So Why Choose Games?


So why would a reasonably sensible aging person like the writer suddenly start to play computer games? I tried them out after watching grandchildren play them and after reading Jane McGonigal’s more recent book, SuperBetter – just to see what it felt like.  Many of things she talks about in Reality is Broken rang true.  I feel as though I am engaged in a productive sequence and improving as I go.  It’s nice to find success at the beginning – but pretty soon there is an increasing challenge.  I confess to going on line a couple of times to get help at certain levels – another benefit is that there can be collaboration – real or virtual.  Things get harder to solve the longer I am at it and I need the help.

Compared to work – paid or volunteer – there is real satisfaction in playing.  The goal is clear.  There are actionable steps to carry out.  In life, getting things started in the right way is often a mystery, but game developers sequences things properly.  Even when I am up against a brick wall, I still think I can scale it and there is light at the end of the tunnel.

I don’t fall for buying extra turns regularly offered when I fail but come close to success – because they come at a cost –  usually a small amount for a single player though I can also spend several dollars. But small amounts for millions of players add up to huge profits for the game company.  I sometimes wonder if success after a certain number of failures at a given level are built in –  say that success is automatic after 43 failures, for instance – just to make sure that I don’t drop out before becoming really addicted.  There are also free rewards constantly offered to keep me onside.

The real difference between the game and real life is a surprising one –  failure in the game is actually fun. Getting it wrong in school brings a reprimand or a failing grade.  Getting the wrong note while practising the piano hurts both the ears and the ego..  But failing in a game has little negative feeling in comparison – in fact, failing becomes a way of life in the game. It’s designed right into it. Sometimes the graphics make you laugh when you fail. Success is nice too though and it is recognized.  In the game illustrated above you hear Beethoven’s Ode to Joy when you get a level right.

So what keeps us going?  McGonigal cites Martin Seligman’s notion of flexible optimism and also talks about “emotional stamina” – a concept developed by Raph Koster.  As an aside, its nice to know what liberal arts degrees lead to in the 21st century – Koster’s majors were creative writing and poetry leading to his becoming a game designer and theorist. He says its not the not monetary rewards of real world achievement that we enjoy in a game.  It’s learning. When we succeed – even after a period of considerable failure – the immediate euphoria fades rather quickly and we even find the game boring.

McGonigal also notes that Seligman’s idea of flexible optimism relates to the notion that a feeling of constant optimism almost becomes manic – followed by depression.  By combining success and failure in a game we attain the benefits of both.  It’s a virtuous circle that allows us to remain realistic but open to new adventures and possibility.

The Benefits of Games


Moving on with Jane McGonigal’s outline of the benefits of games in Reality is Broken. Kids have always loved games but as I write this it is estimated that about one million people are at it.  Why?

McGonigal notes that it is work we choose to do.  Play, as she says is hard work with high odds of success.  It’s exactly the opposite of depression. The plus side includes positive emotions, engagement and action.  There is a lovely video circulating of an austistic teen playing Pokemon Go who has moved away from an agoraphobic fear of going outside and enjoying being there.  The small creatures were the initial lure, but it has enriched his experience.


When I was out in a park last night being instructed instructed by my nine year old grandson, I was certainly not the only one playing around.  It was a nice change from a few years ago when everyone talked incessantly on their cell phones in public places. It’s fun.  It’s also easy to see that any game can become addictive and habitual – but those are human issues – not totally the fault of the game.

Games are a nice contrast to the real work that many of us are obliged to complete. They aren’t boring.  Much of the work that others assign – or even those we assign to ourselves don’t optimize our time or talent.  Much work is bereft of meaning if we are simply cogs in the wheel of a large enterprise where there is a disconnect between what we are asked to do and its ultimate result.

McGonigal predicted Pokemon Go’s ascendance when Reality is Broken was first published for the right reasons – though we might question it as hard work.  But I’m a newbie.  An older grandson observes that a friend has the whole collection already with one exception – but he has the missing one – will he trade or reveal this? The dilemma is keeping him busy,  Games like Minecraft involve the mental choices and creative thinking.  The whole world is action oriented and we are the actors.

McGonigal acknowledges that the idea of flow has been around for a long time and references on my favourite books, Flow, by  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – and also generously tells us that the surname is pronounced Cheek-sent-me-hi. We experience flow when we are doing something we love – running, painting, playing a musical instrument – when there is no sense of time and a wonderful feeling of euphoria,  The right match of game can do this for moments at least.

It’s not money or prestige that drives us to games.  It’s something much more intrinsic. We are immersed temporarily in an experience with differing degrees of pleasure or challenge. We aspire to succeed.  We don’t mind failing because we are usually learning in the process.  We have the sense of being part of something social.  I admire the word choices of my competitor in Words with Friends – even though sometimes I’m playing with a robot. The experience means something.  We have to delve into what the full benefits are and see whether there are possibilities of transferring some of them back to the real world.


Games and Gamers

13770436_10154203541395519_6900191871956837954_nI come from three generations of gamers and have produced another two.  Among my own memories as a child were games played in the homes of both the matriarchal and patriarchal grandparents.  The first was known as “the fool game” – probably a pretty simple variant of gin rummy with several combinations of hands.  The children started by watching and listening and were eventually allowed to play along side the grandparents, great aunts and uncles and parents.  The other household probably started with a similar game but graduated to Canasta – and the kids shared in the excitement then as the players assembled when the sun went down and we were allowed to stay up late.  I’ve totally forgotten the rules of either card game.

Anyone with a new version of Microsoft has probably succumbed to the add-ons ever since the 90s. Even in the  DOS days some early commercial software added a game or two – usually some kind of battle – as a purchase incentive. Anyone with  kids has played Monopoly in the summer and tried to trade the best cards.  But those same kids are now into a totally different world of gaming that is fascinating to watch but difficult to fathom -except by trial and error.  A four year old grandchild did compliment me once when I struggled with the PlayStation controller  by saying,  “Good, Grandma, you’re almost getting it”.

After reading Jane McGonigal’s Superbetter I did change my attitude of mild hostility to digital games and decided to become acquainted with some tame solo ones so as not to show my lack of skills –  some of the attraction to games started to make sense. According to the writer and philosopher, Bernard Suits, I have now acquired a lusory attitude.  In his 1978 book, The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia and recently reissued, Suits defined a game as follows:

“To play a game is to attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs [prelusory goal], using only means permitted by rules [lusory means], where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means [constitutive rules], and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity [lusory attitude].

And I thought I was either having fun or wasting time or both.  Let’s parse this.

  • I have a goal in playing the game
  • I accept the rules of the game
  • The rules present obstacles
  • Without the obstacles there would really be no point of the game

I’ll apply these to my current games – Words with Friends – (in my case Scrabble with a Robot) – and Bejeweled – a set of matching games where one can explore several options.

Once I have agreed to play the game (fun and/or distraction) my goal is to win – either over my robot opponent or to surpass my previous achievement.  I accept the rules with the game envelopes.  For Words with Friends, I know I’ll have a maximum of seven letters at a time.  (Trying to do a re-write of what I have written thus far with that rule might be a challenge). In Bejeweled I am willing to collect butterflies knowing the I am competing against an insect who will grab any that I let go too high – not exactly a real life activity of a typical day.  The seven letters and spidery creature create the challenge or the whole thing would be pointless – but funnily enough, it isn’t.

We need challenges.  Sometimes are lives are so bland and predictable that we need to excape from them. Sometimes our work gives us few real challenges and we can’t see the point. Sometimes we just need a change.  That’s what McGonigal means when she says that Reality is Broken.  But there is much more to it than that.  Stay tuned.

Deliberate practice

Slight diversion from the previous topic which you can read about here. – mainly because a family member is part of this excellent summer festival and is pictured on the right.  (The ensemble in the article was actually another excellent one).  Will return to the intended sequence shortly.

View story at

Re-reading Reality is Broken

Been away for a spell working on other projects – but picking up a book or two at the local library – because it’s summer – has been really fruitful.

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of hearing Jane McGonigal talk about her book and project, Superbetter – complete with its own mobile app.  But I had not read her earlier book and I look forward to exploring it in more depth in the next few days.  My own way of summarizing the key points is mapping it so here it is.  There is a bigger map version here.

Jane McGonigal 2011

The book was originally written in 2011 and I was curious to see how the gaming industry has expanded on the basis of her guess.  It was well above her earlier prediction.  So here’s a start on this with more to come.


The title – reality is broken – means that too many people would rather escape to an unreal world which offers more in so many ways.  As a game designer, McGonigal sees the potential of moving the satisfaction and learning of the virtual world back to the real one.  It’s a great idea.

Orientation – For better or worse

boardYou may hope I didn’t really mean Bored Orientation. For better or worse many of us who sit on volunteer boards have experienced an orientation session recently. There are some things I really like about the process — and some that I would prefer were handled differently.

A changeover in volunteer personnel can be exciting and there are many ways to accomplish integrating new and continuing members of boards. One way that happened last year was to be taken to a posh club’s private dining room for breakfast and to get the lowdown on how everything works. The more recent session was more conventional. It went somewhat better than I anticipated. At least this actual one was not as bizarre as the one depicted in BBC’s wonderful spoof, W1A.

The first plus on entering the room was the setup. The meetings regularly take place in a large room to accommodate the more than forty participants. Usually the room configuration looks something like this:

People can neither see each other nor much on the screen above the heads of the chairman. So perhaps a good start for any orientation meeting would respond to this preference:

Does the room setup work relate to the meeting’s purpose? Can the participants all see and hear one another?

But instead, this time the room looked something like this:

There were actually two large tables to seat four people on both sides of the room with a large aisle in the middle. Welcome back to high school. We were in a classroom with the teacher up front — to be instructed as newcomers — even though some of us had been actively involved in the organization for two to four years; fewer than a third were coming for the first time. But there was little likelihood that there would be an attempt to find out what anyone already knew. My preference :

Does this meeting require my presence and what is my role? Am I a new learner or a mentor? What do people know already?

The introductions at least rated an A. The facilitator asked us to rise from our chairs. We then learned about the geographic areas we represented by walking along a continuum or treating the room’s four corners like a map — moving around based on the color of our socks, or where we lived, or where we were born, or where we lived the longest, and what we saw as our highest priority for the organization. This gave us a quick orientation to the diversity. It met my preference:

For introductions, do something to see the range and diversity of participants that makes a visual impression. Just saying names won’t work for most of us.

Another introduction trick I like for a smaller group is to ask people to state two lies and one truth about themselves and let others guess which is correct.

My own would be:

a) I jumped out of an airplane.

b) A Zulu chief spilled coffee on my living room carpet.

c) I sang a solo on the stage of a national arts centre.

(if you read to the end you can find out the real answers!).

The next time you meet the person introduced in this way, it will be easier to remember their true fact than their first and last names.Therefore my preference:

Whether you have a large or small group, make introductions entertaining and fun.

But then things went downhill as we started what is known in a orientation as a “read-along” — rather like a sing-along but without the noise. There was text on the screen with a heading like “Significant Decisions”. Knowing the history of any organization is vital. But we don’t agree to serve on volunteer boards just to make significant decisions. We serve to change the world for the better. My preference:

In an orientation session a passionate story of changed lives encourages us to dream of a better future. Text headings or summaries combined with reading aloud assumes participants are illiterate. If the text is too dense or too small, perhaps we are.

There was a good exception to this format when a lawyer introduced us to the organization’s statutes. The wording was on the screen in a typeface actually large enough to read. She commented on the content very briefly and told us where to look for it later if we needed to: My preference:

Keep the focus on the big picture that you want people to take away and provide the detailed references in a handout. And don’t let the handout compete for attention in the session iteself.

Then we received a diagram explaining the organizational structure. Here is its shape with the titles slightly amended.

I found this very puzzling. The organization’s members seem to have some ability to push up — or back. Top down is probably accurate. It’s the slanted line that I don’t understand. But no one questioned what the diagram meant — including me. The next slide contained a suggestion that both the two should work collaboratively. But this diagram has a line that divides the two and it looks as though we are on a teeter-totter. My preference:

Test a diagram in advance to see if it conveys the meaning you intend.

Next came the expected org charts. The images on one of them didn’t match the handout and it must have been a last minute inspiration to do something graphic — it was the only thing vaguely ressembling a picture all day. Parts of the chart were colored and they flew in on the screen but the words were too small to read. So was the text on the handout without a high powered magnifying glass. My preference.

Check anything mounted on a big screen or handout for readability. And forget special effects, which distract from your message.

Next — Departmental presentations. What we saw on the big screen were personnel names — and telephone extensions. I didn’t need to phone anyone right then and I was not likely to use the handout in the future as a telephone book. My preference:

Avoid cutting and pasting something from a staff directory and calling it a presentation.

Here was another opportunity missed for the directors to speak passionately about the importance of the work they do — and to tell their stories. It’s the classic case of sharing features when what we need to hear about is benefits.And how about a quick online visit to Facebook and Twitter rather than being told that the organization has these sites ? My preference:

Show — instead of tell — whenever possible.

The last section before lunch dealt with our role as members of the board. That seemed promising. Were we going to hear from a continuing member about the satisfaction and opportunities in this kind of volunteer work? But no. Instead we had another read-along about current organizational mission, vision and values.

The topic might have been the most important reason for the day — so its agenda placement was puzzling. The graphics assigned roles of leadership, implementation and governance — in that order — to leader, staff and board members respectively.

While a leader has a role to play — presumably leading those who are already keen to follow because they have a stake in the outome — it raises the question of what governance really is. Are board members simply keepers of the flame or do they have a larger role to play in determining the organization’s future? My preference:

Explore what organizational leadership really involves. It’s something for a leaders, board members and staff to determine collaboratively. The orientation meeting could begin that conversation. Every meeting that follows needs to have it on the agenda.

I have served on volunteer boards of various sizes for more than twenty years. Sorting out these three issues is the most important thing we do — working on the business as opposed to working in the business. But we were moved onward to more mundane suggestions about how we were to behave — “show up, read the background materials, vote”. We then saw the meeting schedule for the year. My preference:

If the right people get elected or appointed — and that does mean “if “— these expectations are so basic to the process that we should assume they are there already. We need to leave commited and inspired!

Time for lunch. . . .

(a) FALSE I didn’t jump out of an airplane — but one of my sons did. b) TRUE. Mangosuthu Buthelezi, a Zulu Chief, isited Canada in 1963 for an international conference and was also photographed by the famous portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh; the coffee spill was totally accidental. b) FALSE. I sang in a massed choir.)

Death by PowerPoint -Yet Again!


I’m approaching a coming all-day orientation session with a sense of foreboding.  I’ve seen the agenda which is reasonably appropriate.  But what is appended is a presentation document. You can guess – it’s death by PowerPoint again -in spite of the fact that it is 2016.  So for the benefit of all participants – those who design presentations and those who have to sit through them, I am sharing a generic template for your mutual use. It needs to be inserted on page 2 just after the title page.

If a handout were simply a take-away of the main facts, it might be vaguely useful – if rather boring.  But I fear that forty or more of us have been invited to a “read-along”.   The organization concerned had a recent review and the conclusion was that its operation was dysfunctional, that participants were passive and unengaged, that they were inundated with background materials that were excessive and sometimes unreadable and that the real role of the body was to rubber stamp decisions.  This year was to be a new start with real effort to effect change.  It doesn’t look as though it’s going to happen any time soon.

One of the challenges of institutions of any kind – and this one has a long and venerable history – is that they live in a bubble.  The idea of using slides isn’t new.  My children used to love visits to their grandparents in the seventies, when a grandfather showed them pictures of themselves on a big screen.  Some of us will even remember carousel projectors.  The idea of linking laptops and screens changed everything and the Mighty Microsoft is credited with inventing presentation software – though it didn’t. Forethought Inc. originally even called the original program Presenter. But PowerPoint made it easy and first came out in 1990 as part of Windows 3.0.  All one had to do was to fill in the headings and the bullet points.

I travelled to Durban South Africa in 1999 to make a presentation to the conference of the International Hotel and Restaurant Association.  Why a sole practitioner from Toronto would be invited to do so is another story –  I was nervous about the right media interface and different plugs so I brought along clear transparency sheets – and felt more than vindicated when the jazzy PowerPoint opening presentation crashed before an audience of more than a thousand.  But soon like everybody else, I was using PowerPoint. Something from the beginning told me that templates were all wrong for presentations though everybody was using them. A son suggested that I read Presentation Zen and its author, Garr Reynolds, agreed that templates were not a good thing.  That led me later to Nancy Duarte’s book, Resonate.  If anybody out there is using PowerPoint for anything at all, please, please acquire these books and take them to heart.

The heart of the matter is this. If you want to engage and inspire people, text on a big screen doesn’t work the way you think it does.  Duarte makes this clear when she distinguishes between reports, presentations and stories.  Reports summarize facts.  Stories provide drama.  Presentations fall in the middle and need to move back and forth between the two. The template has to be more like a film and less like a document. We don’t curl up in the evening in front of the big screen to watch a page of text.

The orientation summary sent out in advance of the coming meeting in is a report.  I’m going to take my Ipad and Iphone along.  Both contain a wealth of good stories to pass the time when I need to. Don’t get me wrong.  PowerPoint is handy for a presentation if you start from a blank screen and use high quality images and as few words as possible.  I have modelled my own designs on those of an excellent presenter that I first saw nearly 20 years ago when she showed colorful images, cartoons, and word art with a different voice-over of her own at breakneck speed.  What she did in that presentation activated our feelings and we were inspired.  Presentations require artistry.  My own presentations are laughably modest compared to what real artists can do.  But at very least we need to recognize, as Nancy Duarte observes that presenters are not mentors.  The role of heroes presentations rightly belongs to the audience.

Let’s back up a bit.  It used to be that a presentation was a social event.  You would have to go out to attend one and you joined with other people in the room. You would only get to experience it once.  You couldn’t take any of its content home unless you made your own notes. It was something that delighted you, inspired you, annoyed you, puzzled you, confronted you.   The coming presentation for the weekend has been sent out in advance as a product, a digital commodity, something that can be read, saved – or more than likely trashed.  The bright side might be that all of this is being given away for free – and I don’t even have to attend.  The dark side is that the presenters have diminished the coming session as a chance to interact, to envision, to inspire and to make us change.