Unvilifying the video games

I’m reading Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken, about how games (of the video variety in particular) may not be the useless waste of time and brain power they’re reputed to be.

It’s one of the most powerful pieces of writing I’ve read in a long time.  I don’t play video games, and until I started reading the book I wished that fewer people would play them less of the time.  That wish didn’t stop me from encouraging parents to resist the temptation to forbid the playing of video games out of hand, and vilify screen time in general, but I still wished.

So I’ll say this.  If you have or know a child who likes to play video (or other) games, and you find yourself trying to get him or her to play less, this could be one of the most important books you ever read.  Not because it will necessarily change your mind about anything (so please try not to resist because you’re afraid it will do that).  Rather because it will offer you a perspective on why your child is drawn to these games that casts him or her in a much more favorable light than the video-games-are-bad rhetoric allows.

And even if you don’t know such a child, McGonigal’s insights on work, happiness, social interaction, and the way we solve and don’t solve large-scale problems make it worth the read as well.

Here’s a passage from early in the book:

“When we’re in a concentrated state of optimistic engagement, it suddenly becomes biologically more possible for us to think positive thoughts, to make social connections, and to build personal strengths.  We are actively conditioning our minds and bodies to be happier. 

If only hard work in the real world had the same effect.  In our real lives, hard work is too often something we do because have to do it – to make a living, to get ahead, to meet someone else’s expectations, or simply because someone else gave us a job to do.  We resent that kind of work.  It stresses us out.  It takes time away from our friends and family.  It comes with too much criticism.  We’re afraid of failing.  We often don’t get to see the direct impact of our efforts, so we rarely feel satisfied. 

Or, worse, our real-world work isn’t hard enough.  We’re bored out of our minds.  We feel completely underutilized.  We feel underappreciated.  We are wasting our lives.

When we don’t choose hard work for ourselves, it’s usually not the right work, at the right time, for the right person.  It’s not perfectly customized for our strengths, we’re not in control of the work flow, we don’t have a clear picture of what we’re contributing to, and we never see how it all pays off in the end.  Hard work that someone else requires us to do just doesn’t activate our happiness systems in the same way.  It all too often doesn’t absorb us, doesn’t make us otpimistic, doesn’t invigorate us.

What a boost to global net happiness it would be if we could positively activate the minds and bodies of hundreds of millions of people by offering them better hard work.”

Indeed. Jane McGonigal’s interested in a happier, more productive world.  We mightn’t expect such a commitment expressed in the form of a book about video games, but that’s what she’s done.  It’s quite something.

Another good game

Here’s another fun and think-y game to try: Combo King, from Gamewright.

It’s got some in common with Yahtzee (rolling for particular combinations of things, adding, multiplying, etc.) but changes itself up from one turn to the next for, it seems, a more dynamic kind of play.  Don’t get me wrong – I’m a Yahtzee fan, too.  I just think this one might make a good precursor and/or alternative with some of the same or more fun and benefit.

And I recommend keeping the whole book/cover judgment adage in mind…


A young friend alerted me to a game called Anomia. I’m not sure how I missed this one.

The game has a lot in common with Taboo – both are great facilitators of mental agility.  In Taboo the challenge is to find unusual or unexpected verbal pathways in the brain for directing a team member to a given word.  In Anomia, the challenge is to retrieve from your brain a word or phrase that falls into a particular category, on the spot.  (The task is similar to the one found in Scattergories, but it’s simpler with Anomia but also a little more… fast and furious.)

A little Lego redemption

As a longtime Lego enthusiast, I get a little distressed when I pass through an aisle of Lego products that appear to have very few actual blocks included – where everything looks Lego-ish but most of the parts can only serve one purpose and there’s not much building to be done.  I expect blocks and only blocks, though I’m willing to concede that if it were blocks and only blocks there’d likely be no more Lego at all.

Anyway, lest I get ranting, the point of the post is this: I was somewhat heartened to hear of Lego’s new game Creationary, in which players are to guess what others are building.  You can see where the name came from; seems like a promising choice for those who thrive in 3 rather than 2 dimensions, or would like to. It looks as though you can download the rules from Lego’s site, if you want to know more about the game.


My cousin invited me to play an online word game with her yesterday.  I don’t like spending any extra time at the computer, but I’ve got a weak spot for word games, so I agreed to try it.  After playing once on my lunch break, and being something less than satisfied with my score, I found myself waiting for the day to be over so I could try again.  I knew I wasn’t going to come anywhere close to scoring as high as the others who were playing, but I really wanted to do better than I had done.  It made me curious – the outcome of the game has absolutely no impact on my life whatsoever, but there I was looking forward to playing it again, just to see how I could do at this thing that I find interesting.  I didn’t just want to play, though, I wanted to See How I Did.  I wanted the results, and I wanted to keep comparing them with my other results.

I’ve seen this happen with kids, too, this kind of intense relationship with results – whether it’s short lived or longer standing.  But I’ve also seen lots of resistance to results.  I think that adults think that kids don’t want to know how they’re doing, or don’t think it’s important to know, but in fact they really do want to know how they’re doing. It’s just that they want to know how they’re doing on the things that they’re convinced are important.  That of course raises the question of whether or not they should have to be convinced of what’s important, and I won’t get into that now, because I only have a few minutes and that one’s a real button-pusher, but I thought it might be a good inquiry to raise.  See where you notice your children being really interested in results, and where you see them being less interested…