Sunday, March 29, 2015

Make a game of it

Today I led my first service at USSB; the theme was how games can help heal brokenness. I led the congregation in a spirited round of massive multiplayer rock-paper-scissors. Below is my reflection, where I included mentions of Sid Meier, Katie Salen, Eric Zimmerman, Jane McGonigal and Raph Koster. It was a really fun morning for me & from the conversations I had with people after the services, it sounds like I helped people to think differently about the value of games. And Unitarians proved they are seriously into rock-paper-scissors :)

Here is my reflection:

My family had just moved to a new town at the beginning of my 6th grade year. A few weeks into the school year, the entire 6th grade had a pizza party at the local Little Caesar’s restaurant. This was back when Little Caesar’s had restaurants, and this particular one also had a bar with a huge dance floor where the locals hung out on Friday and Saturday nights. But on this particular Friday afternoon, my entire 6th grade class was having a pizza party. And then a dance contest.

I had no intention of dancing. I really hadn’t made any friends yet. When a boy that I recognized from my math class named Kevin asked me to be his partner, I was so shocked that I said yes.  He pulled me out into the center of the dance floor and the music started.  The contest rules were simple: keep dancing until a teacher taps you on the shoulder, indicating you are “out.” The song for the dance contest was “I can’t drive 55” by Sammy Hagar. If you have ever heard this song, you’ll know that it’s not exactly dance contest material.

As it was, the song choice didn’t matter. I didn’t know that my dance partner was a 12 year old dance prodigy. To be honest, he could have probably won the contest on his own.  He was dancing so enthusiastically that I couldn’t help but try to match his clearly superior moves.

Something happened as I tried to keep up with my partner; I forgot all about the people watching us. I didn’t notice the teachers tapping the other couples’ out. I was focused on dancing. I was having fun. And for the 6,000 times they played that song, I wasn’t a shy 6th middle school girl who was trying to make friends in her new school: I was a dancing queen.

When the music finally stopped, Kevin and I were standing alone in the middle of the dance floor, sweaty and triumphant. The kids surrounding us cheered and patted us on the backs; Kevin grabbed my hand and held it up in victory.

Now, I was a very, very shy 6th grade girl. I had ended 5th grade as a social outcast in my previous school, shunned and bullied by my best friends. I was honestly relieved we moved to a new town for middle school, even though I didn’t know anyone.  And then a few weeks into the school year, my shyness and relative anonymity were blown to bits in the middle of that dance floor at Little Caesar’s.

Our brains are quirky, funny organs. Brains are super pattern collectors and recognizers, constantly seeking out meaning amidst chaos. We delight in finding patterns where none should exist, like when we see a cloud that looks like a bunny, or we see the image of Jesus in a piece of toast. Our brains are constantly trying to make sense of the world, to get better and better at recognizing patterns and anticipating cause and effect.

The funny thing is, when we are presented with a new or unexpected pattern, our brains are not very good at dealing with it right away. It’s like our brain goes into shock, yelling “This is not what I expected! What do I do?” It can send us into a state of paralysis, or it may prompt you to make a decision you normally wouldn’t, like participate in a middle school dance contest.

In order for our brains to learn a new patterns to better anticipate cause and effect, we need to practice recognizing the pattern. We know that practice is how we learn. Need to learn an instrument? Practice. Need to learn how to do algebra? Practice. We know that practice is the path to master a skill.  

When we are young, we practice navigating the complexities of life through play. We learn to negotiate and argue and apologize and make new friends all within the context of make believe and games that we create our own rules for.

At some point, though, we flip the expectation that play is the catalyst to learning and growing and begin to see play as a waste of time, a form of entertainment with little other value. As we stop valuing play, we deprive ourselves as adults of a safe place to practice and fail and learn how to navigate new, complicated situations. Our brains haven’t changed: we still are constantly struggling to learn and recognize new patterns. Just because you’re 16 or 36 or 86 doesn’t mean that you know everything you need to about relationships or about yourself.
I face issues every day that I don’t know how to respond to. Sometimes I think it would be great to sit down and have a tea party with my 8 year old and try to work through them, but I’m pretty sure her stuffed animals aren’t as experienced with working through the nuances of my adult relationships with my parents or how to deal with gender discrimination at work.

Still, there’s something to be said for play as a way to make us better, stronger and more confident in navigating the world around us. And games are the perfect way for us, even as adults, to play and learn and grow.

What is a game, really? Sid Meier, who is the famous designer of the Civilization computer games, defined games as “a series of meaningful choices.” This definition has always rung true to me, although probably a little too broad: couldn’t life itself be defined as a series of meaningful choices?

Another definition from game designers Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman says that a game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome. I like this definition, particularly because of that last piece, “a quantifiable outcome.” This is what differentiates play from games. In a game, there is an outcome, usually a score that tells you who won and who lost. Those outcomes, whether successes or failures, serve an important purpose: they provide you with feedback. Are you winning more, getting higher scores? You’re learning and improving. If you aren’t getting better at the game, what do you need to differently to improve? What are others doing to win that you can learn from?

Games, really, are patterns that we learn to solve. The simple ones, like tic tac toe, are fascinating to kids who are just learning pattern recognition. But one day after a couple years of practicing tic tac toe, you realize that you can win or tie every time depending on the skill of your opponent, because you have learned every pattern possible in the game.

My uncle was so good at solitaire that he could tell after only a few minutes of play whether he was going to win that hand or not. I was not that good, and I would get so frustrated watching him for a few minutes and just as my mind was starting to get into the game, he’d fold the deck and deal a new hand. How do you know? I’d ask him. And he’d say, I’ve played this a million times. I know.

In 2009, I attended the annual Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco and saw a presentation that changed my life. Jane McGonigal presented a session on how games can change the world. She had recently launched a game called “Top Secret Dance Off” with one goal: to make people happier. The game was simple. You went to the game website and joined a team. Once you were on a team, you could start completing dance challenges. For each dance challenge, you needed to complete 3 steps: 1. Assume a secret identity. 2. Video tape yourself completing the dance challenge in public. 3. Upload the video to the game site. Once you uploaded the video, other people could vote for your dance  - the team with the highest vote total for their dance videos “won.” The website still exists and if you visit it today, you can still see the amazing and hilarious videos of people in disguise dancing in public.

What was the pattern that Jane wanted people to recognize in this game? Simply that dancing makes you happy. Even watching other people dancing makes you happy. In her talk, she proposed a noble purpose for games: games can be designed to elicit lots of different types of emotions and develop different types of skills. What if we designed games to help make people better and, even grander, to change the world for the better?

I knew that what she was saying was true. A decade earlier, I had made of game of eating using Weight Watchers points and over the course of a year had lost 75 pounds. If I could make something super hard, like losing weight, into a game that I could play and win, why couldn’t that same idea be used to solve even bigger, more complex real problems?

Two years after I saw Jane McGonigal speak for the first time, she published her first book, Reality is Broken. In it, she expanded on her idea that games can be a catalyst for growth and change, for individuals and for the world. Her idea was catching on. A game called Re-Mission helped kids with cancer understand how chemotherapy and radiation worked and let them play along fighting cancer cells during their treatment. Another game, World Without Oil, challenged people to go through their day without using oil products and to journal what alternatives they used in order to help other players facing the same challenges.  There were games addressing subjects as complex as how to most efficiently rescue survivors during a natural disaster like a typhoon or hurricane or how to achieve peace in the Middle East.

Even more powerful than the games that were allowing people to work through complex problems were the real issues gamers were being asked to solve.  In 2011, gamers were able to solve a virus enzyme structure in 3 weeks that scientists had been unable to solve for over a decade.  In the same year, gamers were able to identify cross-species DNA segments that geneticists were unable to identify using computers.  All by making a game of science.


We, humanity, prove over and over again that our brains are the most incredible pattern recognition systems and problem solvers. And it’s not just that we’re capable of doing it. We think it’s fun.

Fun is a loaded word. Raph Koster in his book A Theory of Fun defines fun as “the act of mastering a problem mentally.” I like this definition because mastering a problem mentally defines fun as an active state, which differentiates it from entertainment or enjoyment or delight. Koster further defines fun as learning in a context where there is no pressure.

Learning in a context where there is no pressure. This is why games matter.

This is why playing games, at every age, is important. If we are constantly in a state of brokenness, then we are always in a state of repair. When we don’t know how to fix a situation, we must learn. How better to learn a new pattern, a new cause and effect, a new way to look at the world, than in the safety of a game where we can practice and learn and get better, step by step? How better to make ourselves and the world better than in a game where we can have fun doing it?

When I look back now, I can see why winning that dance contest in sixth grade meant so much to me.  It was the perfect game for me to play at the perfect time. I needed to learn how to make friends in this new environment, but there was no pressure in that dance contest: I didn’t know anyone and I had nothing to prove. But I learned that taking a risk, putting myself out there and trying something new COULD be the catalyst for friendship and success.  It’s a pattern that I have recognized and repeated throughout my life, from starting my own business, to meeting my husband on a blind date, to joining this congregation.

Any challenge can be made into a game, just by approaching it in a playful way. My daughter makes something as simple as walking down the street a game by trying to avoid the cracks (and sparing my back from breaking).  More complex challenges like exercising more, I can break down into smaller challenges and reward myself for achieving milestones along the way.

What challenge are you facing? How can you make a game of it?


Thursday, February 26, 2015

I am surrounded

Watson & Sherlock
I'm writing this post surrounded by dogs: Sherlock laying next to me, wearing a cone because his eye infection is creeping back and I need to keep him from making it worse before he sees the vet. He is grumpy. Watson is my headrest; his poodle coat is too long and woolly and it heats up the back of my neck. He really loves our new couch because he can lay along the back cushions again. Darwin is chewing on a piece of dirty, knotted rope on the other side of my lap. He's chewing noisily and won't stop moving, shaking the whole couch and annoying the other two. He's a giant pit bull that thinks he's a little dog.

The house is quiet, except for Darwin's chewing and the faint sound of Sallie singing in her bedroom. She's home sick today with a fever and various other complaints. In a little while, I'll ask her if she's hungry and she'll chat all the way through lunch, telling me about some scenario playing out in her room with her stuffed animals.

I love being alone. I love quiet. I don't have music or a movie playing in the background on days like today when I work from home; I don't usually have the radio on in the car. But it's rare that I'm ever actually alone. Dogs. Kids. Work. Church. The only time I have to myself anymore is when I'm driving to pick up or meet someone, or sometimes in the bathroom (although kids and dogs aren't always respectful of a closed bathroom door).

My husband John knows that I'm an introvert, although I try to fake otherwise. I hate labels like that, "introvert," but I do acknowledge that labels help people understand complex dynamics quickly, so sometimes I'll use it to explain why I avoid social hour in between church services, or why I don't want to be the one to call for takeout, or why I am completely exhausted after I speak at a conference and need to decompress.

I find myself tired a lot now. Exhausted, even. John and I both work full-time, manage the schedules of our 5 kids with us in California and figure out how to stay present in the weekly routine of the 6th one who is back in Pennsylvania for most of the year. He's never out of our thoughts and we're constantly planning trips and phone calls and Skype conversations, the planning of all these things tempered by the difficulty of negotiating them. Daily life isn't just us, the kids and the dogs...it's all of the kids' other parents, too.

And work. There aren't a lot of jobs in the world where you can work by yourself, and I don't have one of them. It's funny because I intentionally chose a career path that focused on helping people learn. I love it. I'm passionate about it. And it, by design, surrounds me with people.

Beyond family and work, I'm still surrounded. I'm on the Worship Committee at church and work to create worshipful lay-led services to support our ministers. I need the feedback of my committee members and the members of the congregation to be successful. I am constantly working on new start up ideas, seeking out other entrepreneurs and experts to collaborate with, networking and building relationships. People, people everywhere.

I am surrounded. I fantasize sometimes about just driving someplace quiet, alone. Maybe reading a book. Maybe just listening to the ocean, or the sounds of the mountains. I think about what it might feel like to not be responsible for or to anyone but myself. What a relief that would be. I think about when I read Eat Pray Love and how selfish I thought the woman was, and how absolutely glorious it still sounded to me. What a luxury, to be free of commitment. How light that must feel. Nobody to make dinner for or pick up from somewhere, no deadline I need to meet.

I'd probably be so incredibly, incredibly lonely. No one to tell me something funny that happened to them at school. No one snuggle with at night. No one to hear my favorite part of the day. No one to waggle their whole body in excitement to see me when I come through the door. No one to tell me I look beautiful today. No one to giggle with about a goat who sounds like he's saying "mom." No one to hear singing in the shower. No one to ask me for a hug. No one to be devastatingly proud of as they perform on stage.

Darwin is snoring
Sometimes when I'm feeling suffocated, overwhelmed and buried, I think about what I've surrounded myself with. All of these people and animals...I might not always be able to handle all of them. I shouldn't think I have to. Being surrounded can be a lifting up, not a holding down. Because it's love, all of it is love. I chose this life, all of it. My family, my pets, my career, my friends, my spiritual community...even my Facebook friends. It is love, not responsibility. They challenge me and make me think and reflect and grow. It is love, messy and crowded and busy. It is love, loud and yes, sometimes overwhelming. I am surrounded by love. And right now, love sounds like a pit bull curled
up next to me, snoring. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Common Core Conundrum

You know the old saying, if you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail?

This is the analysis that I can't help but apply to the Common Core assessment battle emerging in states across the country. 

I've been introduced to Common Core as a former teacher and now as a parent with kids in elementary, junior high and high school. I've read all the perspectives on Common Core from teachers in social media, I've read the informative literature provided by my kids' teachers, schools and school districts. I've seen the type of assignments and questions asked of my kids change. I get what they are trying to do and frankly, despite the challenges that inevitably come with change, I support Common Core. I want my kids to become critical thinkers, not spouters of facts. I want them to be problem solvers and understand the why, not just the what. I want them to think creatively and deeply and I'm encouraged that school might be a place where that is encouraged and fostered. I think it's a noble cause and it makes that longing to go back into the classroom a little stronger. A survey of teachers find that most of them feel the same way I do:



And then I hear about the testing

It is going to be a shame if Common Core is protested, abandoned and ultimately fails because we can't reconcile our desire to encourage critical, creative thinking with a scalable assessment of those skills. We already know that standardized tests are biased and don't represent student success or achievement. They are not used as a measure of student progress; they are only used as a measure of comparing schools. They aren't even used as a measure of teacher effectiveness in most cases (and rightly so). 

Standardized tests are really good at measuring how well students can complete standardized tests. If we're trying to move our educational system to measure critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, design thinking...do we REALLY think more expansive standardized testing is going to give us the information we are looking for about the impact of Common Core on student success?

Sadly, I think we're at risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Common Core curriculum and Common Core assessment should be viewed as two different things, different pieces of the same puzzle. While I think the curriculum changes are encouraging, my encouragement is overwhelmed by my disappointment on the emphasis on using the same old standardized assessment. I've been trying to ignore or combat the various Facebook memes of  anti-Common Core ranting. But with these new, expansive assessments looming, I find myself siding with the Common Core protesters. No, I don't want my children sitting through 10 hours of testing that will have no bearing on their learning, forget about all the instructional time dedicated to "test prep." No, I don't believe standardized test results will show the impact or benefit of Common Core curriculum. 

How can I support Common Core and not support Common Core standardized testing? How do you support the strategy and vehemently oppose the tactics? How can you support teachers and schools in trying to meet the modern needs of their students when the government assessment of student education is stuck in the 80s?

It's time to break free from the hammer of standardized testing. Common Core is not another nail. Students are not all the same. If K12 education is changing to support different skills, then assessment must evolve, not expand. We don't need more standardized testing, we need a different kind of test, a different kind of skill assessment. 

I'm passionate about immersive learning, but even more so about immersive assessment. Let's stop assessing knowledge...let's let students apply their skills. What if assessments were games? What if we structured assessments like Odyssey of the Mind, or Math Super Bowls, or science fairs? What if we made assessment challenging and engaging and fun? What if we made assessment real?

I've never had to take a standardized test at work to measure my competency. I show my value in the work that I produce, the ideas I contribute, my participation and passion and ability to see problems on the horizon or find the root cause of problems that already exist. If we want students to develop those skills, let's find meaningful ways to assess them. It is possible. Let's use those creative problem solving skills that Common Core is developing to create better solutions to assessing our real capabilities. 

Monday, January 5, 2015

If it can be measured, it can be valued

Training is often viewed as a cost by companies and therefore is on the chopping block when costs need to be cut. Much like the arts in K12 education, training is seen as a "nice to have," but not a core function of the organization.

Why is training viewed as a cost and not a strategic investment? Because learning professionals don't measure the impact of training on the performance of the organization.

Think about the last time you delivered a training program in an organization. Or the last time you participated in training, if you aren't an L&D professional. How was the success of the training measured? 

How many completed the training?
A passing score on an assessment? 
A subjective "smile sheet" ranking where learners reported how valuable they thought the training was?

Do these training programs measure improvements in employee performance? Decreased time to market/increased productivity? Customer satisfaction ratings? Increased revenue? Reduction in costs? Increased employee retention?

No? WHY NOT?

If training is a strategic investment, then it is absolutely critical that we show the value of the investment. Attendance is not value; increased sales is. Assessment scores are meaningless if people don't perform their jobs better. 

If our role in an organization is to improve performance, then shouldn't we be measuring performance? 

Only when we start measuring the right things will training be valued. 

Saturday, January 3, 2015

The annual resolution post, 2015 edition

Every year I try to set some goals for myself, usually to pretty good success (except for picking yoga back up in 2014...total failure on that one).

I've been struggling with resolutions for this year, and as I've been reflecting on the past year, I think I know why: my life and time right now is not wholly my own. Being a part of a large family, and one of only two people in that family who drive, means that much of what I spend my time doing is doing for others. I don't think people talk much about that side of being in a big family, but it is the truth. You can't be selfish. You can't put yourself first. You can't only think about what you want, or what you need. You are part of something bigger than yourself, and when a big family is at its best is when everyone is working together and looking out for each other.

This is not to say that you shouldn't make time for yourself. This isn't to say that there are times when some members of the family do more than others. As one of the parents in our big family, it means my attention is often focused on keeping the family machine running smoothly. Meal planning. Laundry. Cleaning. Cooking. If I'm not doing it myself, I'm usually coordinating who is.

So this year, as co-founder of our big crazy bunch with another full time job (that pays me!) to boot, I'm cutting myself a break on my 2015 resolutions. No pressure, no guilt. I'm putting things on my list that inspire me and that I'm passionate about. Here they are...let's see how I do.

  • Get that second book done. 
  • Get isanno off and running. I know you probably don't know what I'm talking about here. I'm hoping by the end of 2015 you do. 
  • Use my AMAZING new camera every day...I've already started a 365 day challenge for myself, maybe I'll share with you. 
  • Draw something every day. Use that dusty sketchbook.
  • Learn Illustrator and Photoshop and Lightroom. 
  • Learn a few songs on my ukelele. I really miss playing music.
  • Take care of myself. I'm not getting any younger. OK, this one is a necessity, not a passion...but I'm trying to make it a passion :)
  • Do some real work with those cool Nevermind folks. Maybe that's related to isanno. Figure that out. 
And that's it. Yep, it's a long list, but it's the kind of list that's a little art, a little science and a lot of learning. It's the kind of list that I'll make time for, or that I can pretty easily squeeze in time for. It's a list that inspires me right now, to do more of the things I love and am passionate about. 

What inspires you? Are they your resolutions?

2014 in review

Facebook tried to prompt me to share their version of my 2014, but after taking a look at it, they missed so much. As I've made a habit of doing every year, I wanted to take my own look back and forward. 2014 was a tumultuous year, lots of highs with some lows thrown in there for perspective. One thing I'm learning is that being a mom, especially with 6 kiddos, means that my highs and lows are often wrapped up in theirs. Yet one of the things I'm most proud of is that I have a whole life, a whole identity outside of "mom," and many people are surprised to find out what a big, crazy family we have. I'm fiercely protective of both of those sides of my life and 2014 was a test of balance and preservation. I suspect that until these kiddos start leaving the nest, this is what life will be like.

I thought taking care of them when they were little was hard. I clearly had no idea...

So here it is, my 2014 in review, skewed toward things I did/accomplished, not the kids :)


  • We spent New Year's Day at my first Rose Bowl Parade (my MSU Spartans were in the Rose Bowl!).
  • My first book, Immersive Learning, was published in January. I did my first book signing in Las Vegas.
  • Also in January, John and I took a belated honeymoon trip to Sonoma and drove along the Pacific Coast Highway on our way home. I highly recommend it.
  • In February, we all traveled back to NJ and got to all of the Paganos and lots of snow. 
  • In April, I turned 40. We took a trip to San Francisco to celebrate, including a trip to Tiffany's and Alcatraz.
  • In June, we made another trip to Pennsylvania and stopped by Philly ComicCon. 
  • July I got to spend with Zevon and my parents here. I miss them terribly. 
  • John and I celebrated our 1st anniversary in July. 
  • We went on a proper family vacation to Yosemite in August and stayed at the Bison Creek Ranch. I can't say enough about what that vacation did for my soul.
  • I also completed the 21 Day Drawing Challenge in August. I really loved it. 
  • AND we went to Scare LA in August. Also really loved it. (August was a great month!)
  • In September we spent a weekend camping at deBenneville Pines. 
  • Our honorary family member Keara was married in October and John officiated. 
  • I keynoted my first conference in October. 
  • We fostered Darwin in October, our big oafy pit bull. 
  • October ended with DevLearn and Halloween. Enough said. 
  • John turned 40 in November and we did Santa Barbara Startup Weekend as his birthday present. 
  • We officially adopted Darwin in December (which no one was surprised about...).
  • I celebrated my 1 year anniversary of becoming a vegetarian at the end of December.
It was a pretty awesome year, upon reflection. True, I didn't mention some of the big (BIG) challenges we had with the kids or I had with work, or how I spent the better part of November and December sick. I didn't mention my frustration with myself that I didn't learn to play my ukelele, or blog as much as I want to, or to really dig into this big idea that I've been struggling to get off the ground. I didn't mention my car accident and physical therapy. I also didn't mention just all of the "stuff" we celebrated with the kids...concerts, Math Super Bowl medals, plays, talent shows, birthdays. I didn't mention John's four improv shows.

2014 was just really, really busy.

Here's to 2015, to more adventures and more love and more learning. 

Friday, December 12, 2014

Are video games the new spectator sport?

For those who are looking for it, the news is everywhere: video games are becoming the new spectator sport. The signs have been there for years, although they were subtle in many cases. I saw them in my own family room, with my kids sitting together and watching each other play. I always thought "how boring," and dismissed it, thinking my kids were probably the only weirdos who would sit and watch other people play a video game that they themselves weren't playing.

But when I think about it, how many times did I stand in an arcade, watching an expert player dominate Mortal Combat? (a lot.) If you ever saw the documentary King of Kong, you'll remember groups of people crowding around a Donkey Kong game, holding their breath as competitors beat level after level after level.

Just a couple years ago, I noticed another phenomenon. My kids were watching other people play video games on YouTube. Sometimes they watched to learn how to beat a level in a game they were struggling with. Sometimes, they just watched for fun. With the arcade gone and more players playing at home, YouTube became the place to observe and learn and go back to your Xbox and try again yourself.

But then, my kids weren't satisfied with just observing...they wanted to record themselves playing and share those videos too. New kinds of videos of game play emerged: color commentary! Some videos featured gamers recording their parents or grandparents playing, the ultimate noobs to laugh at. Other videos featured gamers whose funny quips and engaging personalities helped make them into celebrities in the gaming world. My kids started imagining themselves becoming YouTube stars, simply by recording the games they were playing.

I didn't have a name for this new genre of entertainment, but yesterday saw this article about arenas where you can observe video gamers competing. The term, I found out, is esports, and it's becoming huge. Want more evidence? Game developers and even colleges are now awarding scholarships to top gamers, recruited to play on the school's esports team.

"WHAT?!?! Shut the front door!" (This is an exact quote from me, as I forwarded the story link to my teenagers...)

But if you think about it, it makes sense...while kids used to spend hours and hours on the basketball court practicing to make it into the NBA (some still do, for sure), more and more kids are spending time in League of Legends or Minecraft. It logically follows that stars would emerge and systems to reward the best gamers would be created. And, as we do with professional basketball players, we want to watch the best gamers compete and flex their finely tuned hand/eye coordination against each other.

I'm not sure that we'll see our cities' football stadiums converted to gaming stadiums any time soon, but don't count out esports as our future national pastime.