Archive for April, 2010
Wednesday, April 21st, 2010
Last month we talked about a green holiday, St. Patrick’s Day. April 22 is an even greener day – Earth Day. This is a good time to explore the world around you and to celebrate nature.
Earth Day began in 1970 as an environmental “teach-in” event on College and High School campuses. Teaching about ecology is of course dangerous. Time Magazine at the time reported that some suspected the date was not a coincidence, but a clue that the event was “a Communist trick,” and quoted a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution as saying, “Subversive elements plan to make American children live in an environment that is good for them.”
Oh noes! Force our children to live in a healthy environment? Horrors! That could mean the end of the world as we know it.
Can We Afford a Green Planet?
I saw an anti-environment protest in my own home town just a few days ago on tax day; I think it was part of the Tea Party movement. One of the signs said, “Stop Eco-Terrorism. Let businesses prosper.” Or something like that.
My first reaction was, “Yeah, right. Bigoted idiot!” But then I thought, maybe I should put myself in their shoes. Maybe that protester had a point. Regulating the environment means forcing people to do things they don’t want to do. Pretty soon Big Government will start thinking they can regulate everything we do.
They won’t let us express our opinions by burning crosses on our neighbors’ lawns. They might even stop us from shooting people who look different from us!
Businesses need to prosper. Parks are wasted space that could be turned into productive operations such as strip mines, nuclear power plants, and jails for eco-terrorists. Clean air, oxygen, and ozone are just abstractions that a bunch of panty-waisted so-called scientists use to scare us. I mean, have you ever actually seen an oxygen molecule? I’m sure I haven’t. Not in Los Angeles or New York, anyway.
It gets worse. Under the Bush administration, people had real freedom to find oil in the Alaskan wilderness and off the California coast. These were brave pioneers, willing to explore the frozen tundra and wild seas in search of treasure. The current government not only wants to take away those rights. They want to raise taxes, penalizing those worthy citizens who hire the hard workers who turn worthless land into valuable industrial property.
The government wants to turn our billionaires into mere multi-multi-millionaires and spend their former wealth on bleeding-heart liberal programs such as feeding the poor, cleaning up the air, and other socialist nonsense. If they are so hot on these so-called public works projects, why don’t they tax the minimum-wage hourly workers more to pay for them? There are a lot more of them, and they already have trouble buying food and paying their rent, so what difference will a few less dollars make to them?
Change Makes a World of Difference
Earth is a hostile place by nature. When we lived off the land, people didn’t live very long. Through the centuries, we have steadily improved on nature. First we planted crops and herded animals, so we wouldn’t have to go out and hunt for them. Then the most forward-thinking of us began to herd people. Slaves and subsistence-level servants made life much easier for the few on top, the people who really knew how to make the world run.
Today these people are known as CEO’s, and they deservedly earn millions of dollars a year through the efforts of their serfs. Uh, workers. During hard times, they may make as little as five or ten million in a year, barely enough to keep up their modest mansions and estates. In a good year, they may make hundreds of millions, and those earnings are well deserved. How could their companies prosper without them to lead the way?
The only thing holding them back are those hordes of workers who insist that they should make the same ten or twenty thousand a year whether their company is making money or losing it. If they really cared about success, they would willingly give up their pay in a lean year so that the CEO could enjoy more of the fruits of his empire.
It is the vision of our leaders that led to chemical fertilizers, pesticides, genetic manipulation, and other improvements in production that have made our world the way it is now. Tree-huggers who insist on organic methods of raising crops want our farm corporations to lose money. Those techniques may work for small, independent farmers, but those aren’t the people who keep the supermarkets stocked.
“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone? They paved Paradise and put in a parking lot.” – Joni Mitchell
The eco-terrorists think of themselves as saving the environment, but let’s face it – They aren’t pro-environment. They’re anti-success! They are jealous of the visionaries who turn wasted empty forests and fields into productive, valuable strip mines, factories, and corporate office buildings. They think they’re smarter than the people who made this country great. They think they should get to tell us what to do when they have never run a single multi-billion dollar conglomerate.
The tree huggers want us to eat organically-grown vegetables and avoid any kind of meat. Real men eat meat. Vegetables are for feeding cattle. And we can’t grow them efficiently without fertilizers and pesticides. We’d get insects! It would cost more to grow them, and that means lost profits. Would you pay more for scrawny vegetables just because someone says they’re safer to eat? I thought not!
Preservation of habitat means restrictions on growth. Making it illegal to build roads and railroad tracks makes it take longer to travel and to move goods to the markets that want them. Stopping strip-mining means that we have less rock and metal with which to build, or higher prices for what we are able to mine. Preventing farming and ranching in jungle and wilderness areas means less land and higher costs for those activities. Do you want to spend more because some namby-pamby regulator makes it more expensive to do business? Hell no!
Who are these arbiters of the public good? They’re a bunch of left wing radical hippies. They probably all smoke pot in between sessions of Congress. Maybe even during office hours. Who will watch the watchmen? It better be Big Business, because businessmen know what’s good for the economy. And that means making profits so we can keep America strong!
If we can’t trust the government to make the decisions for us, then we had better take charge. That means taking out a little insurance. Contribute to the campaigns of right-minded, right-wing candidates to make sure their voices are heard. Spend a little more to silence the voices of the Commie-loving, fanatic eco-terrorists and big spending liberals. It will be cheaper than letting them tax your profits – after all, it’s all tax deductible if you know the right loopholes!
Celebrate Earth Day
So go ahead. Take a walk in the woods and survey them for your next development. Visit a national park in your Hummer. Earth Day is a great day to remind yourself who is really in charge. Some fools think the Earth has limited resources, and that we’re digging our own graves by wasting and polluting. We know that there’s enough to last our lifetime. Who cares what happens after that? Eat, drink, and be merry – It’s Earth Day!
Wednesday, April 14th, 2010
Last week I talked about “serious games” – games with a real-world purpose. I am a bit cynical about them. While games can teach useful lessons, a good game can also be addictive. Players escape into games because their real lives suck. They get feelings of control and success in the game world that they lack in the mundane world. Jane McGonigal suggests that we channel those positive feelings into real life accomplishments.
I have a different idea – If reality sucks, and games are more fun, change the rules! Make your life into a game, and find ways to make it a game you love to play.
Who Makes the Rules?
“Who makes the rules? Someone else.” – Oingo Boingo, “No Spill Blood”
Most of us think of gaming as, “Someone else made the rules. We play by them.” That seems obvious and sensible. But that’s no longer the only type of game. Role-playing games have a “game master” (GM) who has special privileges. The GM can interpret and even modify the rules. The GM and all of the players are responsible for using their imaginations to create original stories that go beyond the rules.
And that leads to a strange truth about role-playing games: The rules don’t really matter!
I have seen similar campaigns based on wildly different role-playing game systems. And I’ve seen wildly different scenarios within a single game system. It is the imaginations of the GM and the players that make a good or a bad game, not the rules they use.
Of course, that’s just gaming, not real life. Or is it?
Life Is a Role-Playing Game
“Life is a cabaret, old chum. Come to the cabaret!” – Liza Minnelli in Cabaret
Read some personal column ads and you’ll soon find the words, “No games.” Ok, so they don’t like Monopoly. Of course, what they really mean is, “Don’t play to win in a way that makes me lose.” Most people think of games as having a winner and a loser.
Role-playing games are different. The players win or lose together. The GM sets the scene, and puts challenges in front of the players, but is not “playing against” the other players. A good GM wants the players to succeed, but for the success to be challenging, memorable, and meaningful.
A good life should also be meaningful, challenging, and memorable. Coincidence? I think not! A life lived with creativity and passion is a lot like a good role-playing game. Instead of trying to use games to make our miserable lives better, why don’t we turn our lives into games? Maybe they already are.
What is a job? That is where you earn game currency to make investments and pay your expenses.
What are taxes? They are game penalties. You need to earn more game currency to pay for them.
What is school? School is training to help you gain levels and skill points.
What are relationships? They are cooperative mode game play; you join with other players to help all of you reach your goals.
What are regular tasks such as cooking, cleaning, paying bills, and filing? They are the daily quests you perform to support your character, build your reputation, and support your friends.
What are accomplishments? They are the Achievement System of life. You work hard to achieve goals that you give yourself or get from others. Sometimes you earn Achievement Points for doing them.
Who Is To Be Master?
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
Life is a game. But what kind of game is it? Is it one of those relationship “games” where someone always has to lose? Is it a game where someone else writes the rules, and we don’t like them very much, but we have to play by them? Or is it a role-playing game, where the rules don’t matter nearly as much as the creative stories we weave around them? In other words, who is to be the master?
If we treat our lives as part of a role-playing game, we can all have a lot more fun than we may have allowed ourselves in the past. We can also use some of what we know about game play to do better at playing the game of our lives. But first we have to decide who is the game master.
I’ve played in some fun role-playing campaigns where the players took turns being the game master. Each player took responsibility for a particular area. When the players moved into that area, the “owner” of that area became the game master for a few sessions. That was how Gygax, Arneson and friends played the “first fantasy campaign” that spawned Dungeons & Dragons.
Do you feel out of control in your life? Maybe you keep skipping your turn at being the game master. Or maybe you’ve put way too many “Skip a Turn” cards into your collectible life card deck. The funny thing is, most of us think that someone else decides who gets to be the game master, and who just plays. But nobody is making those decisions for us. In a role-playing game, a player gets to be the game master by saying, “I’ll be game master.” It works pretty much the same way in life.
A game master has a lot of responsibility, and it is hard work to run a game, but it is also amazingly rewarding. The GM has total freedom to create an experience for the other players. That, by the way, is the most important key to being a good GM – Your job is to help all of the players have fun. Fortunately, the GM is a player too. If you play the game right, life is better for all of you.
The rules do not make the game. They are just the context in which you define the experience of your life.
Guiding the Game
“The code is more ‘guidelines’ than what you’d call actual rules.” – Pirate Captain Barbossa in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
Lori and I have some guidelines we use for every game we design. For example:
1. The players must have fun. This is our #1 “rule” for every game.
2. Make choices clear, meaningful, and interesting.
3. Creating the game must be fun – We are playing a “game” too.
4. Don’t frustrate the player with dead-ends or stupid responses.
These all apply to a good life just as much as to good game design.
Who are your players? Remember, we aren’t “playing the game of life” right now – We’re creating it and being the game master. Your players are the people around you – your friends, family, co-workers, and fellow students. When you work out the rules for your game, make sure that the people around you will have fun and a chance to earn their own achievements. Fortunately, Rule 3 says that you get to have fun too. Just don’t do it at the expense of your other “players”.
Clear, meaningful, and interesting choices keep players involved in a game. They’re even more important in life. Invest in the quality of your life by consciously making choices. Think about your goals and how you can achieve them. Make a list of things you would like to accomplish, places you’d like to go, and experiences you would like to have. You probably make lists like this for work or school. Why not take the time to plan the things that really matter to you? You can let things just happen to you, or you can decide on what you want to do and take the time and effort to make it happen.
Dead-ends, stupid responses, and frustration are part of life. You will have times when you feel that the game is rigged and that the world is actively trying to keep you from your goals. But here’s where life has a big advantage over games – With the exception of a few laws of physics, the rules aren’t fixed. If you are frustrated in one place, go somewhere else. If one approach doesn’t work, try another. Games are limited to the imagination of the designer and the time constraints on the development team. Real life has no such restrictions; you are limited only by your own imagination.
There is one category of “dead ends and stupid responses” you should definitely design out of your “game of life.” That is the set you impose upon yourself. The stupidest dead-end response you can give yourself is, “I can’t do that.” Take the phrase “I can’t” out of your vocabulary. Practice saying instead, “That may be hard, but I’ll give it a try.” If something seems impossible, think about how you can make it possible. Break the hard problem down into smaller, less difficult, tasks. Or redefine it to something that meets the spirit of the original goal, but that you can find a way to achieve. But don’t give up on anything that you really care about.
If you try, but fail, that isn’t the time to quit; do more work and preparation, then try again. Players fail a lot in World of Warcraft, but they keep going back and trying again until they succeed. Life and games are both about conflict and resolution. If you run into an obstacle, look for the solution – You could destroy it, temporarily move it, go around it, find a way over it, dig under it, or use it to redefine the problem. If you haven’t tried at least three solutions, you’re giving up too easily.
“Life is a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” – Forrest Gump
Being the Game Master of your life is hard work, but that just means you are overcoming challenges. Challenges are the key to making games fun and rewarding; you get a lot more achievement points for doing hard things than easy ones. And there’s more!
As both the GM and as one of the players, you get to create the tale of life’s adventure together. That collaboration means that a well-played life is always a mystery. Until you bite into each experience, you never know how it will taste. You may just find that some of those “impossible” goals will be fulfilled in ways you could never have guessed.
When you make your life into a role-playing game, and take on the responsibility of being the GM, you turn your life into a mysterious box of chocolates. Will you taste them, or settle for someone else’s empty wrappers? The choice is up to you.
Wednesday, April 7th, 2010
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke
“Magic is loose in the world!” – Waldo, Robert A. Heinlein
A hot topic in gaming these days is that of “Serious Games.” Serious games have a purpose outside the game – to teach, to build teams, or to solve problems. Games of all types can bring people together and teach useful skills. Games are loose in the world, and rapidly becoming indistinguishable from real life.
Can Gaming Save the World?
Nagath recently showed me this talk by Jane McGonigal at the TED Conference:
Jane McGonigal, “Gaming Can Make a Better World”
Ms. McGonigal’s theme is that players spend billions of hours each year playing online role-playing games. She points out that they learn valuable skills while gaming including how to work with others, economics, risk assessment, accepting challenges, and so on. Players feel out of control in their mundane lives, while games reward them and give them a sense of accomplishment and control. But Jane also thinks games could do a lot more. Her group is developing a series of “serious games” that empower the players to learn and make decisions about important issues such as energy conservation, developing businesses in poor countries, and so on.
I like the message, but am a bit wary about it. I know how much time I spend on World of Warcraft, bridge, poker, and other games, and that much of it is “wasted” other than in making me feel good. At the same time, it isn’t really the fault of the games. I’m a PRO-crastinator, an accomplished expert at putting things off. (See my article, Counter-Productivity, for some examples of how to avoid getting things done.) When I try to avoid WoW, I find that I fill those empty hours with other non-productive activities. Jane McGonigal wants to immerse people in games that will cause them to solve problems, but I worry that this will just accelerate the trend towards hiding from real life in games.
Teach Your Children Well
Can we really learn real-world skills by playing games? Orson Scott Card, in his novel Ender’s Game, described such a game. The skill learned in this case was interstellar warfare. Ender, the main character, is tricked into directing an actual battle that he thinks is a simulation. He manages to win it against seemingly impossible odds… but at an incredible cost. The U.S. military has adopted the “battle game” concept with America’s Army and other “serious games” that are designed to recruit young people and then turn them into efficient soldiers.
Many games have been developed to teach less violent lessons, including my Castle of Dr. Brain and Lori’s Mixed-Up Fairy Tales. Students who get to play games in the classroom feel more involved in school and perform better on standardized tests. But so far, educational games have not lived up to their early promise. In the 1960′s, many people believed that computer-based education would allow students to learn at their own pace. Children would learn more, and a smaller number of teachers could handle large classrooms. In the 1970′s, systems like PLATO tried to make it easier to develop educational software. Somehow, these efforts never seemed to make it past the pilot project stage.
Outside of education, there’s another area where we are starting to see game-like systems, and that’s in product marketing. People like getting rewarded for doing things they had already planned to do, and marketers know that such rewards often encourage them to spend more. “Green stamps”, airline mileage points, the McDonald’s Monopoly game, and similar systems encourage people to spend more, and sellers often consider the promotional costs well spent. I spent most of my time at Montreal’s Expo ’67 playing Skee Ball because I kept winning tickets that I eventually spent on a large stuffed poodle. The prizes kept me playing.
Jesse Schell of Schell Games and Carnegie-Mellon University recently game a talk at DICE (Design Outside the Box) suggesting that such point systems could be taken a lot farther – “points for everything!” Jesse says that marketers could take advantage of our love for prizes by turning every consumer activity into a point-winning game.
Jesse’s video was actually pretty disturbing, and reminded me of the classic novel by Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth, The Space Merchants. In that story, huge corporations run the world. Their advertising is so effective that people believe their most important role is to buy things. It’s a good thing that was just science fiction; we would never fall for… mmm, Starbucks.
Gee, thanks, Jesse. Use our love for games to get us to buy products we don’t need and are bad for us.
The problem with making games that really help people instead of exploiting them is that game development costs time and money, and helpful games have no obvious revenue source. Jesse’s talk hints at some less commercial ways we could use game-like point systems, such as promoting use of public transportation. The government could fund a game like this with gasoline taxes, which would also reduce driving and pollution.
Pointing Towards the Future
We know awards, recognition, and achievements can change our behavior. But will that accomplish anything more valuable than increasing product sales? I think it can, but we will need to find incentives for creating helpful games. Maybe that could start with a meta-game in which the developers are awarded – or award themselves – points instead of dollars for designing “better life” games. Unfortunately, game developers need to eat, and starving is a powerful negative point system.
Games are loose in the world, and it’s up to all of us to decide how serious we want our fun to be. We can let the new games be ruled by greed – That worked so well for Enron and Lehman Brothers, after all. Or we can try to create, play, and live gaming lives that improve our lives and the world around us.