Friday, July 26, 2013

The feminist role model gap

My parents were never particularly vocal about their political beliefs, but I knew that their moral principles were simple: treat others as you would want to be treated, even if they think differently than you or you don't understand their perspective, even if everyone else is treating them poorly. Stand up for what is right.

In high school I became enamored with economics and studied it for 3 years, even taking a year of independent study in economics my senior year. When I went off to college, I started as a political science major with minors in economics and Russian. I was only a year in when the closed-minded debates dominated by the boys in my political science classes drove me away (that, and the Russian economy falling apart, which made me think maybe my timing for studying Russian economics was bad). I was 18, and at the time would not have called myself a feminist. All I knew was that my mother raised me to believe I could be ANYTHING I wanted to be. I just didn't have any role models in politics that I could look to and say "I want to be like her."

I really want things to be different today. I do, and in some ways, they are. In the learning industry and conferences where I present, women are more visible than in many industries, although often there is still a lack of representation in keynotes (that could be another whole blog post). The games industry, and the technology industry as a whole, has had massive publicity about the existing gender issues in recent years, but women are emerging as leaders and role models for future generations. There are more women in politics and some (I'm looking at you Wendy Davis and Elizabeth Warren) who are emerging as amazing female role models. But in politics it's been hard to find that female role model to stand behind, because so much of today's politics are wrapped up in the personal lives of the politicians and we still live in a culture that tolerates, and even protects, those that disrespect and degrade the value of women.

I was having a conversation the other day about my feelings about Hillary Clinton. When the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, I was adamant that while I thought Bill totally screwed up, that his personal life was separate from his ability to perform his job effectively. I was much more conflicted about Hillary's response, and her decision to stay with Bill still weighs heavily on me. It is true that you can never know what goes on in two people's marriage, and making assumptions or judgments about anyone's decision on how to handle their most personal relationships is presumptive and a little too tabloid-esque for my liking. However, when someone is in the public eye, it is natural to put yourself in their shoes and think about how you would apply your values to their situation.

I don't think I could stay. There are some hurts too deep, some behaviors too disrespectful, some patterns too destructive for me to work through. I have expectations of what's acceptable and what's not acceptable for me based on what my parents instilled in me. My beliefs have strengthened based on my life experiences, my past relationships and the mistakes I've made. My beliefs have strengthened because I have children, and I look at my daughters in particular and want them to stand up for themselves in all of their relationships. I want them to know that they deserve to be treated with respect, nothing less. I am trying to teach them the power of forgiveness but the danger of acceptance and how forgiveness and acceptance are very, very different.

So I look at Hillary Clinton, and I see a strong, amazing woman and I wonder how her marriage works now, having come through what was certainly a personally and professionally humiliating time, and if she feels like she settled and how anyone can reconcile feminist ideals of equality and respect with the acceptance of disrespect and dishonor in a personal relationship. I look at the movements on college campuses to abolish rape culture and to encourage women who are abused to speak out, speak up and protect themselves and their children...and the prevalence of the messages that children of both genders hear from a young age that good girls don't stand up for themselves and that boys can't help themselves. I think about my own past abusive relationships, where over time I became more withdrawn and became less and less likely to stand up and speak the truth about my situation for fear of upsetting the men who were hurting me or inconveniencing anyone else. I think about the lies that I allowed to be told to spare other people's feelings, all the while chipping away at who I was. I am glad that I have come through those experiences with greater wisdom and strength, but it made me realize that there's another gap of female role models.

I never had professional role models for who I wanted to be, but I also didn't have personal role models...women who were strong professionally and personally in the face of being disrespected in the most hurtful and personal ways. I didn't hear the stories of successful women who stood up for themselves when it became clear that their personal relationships were destructive or abusive or when they needed to weigh the value of a relationship to their value as a woman, as a human being. I'm not saying those stories didn't exist, but women typically allow themselves to be painted into caricatures in such circumstances: the rejected, angry shrew or the pathetic, broken sap or the faithful, forgiving wife who stands by her man and accepts his bad behavior. Where were the women who simple said, "no. enough. this is not ok"? Maybe their stories are less interesting, but they are arguably the ones we need to hear most.

I'm struggling as I hear the news of Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedin. I don't know them; I'm not going to presume to make decisions for her. But if it was me? That is not ok. If it was my daughter? That is not ok. And if any little girl asked me, I would tell her she deserves more. I would tell her that any boy who would disrespect her and women in general is not worth her time, her respect or her loyalty.

Whether she likes it or not, Huma is a role model. She is politically successful in her own right and is one of those women who I may have looked up to at 18 when I was attempting to embark on a political career. What message is she sending young women with her decision to stay with her husband, not after just one incident, but after his pattern of behavior over years was revealed? That it's ok for your husband to disrespect you privately and publicly. What message is she sending young men? That it's ok to treat women like objects and that even strong, beautiful, intelligent women will accept even your worst behavior and stand by your side. Some are saying that Huma is noble, or brave. Holy cats, are you kidding me? Huma is simply a fantastic example of what rape culture produces - otherwise intelligent, confident and accomplished women who still accept the men in their lives treating women -themselves and others- like objects, not people.

It is not ok for my daughters to grow up thinking that's ok.
It is not ok for my sons to grow up thinking that's ok.

I want more role models who show what it looks like when women achieve equality with men, not just professionally, but in their personal relationships as well. We can have both. We just have to model what it looks like to accept nothing less. 

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Design lessons learned from Candy Crush

If you haven't been pulled in to the addictive mobile gaming wonder that is Candy Crush...I applaud and pity you. Congratulations on avoiding one of the most addictive gaming experiences I've had lately, and I'm sorry you haven't seen the brilliance and subtle evolution in its design.
I am here

Like any game that holds my interest for more than a couple days, I've taken some time to look at the elements of what makes me keep going back. We could all learn from the simple design strategies and application of cognitive science that makes Candy Crush a bar-setter for micro-transaction social games.

1. Don't introduce (or force) the social component until people are really invested. 
One of the things I hate about most social games is that they want you to get social right from the beginning. When I start a game, I don't know if I'm going to be playing it tomorrow, so what are the chances I want to invite my friends to a party I'm not sure I even want to be at yet? Candy Crush lets you keep playing and playing, and offering you to connect to Facebook, but waiting until late in the game to really push that incentive.

One of the things I don't like about the design is that after I did eventually connect to Facebook, my only options to move up a level were to ask my friends to help me or to pay $.99; I lost the option to play the mini-games gated every 24 hours to get to the next level. It pissed me off...and has resulted in my paying up. So maybe it's not a bad design decision after all...

2. Designing the social component around "help." 
One of the things that I find interesting about how Candy Crush pushes the social element is by framing social connection around helping other players. At each log in, the game recommends 5 of my Facebook friends who I can send a life to; more often than not, I say yes. I'm not giving up anything by sending friends lives, and it makes me feel good, like I'm helping someone out. It's also nice to see when people send you a life - like an unexpected pick-me-up to let me try to clear the jellies one more time.

To level up, you can also ask your friends for help. It doesn't cost them anything...they just have to send you a life. From a design standpoint, this giving and requesting doesn't impact your game play, but it DOES impact how often you log in. The more you log in, the more you play. The more you play, the more likely you are to get into a situation where you are compelled to make a microtransaction.

3. Leveling doesn't need to be a steady, consistent build.
I'm not going to lie, there have been some boards on Candy Crush that have taken me DAYS to pass. In the triumph of completing one of those boards, I have gone on the the next and beat it on the first try. My response? Hell yeah! I'm awesome! And then I realize that I'm falling right into the design strategy...Make me really work for some levels so that I feel like there is a big challenge I've overcome, then continue that "win high" with quick successive victories that eventually lead me to the next big challenge. When I'm stuck for days, it is the combination of those hard won victories and quick wins that keep me engaged and playing.

4. Social "shaming" can promote micro-transactions. 
One of the interesting design elements I mentioned previously is that once you connect to Facebook, you don't have the option to unlock the next episode through a 3-step game path that requires a 24 hour wait to start the next board once you've completed a board, in essence making you wait at least 48 hours to unlock the next episode. Instead you have the option of asking your Facebook friends for help in unlocking the next episode, or you can pay $.99.

When I first realized this, I was indignant and was NOT going to pay for the episode...I sent out a request to my friends. Shortly thereafter, I received from my friends the lives I needed to unlock the episode and on I played. Then I finished the next episode, and was faced with the same decision: ask friends or pay. I paid. Why? For one thing, it was quicker...paying immediately unlocks the next episode. For another, I really didn't want to be "that girl" asking my friends for help in unlocking episodes all of the time. It's one thing for me to send extra lives to my friends when I log in, but it's another to be begging for help. In the balance, $.99 seemed a small price to pay to leave my friends out of my game play.

5. Offer buy-outs at the highest point of need.
One of the common themes you'll hear from Candy Crush players is that when you get to the last move on a board that's particularly challenging or that you've been trying to beat for days, and you're one or two moves away from beating the board, you will pay the $.99 for 5 more moves. In that moment, you are weighing the dollar you could spend against the hours you've already invested, and the potential more hours that you might spend to get that close to winning again. Almost everyone I know has done it and when I've asked, the sentiment is consistent: it's worth it.

6. If the challenge seems surmountable, people will stay engaged.
Candy Crush is just a next gen Bejeweled, right? Let's be honest, we're just talking about matching candies on a board and trying to overcome each board's unique challenge. But, it's just a matching game. It's not rocket science, and it takes about 3 seconds to figure out the navigation and how to play. This is a game that is easy to start, easy to drop, can be played in small moments and that has established a well-balanced challenge-reward ratio. In other words, the challenge is not in figuring out how to play, it's in persistence and managing the time tension. These are attainable by everyone, making playing Candy Crush appealing to just keep on playing.

7. Use time as a tension point. 

The perceived value of time is important in promoting desired behaviors, like offering buy-outs at the time of need, described above. My time is valuable and I'm investing it in playing a much is it worth it to me to pay for a next episode instead of waiting for my friends to help me out? How much is it worth it to pay for a few extra moves to beat a board versus playing that board over again, especially as you invest more and more time into beating a challenging board. The more you play a board, the more valuable that extra moves microtransaction becomes in saving you additional time to try again. The crying heart taunts you with the countdown clock of when a life has regenerated so that you can try again, creating another aspect of tension around time.

8. Make your success social. 

Candy Crush has a "Candyland" like progress map that shows you how far you've progressed along the path in comparison to your Facebook friends. I'm not going to lie, I look how far ahead of me some people are and strive to pass certain people (hey, I'm competitive! What can I say?). For each board, it shows you who has achieved the top 3 scores for that board from your friends as well. That helps benchmark what winning scores look like, as well as add in some competitive elements. When I see my sister on the top of a score board, I inevitably think, "Oh I can beat her!"  This one-two punch of a social progress bar, and a leaderboard for each game board keeps my competitive side active throughout the game, even though actual social interaction through the game is limited to providing help to others. It prompts both the "I'm going to beat you" and "here, let me help you" emotions that satisfy different types of game player motivations.

Every once in a while a game comes along that really hits the sweet spot (pun intended) of challenge and engagement that creates a pool of rabid fans. The design decisions implemented in Candy Crush should be a lesson for all designers who are seeking behavior-driving strategies in their designs. As with all design, it's important to know what behavior you want to elicit and design towards those metrics. From a product management perspective, I'd love to see the product plan for Candy Crush. From a learning designer perspective, it's important for me to identify what emotional responses simple design decisions in a matching game can elicit.

PS. I'm stuck on level 147. And that's my sister at the top of the leader board. Please send me an extra life, thanks.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Robots and Polka Dots: My big fat geek wedding

A few months ago, I had a bit of a breakdown over getting married. One evening, as John and I discussed wedding plans, my anxiety bubbled over and at some point I'm pretty sure I said something like "I want to be married to you, but I don't want to get married."

Needless to say, wedding planning is not my thing.

The next day, still overwhelmed and feeling sad and frustrated, John and I IM'd each other from work. We decided to both cut out early and meet at a park overlooking the ocean to have lunch and talk about the wedding. I was still holding on to my stubborn "I don't want to do this" attitude and John somehow knew that I needed to stop talking about caterers and online RSVPs and talk about the things that really mattered.

So we went here (which ultimately became the site of our "Last Day of Independence BBQ")

and we asked each other what was most important.

The kids.
Courtesy Ryan Calderon

Courtesy Amy Calcote
Making the ceremony meaningful.
Courtesy Ryan Calderon 

Really making this day "us."
Courtesy Ryan Calderon
Spending time with our family and friends.

Our rings.
Courtesy Ryan Calderon 

We ended up changing everything...we went from planning one day to four days of wedding festivities. We decided to get married in our beloved church instead of the beach where he proposed. We included some of our favorite places, and we tried some things we always wanted to since moving to Carpinteria. As soon as we stopped trying to plan the wedding we thought we should have, we ended up planning the wedding we really wanted. If you want to see the full wedding weekend agenda, you can check it out here:

Which leads me to the story of our rings...
When John and I drove cross-country from Philadelphia to Carpinteria last summer to kick off our life on the west coast, we spent our last night on the road on the border of Arizona and California, right on the edge of the Mojave desert. We woke up that morning, saw a coyote outside of our hotel room and hit the road in search of coffee and a gas station. We were already on "E," but more focused on getting our coffee. We passed the first exit because there didn't appear to be any coffee options...we passed the second because we didn't want to get coffee at McDonalds. And that was it...there weren't any more exits. In fact, there wasn't anymore ANYTHING except desert and sun and mountains and heat. We hadn't traveled too far when we passed a sign: No service for 60 miles. At first we didn't panic. Sure, the gas light was on, but we were still a little perturbed that we didn't get any coffee. As we kept driving, we realized our situation: no cell service, no passing traffic, no idea how far the remnants in our tank would carry us or if we'd be carrying my mini poodle for 30 miles in midday desert heat to try to make it to a gas station.

I think it was probably at that point when reality set in. We rode quietly for awhile. One of us at some point made some suggestions about what we would do if we didn't make it to the next service station. We joked about who might get eaten first by the vultures (well, we were mostly joking...). We rode in silence again, holding hands. One of us noted that thankfully, we were coming down the mountain, instead of going up, which allowed us to coast. We were nervous.

And then, after almost an hour riding on fumes, we saw the service station. We pulled off the highway and up to the gas station pump, jumped out of the car and danced around. We had made it! It was pure elation, but also such a feeling of partnership, of love...we were in this together. When John went in to pay for the gas, he also bought me a present: a robot girl mood ring. She was perfect. I wore her every day since, even when her mood had turned to perpetual calm (blue) and the metal on her adjustable band left rust marks on my finger. She wasn't just a gas stop ring, she was the symbol of what we could accomplish together.

When John and I started talking about wedding rings, we knew that we wanted something that represented us. Unbeknownst to me, he contacted some jewelry designers, sent them a picture of my robot girl, and asked them to design some concepts. When he received the sketches, he broke down and showed me. While all of the designs were amazing, we knew we needed to recreate my robot girl ring, and get John a robot boy.

That's how we came to all of our decisions regarding our wedding, and really, our life: just be us and remember what's important and everything will just work out.  The ceremony was perfect. Our rings are perfect. Our kids were perfect. Our families acted like they had known each other forever. My sister and John's brother signed our wedding license as witnesses - I was overwhelmed to have them both there. We danced our first dance to our song on "our" beach where John proposed to me.

John even surprised me with a "Love Actually" inspired entrance by the choir at the end of our ceremony to sing "All You Need is Love" as we walked back down the aisle together as husband and wife.
Courtesy Ryan Calderon

Our wedding was perfect because it was us: loving, fun, silly, sentimental, surrounded by kids, family, friends and robots and polka dots. And now, every day I look down at my new, blingy robot girl wedding ring and remember that no matter the obstacle (deserts, wedding planning or otherwise), the important thing is we're in this together.