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.

9
May

Seven (1d6+1) reasons to play D&D with Smart Children

There is a sad misconception that D&D is a refuge for the socially inept. I would say that is probably born of the fact that, as an intensely socially educative game, it enables people who would otherwise fall out of contact to find a framework. You notice them when they are playing D&D when they would normally have scuttled out of sight. That has to be a good thing, liberating and enabling.

I have written before about D&D for kids but since then a few things have occurred to me that have convinced me that everyone who has smart children should play D&D with them...

Some quick generalisations about smart kids. Full of ideas. Easily bored. Challenged by working with others. Tendency to grandstand and demand attention. Outliers from the herd who are challenged to fit in and have a hard time finding peers.

Take a few typical attributes of D&D and see how they can engage and develop your smart child.

  1. It is a team game. When you venture into the catacombs you have an elven wizard (Maria, from your class) at your shoulder, a shaggy barbarian fighter (Joe, who shares your passion for dinosaurs) watching the rear and the stout Dwarven cleric (Luke, Joe's older brother who is very good at math) struggling along behind. Fellow players immediately have common ground and temporarily many shared goals. People who game together develop friendships.
  2. It is a game of the imagination. D&D stimulates and rewards imagination. It presents a living story, a realm of fantasy. Just for once having vivid ideas that do not fit into the day-to-day of school has a payoff. Just for once you can share a world of imagination with others.
  3. It is all about problem-solving.  The goblins are attacking and the mysterious rune-encrusted door will not open. Which of the three gems you have found will fit? How can I swing across the chasm without being shredded by the dire bats? Ideas zip across the table and advice and cunning plans are everywhere. I have never yet run a session where someone did not solve the problems I set them in a way I did not expect.
  4. It demands cooperation. Anyone that has ever played D&D knows that you need each other just as much as the players in any other team game, but with an added twist: each character is different. So each player has a unique contribution, a specific set of skills an capabilities that will not always be fully in play, but which will certainly at some point be utterly crucial. My son plays a rogue, a slight but light-fingered fellow, skilled at opening locks, defusing deadly traps and avoiding danger. The heavily armoured fighter stands between him and the fangs and claws, but waits (far) behind him while he disables the explosive runes on the the door of the treasure room.
  5. It structures communication. D&D has a lot of crucial moments, traps, combat and test of skill in which the whole table of players participates. That means that people have to take turns speaking, listen carefully to what others have said and thing on their feet. It is like being in a meeting with committee rules but without the stifling boredom and frustration. It is highly structured (though chaotic shouting does break out on occasion) and teaches communications skills, brevity and listening. Anyone that does not listen when the dungeon master is speaking may well miss a vital clue, not hear the troll creeping up from behind or the secret door creaking open.
  6. It rewards creativity. It is a game in which almost anything is possible. Though there are rules and limits, (jumping off a high place remains a bad idea... unless you can fly of course..), there is always another way to approach a problem, a wierd, out-of-the-box way of solving it. Creativity is rewarded. The problem-solving part demands creativity, but story-making and world-building do too. You need to flesh out an imaginary character. Imagine how she would talk to the local king, or to the butcher who's wife is a witch. I recently challenged a highly numeric and analytical boy who plays in a game I run to describe what the spell he was casting actually looked like: arrows of fire, luminous serpents? He had to step out of his analytical comfort zone to do it... Similarly, the story-teller at the table often has to concentrate to work out if his character's glittering shurikens actually hit the target.
  7. It is fun. Fun with people who think like you and revel in ideas and cleverness. It is a space in which football, physical coordination and the social pecking order do not count for much, so for the geeky kids it is a heady taste of freedom from conformity.
13
Feb

Dungeons and Dragons with kids

dd-001-for-blog.jpg

I have been running a Dungeon and Dragons 3.5 game for my 10-year old son and four of his friends for the last few months. Though they are all geek-kids with video-game experience and lively imaginations, it is, on occasion, very challenging.
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2
Apr

It's all really Peter Drukker

Having read that Peter Drukker was a major influence for aspects of GTD and having come across more Drukker-isms in the work of Steven Covey I decided a while ago to read "The Effective Executive" for myself. It is now forty years old and not in the least bit out of date. His examples refer to, now historical, figures but the situations he describes and the advice he provides is still cutting edge. I regularly see yet another "new insight" pop up in management and effectiveness forums that sends me off to my battered paperback copy to find the half-page he devoted to make precisely that point, forty year ago.

That is not to degrade the thinking of now. Mr Drucker is just a very, very hard act to follow and there is much valuable work to be done in getting those insights actually implemented in current behaviours and with recent technology. The latest case of this phenomenon is working from your strengths. The premise is simple and, for me, convincing: people spend much too much time trying to eliminate weaknesses when they should be leveraging their strengths. The "fully rounded" person who can handle every aspect of the job with ease is a myth. If someone looks like that they are almost certainly under-challenged. I have some strong and some weak suits. I use some behaviours, including GTD, to compensate for the weaknesses and put my coaching, facilitating and analytical skills into play at every opportunity. I cannot do everything well, but I can certainly arrange my situation so that everything is well done.