This is a meditation on how games can change our life, or perhaps how games are life itself.
There is quite a bit of text here, so if you don’t have time to read it now, I recommend saving it for later using a web service like Pocket. I also have cross-posted to Medium.
Other posts in this series include On Notifications (!), On Questions (?), On Decisions (/) and On Fantasy (^).
I grew up on an abandoned cow ranch on the leeward side of Oregon’s coastal mountain range. Christened by the previous owners as Mountain Shadow Ranch, what was mediocre habitat for cows turned out to be fantastic for at least three things: first, trail running, as a certain one-mile loop was my primary way of engaging with the luxury of acreage that my family was fortunate enough to have. Second, paintball, which was not really something I enjoyed because it hurt but my younger sister nevertheless bought all the equipment for the two of us so she would have an excuse to cause me pain without getting in trouble.
The third thing Mountain Shadow Ranch was good for was cats. Lots and lots of cats.
When I was young my family adopted a few felines for the fun of it. These domestic cats had the entirety of Mountain Shadow Ranch to themselves. They chased mice and climbed trees and colluded their next scheme from the confines of our (their) ramshackle barn.
And, thanks to the feral cats coming from the nearby county park, our cats had kittens. Lots and lots of kittens. Thanks to the basics of biology, the Nyquist family eventually found itself taking care of thirty-plus cats.
A dark cloud the color of a coyote’s nose and the shape of the Lotka-Volterra equation formed over Mountain Shadow Ranch. I will spare the more gruesome details to simply say that thanks to the basics of ecology, the Nyquist family eventually found itself taking care of zero cats.
Some nights you can hear the coyotes howl at the moon and the cattle laugh from the grave: “Told you so.”
A thought to get your wheels turning:
This suggests a general characteristic of the nature of play that is reflected in playing: all playing is a being-played. The attraction of a game, the fascination it exerts, consists precisely in the fact that the game masters the players. Even in the case of games in which one tries to perform tasks that one has set oneself, there is a risk that they will not “work,” “succeed” or “succeed again,” which is the attraction of the game. Whoever “tries” is in fact the one who is tried. The real subject of the game (this is shown in precisely those experiences in which there is only a single player) is not the player but instead the game itself. What holds the player in its spell, draws him into play, and keeps him there is the game itself.
— Hans Georg-Gadamer, Truth & Method, p. 106
After being home to no cats, Mountain Shadow Ranch now again can be called home for one cat.
One cat with the appearance of a dove and the playfulness of a dolphin — so white, so fluffy, so pure, so innocent that neither my parents nor my younger siblings could decide on a name for her. Therefore, in lieu of a proper name, she was christened “Special Kitty”.
Special Kitty is so special that, in the never-ending chess match against the local coyote pack, she is strictly an indoor cat. To potentially put Special Kitty in harm’s way is such a direct violation of her specialness that — well, it can’t ever happen.
The Nyquist family house is Special Kitty’s domain, so much so that when I — a stranger to her — came home for the holidays, I was greeted with a passive-aggressive turf war. It began with Special Kitty swatting at my heel as I sat at the dinner table or worked on the computer. The turf war escalated quickly, as Special Kitty began to sneakily creep into the room I had “moved into” and defecate under the bed.
It did not end there. Some of Special Kitty’s acts of unhospitality were simply so outlandish I just feel uncomfortable broadcasting them over the internet: meow-eww.
At the end of the day, however, Special Kitty is just another housecat. And in the neverending battle between Kaleb and the cat, I have discovered her one true weakness: shiny things.
It was amazing how much a little piece of silver string could turn our resident princess into pure animal. It became prey and predator like — an opportunity to dominate, a threat to exterminate. A simple jangle of this string, and it was Game On.
I was as fascinated by the cat as the cat was by the string, so in a fit of pre-holiday boredom I made a video montage of this phenomenon. (Now, I suppose, I can check off “impulsive cat video” from my Internet bingo card.)
As a youth minister, I am notorious for experimenting with new game ideas. I put a lot of value into the first half hour of our time together, the time spent in the gym before the “discussion” or “lesson” part of the night.
Now that I am in my second year at Ravenswood Covenant Church, there are some games that I have firmly introduced as Ravenswood Student Ministry traditions.
There’s “Save the Queen”, a combination of team dodgeball and Kubb. Another crowd favorite has been “Extreme Bananagrams”, mostly because of that one time it all came down to a single letter tile. We have “the Annual Paper Airplane Challenge”, where the golden airplane is rewarded to the team with that can achieve top scores in speed, distance, accuracy, design and the legendary battle mode.
(The co-champion of the 2nd Annual Paper Airplane Challenge, who I will refer to by her YouTube name dieunko, made a video about her victory. Check it out, and by the way if you subscribed to her channel it would make her day.)
My career as an experimental game designer started my first week as a summer camp counselor, when I was tasked with the responsibility of entertaining eight kids who signed up for “Ninjas.” To fulfill this task, I created a two-hour-long role-play where my rather honorable ninjas were tasked with the singular duty of keeping the camp staff accountable. This duty was achieved by sneaking around the facilities and targeting lone staff members in an abbreviated, martial-arts inspired, flash mob routine. The kids loved it, and in future weeks I found myself not only leading new “ninja” cohorts, but being on the receiving end of some as well.
(“What’s Ninjas?” I had asked the program coordinator. His response: “I dunno. Just go with it, and for bonus points see if you can keep it politically correct.”)
I think many youth ministers fall into what I call the “attractional model” of youth ministry. The “attractional model” sees games merely as candy-coating for the so-called “real stuff” — the theological lesson or discipleship moment. Get the kids in the door with fun, and get them out the door with something substantial. I suppose the logic is valid.
But in my own personal model of youth ministry, the games are more integral to the entire experience. It is within a game like “Extreme Bananagrams” where pre-existing relationships are temporarily suspended, as best friends find themselves dueling each other and complete strangers find themselves now having to communicate with each other in order to win. In a game like “Ninjas”, the youth achieve a fleeting five seconds of role reversal as they swarm an authority figure, accompanied by what is sometimes a precious injection of self-esteem for an eleven-year-old boy who only knows the bottom of the social ladder. In a game like “Save the Queen” I find myself tackling adolescent misogyny as the boys struggle to accept their turn to play as the imaginary Queen, and there is that moment of what I hope is female empowerment when everyone realizes that the fate of the game ultimately rests on the quick wit and agility of what was originally thought to be just another “damsel in distress.”
Games, I believe, transform relationships by scaffolding relationships with a set of laws and values foreign to everyday life.
I am not looking too much into this, I swear.
I live in a house on the north side of Chicago with six other guys. We call our little community “the Cardinal Deux” — which, in turn, is named after the original “the Cardinal” where we lived in the year prior, which in turn was named ad perpetuam memoriam after the cardinal that flew into our window and died soon after impact.
As we later said, “the name just hit us one day.”
I am reminded, by the incessant meowing I hear as I draft this meditation, that I don’t live with just six other guys, but a domestic cat named Esther. A tuxedo cat in appearance only and a tiara cat in spirit, Esther has forsaken all forms of cat etiquette for the sake of manipulating her humans to fulfill even her slightest whim.
Each morning, she interrupts our sleep simply to so she can be fed an hour or two before any of us have even thought about about having breakfast. Each afternoon, she makes it impossible to watch TV until she has been fed again. However generously and frequently we feed her, it simply is not enough for her insatiable appetite.
Esther was once a drug addict as well. Last year, when she sprained her foot, the veterinarian set her up with a prescription of painkillers. Esther’s direct owner (the rest of us are just her roommates or perhaps slaves) was responsible for administering these painkillers, which Esther took a liking to. After three weeks, Esther’s foot was visibly better to us roommate-slaves, but when Esther’s direct owner came home her “limp” would magically reappear, part of a successful scheme to appeal to his sense of sympathy and secure more another dose of painkillers.
Esther may even get a sadistic joy from her manipulation. To make my case, I testify to a scene from last summer, when she caught a grasshopper that was jumping around the backyard. She gnawed on it for a little while, amputating one of it’s legs. What was prey became play, as the grasshopper began to hop around our kitchen with limited mobility, and Esther would chase it down in a rigged “cat-versus-grasshopper” game.
I play games with my youth group in order to scaffold these middle schoolers with a new set of relationships, one that transcends cliches and popularity and the sort of things that divide middle schoolers.
But maybe games don’t work like that.
I mean, look at Russia. It feels like the Sochi Olympics were only the day-before-yesterday. The Olympics are supposed to be the games-to-end-all-games, the ultimate arena of competition, the one time and place the world unites. And Russia was doing a pretty good job of it, with that cool Opening Ceremony and the sense that the last snow of the Cold War had finally melted.
And then, boom, Ukraine.
Given the terrific reputation we have with cardinals, one of our female friends connected the men of the Cardinal Deux with a cardinal who (after being caught in her backyard and playfully gnawed on by her dog) needed a new home.
We accepted, christening this new cardinal with the sort of name that makes “Special Kitty” sound inspired: “Red”. Thanks to the efforts of one roommate in particular, we were able to accommodate Red with a regular diet of seeds and grapes, delivered directly to his cage — a cage furnished with a food bowl, water bowl, perching branch and mirror.
Of course, not every resident of the Cardinal Deux took so well to having a cardinal dwell among us. The mere presence of Red drove Esther absolutely insane, awakening her primal instincts, transforming her spirit from that of mere housecat to wild lioness.
Except Red was in a cage, and as long as he remained in a cage, so was Esther’s spirit. And so Esther just sat in the kitchen all day, staring at Red in the cage, as Red stared at himself in the mirror.
I wrote a mediation a while back about fantasy. I concluded the post with a cliff-hanger, the unsupported claim that fantasy done right is a place where our desires can be restored.
I promised to explain what I meant by that, and here it is:
Fantasy is the experience of our desires playing a game.
Analogous to how games transform relationships by scaffolding relationships with strange rules, fantasy transforms desires by scaffolding desires with a strange world — be it a strange world with boy wizards or the virtual world of video games or the daydreams inside our head.
Desire is a fundamental part of being human. It sometimes gets a bad rap, because people are quick to assume unfulfilled desires should lead to discontentment. I think this is unfair, as it is often the case that unmet desires are what drive us to begin some of the best adventures. Instead, the problems commonly associated with desire is usually not inherent to desire itself but rather with the distortion of desire away from things that are good and in proper portions.
That is philosophical language to describe an idea that may not be philosophically sound, but it is nevertheless how I have begun to see the world over the past many months.
As I’m drafting this little piece of this meditation, it is the evening of Valentine’s Day. I am spending the night solo not necessarily because I am single and alone, but because I am winding down from the first day of a planning retreat for a conference where we are asking the question of how do we educate and empower thousands of high school youth with respect to some of the pressing social justice issues of the day. (If you know me, you know I’m super excited about this opportunity — but it is a sign, I fear, that I might be married to my work).
I am, of course, well aware of number of friends, colleagues and acquaintances who are celebrating the night with their romantic interest. Some of the dates going down sound so gushy and wonderful and full of horse-pulled carriage rides it all sounds a bit like a fairy-tale. A real life fantasy, one that might seem a bit more like a dream come tomorrow morning.
“Dating”, of course, is often considered a game in it’s own right.
Growing up, I had a friend who managed to live in the liminal space between hipster and bro. He once recommended Neil Strauss’ “The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists”. I can’t say I actually ever read it, but the title (emblazoned in gold lettering, adorned with silhouettes of women in seductive poses, all on the faux-black leather cover) is pretty telling. Trying to get a date, or at least a hook-up for the night, is a type of game — a game, just like any other game, composed of rules and strategies.
And, ladies, this gaming goes both ways. I’ve seen the cover of your Cosmopolitan magazines: “We found your future boyfriend: 23 great places to meet men!” “50 ways to seduce a man (in 1 minute or less)”. “Drive him crazy: Tips To Make Him Stand Up & Take Notice”.
(…has any other guy out there had nightmares of empowered women, and when I say empowered women I mean empowered by Cosmopolitan tips and tricks, finding us in our secret hiding places, seducing us quicker than the time it takes to properly introduce ourselves, and then using our undivided attention to drive us crazy simply for the sake of it? This sounds like the greatest security threat to the entire man-nation.)
Even among my many roommates, who are (ahem) more gentlemanly than Casanova, dating is still a game. A considerable portion of roommate-bonding is done through talking about how to decode body language, how our latest dates went, how we should best follow-up, and which girls each other is still interested in (and who is off-limits for the time being).
For those of us in more committed relationships, there is still an element of strategy in figuring out how to bring the relationship to the “next level”.
Dating is a game: some of us are masters, some of us are novices; some of us are naturals, some of us could use some practice. This is not to disparage dating, I am just stating the facts and perhaps even celebrating the whole institution a little bit.
But my instinct suggests that there is something that Neil Strauss nor Cosmopolitan nor even my roommates will tell you:
You aren’t just playing “the game”, “the game” is playing you. Before you successfully pick up a single woman, seduce a man in under 60 seconds, or bring it to the next level, you have already been enchanted by the game. You have been driven by a will to win before you have driven someone else into your arms. The thirst for victory is one part your nature that desires a companion, another part a culture that celebrates those who are winning “the game.”
“The game” is one part an actual game, another part fantasy. The setup perhaps begins in early adolescence, when we let our desires run wild with our first run at MASH or our first celebrity crush. “The game” develops further when we watch our first love movie or read our first love story, when we have our first schoolyard crush, when we participate in our first scripted romance such as the prom. Far from lust (the self-defeating desire for a desire), sexual fantasy is the rather innocuous process of experimenting with both relational desires and erotic desires in a safe environment, seeing which desires fit and which desires don’t and which desires need to be modified.
Somehow, even when the rest of you grows up, it feels like “the game” can always bring you back to feeling like a fourteen-year-old.
Probably the most fascinating part of “the game” for strategy nerds is that rarely you will find two players who are playing with the exact same understanding of the rules. There are different ways to win, ranging from a long-term relationship, to a one-night stand, to an ulterior motive, to no set goal at all. There are different expectations of how to communicate, of how far is too far, of how soon is too soon. There are a plethora of possible gender roles and a spectrum of sexual orientation. There are countless strategies of game play, with some eligible singles relying on the “thick market” of a dating website or app; while other people still rely on parents or religious authorities. Apparently, according to how Juan Pablo blew up my news feed last month, not even the reality TV dating shows cannot codify the rules to a single set of rules.
So “the game”, as it were, is not one single game but rather many, many games.
I wanted to write something about the Hunger Games here, but seeing as I have not read the books and only know the plot through the movies that are already out, I decided against talking about how a story — where a game is created that has kids are killing kids as a form of building national pride and distracting the various districts from the very real problems in society — is a great testament to the powers of a game.
Somebody else who has read the books should write that blog post. Please send me a link when you do.
All fantasies may very well be games, but of course not all games are fantasy. Some games are just too real.
At the 1972 Munich Olympics, terrorists from the Palestinian group Black September took 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team hostage. Worst fears were realized as all 11 hostages were eventually killed, 9 of whom were killed at the Fürstenfeldbruck NATO airbase, as German authorities pretended to agree to Black September’s demands that they be able to escape with the hostages, and the following ambush eventually crumpled over itself, casting a dark shadow over the remainder of the XX Olympiad.
As tragic as this event was, even it could be considered a game. The Munich Massacre has been analyzed through the lens of “game theory”, the study of strategic decision making. What were the motivations of the actors involved? What were the decisions were available to them? What possible outcomes may have been achieved?
“Both actors [the German government and the Palestinian terrorists] were oblivious to the other’s constraints and were locked in a non-solvable situation from which neither could deviate. Hence, the German government, guided by a zero-sum game strategy, with no communication and information about the terrorists’ strategy and lacking decision-making powers, tried and failed to force a solution at the airport.”
— Reuben Miller, “Game Theory and Hostage-Taking Incidents: A Case Study of the Munich Olympic Games” p.31
The epic stalemate that was Esther versus Red ended abruptly one morning, when Red was found dead, his corpse sideways in the food dish.
We, of course, had to investigate whether or not Esther had somehow struck in the night. But there were no signs of violence or trauma. Even if Esther had gotten her claws in the cage, there would have been no way she could have reached as far as the food dish that had become Red’s deathbed.
Esther was acquitted of criminal charges, but I am not so sure she was completely innocent. Red, remember, was a wild animal who one day found himself in the jaws of a curious canine, only to find himself soon thereafter stuck in a cage as another domestic animal salivated over his presence.
My autopsy: with his world confined from sky to cage, his only companion being his reflection in the mirror and the menacing cat who just sat there and stared, Red just lost the will to live.
My prescription, if I may be so bold: with his world growing so small and oppressive, the one thing that could have saved Red would have been a game.
The human resources world is abuzz right now with “gamification” — the process of turning otherwise dull, unattractive work into small, pleasurable games. Wal-Mart, for example, has successfully trained 75,000 of its distribution center workers on safety regulations by turning what would have been a 30-minute webinar into a daily series of 3-minute games.
In an interview with Forbes magazine, Adam Penenberg (author of Play at Work: How Games Inspire Breakthrough Thinking) cited science to explain the allure of the gamification phenomenon:
“A game is, at its root, a structured experience with clear goals, rules that force a player to overcome challenges, and instant feedback. Every day life is usually anything but. Because games offer clearly articulated rewards for each point players score and new level they achieve, they trigger the release of dopamine, a hormone in the brain that encourages us to explore and try new things.”
I do not work in a big office or anything remotely like one. Nor are my tasks routine or even straight-forward. Without human resources breathing down my neck, or co-workers to compare my productivity to, it is pretty easy to slack off and become unaccountable to the work that I do, even if on my better days I really do believe in the mission and vision of the various non-profits I work for.
Therefore, at the beginning of each work week, the first item on my to-do list is to figure out my to-do list. I may spend up to 10% of my working hours each week just figuring out what I have to do in the week ahead.
It feels a bit like unboxing a board game, shuffling the cards and putting all the pieces where they belong, all before the first roll of the dice.
Even my to-do list app has gotten in on the gamification trend. At the upper-right corner of my Todoist screen is a little colored circle signifying my “Todoist Karma” score. Every time I complete a task or otherwise use the app effectively, I get karma points. But every time I postpone a task or leave something incomplete, I begin to lose those hard-earned karma points.
Right now my karma score is 6,974, bestowing upon me the rank of “Expert”. I am on track for in April seeing my score rise to 7,500, levelling me up to the rank of “Master”. The ultimate goal, of course, is 10,000 — the rank of “Enlightened”.
I went for a run on Friday afternoon, the second day of spring and the first day this year the temperature hit the high fifties. The run was a “fartlek” — a speed play — where I threw in short bursts of speed to help blow off some of the rust that my body seems to have accumulated over the winter.
The loop I took circled around Lane Technical High School and the neighborhood parks that straddle the river. I saw kids out and about. Some kids were playing “organized” sports like lacrosse or rowing, under the supervision of coaches who may be more competitive than the kids themselves. I saw multiple games of basketball: the games in the parks were drawing a large and multiethnic crowd of youth, while one other game took place in an alleyway where the basketball hoop was positioned over the garage, the game being played by a small cohort of pale teenagers in collared shirts and dresses, likely the children of a conservative immigrant family looking for a way to connect in spite of the smothering shelter of their home.
Other youth were skateboarding around, the very landscape of the city transformed into a game. As a runner playing a very similar game, these were the ones I related to the most, even if we probably would not hang out any more than a brief moment on the sidewalk.
The sight of all these youth playing games was remarkable, not because it was a new sight but because it had been so long since I had seen last it. Winter had kept so many of these kids indoors, but now that the sun was shining and the entire weekend was before them, they embraced the outdoors in the only way they knew they could that would also keep them out of trouble: playing games.
At the alleyway entrance, about fifty meters away from the Cardinal Deux, there is a little speed limit sign that has been posted by one of our neighbors. LIMIT 15 MPH.
As a runner, I know exactly what 15 MPH is: the legendary 4-minute mile pace. When I was in high school and college, I could run a quarter-mile and almost a half-mile at 15 MPH pace. I would like to think I can still make it close, even though the working world has significantly cut into my leisure time available for working out.
On Friday, like many days, as I ran by the LIMIT 15 MPH sign to finish my run, I hit the lap button on my watch and picked up the speed, shifting gears in rapid succession attempting to make it as close to 4-minute mile pace that I could muster for that day.
When one runs that fast, less oxygen than usual makes it to the brain and rationality is suspended in favor of the more basic mental functions, like breathing and heartbeats.
Is life a game?
Or are games life?
Doesn’t matter the difference, I respond, as I cross the finish line for again one more time.