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?