Creativity: Influence vs Individuality

Boon Cotter on the thorny issue of inspiration

Each week we feature the best content from #AltDevBlogADay, a blog site on which developers write daily about things that they find interesting. This week it's the turn of Boon Cotter, who writes about the thorny issues surrounding influence versus individuality.

Before I go launching into the blog entry, a brief introduction might help explain my slant: My name is Boon. It's a long story. I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Communication Design, which is a fancy way of saying 'unemployable'. Nevertheless, I've worked as an artist in the film, television and games industries. My next adventure in life is learning how to program, and I'm attempting to create an independent game in Unity3D. I am involved in a number of online arts communities, mostly as a voyeur, and I sometimes have student contact, which describes the inspiration for this article. Also, I talk too much. My personal blog is located at, for anyone who wants to laugh at a noob artist attempting to understand code. This post is mirrored there.

From time to time I am involved in conversation about the creative industries. A shocking revelation, no doubt. Nevertheless, I find that there's a topic which frequently arises (particularly among students and newcomers) and that is the question of influence versus individuality. There seems to be a common assumption that to earn creative integrity one must develop a personal style - a unique artistic vocabulary - which is utterly devoid of external influence. None of us are strangers to the desire to make a mark; to sign the world with our own unique signature. But what a huge burden it is to expect to earn that mark without influence. Imagine if all industries imposed the same expectations on their practitioners: Would you want to be operated upon by a surgeon who believed he could figure it all out himself?

Well, this isn't surgery, and I don't meant to speak as though I have a lifetime of experience: I am myself only just beginning my creative journey in most respects, and anyone who knows me could attest to how much I have to learn. But nevertheless, I feel I've mostly overcome the creative self-consciousness of having a noisy inner critic.

And I understand just how brutally uncompromising he can be.

I'm no stranger to the fear of being labelled 'derivative'; branded a plagiariser, fleeing the midnight mob of artistic masters that are my peers, amongst angry shouts of "UNCLEAN! UNCLEAN!" But to grow as a creative individual, you need to move beyond the impossible expectations that an inexperienced inner critic demands.

If you would indulge me (and perhaps pretend I'm a wizened old magister of the creative industries with real wisdom to impart rather than a 30-something neckbearded nerd with pacman tattoos), I'd like to talk a bit about creativity and influence.

And why you should probably just get over yourself.

The real problem with being afraid of influence (or afraid of acknowledging it) is that your influences will have some of the biggest impact on you maturing as an artist. Unless you're the single most talented individual on the planet who was enjoying sell out shows by age 4 and is now a retired billionaire who spends his teenage years endorsing arts academies and politely declining the Archibald prize for your napkin doodles on the grounds that any more avant-garde statuettes in your house would dangerously unbalance the Earth's axis, I'm going to bet that you don't know it all. And yet, for many of us, the struggle to find artistic identity entirely on our own is a kind of brutally masochistic right of passage.

There was a time when I wouldn't be caught dead emulating someone else's style. Discovering that there was an artist out there whose work or ideas were similar to mine was mortifying. I'd be desperately assuring my peers that my work had been produced in isolation from this other creator, to the point of arguing so aggressively that I surely looked guilty as all hell of counterfeit. I even became afraid of exposing myself to new work out of fear that someone would be doing something remotely similar.

Then I was exposed to the writing of Carl Jung and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. And someone who kindly translated it all for me.

Jung and Csikszentmihalyi are considered among the most influential forefathers of modern psychology, particularly relating to the reflective, cognitive, and practical processes of creativity. I recommend doing some related reading. I'm a low-brow kind of guy myself (I feel much more at home with Dean Koontz than Nietzsche) and I find reading Jung's and Csikszentmihalyi's work is a lot like how I imagine it'd feel to stuff my skull full of cotton wool and then play an aggressively competitive game of Boggle. In Scandinavian. While drunk. And being beaten around the head with a sock full of wet tissues.

But in essence, what it boils down to (thank you, university notebook) is that the act of creation, in all of its artistic varieties, can be most simply described as a three step process of big words:

  • Appropriation
  • Fragmentation
  • Retextualisation

Appropriation refers to the act of acquiring; collecting; gathering; hoarding. We appropriate everything: Movies, music, books, conversations, emotions, that particular way the sun hit the road as we were driving to work this morning... And this becomes our library of experience from which we draw inspiration and influence. As creative individuals, we should want access to the most comprehensive source of references available, and that means expanding our mental library as much as we can.

Fragmentation, more or less, means that we break down those things we gather into simple elements. The film The Matrix becomes 'broody guy' in a 'leather trench' discovers 'world is virtual' and 'real world is apocalyptic' and learns to 'flip around in slow motion'. More or less. Those fragments become entities in themselves, which we then...

Retextualise into something new and wonderful.

This is the psychology of creativity, and assuming you aren't a new kind of superhuman whose brain operates in ways we cannot comprehend, this applies to you.

And it isn't rocket science (despite needing a degree, extensive linguistics training, and a second tongue to pronounce 'Csikszentmihalyi'). What it is, is validation. Don't be afraid to be influenced by the people, the things, and the aspects of your art form, which surround you. In fact you should demand it, because these things will only make you better at what you do.

A common attribute amongst all of the most talented and creative individuals I have worked with is that each has dedicated many hours of their time to gathering a mental library of references from which to draw inspiration and guidance. This is without exception.

So, don't be a princess about your work, don't be so desperate to reinvent the creative wheel, and don't waste time struggling to generate your style in a creative vacuum. Expose yourself to as much artistic influence as you can. Saturate yourself in it. Your own style will just happen.

But why did I decide to rant about this? Well, I was once again thinking about the game I'm working on. It's incredibly derivative: Braid, Fez, Limbo it is not. But do I care? Not at all. Don't get me wrong: Those games are incredible examples of our art, and a brilliant argument for investing in uniqueness and originality in your product. As a matter of fact, I have a few ideas of my own floating around in my cotton-stuffed skull which, to my knowledge, are comparatively unique concepts, containing (or in some cases built upon) new gameplay, new story, and/or new aesthetics.

So why am I then resorting to... plagiarism? (Said as he crosses himself)

Well, I make this homage (see whut I did thar?) for a couple of reasons, both creative and practical. Talking about the creative first: I love the things which influence this project, namely the classic 8-bit platformers of my youth such as the Wonderboy series (in particular, Wonderboy III: The Dragon's Trap on the Sega Mastersystem). Not many people make those kinds of games any more. I'm making it for me, and I sincerely hope that I do a well enough job that others enjoy the experience (when it's released in 2032).

And the practical aspects: I'm new to this, but I'm not new to the creative individual that I am. I know my faults; that I can become bogged down in detail, and that unnecessary complication can overwhelm and then inevitably disenchant me to an idea. So practicality demands that for this project, which is about me learning the how rather than exploring the greater question of why, I should simplify where possible. Realistically, I should be making a Pong clone before broaching the subject of a microcosm platform adventure with RPG elements, but then I also know that if it isn't challenging enough, I'll lose interest.

So, put simply: I'm making an homage to Wonderboy because I want to. Fun for the sake of fun, so to speak. For now I'll leave the ground-breaking to people far more technically capable than I.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have an appointment with my inner critic, and I suggest that if you're one of the people who are struggling to find their signature, you do the same. I know he exists to protect me from things such as, oh, I don't know, removing my clothes and running down the street singing Always by Erasure. But nevertheless, he really needs to STFU sometimes.

Latest comments (2)

Tony Johns6 years ago
It is fantastic reading that you have the desire to make a homage game to Wonderboy.

By the time I get into the gaming industry, I may find myself in a market where every game is either a FPS or a western MMORPG.
So my own desire is trying to make games with an anime art style that is similar to the Japanese style of making games.

I also agree on the part where you try to find all the references of what you like and artistic inspirations.
The individual ideas will come to you naturally, but it is important to remember that even the most innovative games of the past were once inspired by other entertainment mediums.

For example, Mario was originally inspired by western influences like Alice in Wonderland (Mushrooms make Mario grow big) and even King Kong (considering if you count Donkey Kong as being inspired by the famous 1930 american film)

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Tony Johns6 years ago
Making games fun for the sake of fun, that is the best way to make games to be honest.

We get too serious for trying to make or appeal to the demands of our culture that we lose our individuality.

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