. She didn't want children, and didn't like living in America. We got divorced and haven't spoken for a decade. She currently lives somewhere in America and has at least one child that I'm aware of. Yeah... I know.

My fourth serious girlfriend is responsible for, and therefore truly represents all of the most important things that have ever really happened in my life. She is the mother of my gorgeous children, and the most caring, tolerant and beautiful human being I have ever met. I'd be lost without her. The fact that she has put up with me for 10 years and has yet to threaten otherwise is testament to both her resolve and her...wonderfulness.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

31 days to 40

About a month after I turn 40 will see another anniversary; 21 years of being in the videogame media business as a full-time gig. Technically it's been 25 (coming up to 26 at some point in 2012) years since I started writing about games professionally (if you can call it that,) but my first full-time gig was at the age of 19, and the whole thing was pretty much an accident.

Technically speaking, I'm still on my year off before I go to university. The original plan had been to secure a place at either Nottingham or Warwick University to study psychology, and then spend a year earning some cash so that things didn't get too tight in the four years (or more) that I would spend dazzling the academic establishment with radical new insights into human behavior. I don't remember the specifics, but I think I actually got the place at Warwick pretty much sorted out at one point.

Fresh out of school, resplendent with a uniformly atrocious portfolio of exam results (thanks to the "I'm going to dump you the night before your first English paper is due" shenanigans of my then-girlfriend) I had landed a truly glorious job in the menswear department at English department store Marks & Spencer.  This was after a brief two-week stint of twisting bits of wire and dipping it in solder at a local industrial park that was the single most mind-numbing experience of my life. Stretching this crap out for a whole year was looking like it was going to be a truly painful experience, and despite occasional changes of scenery working in either the grocery department (which I loathed) or the lingerie department (which was a bit surreal, particularly when women that would have been classified as cougars before the term even existed would come in and ask "what I thought" of various frilly things) I was thinking of changing my whole plan.

At some point during all this, I'd applied for a job as a staff writer at ST Action at Europress up in Macclesfield. I didn't get it. In a bizarre twist of fate, that same girlfriend that dumped me the night before my English paper landed the same job several months later. But I digress. I figured that professional games writing was something that would be permanently out of reach. Then, out of the blue, Hugh Gollner (the boss of the games rags at Europress) called to ask if I'd like to be a staff writer on a new publication, a weekly magazine called Games-X that would be modeled after pop-books like Smash Hits. Needless to say I jumped at the chance. I actually took the call while on a coffee break at Marks & Spencer, and upon receiving the official offer - a staggering 7,000 GBP a year - I quit the menswear gig on the spot and walked out. Two weeks later I was living in a horrific bedsit in Stockport, and writing about Amiga, ST, and import Super NES and MegaDrive games all day and night. It was wonderful.

Games-X lasted almost exactly a year, but the discipline of that weekly deadline is something that has been the foundation of my attitude toward writing and editing ever since. While there, I sat next to Alex Simmons, who is now the editor in chief of IGN in the UK. Our London news editor was Gary Whitta, who later went on to run PC Gamer in both the UK and the US before leaving the industry to be a movie screenwriter. I met a lot of great people, and from that point on, I was on a career path that I wanted to make last for as long as I could. Games-X led to work on both ST and Amiga Action, as well as a brief stint on GB Action. Soon after, Hugh left Europress to start a new company and a bunch of us went with him to form our first "start up" Maverick Magazines, where we produced MegaDrive Advanced Gaming (my first editor in chief gig), Control (a SNES mag) and later PC Player, my first solo-launch. PC Player led to the gig at PC Zone in London, which in turn shoved me into more international circles and helped get me on the Ziff Davis guys' radar in Chicago, and ultimately to the gig on Electronic Gaming Monthly in 1998.

Back in those early days, I always wondered how long the whole thing could really last. Would this be something I'd still be doing when I was 35, or even 40? Turns out the answer to that is a resounding yes.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

32 days to 40

My brother maintains that my finest hour (journalistically speaking) was a a feature I wrote for the short-lived UK “Internet culture” magazine (yeah, I know) Escape called “Better Than Sex!” I'm not entirely sure I agree with him on it being my best work, but the research and production of this particular piece makes for a good story.

The gist of the piece was that I had to scientifically test the oft-quoted proclamation (at the time) that “Quake is better than sex,” which ages the piece, obviously. To do this I wore a heart-rate monitor while performing a variety of tasks that included playing multiplayer Quake, bungee jumping, buying pornography, hitting on a stranger at a supermarket, and having sex. Readings were taken during each activity, and this was all calibrated against test results acquired in a lab where I had to provide an orgasmic baseline reading for comparison. To do this, I had to drive to a heart lab in Devon on the south coast of England and… how to put this delicately? Pleasure myself while under observation.

I don’t actually have a copy of the magazine to hand at my home in the U.S., but my parents very graciously dug out a copy back in the UK and scanned it for me. They must be so proud.

Rather than paraphrase or try to downplay the content any further, here's a link to a PDF of the whole sordid thing. I should preface this with a note that this was produced during the high point of “lad mag” culture in the UK. Loaded, Maxim, FHM and their ilk were all killing it on newsstands, so this kind of salacious, raucous, knob-joke gonzo journalism was very much the norm. Hit the link below to see the whole, sordid six-page article. Also: Bonus! Pictures of skinny me with very long hair.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

33 days to 40

I think it’s fairly safe to say that I’m not a particularly patient person. My wife is no doubt chuckling if she’s reading this. I have become reasonably adept at projecting the impression of patience, but at my core I find slow decision-making, or slow processes to be absolutely unbearable. It’s not a new thing, I’ve struggled with it for as long as I can remember, but I’ve had to really adapt in the past 15 or 16 years as I’ve moved into more senior management roles. I find indecision or slow-moving work initiatives to be incredibly annoying, and as I have become increasingly proficient at not venting frustration directly at people (there was a time when I didn’t hold back, and it wasn’t particularly productive) I’ve had to keep things slow and steady emotionally. If I leave things unchecked, and let the stress take over, I’ve been known to drift in one of two directions; either a form of intellectual paralysis, where the lack of momentum causes me to lose focus completely – thankfully something I’ve not had to deal with for a very long time – or (and this is the scary one) emotional numbness.

The latter was something that I wasn’t even aware of when it was happening, but having been through it during the tail end of the What They Play chapter of my career, I can look back on it now as possibly the scariest time of my adult life. Having been through a period of what can only be described as spiritual vapidity, I’m now fully aware of where my dark side is. I’m not talking about getting all Lisbeth Salander here. I don’t suddenly develop a penchant for black nail polish and freaky weirdness. The truth is that in my most extreme times of emotional distress, my psyche doesn’t freak out, it…what would you call it? Freaks in. When my stress levels wound up to truly extreme levels, I found that rather than getting increasingly emotional, I actually got less so. In the case of What They Play, as we struggled with funding during the worst years of the financial crisis, the idea that what I’d spent two years building may fall apart and that the team that had been so loyal and dependable may be out of work became a huge burden. While at the time I had absolutely no idea this was happening, what I found was that my emotions just shut down completely. I wasn’t scared, I wasn’t angry, and I wasn’t unhappy about what was happening. Similarly, I wasn’t expressing much of any kind of real emotional response to anything else either; I wasn’t happy, I didn’t find things funny, or sad. I was incapable of feeling excitement, or nervousness, or anything emotional that you would otherwise take for granted. With this emotional compass somehow missing, it turned me into a completely different person. I believe the technical term is denial. It took me until about a year after the dust had settled to realize that without that internal barometer, and any kind of self awareness about it that my usually quite measured ability to make reasonable judgment calls was completely obliterated.

In retrospect, the scariest thing about the whole situation was that I had no idea that it was potentially a problem. When you’re stressed out, it’s easy to watch out for quintessential crazy person behavior – freak outs, rage, whatever – it’s another thing to notice that things are swinging the other way. I really don’t know what I would have done if it wasn’t for Mrs D and her amazing capacity for both tolerating my ridiculous bullshit, and helping me piece things back together in a much more self-aware fashion. Without her Yoda-like ability to turn me from the dark side, I really don’t know what I would have done, and there’s a very good chance that things would have gotten far more destructive. By learning and understanding that (if none of us are paying attention properly) I have the capacity to just shut down completely when things get really tough, she has helped me achieve a balance in the last couple of years that I really didn’t have previously. Importantly, this is also a balance that I didn’t fully appreciate that I needed. The majority stems from her love and the kids’, but it’s also a greater focus on both physical and emotional health, and a willingness to stare right into the face of what’s challenging and acknowledge problems as they’re happening.

With the pressures of new jobs and new responsibilities in the time since we eventually sold What They Play to IGN (see? There was a happy ending there eventually) I’ve been able to process challenges and stress in a completely different way, while also keeping my head above water and fixed on what’s most important.

See? This is what an imminent 40th birthday has provoked; it’s prompted some self-analysis, and consequently a blog post that was in serious danger of drifting into granola-crunching, touchy-feely, sandal-wearing, spirituality nonsense before I pulled it back from the edge there. Bottom line? Wife, good. Kids, good. Stress, bad.

Monday, December 12, 2011

34 days to 40

Both of my boys amaze me. I know it’s indulgent, clich├ęd, and boring to rave about your own children in a public forum, but it’s my blog, and hardly anyone’s reading it anyway to I’m just going to go for it. Particularly over the past year or so, I’ve been acutely aware of both boys really developing physically, artistically and intellectually. Both of them have started consuming books with a voracious appetite, and often have four or five on the go at once without any problem. My oldest has been taking guitar lessons, and has taken to it with far more natural flair than I was ever able to muster. Their skills at different sports have moved on leaps and bounds, with both their basic strength and game-smarts taking on whole new dimensions.

Saturdays during the summer always hit this home for me, as my oldest has weekly basketball games over that period. This isn’t just a proud father boasting (I can say this with some confidence, as pretty much everyone at the Y has said it at some point) but during his last games this year, my boy was on fire. I was so proud watching him confidently take the ball, quickly move it up the court and make poised, phlegmatic shots, jumping up for the rebound and taking command of the game. A year ago he was eager but struggling, today he owned the court.

My youngest, while not quite the quintessential jock that his brother is becoming, has a sense of spatial awareness that’s enviable. I was well into my 20s before I was able to judge my surroundings as accurately as he seems to be able to. It’s incredible watching him learn from his brother and absorb the knowledge with a nonchalance that just makes him all the more charming. He’s no jock, he doesn’t particularly care that much about the sports, but he can just do it. I’d have given anything for that kind of coolness when I was a teen, let alone even younger.

They both must get this kind of skill and audacity from their mother. Clearly I live with three people that are infinitely cooler than I.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

35 days to 40

Something I was pretty proud to be a part of earlier this year was the "Let it end like this" exhibition at an art gallery in New York. The idea was for creative-types (that would somehow be me, I guess - just being thought of for such a thing was pretty humbling) to put together something that would serve as an imaginary obituary, in a manner that reflected how the artist hoped people would remember them. It took me a while to come up with a concept, and even longer to actually execute on the self-portrait (below) but I was ultimately really proud of the result. Now that the exhibition is over, the gallery-wrapped canvas version of the piece is hanging in our dining room. Mrs D says she really likes it, and the kids continue to be intrigued about the process required to make a fairly realistic rendering of myself using nothing but words. If you click the image below, there's a giganto-version that gives you an idea of the scale of the document I was working with.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

36 days to 40

Between the ages of 11 and 16, I was pretty much invisible. So much so, that upon entering the sixth form at my school at the age of 16 I remember being asked several times by "cooler" kids which school I'd attended previously, and if I was "new." This hadn't phased me, I found it more amusing than offensive because I'd spent the bulk of the previous years just keeping out of everyone's way. I wasn't unpopular or reclusive or anything; I was just shy. I was geeky, into computers and videogames, I wasn't particularly sports-focused (although I could run forever, which made me good at endurance races - but no one cared about anything except football so no one noticed) and I was a bit overweight. For the bulk of the first five years of secondary school I'd hung out with the same crowd of half a dozen or so guys playing games and watching sci-fi, and it had been perfectly acceptable. Girls didn't notice me, I was socially a bit awkward, but I'd always felt like I should try a bit harder to be sociable.

Entering the sixth form I made a conscious effort to completely reinvent myself; something I've fairly successfully pulled off twice over the course of the last 40 years. It didn't hurt that I dropped some weight over that summer, and the platonic (though I'd wished for two years that she'd be more) girlfriend that had shared my love of heavy metal, videogames, and geeky movies had finally caved and noticed that I was more than just an awesome study buddy. Suddenly I was visible. I made new friends (hardly any of my old crew had stayed at school past 16,) I started playing guitar in a band, I grew my hair long, and for some reason people started to seek out what I had to say about things.

The shyness remained though. I don't remember why I chose to deal with it the way that I did, but as a life strategy it has served me very well ever since; if in doubt, I would move towards whatever made me most uncomfortable. I'd get up on-stage to play in the band, I'd volunteer for speaking engagements, I'd try and reach out to new people, but all of it was always almost debilitating in how nerve-wracking it was. Looking back now, I wonder if someone encouraged me to behave this way, or if it was some piece of advice from my grandad (the source of much practical life-knowledge in my youth; his best being "just say yes and take no notice,) I really don't recall. Still...it's something that worked for me, and I will no doubt be imparting it to my own boys when they get older.

Friday, December 9, 2011

37 days to 40

Time for a list, to break up the pace, I think. With 37 days to go, here are 37 things that have been a significant influence over the course of the past 40 years (in no particular order) with very brief descriptions as to why. I'm leaving people out of this one, as I'll no doubt tackle that list in a later post. I'm also trying to avoid the totally fucking obvious too, with a few obvious and notable exceptions. This isn't a "my favorite" list by any stretch, they're just things that helped nudge me in new directions.

Ozzy Osbourne's Bark at the Moon album
The first hard rock/metal album I ever bought. I was 11. Plus, I'd recently learned that the keyboard player (Don Airey) lived down the street from us, which humanized the whole thing a lot.

Iron Maiden's Number of the Beast
Absolutely the first time I noticed that music was "about" something. Iron Maiden's interest in history, and telling stories with music was something I'd never really paid attention to before. I didn't discover the album until a few years after it was out. I was probably 13 or 14 when I finally got a copy.

Yngwie Malmsteen's Rising Force
Not my proudest declaration of something that's influential - but it was one of the many albums that inspired me to keep practicing the guitar.

Gary Moore's Still Got The Blues
Another connection to our friend Don (he played keyboards on this album too) but most significantly was finally understanding the lyrical and emotional complexity of really good guitar playing. Another one that inspired me to keep practicing.

AC/DC Back in Black
For the longest time, I couldn't stand AC/DC, but I after I saw them at the Monsters of Rock festival at Castle Donnington, I had a whole new appreciation for rock music that could be timeless.

Anthrax' Among the Living
Four words: I. Am. The. Law.
Another one of those moments appreciating that music could be unbelievably cool when it was actually about something you already thought was pretty awesome. Metal + Judge Dredd. Awesome.

Extreme II: Pornograffiti
I loved this album at the time. I first heard Nuno Bettencourt play because "Play With Me" was used in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. This was the first album by Extreme that I actually bought, and it introduced me to how clever and satisfying rhythm guitar work could be. I learned "Hole Hearted" and "It's a Monster" as quickly as possible, and still have them memorized.

Depeche Mode's Songs of Faith and Devotion
Teenage me would have laughed in your face for suggesting that Depeche Mode were a band to be taken seriously. Songs of Faith and Devotion came along when I was 21, and it opened my eyes to the wonderful and magical place where pop, rock, dance, and electronic music meet.

Bach's Toccata & Fugue in D Minor
There were two significant versions of this piece of music that ingrained it in my memory; a version played on acoustic guitar by John Williams (different one, not the composer) with his band Sky in 1980, and the soundtrack to the arcade game Gyruss which had a similar vibe. Virtuoso guitar playing and videogames; two things I'm a sucker for.

BT's Movement in Still Life
This one is definitely something that plays double duty as both "influential" and "favorite." The track "Never Gonna Come Back Down" opened my eyes (ears?) to how electronic music was able to blend genres so elegantly.

The Crystal Method's Vegas
Having grown up with rock and metal, I've always liked music with some bite. The Crystal Method showed me that dance music could have a similar, if not greater, bite.

Nine Inch Nails' Pretty Hate Machine
Not an especially original item on this list...but it was a biggie for me. It inspired me to experiment with playing a different kind of music, and blending my love of computers and technology with my love of loud guitars.

Star Raiders
I think in the grand scheme of all things that have ever blown my mind, the degree to which Star Raiders made me feel that I was in a space ship has yet to be matched. Looking back, it looks unbelievably simple, but the emotion it inspired at the time with stay with me, always.

Pole Position
Where my love of cars and my love of videogames first really intersected. My parents looked for the cartridge for the Atari 400 for ages so they could get it for me one Christmas. The arcade machine looked incredible at the time, and the computer version matched it pretty closely.

Super Mario World
Growing up in the UK, I didn't have a huge amount of exposure to Mario. The NES just wasn't a big deal in the UK, because we were all playing on computers like the ZX Spectrum, the Commodore 64 or the Atari 400. The first time I really played any Mario game (save for Donkey Kong) was Super Mario World on an imported SNES when I first started on Games-X. I was blown away. It opened my eyes.

Mario Kart
A benchmark for fun, multiplayer gaming.

Star Wars + Videogames. It was truly magical, and built on that magic that Star Raiders evoked, and sprinkled it with a Jedi-style magical fairy dust of awesome.

Gran Turismo
Still special, even after all these years. The fact that they did this on the original PlayStation still boggles my mind. The cars felt right...something that few games had achieved this consistently before.

Grand Theft Auto III
The boundaries moved with this one. Plus, it was a bit of a career-defining moment too; at the Official PlayStation Magazine, we were the only magazine in the U.S. to believe it was going to be special enough to put it on the cover. 

Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
I sank over 100 hours into this game. It was the first experience to pull me in to that degree. I've always loved games, and always loved fantasy worlds, but this changed my expectations of role playing games.

Philips G7000
Our first game console in the Davison household. Known as the Odyssey 2 in the U.S. In hindsight the "Videopacs" were mostly horrific knock-offs of better-known classics, but there were some very special games; Munchkin, Take the Money and Run, Battlefield (no, not that one) and my absolute favorite, space shooter Cosmic Conflict.

Atari 400
Our first home computer; the beginning of my life in technology, games, and media.

Atari 520ST
After the 400, we were Atari loyalists. I wrote my first game review on an Atari ST; about Epyx' Winter Games.

Star Wars Trilogy
And so we enter the movie portion of the list. An obvious one; but now seeing it through my kids' eyes, I'm even more in awe of the magic it weaves.

Silent Running
Little-known enviro-sci-fi flick that had a profound effect on me when I first saw it. My first exposure (outside of 2001, which I didn't get into until I was much older) to sci-fi with a real message.

Sword fighting mixed with sci-fi is always cool. (See: Star Wars) There's something elegant and intimate about it.

Not necessarily the Christopher Reeve movie, although that was special, but just the whole Superman thing. I'm not religious or especially spiritual in any traditional sense of the word, but I have a huge soft spot for the whole savior/hero thing.

The Hitchhikers's Guide to the Galaxy
My dad bought the albums of the radio series and we used to listen to them together. I later read all the books, watched the TV show, the movie, and re-bought the entire radio run on CD. It had never occurred to me that sci-fi could be funny before this.

Reeves & Mortimer
I still occasionally slip into Reeves and Mortimer mode when around more than one other Brit. It's utterly nonsensical to my wife, but I still find it hilarious.

The Fast Show
For the same reasons as Reeves and Mortimer, I guess. My sense of humor is still informed by this nonsense.

NPR's Fresh Air
Terry Gross' series on NPR taught me how to interview, and what makes a compelling interview. This show continues to illustrate that the key to this kind of content is really getting to know the subject, and presenting them as a human being, not just a vessel through which messaging about a book/movie/game/album/cause is conveyed.

The Dark Knight Returns
Kinda obvious, but what the hell. It's my list. Batman at his best, and at his oldest. Particularly relevant given the overarching theme of this whole 40 days blogging thing.

Another obvious one, but this was more about conveying a strong message through unexpected and original means. Something that anyone in media needs to be constantly thinking about.

I'm not sure what prompted me to read this. I don't remember who recommended it, or who first talked about it, but it was powerful stuff, and the story had a significant impact on me. It was beautifully constructed, cleverly executed, and the setting was remarkably evocative.

The Canterbury Tales
I read it at school, and basically hated it at the time - but something about it just stuck with me. It's still a tough read (although not as hard as it was) but it's one of those books I'm always glad I have some knowledge of. It's oddly useful from time to time. 

Sons and Lovers
Another one from school; where I discovered a love for (and a knack for) both metaphor and simile. Before I read this at the age of 15, I didn't really know what that even meant. It's been a useful skill ever since, and all because of DH Lawrence, and my English teacher Mr. Stevens.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
How I discovered Mark Twain, who's wit and intelligence I've grown to admire more and more with each passing year.

OK, so now that's done I realize there are a lot more than 37 things I'd want to single out. Maybe I'll do an addendum post later.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

38 days to 40

Yesterday's post was a bit serious, and was very much work-focused - so today let's swing all the other way and talk about dogs. Yes, dogs.

Growing up, I hated them. Big, loud, dirty, uncivilized slobber-monsters that were pushy and obnoxious. I was more of a cat person. Cute, cuddly, a little aloof but generally loving. I had a cat growing up, and had them as soon as I was able when I left home. I even brought two with me from England to the States back in the late 90s. Though it's incredibly unlikely, I guess it's remotely possible that the pair of them are actually still alive somewhere in the deepest, darkest Midwest. I wouldn't know though; they stayed with my ex-wife, who has been exercising her right to completely ignore me for the past 11 years.

Since meeting the current Mrs. Davison I've switched allegiances. I am now "of dog." As of last night, I'm temporarily "of three dogs," to be accurate. We adopted a wonderful puppy in 2002; a mutt of indiscernible origin that we were told was part Labrador and part, oh I don't remember, Spaniel or something? Maybe German Shepherd? I really don't remember. Regardless, I'm pretty sure they were wrong, because he's clearly part awesome and part excellent. There are rumors that there's some Rhodesian Ridgeback in the mix too, and that's completely fine. He is now nine, and is the most caring and loving animal I have ever encountered. We got him at the time because we wanted to go to a rescue, and couldn't afford the $2,000 it would have cost to rescue a pure breed like a Golden Retriever or something. Less than a week after we brought him home he cost us more than that in vet's bills because he had Parvo. I don't hold that against him though.

Last night the household (which, incidentally, also holds two cats, though one of them fucking hates me) was joined by a pair of puppies. The idea was to get a puppy. A puppy. One. But the rescue across the street had two that were very cute, so we made the executive decision to foster both of them while trying to decide which of them to keep. After just 24 hours, the entire concept seems entirely unfair and difficult and I'm already leaning to the idea of keeping them both, despite the fact that it would be really, really stupid to do so. They are incredibly cute and friendly, and I'd be sad to see either of them go. Already.

So, there you go. I've officially become a "dog person."

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

39 days to 40

Honestly, I still haven't decided on the format for this. At one point I'd entertained the idea of trying to make a post for each year going backwards until I either ran out of years, or ran out of things of significance from that time period. Probably would have been a bit much, really.

That said, I do want to use number 39 to make some broad strokes observations of events that have happened while I've been 39. I think it's fairly safe to say that the word "tumultuous" is an apt description for the past 11 months or so. It's not often you have the luxury of using such an evocative word to describe your own life, but here were are. "Excited, confused, or disorderly" says the dictionary - yep, that pretty much does it. At least on the professional side of the house. On the homefront, the greatest cause of any disorder has been trying to manage my weight (a disastrous project I'll no doubt go into in a separate post filled with woe and self-pity) but work, notably the businesses in which I exist (media and videogames) has been batshit crazy.

Over this past year, I've seen spectacular examples of both highs and lows. I've witnessed examples of every kind of behavior imaginable;  Petulance, defiance, selfishness, negativity, and incredulity on one hand, but I've also seen boundless creativity, selflessness, intelligence, and wit on the other. I've seen people walk away from opportunity because of ego while others have sought out opportunity and defined themselves in defiance of the odds. I've seen success born out of a whim, and disaster brought about by pessimism. I've watched people find themselves and lose themselves. I've watched businesses blossom and crumble, the establishment topple, and new ideas flourish.

Significantly, after feeling like the "old man" for a while, and spending the bulk of the past few years imparting knowledge and guidance, this past year has been a tremendous learning experience. "Drinking from the firehose," as my buddy Ira liked to say back in our time together at What They Play. Yes, the last year has been one of the hardest in recent memory for me, but I've learned so much, and been able to adapt and evolve more than I could have possibly anticipated.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

40 days to 40

I mentioned a while back that my imminent 40th birthday had been on my mind a lot lately... well, today it has even more so. I turn 40 in exactly 40 days, so I thought that was as good a reason as any to find an excuse to try and gather my thoughts on the subject and jot them down. Catharsis is the main motivation, but given that there are a few people of similar age that occasionally read this blog, I figure it may provoke some conversation (or some disagreement) over what's important to us all at this point in life. For those of you that are much younger, you'll no doubt be able to chuckle at the sad nonsense that some greybeard old fart is spewing each day. 

I'll wait until tomorrow to really get into the meat of things I think, but over the next 40 days I want to take the opportunity to talk about people that have been an important part of my life so far, things that have had a profound effect on me, and events both professional and personal that have shaped who I am.

My kids have certainly picked up on how this is playing on my mind. This morning they woke me with breakfast that they (partially) cooked themselves, along with hand-written notes celebrating "40 days to 40." Apparently I have been far from subtle in what's bothering me lately.