7
Mar

Play and Work

I am an avid player of computer games and pen-and-paper RPG games. I enjoy shooting hordes of zombies, building and deploying armies and being part of a team in a fantastic and dangerous world. I have always valued games for themselves, but it has only dawned on me recently that they must have great survival value. Research has shown that playing is hard-wired into humans, the great apes and well, pretty much all mammals as far as my cursory search goes. Something that is built-in, instinctive to people, dolphins, rhinoceroses and foxes is probably crucial and very generally useful. We share play with species that have no hands, no language, vastly different intelligence levels and which live in environments that would kill us. Play is so useful that it has elbowed its way into the evolutionary bandwidth. It is genetically ingrained in the species and gets time and energy allocated alongside the crucial business of finding food, shelter and a breeding partner. It is obviously doing something vitally important. So what is it for and why do humans think they need to stop playing as adults? Read more...

19
Feb

Mental health and games

OK, help me think about this.

I have spent a year recovering from burn-out. During the first period, I frankly do not know how long it was, I could not play in any way whatsoever. Given that game-playing has always been important to me, this was a sign of poor mental health. As I started to recover I regained interest in games. I started running a Savage Worlds (tabletop rpg) game for a group of teens and I started playing computer games. Let us look for a moment about the effect of those games on my health.

I experienced the tabletop game as an important creative outlet. I made a story-world for my players that was an adaptation to the modern day of  the book "Day of the Triffids" by John Wyndham. I was inspired by rereading the book and created characters for them to interact with, going so far as to paint small portraits of them. I also crafted miniature Triffids out of papier-mache and drew an elaborate map of the caves and the cave entrance that the characters emerged from at the start of the story, teaching myself the GIMP image processing program to do so.  These were little steps on the way to being myself again. I was proud and encouraged that I had created something, surmounted all the little obstacles to trying something new and succeeded. Running an RPG game is also a small, well-structured social arena to rediscover the skills of connecting with others in. I believe the reason that some less socially adapted people are attracted to role-playing games is because they are a wonderfully safe and encouraging environment. They are non-competitive, create rapport and team-work and supply cool successes.

In the same period I gradually started playing computer games again. I started playing Team Fortress 2, a game in which you, as part of a team, attempt to defeat another team. Though TF2 is a shooter and you spend a lot of time being blown up, often after a mere few minutes of life, it somehow manages to have a cheerful, humorous tone. The characters you play are cartoonish, bombastic parodies, so it does not hurt your pride when you are repeatedly massacred by more skilled players.

That last part is important. I am rather competitive and a bad loser. It is not a trait I am proud of, so I do my best, at some cost, to be graceful. I had previously abandoned "shooter" games largely because my initial lack of skill and subsequent rapid defeat caused me to become frustrated and upset. Strangely enough, something about the goofy tone and rapid pace of TF2 did not press my competitive buttons and I was able to play it with pleasure and therefore become quite expert.

Which brings us to the here and now. I still play and enjoy the tabletop games, but I am finding it harder, as I get mentally healthier, to enjoy Team Fortress. I now get impatient if I am not among the top scorers and I get very unhappy if my team performs (in my view) badly. Apparently as I pull out of the burnout, my competitiveness and aggression are gradually increasing, to the point that it is becoming harder to participate and progress in the game I used to enjoy. It is something of a paradox, that becoming more of "my old self" brings with it traits that I was happy to miss. It also points up that some competitiveness is useful and a spur to excellence, but that too much can prevent you from sticking with a learning task long enough to become excellent. Video games are a powerful metric. They show you in many ways how skilled you are at playing them and the change in your skill level is visible from day to day. My learning task now is to find a way to relax and enjoy the times when I fail, in the certain knowledge that this will enable me to become more skilled and capable in the long run. I think the most crucial aspect of my early play was a concious setting of low expectations and the goal of having fun, rather than being very capable. Fun leads to skill, to expertise, not the other way round. If I want to get good at Team Fortress, or anything else, I had better be able to enjoy it.

18
Apr

Mind like Tomatoes

After an interesting exchange with a fellow blogger I feel the need to map out a bit more thoroughly than last time the pragmatic mashup of GTD and The Pomodoro Technique that is the method of my current madness. This is then a post about methods...aargh  and I am (strange to say) not much of a method wonk. No really. It is all too common to see productivity methods and the tools that go with them (generally software) become precisely the kind of mental tar-baby that we were trying to avoid by adopting them : goofing around with new software is probably less mentally challenging than dealing with you piles and files. The thing that has always endeared and adhered GTD to me is just that it works for me. Other methods, Covey et al, bounced off my polished procrastination, leaving me feeling guilty. GTD allows me to do things that would otherwise not happen. It sticks with me despite my ability to go haring off after any gaily apparelled concept that trots past. It is just fierce enough to make me do the thinking I need to do but not so grim that I despair of satisfying its constraints : hence the affection and enthusiasm.

GTD evolved out of the kind of busy commercial middle and executive management environment Peter Drucker wrote for. Its bones and brains were honed against a deluge of inputs and interrupts, lack of clarity, moving targets and the pressing need to remain sane while keeping an ever increasing number of plates safely spinning. It is indeed about "getting things done" and the unsaid follow-up is "despite your screw-ball environment". The assumption is that the (for me unsung) rigourous process of defining a Next Action will automatically chunk things into a size you can focus long enough to handle. That is mostly true, but not always. Read more...

7
Apr

My life as a Dog (again)

As I very often say - I have an astounding ability to finally realize the extremely obvious. If I have an intellectual guardian angel she probably spends a lot of her time slapping her forehead and going "good grief". My current brainstorm is on the subject of learning a new habit. I have finally realized one of the main reasons it is so hard.

Read more...