I am an avid player of computer games and pen-and-paper RPG games. I enjoy shooting hordes of zombies, building and deploying armies and being part of a team in a fantastic and dangerous world. I have always valued games for themselves, but it has only dawned on me recently that they must have great survival value. Research has shown that playing is hard-wired into humans, the great apes and well, pretty much all mammals as far as my cursory search goes. Something that is built-in, instinctive to people, dolphins, rhinoceroses and foxes is probably crucial and very generally useful. We share play with species that have no hands, no language, vastly different intelligence levels and which live in environments that would kill us. Play is so useful that it has elbowed its way into the evolutionary bandwidth. It is genetically ingrained in the species and gets time and energy allocated alongside the crucial business of finding food, shelter and a breeding partner. It is obviously doing something vitally important. So what is it for and why do humans think they need to stop playing as adults? […]
OK, help me think about this.
I have spent a year recovering from burn-out. During the first period, I frankly do not know how long it was, I could not play in any way whatsoever. Given that game-playing has always been important to me, this was a sign of poor mental health. As I started to recover I regained interest in games. I started running a Savage Worlds (tabletop rpg) game for a group of teens and I started playing computer games. Let us look for a moment about the effect of those games on my health.
I experienced the tabletop game as an important creative outlet. I made a story-world for my players that was an adaptation to the modern day of the book “Day of the Triffids” by John Wyndham. I was inspired by rereading the book and created characters for them to interact with, going so far as to paint small portraits of them. I also crafted miniature Triffids out of papier-mache and drew an elaborate map of the caves and the cave entrance that the characters emerged from at the start of the story, teaching myself the GIMP image processing program to do so. These were little steps on the way to being myself again. I was proud and encouraged that I had created something, surmounted all the little obstacles to trying something new and succeeded. Running an RPG game is also a small, well-structured social arena to rediscover the skills of connecting with others in. I believe the reason that some less socially adapted people are attracted to role-playing games is because they are a wonderfully safe and encouraging environment. They are non-competitive, create rapport and team-work and supply cool successes.
In the same period I gradually started playing computer games again. I started playing Team Fortress 2, a game in which you, as part of a team, attempt to defeat another team. Though TF2 is a shooter and you spend a lot of time being blown up, often after a mere few minutes of life, it somehow manages to have a cheerful, humorous tone. The characters you play are cartoonish, bombastic parodies, so it does not hurt your pride when you are repeatedly massacred by more skilled players.
That last part is important. I am rather competitive and a bad loser. It is not a trait I am proud of, so I do my best, at some cost, to be graceful. I had previously abandoned “shooter” games largely because my initial lack of skill and subsequent rapid defeat caused me to become frustrated and upset. Strangely enough, something about the goofy tone and rapid pace of TF2 did not press my competitive buttons and I was able to play it with pleasure and therefore become quite expert.
Which brings us to the here and now. I still play and enjoy the tabletop games, but I am finding it harder, as I get mentally healthier, to enjoy Team Fortress. I now get impatient if I am not among the top scorers and I get very unhappy if my team performs (in my view) badly. Apparently as I pull out of the burnout, my competitiveness and aggression are gradually increasing, to the point that it is becoming harder to participate and progress in the game I used to enjoy. It is something of a paradox, that becoming more of “my old self” brings with it traits that I was happy to miss. It also points up that some competitiveness is useful and a spur to excellence, but that too much can prevent you from sticking with a learning task long enough to become excellent. Video games are a powerful metric. They show you in many ways how skilled you are at playing them and the change in your skill level is visible from day to day. My learning task now is to find a way to relax and enjoy the times when I fail, in the certain knowledge that this will enable me to become more skilled and capable in the long run. I think the most crucial aspect of my early play was a concious setting of low expectations and the goal of having fun, rather than being very capable. Fun leads to skill, to expertise, not the other way round. If I want to get good at Team Fortress, or anything else, I had better be able to enjoy it.
I am back in the Dusty Place. No wall for your back, no exits to check out. In the Dusty Place shapes form and blow away in the endless wind of a bone-dry arroyo; if you look at them too long you get to know that you are just a shape too. My shoes are already fraying at the edges as I sit down at the green baize with Pigskin. Wont do to stay too long in this place. Gotta thank the guys that gut-shot me though: it’s mighty hard to get this far into the dust with too much life in you.
Manitou always look like what you don’t want; their way of rattlin’ your bones. So Pigskin sits there, the dust streaming away around the flayed snout, black eye-pits and heaving, bleeding fat belly and shuffles with the long, delicate fingers of a fine lady.
I ain’t fooled. We go waaay back me an’ Pigskin.
I thanks to the erudite Joy Maul on Google+ I read a nice piece by Saul Griffith about a “curriculum of toys“. I fundamentally belileve that ALL play is learning and thus ALL toys and games are educational. It is impossible to play with anything without learning. If you spend time watching a baby play you will see a fairly systematic exploration process going on. They do indeed put everything in their mouths to get a feel and taste of it. They wave if to sense it’s weight and solidity and discover the strength of their arms.
It’s a cliché, but completely accurate in my experience, that when you buy an expensive toy for a child she spends all her time playing with the packaging. I actually remember doing that: it is because the packaging has more possibilities. Many elaborate toys have a single directed purpose, they are the “cherry-pitter” of toys. We once bought a magnificent plastic walking, LED fire-breathing dragon for one of my kids. He was charmed by the spectacle (as we had been), but got bored quite fast and kept it as an ornament rather than a toy. It reminded me of the elaborate robots with sparking effects that were the must-have toy when I was a kid. I always got frustrated by them because they stopped working when I took them apart. Taking apart is a very good impulse. It looks destructive to parents, who know that the workings cannot be easily understood or put back together, but it is in fact healthy curiosity. The outer, walking, sparking behaviour is great, but just look at all the complex moving gubbins inside…. that is really interesting.
Let’s talk about video games. There is no video game in existence (with the exception of the infamous Desert Bus prank) that does not present and reward an ever increasing level of difficulty. This is so well known that the conclusion is overlooked: games are only fun it you are learning and developing. They provide you with immediate thrills and spills, but also with visible and measurable growth in your skills. I have personally experienced the joy of coming back to a place where I was stalled in a tough game after a night of sleep and discovering that I had somehow become better during the night. Gamers are addicted to that feeling of growth, so successful games feed it, no exceptions.
My children have a history with video games. The ones they play the longest are the ones where you can design your own levels. The oldest built elaborate levels with complex scripts and behaviours in Warcraft 3 and then moved on to Phun (that was before they got all “educational”, changed the name a charged money for it). Middle one builds buildings with lifts and stairs and gun-emplacements in Roblox. All three of them are now obsessed with Minecraft. If you are not a gamer, you need to know that Minecraft is the free-to-use product of a single programmer with a lot of unpaid assistants, has ancient, crude blocky graphics and is a sandbox: within the (large) confines of a Minecraft world you can do pretty much anything. Take a moment to Google Minecraft and watch the videos if you don’t know it, I’ll wait here.
You back? Pretty impressive stuff wasn’t it? Of course some of the kids at play with these toys are industrial designers and programmers with full-time jobs, but that just brings in the next drop of bloody obvious: there is no toy as fascinating to a child as the tools of an adult. Any parent knows that kids will find your mobile phone, your electric drill and your lipstick more interesting than anything they have. They do not want a plastic hammer and pretend nails. They want to do what you do, because they are programmed to learn the stuff that big humans know before they become big humans themselves.
So what are we homing in on here? If we accept that all play is learning and that children play at every opportunity with anything that is not nailed down the question becomes: “why is education not play?”
It even becomes “how on earth can education be effective if it is not play?”
Play, particularly imitation of adult behaviour, is pretty obviously the built-in monkey instinct for learning about the environment. It is exploration, taking apart, copying and experimental creation. It is the reason we rule the world (good luck world), fly aeroplanes, build, create and discover.
I am a geek, so I follow Will Wheaton. Much as I like Will Wheaton, I am no longer fond of his catchphrase “don’t be a dick”.
Don’t get me wrong. I agree that dickishness is more than plentiful and less would be better, but DBAD seems to be something that is only said to other people. That is not really the problem. In most of the situations where I would apply DBAD, I am involved. I am often even a contributor. Despite my best efforts and those of my beloved wife and upbringing I am sometimes a dick. Sometimes people and things Rub Me the Wrong Way (pause for double-entendre) and I am a nasty, judgemental, sarcastic meany-trousers. It’s not very often, but sometimes my dice land that way.
Stil, even when people are not being very nice to me, I have the opportunity and even obligation to take the better path and higher ground and sometimes I do. That is the heavy lifting. That is when a gorilla get it’s wings, I get a year off purgatory and extra shiny karma.
The greatest challenge is that moment of judgement. The moment when I decide that someone is wrong, bad and a drain on the species: “cut me up in traffic!”, “took it without asking!”, “got in my way for no reason!”, “looked at me funny!”. That is when I could say “don’t be a dick” to them and skip away secure in my own perfection, but it is harder, but I think better, to say “you don’t know their story”. You don’t. I once sat in a very intensive coaching session with twelve ordinary-looking, well-paid professionals and discovered how much sadness, grief and suffering lurked in their lives. There is a lot of suffering out there that people who look no different to you are just dealing with. You have no idea, I certainly didn’t.
The rude guy in the supermarket had just had a hell of day with his abusive boss. The dithering lady in the car ahead is dealing with the death of a friend but still has to pick up her children. The kid that pushed in front of you got humiliated in front of all his friends and maybe Will Wheaton’s power-mad flight attendant can never have children, is facing redundancy, or just got out of bed the wrong side this morning.
Judgement without information is just stroking off my ego and licencing me to be horrid. If we know the story, see at a real person in the wrack and fury of their world we might feel differently. We might get it, show compassion and let it ride. Life is too short.
It’s a short ride on this spinning globe sweethearts: no one gets out alive. You may bump into me on this whirligig and I may be a complete dick at that time, so please remember: you don’t know my story and I don’t know yours. Until we do, judgement is not ours.
with Love, Tim
After an interesting exchange with a fellow blogger I feel the need to map out a bit more thoroughly than last time the pragmatic mashup of GTD and The Pomodoro Technique that is the method of my current madness. This is then a post about methods…aargh and I am (strange to say) not much of a method wonk. No really. It is all too common to see productivity methods and the tools that go with them (generally software) become precisely the kind of mental tar-baby that we were trying to avoid by adopting them : goofing around with new software is probably less mentally challenging than dealing with you piles and files. The thing that has always endeared and adhered GTD to me is just that it works for me. Other methods, Covey et al, bounced off my polished procrastination, leaving me feeling guilty. GTD allows me to do things that would otherwise not happen. It sticks with me despite my ability to go haring off after any gaily apparelled concept that trots past. It is just fierce enough to make me do the thinking I need to do but not so grim that I despair of satisfying its constraints : hence the affection and enthusiasm.
GTD evolved out of the kind of busy commercial middle and executive management environment Peter Drucker wrote for. Its bones and brains were honed against a deluge of inputs and interrupts, lack of clarity, moving targets and the pressing need to remain sane while keeping an ever increasing number of plates safely spinning. It is indeed about “getting things done” and the unsaid follow-up is “despite your screw-ball environment”. The assumption is that the (for me unsung) rigourous process of defining a Next Action will automatically chunk things into a size you can focus long enough to handle. That is mostly true, but not always. […]
Discipline. Now that’s an old-fashioned word. It conjures up images of strict parents, being stood in the corner, being unable to do what you want; but there is another side. Any skill that takes dedication and focus is also called a “discipline”. The image there is of perfecting a movement, refining your understanding, excluding distraction. The common theme is focus, excluding one thing so that another can be successful, pouring your energy into one bright spot, rather than dissipating it over a wide field. […]
As I very often say – I have an astounding ability to finally realize the extremely obvious. If I have an intellectual guardian angel she probably spends a lot of her time slapping her forehead and going “good grief”. My current brainstorm is on the subject of learning a new habit. I have finally realized one of the main reasons it is so hard.
I got used last week.
But that’s ok. Here is how it happened.
At the moment I spend part of my time in an environment were there is fear and lack of candour. People feel threatened and powerless and unable to connect to each other. Such situations are anathema to me, they dampen down our fire and life and infect us with secrecy and doubt. Anger and complaints do not counter this. Bitching around the coffee machine does not help. The only cure for fear is truth: gentle, unremitting personal truth. So I told the truth about what was happening to me (I am going to leave) but that I was fine and would be happy to talk to anyone about my situation. This undoubtedly helped the manager concerned to avoid a confrontation with his staff. He used what I said to paper over growing concerns. So he will probably not properly resolve the situation. That is a shame, but I stand by my principle. I knew that I would be used and did it anyway because, as I tell my sons very often, I wish to behave according to my own best principles rather than responding to other’s worst actions. I hope that some of my co-workers will feel a little easier, a little stronger and less alone. It was for them. I was a small thing I could do.
So what am I telling you? For me, it does not matter if others would put your actions to bad use. Tell the truth. It really will set you free.