Desert of My Real Life

A student from my Creating Games class came to my office today to talk about the keynote speech from a conference he had recently attended.  The speaker was lamenting the fact that kindergarten has become increasingly focused on “preparing children for first grade” rather than socialization through play activities.  Because we talk a lot about play and its importance in life (even adult life), he wanted to know what I thought about this.

We had a great conversation and in the middle of it, I had an epiphany that many of our society’s ills stem from the very philosophy that encourages (or even requires) kindergarten classrooms to be structured around preparation for first grade.  I think the philosophy comes from capitalistic tendencies to focus on “efficiency,” “productivity,” and “progress,” all of which are defined in a very narrow sense.  And the more I think about this, the more I see it everywhere in our society.

My original thought was that we are forgetting the importance of play because we are so focused on short-term, immediate, measurable outcomes.  We have few resources and so we need to use them efficiently in order to make progress toward some short-term goal.  Any “unproductive” use of resources is discouraged as wasteful.  That is, if we can’t see the immediate consequence of the use of those resources, the resources have been wasted.  So children engaging in unstructured, “unproductive” play in kindergarten is wasteful because they aren’t learning to read, something they must know how to do when they enter first grade.  We need to test our students regularly (using standardized tests) to measure their “progress” and if they aren’t all making the same “progress,” someone must be punished (with loss of funding or firing). So we eliminate art programs and physical education and other extra subjects so we can focus our resources on getting students to perform well on our measurement tools.

As I thought more about this, I started to see this idea everywhere. Because money is the only measurement tool that matters for the stock market, if a company is not making adequate “progress” (which means increasing profits every quarter–profits which stay the same are not “progressing”), it will be punished by shareholders leaving them (well, maybe not in this particular economic climate). So companies engage in practices which make (or save) money in the short-term but which might not make sense if we had a longer view.  And mathematicians and fund managers design financial products that will increase in profits every quarter. If we had a longer view, we would recognize the risk of these products and wouldn’t allow them to take down our entire economy with their collapse. We won’t fund basic research and development because it isn’t immediately clear what the benefits are. And so we won’t learn more about how the universe and the world works just for the sake of learning those things today but which tomorrow might lead to amazing technological advances. I could go on and on.

This kind of thinking is the root of many of our societal problems. Kids engaging in unstructured, unsupervised play is important to teach them skills that can’t be easily measured and whose benefits may not be visible for years. They will learn to entertain themselves. They will learn to focus on an activity for more than a half hour at a time. They will use their imaginations. They will learn to navigate the world on their own, without some external force guiding them to the next “correct” step. These things may take years to learn and are definitely not easily measured. But it seems to me that those are not valid reasons to give up on them. Yet, I think we have largely given up on them. Just as we’ve given up on many of the things in my list above.

I realize I probably sound like a curmudgeon longing for “the good old days.” Or that I think we shouldn’t measure anything in the short-term. But that isn’t my point at all. My point is simply that our societal focus on ONLY measurable, short-term outcomes has consequences. And I would argue that those consequences are mostly bad. They lead to less creativity and fewer workers prepared to adapt to the ever-changing world and economic collapses and fewer technological advances and and and. Focusing on these other things, these things we can’t measure or see the results of immediately, is risky. We might “waste” some resources. But sometimes, what seems like a “waste” today turns out to be life-changing, society-changing, at a point in the unknowable future. And the really sad thing is that if we don’t invest in these “wastes,” we’ll never even know what we might be missing.

{April 24, 2011}   Games and Lessons for Life

I am a sucker for stories about the relationship between games and life.  When I was a graduate student, a story in the Tallahassee Democrat about the life of Warrick Dunn, a star football player whose police officer mother was killed in the line of duty while he was in high school, brought me to tears.  I love movies like Sea Biscuit and Brian’s Song.  I have myself written blog entries ruminating about what we can learn about life from playing games.

So you would think a story that I heard on NPR this morning would be right up my alley.  Weekend Edition Sunday host Liane Hansen interviewed Dan Barry, author of a new book called Bottom of the 33rd about the longest baseball game ever played in the history of US men’s professional baseball.  This particular game was played in 1981, between the Pawtucket Red Sox and the Rochester Red Wings, farm teams of the Boston Red Sox and the Baltimore Orioles, respectively.  The teams played 32 innings in 8.5 hours before the owner of the league called the umpires to tell them to halt the game.  That was at 4 in the morning on Easter Sunday and there were 19 people left in the chilly stands in Pawtucket, RI.  When the teams reunited 2 months later to finish the game, nearly 6000 fans showed up and over 140 reporters from all over the world came to cover it.  Pawtucket won the game in the bottom of the 33rd inning, a mere 18 minutes after the game resumed.

The subtitle of Dan Barry’s book is Hope, Redemption and Baseball’s Longest Game.  I expected the interview on NPR to touch on hope and redemption and perhaps something about how this longest game can teach us something about perseverance.  Instead, the interview focused on the facts of the game, including the fact that Cal Ripken, Jr., who went on to set the record for consecutive starts in the Major League, played all 33 innings and that Wade Boggs, future Hall of Famer, tied it up for Pawtucket in the twenty-first inning. Barry also told us that the original 19 fans who stuck it out for those 32 innings in April were annoyed that nearly 6000 people could now say they saw history being made when they really only had seen the last inning of that historic game.

But nothing in the interview touched on hope or redemption.  Or perseverance.  Or anything of importance.  Which annoyed me.  Not every sports story is a story about life, about issues larger than the game itself.  A book about a particular game that is the longest in professional history is probably of interest to baseball fanatics.  The fact that NPR picks the author of that book as someone deserving of an interview implies there is more to the story, something that we can all learn from.  As far as I can tell, that is not the case with this particular game or this particular book, the hyperbole of its subtitle notwithstanding.  Adding the words “hope” and “redemption” to the subtitle of a book will not make that book interesting for a general audience.  I realize I’m judging the book by its interview.  Maybe that’s not fair.  But neither is it fair to promise us a discussion of what a game can tell us about hope and redemption and instead waste our time with the facts and statistics of a particular game.  Come on, NPR.  With all the real, inspiring sports stories out there, we deserve better.  Did you choose to tell us about this book simply because the game went into the wee hours of Easter morning, 1981, which happens to be 30 years ago today?  That coincidence also doesn’t make this story interesting for the general reader.

Media outlets of all types see April 1st of each year as a time to play with their audiences.  These stories rarely “catch” me because they typically have to be so outrageous that it’s clear from the outset that they are April Fool’s Day jokes.  This morning, however, National Public Radio ran a minute and a half long story that totally caught me.  I spent about 60 seconds planning my blog response to it.

The story is about the fact that 3D viewing technology has really exploded in the entertainment market but the technology still requires us to wear cumbersome 3D glasses.  An opthamologist claimed to have pioneered an eye surgery that would allow us to watch 3D entertainment without having to wear those glasses.  They even had one of the first people who had the surgery talk about how great it was to watch Gnomeo and Juliet in 3D without those glasses.  The line of the story that really made me want to respond was about how this surgery would allow us to live in a 3D world.  In my head, I was yelling “We already live in a 3D world!”  And that was the moment that I knew it was an April Fool’s Day joke.  The beauty of this story is that it mimicked real stories of this type, where people do crazy things to further immerse themselves in online entertainment.  I’ve been reading a bunch about how Reality is Broken and what we can do about it so this story didn’t seem particularly far-fetched to me.  Good job, NPR!

{March 9, 2011}   We Are Playing a Game

One of my blog buddies, the fabulous Caroline Bender (she of Drawing In fame), wrote an entry yesterday about the “game” she and I have been playing on Facebook.  I put “game” in quotes because one of the questions she asks is whether we are actually playing a game.  So here is my response to her opening move in this blogscussion.

Several weeks ago, Ms. Bender made an off-hand comment on Facebook about having started to play online Scrabble.  This is one of the two games that I continue to play on Facebook (the other is Go).  She had warned her potential Scrabble opponents by posting a status update that she “knows you all thought I would better at Scrabble. (Well…all but 2 of you, I think).”  How could I resist?  I challenged her to a game. 

We’ve now played several games and she does not get very high scores.  We have had a couple of snippets of conversation concerning the differences in our styles of play.  My style of play typically leads to high scores while hers does not.  All of that is fine with me.  Whether I win or lose, I just like to play.  So, to get back to her question, are we playing a game?  To answer it, I’ll look at what I think are her reasons for asking the question.

I’ve written a bunch about definitions of games and analyzing various activities to determine whether they are games.  I most often use Greg Costikyan’s definition, with its six elements that every game must have, as my framework for analysis.  Ms. Bender does an impressive analysis (which I won’t recreate but which you should go read) of Scrabble using this framework.  I think some of the things she discovers in her analysis lead her to question whether Scrabble is a game.  The most interesting item that she raises has to do with goals.  She also raises an interesting possibility of a seventh criterion for making an activitiy a game and I’ll talk about that possibility in relationship to goals.

Ms. Bender rightly points out that Scrabble does indeed present its players with a goal.  But I would state it a bit differently than she does.  She says that the goal of Scrabble is to get the most points and use all the letters.  I would instead say that the goal is to play your letters in order to score points.  The difference is subtle and yet, critical.  Ms. Bender has made the assumption that everyone plays games for the same reason–to win the game.  But I have written a couple of papers (and blog entries)  in which I argue that this common assumption is a problem in game studies circles.  My argument has been controversial.  Anyway, here’s the basic idea.

First, when Costikyan talks about goals, he is not talking about player motivations.  He really means the objective that is set up by the game for the player to achieve.  So in Scrabble, the objective is to score points by laying your tiles on the board.  Some players will be motivated to engage in this activity because they want to win the game.  Other players will be motivated because they want to hang out with their friends.  Yet other players will be motivated because they get pleasure in finding particular types of patterns.  This is what Ms. Bender refers to when she says, after showing that in our current game I am beating her quite soundly, “It’s not that I don’t care.  It’s just not what I care about.”  Her motivation for playing is something other than getting a higher score than her opposition.  And by the way, so is mine.  But more about that later.

So there’s a difference between player motivation and the goal of the game.  What do we know about player motivation?  There is an old, simple media theory called the uses and gratifications theory that is helpful in understanding motivations for using media such as games.  It is one of the first theories that focused on the recipient of media messages.  One of the most famous quotes about the theory comes from a paper by Blumler and Katz in which they say the theory explores

1) the social and psychological origins of 2) needs, which generate 3) expectations of 4) the mass media or other sources, which lead to 5) differential patterns of media exposure (or engagement in other activities), resulting in 6) need gratifications and 7) other consequences, perhaps mostly unintended ones. (Blumler J. G. & E. Katz (1974): The Uses of Mass Communication. Newbury Park, CA: Sage. p. 20.)

In other words, people have needs that they seek to gratify by consuming media that they expect will gratify those needs. The theory goes on to articulate a large number of needs that people seek to gratify by consuming media messages.

What does this have to do with games?  It means that people play games for many, many reasons, to gratify a large number of needs.  We in the game studies field have primarily focused on the need to beat the competition, that is, to win.  But I think the popularity of Farmville, especially among a non-typical gaming population, should make us question this assumption that people play games in order to win.  (And by the way, it was this argument about Farmville in particular that was so controversial at an awesome video game conference in Oxford this past summer–the counter-argument is that there is nothing redeeming about Farmville.)

So when Ms. Bender says that she sees Scrabble as “verbal sudoku,” she is saying that it gratifies a need for her other than the need to win.  The interesting thing is that I feel exactly the same way about Scrabble.  For me, it is all about finding patterns.  It’s just that the patterns that give my brain a little jolt of pleasure are different than the patterns that give Ms. Bender her gaming high.

Ms. Bender also asks: “I am interested to know if #7 criterion should be that we have to be playing the same game, or is it still a game anyway?”  I think my analysis above makes it clear what I think about this.  But in case it isn’t clear, here goes.  We ARE playing the same game.  We simply have different motivations for playing that game.  And that, to me, is fun.  The fact that we have different motivations is indeed PART of the game.  She said that I am not her opposition because she has a different motivation, something other than winning that she cares about.  But I am indeed her opposition because opposition is anything that puts obstacles in the way of the player achieving her goals, both the objective presented by the game and the goal of having her needs gratified.  So everytime I block an area so that she can’t use it to create the word BARGAIN, I present an obstacle.  And THAT is fun.

{August 13, 2009}   Summer Play

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m chairing a panel at NeMLA in April about using Web 2.0 technologies to play.  Because of this panel, I’ve spent much of my summer playing and thinking about playing online.  Yes, I recognize that I have a great job!

The game that has captured my online attention this summer is Scrabble on FaceBook.  There are a few people (Liz, Scott, Ann) that I’m playing with regularly, multiple games at a time.  There are also a couple of people (Sally, Carrie) with whom I seem to constantly have one game going.  And then there are a few people (Gary, Cathrine, Kate) that I play with occasionally.  I even sometimes play with strangers, although I find those games less engaging, probably because the social aspect of the game, which I’ve also written about before, is lacking.

One of the things I really like about Scrabble on FaceBook is that it will not let you play an invalid word.  So the game is completely about pattern recognition.  When I play the game in person, nothing stops me from playing an invalid word and so I am unlikely to take a chance on a word that I am unsure about.  If my opponent challenges me in the real life game and I have played an invalid word, I lose a turn.  In the online version of Scrabble, I can’t lose a turn for playing an invalid word.  As a result, I’m likely to try letter combinations that I would never have tried in real life.  I’ve learned lots of new words by just trying out letter combinations.  What is “zax” for example?  Or “tranqs”?  And I’ve learned many, many two letter words whose meanings I’m sure I’ll never know.  Anyone know what “za” is?  Or “xu”?  Or “ka”?

Lots of other FaceBook games have come to my attention and not captured it this summer.  I’ve tried Farkle and Rummikub, both of which I love in the real world.  Many of my friends have been playing Farmtown and so I’ve created my own farm but I haven’t visited it for days.  And Mafia Wars.  And Bejeweled.  Well, to be honest, I won’t allow myself to really play Bejeweled because it is exactly the kind of game that I could become addicted to and I don’t really want to be addicted to a game right now.

But the kind of play I’ve been most interested in this summer has not been play that is associated with games.  I’m really interested in play as a way of practicing and expressing parts of one’s identity that is difficult to practice or express in the real world. 

My FaceBook friends seem to do a lot of quizzes.  They want to find out which philosopher most closely represents them and how well they know their Princess Bride quote trivia.  They want the rest of us to know five places they’ve lived and five jobs they’ve had and five cars they’ve owned.  For some reason, I have resisted these quizzes although I’ve been thinking a lot about what people get out of taking them.  And what I’ve come to realize is that these quizzes are a way to reveal one’s identity, either your real one or the one you wish you had.  This came to me the other night as I was engaging in non-gaming online play of my own.  I like to play with memes that come in the form of lists of questions that you answer in a note on your FaceBook profile.  A meme is a cultural idea that is transmitted from one mind to another, in this case, via FaceBook.  There are lots of memes running around FaceBook.  Most of these memes allow users to reveal things about themselves (or not), helping to construct a kind of online identity that supplements (or perhaps alters) one’s identity in the real world.

A few weeks ago, for example, I revealed to my friends the fifteen books that I’ve read that have stuck with me.  The idea is that you list these books without thinking too much about them, presumably so you can’t make yourself seem cooler than you actually are.  My list contained books that I’d talked recently with Ann about (Disgrace and The Road) as well as books that I’d seen on other people’s lists (To Kill a Mockingbird and The Color Purple).  The list also really did contain books that popped into my head because they were memorable and important to me in some way (A Separate Peace, Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Sing, Gone to Soldiers and The Mists of Avalon).  But I rejected a number of books from my list just because I didn’t think I’d want to reveal them (Valley of the Dolls, The Other and The Group).  And I rejected some just because they didn’t send the message that I wanted to send (Heart of Darkness and Carrie).  As I reflected afterward on the books that I put on my list, I started to think about identity management again, that is, how I present myself to the world, the FaceBook world in this case.

What does this have to do with play?  The other night, the two concepts merged for me.  I was playing with another of these memes, called My Life According to … .   The note contains a series of questions that you are supposed to answer using the song titles from one artist or band.  I chose the Indigo Girls so my note was called My Life According to the Indigo Girls.  Here’s what I wrote:

Several people have tagged me with this–I won’t tag anyone. Play if you want to. Using only song names from ONE ARTIST, cleverly answer these questions. Pass it on to 15 people you like and include me (presuming I’m someone you like). You can’t use the band I used. Try not to repeat a song title. Repost as “my life according to (band name)
Are you a male or female:
“The Girl With The Weight Of The World In Her Hands”
Describe yourself:
How do you feel:
“Closer To Fine”
Describe where you currently live:
“Get Out the Map”
If you could go anywhere, where would you go:
“Perfect World”
Your favorite form of transportation:
“Midnight Train to Georgia”
Your best friend?
“She’s Saving Me”
You and your best friends:
What’s the weather like:
Favorite time of day:
“I Don’t Wanna Know”
If your life was a TV show, what would it be called:
“Lay My Head Down”
What is life to you:
Your relationship:
“Moment of Forgiveness”
Your fear:
“Kid Fears”
What is the best advice you have to give:
“Don’t Give that Girl a Gun”
Thought for the Day:
“I’ll Change”
How I would like to die:
My soul’s present condition:
“Cold Beer and Remote Control”
My motto:
“It’s Alright”
 The interesting thing to me about this particular meme isn’t the answers that I gave but the process I went through in deciding which artist to use and then which song titles to use for each question.  As I chose song titles, I tried to think about how that particular choice would be received by my potential audience. For example, I don’t drink beer but I thought the song title “Cold Beer and Remote Control” was a clever response to “My soul’s present condition:”.  So I clearly wasn’t trying just to reveal true things about my identity.  I was also trying to construct (or reinforce?) an image of myself that shows me to be funny and clever.
I’ve been searching for work that discusses how adults use play in identity management.  I have found lots of work that discusses these issues for children but not much about adults.  I’m just starting to read Brian Sutton-Smith’s Ambiguity of Play.  He identifies four categories into which play activities can be grouped.  One of those categories is “play as self” so I’m hopeful that his work can help to advance my thinking on this subject.

et cetera