• Wrong notes and syntax errors: The joy of improv in music and code

    When I first began to learn the programming language Ruby on Rails from a friend of mine, he taught me by way of mimicry. My friend would tell me a phrase that would spit out a particular number or word; I would re-type the phrase and it would behave just the way he promised.

    It reminded me a lot of learning musical scales as a child; I could copy my friend's code, but I didn't understand why the code did what it did, exactly, or how to use it in an original way. And yet, after only an hour or of my echoing my friend's code back at him, he said, "okay, now just play around!"

    My heart skipped a beat. "What do you mean, play around? Play around with what?"

    "You know," he said. "Make up some code based on what you learned!"

    Once I got over that initial burst of fear, I realized that playing around with code was the best part—just as it had been the best part of music, for me.

    My mother can read music for the piano as easily as other people can touch-type. She can look at a brand-new piece of music and play it note for note on the first try. Her playing is so emotive that once when she accompanied my singing at a school talent show, a piano student in the audience approached my music teacher not to commend my voice, but rather my mother's performance. "I want to learn how to play piano like that," she gushed, paying no mind at all to whatever forgettable '90s pop hit I had attempted.

    I, too, wanted to learn how to play like that. Some of my earliest memories are of scrambling onto the piano bench and plunking out my own tunes. I didn't yet know the official chord constructions, but I learned which notes "sounded good" on my own. I couldn't read music, so I made up my own songs or mimicked songs that I heard. My musician parents praised my "good ear," excited by their daughter's budding talent.

    But when my piano lessons began, I couldn't seem to learn how to read music.

    I had three different piano teachers over the course of elementary school and middle school, and I didn't get on well with any of them. I wanted to learn harder pieces than they would give me, but I couldn't read music well enough to move past beginner-level songbooks. At home, my mother and I struggled through my assigned pieces measure by measure; me biting back frustration, her swallowing disappointment.

    Creative Commons: Flickr/Elliott Cable

    The part of coding I enjoy less often revolve around small, frustrating details, like the way one misplaced digit can cause anything from an ugly error message to a complete program breakdown. I spent about an hour recently tearing my hair out as I trying to find the source of a broken macro in a game I'm making until I finally found the mistake: I had omitted a single letter, and misspelled "cycling" as "cyling."

    People have often told me that because of this unforgiving precision, writing code is very different than other forms of composition like writing music. Music can't give you an error message, they say. Ha! These people did not learn how to play music in the house where I grew up.

    In order to force me to learn how to read the notes correctly, my mother would stand behind me as I played through a piece. As soon as I missed a note or flubbed a rhythm, she would halt my execution—just as a computer does with a bad piece of code—with a soft "no." I would try again. Still wrong. "No." I would grow more infuriated with each mistake, each "no." It would always be some small error that I had missed, a sharp, a flat, a key change gone unnoticed. A syntax error.

    When my mother wasn't home, I would "practice" for hours. My father didn't know how my assigned pieces went. I would open my music folder and write a song from scratch that sounded more or less like Mozart or Bach. He would tell my mother, when she came home, that I had played all afternoon and that it sounded beautiful. But she knew my trick. She'd remind me that I had a lesson to prepare for, and I would return, grim-faced, to the painstaking, teeth-pulling slowness of recreating Mozart.

    Classical piano is not just about recreating pieces exactly as written. There is an art to dynamic changes and style and tone and performance. Playing Mozart well takes great skill. But it just wasn't a skill that I wanted to learn, at least not past a certain point. I didn't just want to iterate upon someone else's patterns; I wanted to write my own program, build my own patterns. Even if they were not very good. Not at first, anyway.

    At age 12, I quit my piano lessons. At 13, I joined a rock band.

    Maddy Myers on keytar

    Maddy Myers on keytar

    I've been told that most of the creative quandaries in music composition cannot be applied to game-making. There is limited jazz in writing code; you cannot put two phrases next to one another that do not "go" together. There are some rules that must be followed or else the code won't compile. You cannot be experimental or dissonant when you are writing code—not like with music, or so I keep hearing. After all, a song cannot be broken. A song cannot fail to load, they say. A song cannot crash.

    Game developers have a history of distancing themselves from a tradition of artistry, and instead associating themselves with the utilitarian work of architects and software developers. I often hear developers downplay the artistic elements of their games, hand-waving their work as little more than organizing numbers in spreadsheets or fine-tuning the textures on a tree in a single area.

    How must these utilitarian game developers think that other art is made? How accessible and romantic and unplanned do they imagine the creation of sculpture and dance and painting to be? Do they think it's that easy to knit a picture on a sweater? I can promise you, that can't be done without a design. A plan. A system.Even the kinds of music that often characterized as the most impromptu or improvisational—jazz, punk, experimental—often have their own distinct sets of rules, and the ways they seem slapdash, dissonant or spontaneous happen very much by design.

    Creating art and music is not just about the glamorous act of being inspired and pouring out your soul. It, too, is rife with the thoroughly unromantic grind of production and editing and refinement and polishing. The grueling march of notating, measure by measure, every single note that every instrument must perform, and at what time, and in what way. The rote memorization required for performance. The expectation of acknowledging an existing "canon," even if only to rebuke and subvert it. And even when the code loads or the right notes get played, all art can fail, in its own way. That's exactly why creation is terrifying.

    But that shouldn't stop us from moving past iteration into the world of improvisation. Learning music as I did as a child—echoing, mimicking, and repeating upon the established patterns of our predecessors—can be valuable, but I've found it's a lot more interesting in both music and code to play some original notes, even some "wrong" notes and see if they sound "right" to me.

  • The existential dread of fighting games

    I'd lost the match, and Hank had been waiting for his turn to tap in. But I wouldn't give up the controller. There'd been foul play in the last round, I insisted, and therefore I deserved a second chance.

    "Fuck you," he shouted in my face, and the whole room went silent. I tried to drop my controller in someone else's lap, but she muttered that she didn't want to play. I made a stormy exit, and I'm sure everyone thought I was angry, but I was actually embarrassed. It'd been Hank's game, Hank's controller and Hank's house, and I had been the loser. But I hadn't wanted to stop playing. I'd wanted to keep playing the game forever, to be the best.

    samus1

    When I was 14, all of my social interactions revolved around my high school a capella group and Super Smash Bros for the Nintendo 64. Our small, student-run chorus of outcasts practiced multiple times per week at Hank's house. Once we finished practicing our "My Girl" harmonies, Hank would invite us to the living room for a few games of Smash as we waited for our parents to pick us up.

    That was around the time I started to notice there was something different about me compared to the others. The other girls, in particular — they tamped down their angry outbursts, kill-stealing and sore-loser rants. Sometimes they hung back from these game sessions altogether, talking about musical casts and crushes. Part of me wanted to join in, but I cared about games way more. I couldn't figure out how to calm my racing heartbeat or slow down my climbing emotions during Smash matches. At the time, I didn't even want to.

    A year later I got my own Nintendo GameCube, with a copy of the newest Smash game, and began hosting tournaments in my own basement. Beating Hank time after time gave me a sick addiction to joyous retribution. Hank came close to victory many times, but he never did beat me – and ultimately, he asked out every single girl in our a capella group besides me.

    Even though I was winning every single match against my hometown friends, I didn't feel good about myself. I felt scared. Whenever Hank came near to beating me, anxiety would tighten my throat. What would I do when he finally won? I didn't know, but I had to prevent it at all costs — even if it cost me my friends' respect.

    samus2

    Victories stopped feeling good. Even though I was the best, my anxiety only increased: It felt like I had to protect my mountain at all costs, like I'd lose everything otherwise. Part of me knew that the friends I took such delight in beating didn't even like me anymore, let alone respect me, but I couldn't change.

    I took my Smash game to online communities and arcades, malls and meetups, and found myself entering a world of games that seemed far more sexual, far more adult than the cartoonish world of Nintendo characters and their comedy battles. My parents wouldn't have let me play Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter, with their seductive vocabulary of complicated secrets and meaty strategy guides. And I was in over my head: My kind of trash-talking and competitive spirit was nothing compared to these kids' world.

    Since then I've tried from time to time to engage with different sectors of the massive and complex fighting game community. I've had some terrible luck with the folks I've met — while to its credit the fighting game community does have more racial diversity than other competitive gaming cultures, there are embarrassingly few women.

    For example, out of hundreds of competitors to join the GUTS II tournament in Boston two years ago, I was just one of two women (she played Street Fighter IV and I played Marvel vs. Capcom 3). I've spent the last 15 years continuing to compete, understanding exactly what it's like to lose, and how to learn. But I've also spent 15 years exposed to all kinds of trash talk, and insisting to others that no, I'm not in fact new at any of these games I compete at, that I do own game consoles, and a PC that I built myself, and yes this is my arcade stick, and no it isn't the first one I've ever owned, and yes I do play other competitive games, and no I don't look or act the way you'd expect me to look or act.

    Most of the time, I feel like I'm expected to be enraptured by men and their supposedly-greater knowledge. At other times, I'm expected to perform like a prodigy — like a monkey who can play the piano, or a dog who can walk on its hind legs.

    Sometimes I wonder why I bother with it all: What's the actual point of my getting any better at fighting games than I am now? What's the point in perfecting an unusual combo, or drilling a complex cancel, in memorizing cool-down times and frame data?

    It's not just that I don't like losing – or that I don't understand why losing is important for learning. I have become preoccupied with existential dread, obsessed with my own mortality and the inexorable march of time. At the back of my mind, as I drill and practice, I know: It is already too late for me to be the best at any of these games.

    samus3

    I can't even control the reasons. In 2009, the guy who'd been giving me rides to fight nights told me he was in love with me, so I let him down easy and fled, even though Street Fighter IV was about to transform the community and I'd just gotten a new arcade stick. I returned three years later to similar problems in different T-shirts: sexist trash-talkers, store managers who didn't give a shit about my comfort, and Nice Guys who didn't understand that I wanted to play the game, not go on a date.

    Even dating fellow competitive players didn't help wash away the oily condescension — being "someone's girlfriend" sometimes leaves you with even more to prove than being "some girl." I began to agonize about how I was perceived. What should I wear? How should I act? Sometimes I wished these people would accept me as a friend. At other times, I wished they'd understand I just wanted to play the game.

    At 29 years old, I still play competitive games — even though tournaments, fight nights and online play, where I'm often just counting down til the next rape joke, are not for me. The younger version of myself, unbearable competitive warts and all, understood that she was practicing to beat Hank. More than that, she wanted to be the best — and she believed that it was possible. She never wanted to stop, even after her time was up and she'd lost.

    I can run, but my short legs won't win me marathons. I play piano, but my fingers aren't long enough for a concert career. And the fact I'll never overcome my obstacles in some movie montage and become a champion of the fighting game community deeply disappoints me. I will never be able to whisper "I told you so" to the thousands of assholes who've condescended to me over the years. There will be no closure for me.

    How would I engage in a game just for pure fun? It feels almost impossible to me — who doesn't want to win, to see the ending, to tie it up with a bow? And yet there will always be someone better than me out there, and there will always be another game, another update to the game, another layer of complexity just outside my grasp. It'll never be finished, only a constant process of revisitation and refinement.

    Against friends or strangers, winning has stopped mattering to me; I may lose or win individual battles, but I've won the war simply by surviving. I feel pride in the fact that I still exist on these virtual battlegrounds in spite of the number of people who have tried to tell me that I do not belong. I can play for as long as I want to, and no one can stop me.

    I've been turned away time and time again by men. They seem afraid to lose. If only they knew what real challenge is.