How to Hit a Curveball


Last week, some of my colleagues threw me a curve ball. The game that I had been working on all summer was missing something important. More than that, it was boring! Boring, what?! This was my game. They’d played it before and thought it was fun then, so what was going on?! The indignity of it. The insult!

It took a little while, but I eventually understood what they were talking about. There WAS something missing… and it was something that one wouldn’t notice was missing until the game was far enough along to be feeling like a complete, playable game. Maybe their complaining about this missing something now was a backhanded complement of sorts? The game was ready for a new level of consideration… and criticism? Dang! What now?

The answer to “what now” was several days of lengthy, frustrating conversations with Mat at GameGurus. Back and forth, we discussed the feedback. What were people saying? What did they really mean by what they were saying? What parts did we agree with? What parts were things we could legitimately ignore… or acknowledge but then not come at head on? Most importantly, what needed to happen to the game as a result of all this? Let’s just say it was not a fun couple of days, but then, somehow, it was.

Grappling with a challenge can be fun of a sorts, especially when all your work seems to actually be chipping away at the issue. The conversations grew less frustrated and more energized. We were coming to consensus—just the two of us—on something we thought would fit with all the nitty-gritty needs of the game that most people, including our colleagues, would be unaware of, while addressing their “something missing” concerns. We had a plan to make the game “not boring”!

Another round of worry. What if the others didn’t agree? We liked the idea, but would they? Were we right? Was this a fun, game-enhancing idea? We shared, waiting nervously for their reactions. Success! Phey! They liked it! We had done it… at least until the next time!


Working “together”


I am getting ready to go into a weekly design meeting with our team. I am looking over the emails that were flying around over the last few late nights to see what lessons should be drawn from recent bought of App store top featured games downloads. Bastion has a few people hooked because of its dynamic narrative and 3D-ish environment. Mouse Maze has arms and wrists hurting, and Flow kept more than one of us up way too late.

I head out to Google Docs to look at a proposal that is taking shape. I put an outline out there last week, and since then a few people have gone in and added their voice. It is now time for me to take that fodder and shape it into a coherent story.

I head over to Dropbox to see the new Flash files our game developer in the UK has already finished because he’s been up working for 4 hours by the time I get to my desk. He has gathered the artwork from Romania and the animation and coding from India that has debugged overnight (for me) and put it all together in an updated version of our prototype game. I drag the files into my browser and I am playing with glee…for the most part. I also make a list of changes and shoot them off to him an email.

I have two minutes left til the meeting starts so I head over to Skype to see who’s ready. There is a file that our researcher sent me with new codes for the data organization. I have just enough time to look it over and jot down a couple of questions before everyone has messaged in that they are ready, and we are on our call. Seven voices from all over the world come together on skype and get the job done.

Such is my workday. Such is my workplace. And I am not alone.

Words of Meaning with Friends

Part of my job is play games that are trending and understand what it is that is resonating with people. Tough job, I know. I’ve played dozens (maybe hundreds) of  apps by now, many mainstream games, but for some reason I resisted Words with Friends.

I tried to start playing about a month ago with a few of my “younger” Facebook friends. Not much response. But then I started a game with a new friend on Facebook. She is the mother of a very close childhood friend who died in a car accident at the age of 22. We had exchanged a couple of short messages, but what to say on a social media site? I haven’t seen her since her daughter was alive and we had our lives ahead of us. So, I started by placing a word on a board.

For the past few weeks, I have been playing WwF nearly every day, some days in real time with this “friend” I hold dear in my heart. The simple act of playing together has opened a door and will make it almost easy when I visit her. And because of how this connection made me feel, I will make sure that visit happens.

Coincidentally, another childhood friend – who is the one who re-connected me to my WwF friend – has also started a game with me. With her the game has a completely different tone. This friend is in the dumps because her adult son is having troubles and sending her through the wringer. There is nothing I can do to help her situation besides lend her support. Support through a game. I use the game for humor, choosing words for their innuendoes rather than points. Another way to cheer a friend.  My experience has led me to wonder… how many other folks out there have had similar experiences? What is your story? I really need to know.

I’ve opened a WwF Pandora’s box. If only my 92 year old Mom would use an IPad. Ah, but…she’d still beat me.

Smelly Hallways

My favorite course in high school was an English course in which we read Summer of 42 and John Updike’s “A&P”. What’s not to like? I wasn’t the most engaged high school learner…and that is an understatement. I was in honors math, it came easily to me, and that is what I ended up pursuing until I started realizing that I really liked science, but that wasn’t until graduate school. If you asked me in high school, I would have told you I detested science, as evidenced by my choice to drop it after grade 11.

So why? I remember dreading the science wing in junior high school. It was in the basement and my science teacher, while I am sure a very nice and interesting person, seemed to fit the bill of basement dweller. But most of all it was the smell. The formaldehyde or sulfur from last period’s experimentation always lingered in the air and the fluorescent lighting and lack of ventilation capped off the experience to ensure nausea and lethargy. I think that may have been the start of my tendency for cutting class.

By early high school, the biology labs moved upstairs and there was an engaging female teacher who probably would have gotten me over the physical discomforts of the lab, but she only taught advanced Bio. I was down with the standard level achievers (all that cutting class didn’t help my marks) and I was taken the least amount of science credits possible. I much preferred the rigor of the baking classes in home sciences, or archery and lacrosse in physical education, so I stocked my electives with those. One of those electives, by the way, was typing – probably the most important skill I took away from high school.

My general science classrooms were again, stuck in a wing with industrial lighting and little ventilation – or connection to the rest of the school. In fact, come to think of it, it was the wing that was Science and Industrial Arts or Shop class. So not only did we have sulfur lingering, it mixed with monkey grease and gasoline. Somehow a walk outside always seemed preferable, even in the dead of winter.

I suppose I cannot blame my late-blooming appreciation for science on school layout completely, but it does make me think about the aesthetics of learning environments. I look out my window at a humming bird or look at the vortices in a stream and think that science is the most beautiful form of expression and perspective imaginable. But you never could have convinced me of that in the dark and smelly hallways of my high school.

Jar of Jacks

I was searching for a lost piece of paper the other day when I stumbled upon my jar of jacks that must have fallen off the bookshelf without my noticing. I have been gazing at that jar of jacks for the past day, longing for a flat linoleum floor like the kitchens of the 1960s. The ceramic tile I have in my kitchen and bathrooms would make for impossible bounces of the ball, and my husband would (rightfully) have a fit if I played on the hardwood floors, scratching them with every sweep of the jacks. But I long for the simplicity of that game.

My best friend and I sat for hours working through the levels, from onesies up to tensies and back down again. We challenged each other with new tricks. Do it will one-hand, do it blindfolded, do it continuously for as long as you can….the original level builder. Why was it so addictive?  The simplicity of the game mechanics, the mixture of luck (where the jacks landed on your throw) and skill to deal with every new situation, the mixture of unpredictability and predictability – isn’t that balance what we all want in life?

Also known as knucklebones (now that is a visceral image, isn’t it?), the game of jacks dates back at least to Greek mythology. It started with cave folks sitting around and throwing little pieces of bones and catching them on their hands. There are now dozens of variants of the modern game listed on Wikipedia with names like “This is the house that Jack built” and “Flush the Toilet”.

Not me, I think I’ll just clear a space on my desk and break out my ol’ 10 jacks and a superball. The hardwood floors are safe, I don’t think sitting on floors is good for my back these days anyway.

Problem Solving

Today I was putting a bike rack on my car. A brand new bike rack from Thule – great design, well made device, terrible instructions. There were several times where I had to infer what piece went where from very little information. It was a lot of trial and error. I had to problem-solve.

I was relying on the information that this was a well made rack, not a piece of junk from a cheap store. The pieces that I had already placed went in smoothly and were clearly fitting exactly the way they were supposed to go. When I went to fit the later pieces I found myself thinking as I had in a well crafted game – if it doesn’t go in smoothly, it probably isn’t the right solution. That kept me on track. I was able to not stay too long on spurious, ill-fitting trajectories, so that I would change course and more quickly find the well fitting solution.

As a game designer, too much click and try on spurious objects leaves me frustrated. I am currently stuck in Machinarium, Botanicula, and Half-life 2 at points where I got bored with trying to find the game mechanic. I am probably not the typical gamer. I don’t want to have to navigate and click-to-find too much before finding the mechanic. I want it right in my face but with a complex puzzle so that I have to figure out how to use it. I want to be able to use my trial error to quickly get feedback on how to leverage the mechanic in the current situation. Otherwise, personally, I go to a walkthrough or leave the game.

But back to the bike rack. How many things do we do each day that are aided by exploratory problem-solving, the kind that is so core to good games? Assembling and fixing things without good instructions, certainly any kind of innovation, how about managing a household budget? Managing with limited resources to create “lemonade” from lemons – I guess that is back to innovation. It feels like the quality of how we live our lives, and how in control of our lives we can ever hope to be, is based on our problem solving ability. Is that true?

Creativity and the Shower

I wish I could get a quick degree in neuroscience. I wish I could stand side by side with a neuroscientist and watch learners brains under a variety of test cases – lots of learners, where we could do statistical analysis on inquiry-based learning, game-based learning, teaching to the test, everything we can think of…and watch the synapses fire (or not).

I have been at several talks lately where the slides come up showing all the areas of a brain that glow when a player is in flow. Jesse Schell spoke at G4C about how we need to keep many parts of our brain active or they get “itchy” and will wander off and get distracted if we don’t keep them satisfied. This is why, he explains, even though one might think that while driving a car the last thing we need is a distraction like music or audio books, that in fact it helps our brain not wander off completely.

What also makes complete sense to me now is why my best leaps of innovation come in while gardening or often in the shower. While taking care of the daily ritual of showering that I have completed for more decades than I care to admit, my body and reflexive parts of my brain are on auto-pilot and other parts of my brain are in a relaxed but fruitful state of processing. I will often have a sheer moment of brilliance in the shower –  coming up with a perfect next step to a nagging problem or a great “why not do such-and-such ?” just out of the blue…and then not remember if I had washed my hair or not. I’ve conceived major projects in my head while splitting hostas or pulling weeds.I think much more clearly away from my desk.

I don’t have the neuroscience terminology at hand, but I am coming to understand from the talks I hear that it is not the activity in one range of the brain (or of one certain stimulus or set of practices and behavior) that lends itself to innovation and creative leaps – it is when the brain is in flow and providing the environment for knowledge and ideas to become fluid and connect with one another. There is so much to learn from neural research that might blow the doors off everything we think in learning sciences – and even more, once we think we know what learning is and how it works, it could just change before we know it.