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Originally written: June, 2005. Last update: May, 2009.

NOTE: This article is subject to changes and improvements; reader comments are welcome.

My most recent articles have been about typical wannabe questions. This month let's take a look at another type of typical wannabe question, and analyze why it's a bad question.

I'm frequently asked which of two candidates I'd hire, or which of two courses of action I'd recommend, or which of two colleges a wannabe should attend. For lack of a better term, let's call these two-choices questions.

The asker of a two-choices question never realizes what should be obvious - that the world isn't black and white, that we always have other alternatives besides only the rock and the hard place.

Let's take a look at some example two-choices questions.

* * *

You're a technical director for a game project, looking to hire an entry-level programmer (a grunt for the team). You get two résumés.

  • Candidate B has a Masters degree in CS, and is fresh out of college. He has some class projects to show, but because he was in school he doesn't have a demo of his own making, and no work experience.
  • Candidate J is self-taught - no degree. Never went to college, but has been doing some game creation on his own in his spare time while working to support himself, so he has an impressive demo. Has had a couple of years experience working in a non-game field, but some of his duties did include doing stuff on the computer.
    Which would you hire?
    I usually answer, "neither." The main reason I say "neither" is simply to shock the asker. The truth is that the descriptions of the two candidates don't give me enough information to warrant hiring anybody. I'd need to meet both candidates, and I'd definitely want to see more resumes too. My real purpose for hiring someone isn't to give somebody an entry into the biz - my real purpose is to get a valuable addition to the team to make my project - so I'd really want someone with game biz experience. So the answer "neither one" isn't as much a lie as an oversimplification.
    But even more important than my answer is the question. The person asking this question is showing that he's lazy. He'd like to either go to college or build a portfolio - not both. It takes long hard work and determination to get a game career - there is no secret shortcut.

    Which is more important, a portfolio or a degree?
    This is pretty much the same question as above. Again, the asker is showing his laziness, trying to find a way to get out of having to have both a portfolio and a degree. And the asker has the naïve belief that there is a cut-and-dried preference for one over the other. Life just ain't that simple! Consider this next question to illustrate the point:

    Which is a more important attribute for an automobile windshield - that it (A) shield the driver from the wind, or (B) be transparent so the driver can see to navigate?
    Both attributes are vitally important. An opaque shield that keeps the wind, rain, and birds off the driver's face would be useless because the driver would crash into something. A transparency in front of the driver that didn't keep the wind, rain, bugs, and birds off the driver's face would make driving very unpleasant, especially at high speeds.
    So, too, then, are a portfolio and a degree both vital attributes for a job applicant. It's silly and naïve to ask which is more important than the other.
    It's possible to get a job with a great portfolio and no degree - it's possible to get a job with a degree and no portfolio - but it's far better to bring both to the interview table.

    I've narrowed my choice of college down to either DigiGame or GameSail. Which college is better?
    "It depends." Read article 25.

    I've already read your stinking article 25. It's basically telling me to go to a non-game school, and by gosh, I'm gonna go to a game school.
    No, that isn't the point of article 25 (that is kinda the point of article 44, but that's beside the point). If you re-read article 25, maybe you'll get another important point - "how to make important decisions in life." You need to make a decision grid to choose between your two game schools. You can't expect a stranger like me to make that decision for you. And it's naïve of you to assume that there is a clear industry preference for one of those schools' graduates over the other's.

    Should I start my game design project by fleshing out the story first, or by working out the user interface first?
    Two answers: 1. "It depends." 2. Those aren't your only two choices.

    Should I make an animation reel or should I program a demo game?
    "It depends." Care to guess what it depends on? And I hope you aren't thinking one of those is a substitute for a four-year college degree.

    Which job is more fun and fulfilling, designing a game or programming a game?
    "It depends." For me, programming would be too dry and numbers-oriented. But maybe you enjoy the powerful feeling programmers derive from making computers do cool things. Maybe you would find English, Writing, Acting, and Psychology classes too boring and "la-di-da." So. Which is it? Do you enjoy making your computer perform amazing deeds at your beck and call? Or do you prefer writing stories, and imagining new worlds? Read FAQ 40.

    So the way I see it, I have two choices. Either I have to spend a fortune on a four-year game degree (which is impossible given my life situation), or I have to slave in a grunt QA job for years and years before I can break through to the studio.
    Those aren't your only two choices. But your characterization of QA indicates to me that you aren't somebody I'd ever hire to work in my game company (if I had one, and/or if I was hiring). Your question shows that you're just a whiner with delusions of superiority, that you think "grunt work" is beneath you. A few years of "grunt work" might teach you some humility, might knock that computer chip off your shoulder.

    * * *

    Two-choices questions are often bad questions. Sometimes we justify asking two-choices questions so we can cut through the complications and get the simple answer. But no matter how much we wish this weren't so, usually in life there is no simple answer. In fact, every two-choices question has six possible answers:

    * To explain #3 above, A and B are often not the only two possible answers. Some other option (not acknowledged by the asker of the two-choices question) may in fact be the best answer.

    Be honest about what it is you're really trying to find out. Very often, a two-choices question is a "primrose path" question, in which the asker is leading the askee astray in order to obtain the desired answer.

    Some people "horriblize" their situation by reducing its solution to two unpleasant alternatives, so they can avoid having to do the hard work they know is necessary to accomplish what they want. When you do this, you just stymie yourself! Get creative. Figure out what your other choices are. Break out of that hole you've dug yourself into.

    Don't know how? Stop and think creatively. There are lots of ways to get out of a corner you've painted yourself into. You can open the window and step out. You can grab the chandelier and swing yourself out past the wet paint. You can break through the plaster. You can open a trapdoor and go under the floor. Or you can just walk over the wet paint and repair the damage behind you as you go (then clean the paint off your shoes). And those are just to name the first few that come to mind. Creativity takes many forms. Asking two-choices questions is not one of them.

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    © 2005-2009 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved. May not be re-published without written permission of the author.