Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Because video games: games, flow and the evolution of our brains

The summer between 5th and 6th grade, having just moved to a new town in northern Michigan after the school year ended and thus not knowing anyone yet, I found a passion that still fuels me: video games. We had an Atari 2600 and while my sister roamed our new neighborhood to make friends, I settled in to beat Pac-Man. I played for hours and hours, until I got so good at avoiding ghosts and eating fruit that I rolled the scoreboard.

My mom eventually kicked me out of the house to go find my sister and play. She coined the term "mush brain" and continued to repeat the same refrain, even as I moved on to Frogger and Pitfall and eventually to Centipede, from which I still have the remnants of callouses from the rollerball controller.

That phrase, mush brain, never made sense to me, as I knew that counter to what my mom might have seen as me zoning out, I was actually concentrating REALLY HARD. I didn't want to be disturbed, not because I was catatonic, but because I was intensely focused.

Fast forward 25 years, as my 9 year old son is standing in the middle of my living room, a Wii controller in each hand, focused so completely on Punch Out (which had been my birthday gift, fwiw) that he doesn't hear us telling him it's time for dinner. My mom called him a mush brain. I stopped her and said, "No, look. Watch him. He's solving the pattern for each boxer. He's concentrating. He's doing hard work."

I happened upon a conversation on a friend's Facebook page today, where he reflected on the damage that video games cause to how our brains function. I flashed back to my own experiences as a kid, and to watching my kids now. Maybe video games DO change the way our brains work, but I think it's for the better. Video games are enormous feedback experiences where each move you make has a consequence - an increase in score, a goal accomplished or failed and, of course, game over. Games teach us to practice, to keep trying, to fail and have another go. Games teach us persistence. Games teach us problem solving, logic, complex decision-making and pattern recognition. Video games improve our fine motor skills. Collaborative games teach team work, communication skills and leadership skills. And beyond all of that...games might be our first experience of flow, that deeply focused attention that some might dismiss as mindlessness rather than mindfulness.

And yet, so many people jumped on the "anti-video game" band wagon in the comments. It's so easy to vilify, to oversimplify the evolution of our brains due to the influences of technology and to ignore the actual research that disproves your opinion. It's so easy. "Games are bad." It is so easy to point fingers and cite circumstantial evidence to counter honest to goodness research and data that shows the benefits of games. This is no means unique to games; we see the same arguments against gun control, feminism, climate change...debates where research shows clear data but passionate opinion somehow gets weighted equally.

Examples of games research to check out:

Karl Kapp's answer to the question (with research!) of "do games teach?" 

An article in Psychology Today on benefits of playing video games 

The educational benefits of video games (written by a professor who studies gambling addiction)

Video games for training surgeons

Just to name a few...and a few resources on flow to check out if you're interested:

Game Design Theory Applied to the Flow Channel 

Wikipedia reference on Flow

I don't have a real picture of us playing, but this is how I imagine me and my son.
Let me be clear: I don't think kids should be playing violent first person shooters. Video game ratings systems are there for a reason and while I tend to focus on the positive impacts of video games, if you're letting your kid watch Game of Thrones or play Call of Duty? Yeah, there are going to be negative impacts. There's plenty of research on the impacts of exposure to violence in video games (and other media forms) on children, as well as the danger of video game addiction. Two points here: Too much of ANYTHING is bad for you, especially for children. And correlation does not equal causation. While there have been lots of correlations drawn between playing violent video games and violent behavior, there is no causal evidence (meaning that playing video games does not cause you to be violent).
Let's be smart out there, people...but let's not throw out the baby with the bath water.

When I worry about how our brains are changing, I think about how we're less likely to engage in deep reading and reflection. I think about how attention spans have shortened, likely because of television commercial cycles and mobile content. I worry about how difficult it is for our brains to discern meaning with the endless stream of information, opinions and misinformation that is broadcast to us through multiple media channels all day long.

I don't worry about video games. Video games have taught me how to fail, pick myself up and try again. They have strengthened my focus and concentration. And my son who conquered Punch Out with focused concentration on pattern recognition? He just won Santa Barbara's Math Super Bowl for 6th grade with a perfect 50/50. So much for being a mush brain.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

I choose to stay and fight

You may know that I live in Santa Barbara county. The tragic events last Friday night at UCSB have enveloped all of us. It is a sad time, one in which the ongoing discussions of lack of services for mental illness, gun control, and the pervasive misogyny in our culture have resurfaced with renewed vigor.

I have been hit particularly hard by both the violence and the fervor in defending assault weapon ownership, but even worse, I've been paralyzed with disgust at the multitude of comments defending the demented beliefs of the shooter that drove him to kill 6 innocent people and injure 7 more. Because the tragedy happened on our doorstep, I've talked to our kids at length about it. Even though we don't watch tv and they've been mainly protected from some of the more heart-wrenching details, they have a lot of questions. I have done my best to answer them, but they are not easy conversations.

What's particularly difficult is to talk to them about WHY he was so angry that he wanted to kill people. The truth, the horrible truth of how he thought about women, is more difficult for me to talk about than mental illness or gun control. Misogyny is not a grey area, so it should be easy...but it is so accepted in so many subtle and not so subtle ways in our culture that as a mom, it's difficult for me to explain to my 7 year old daughter that there are groups of people, mainly men, who are creating fan pages on Facebook holding up the Isla Vista shooter as a hero of their misogynistic beliefs. There are many, many people who sympathize with him. There are many, many people who believe that his violence was justified.

But it's worse than that. Many women I know have reported these fan pages to Facebook for Hate Speech and Facebook has denied requests to have these pages taken down. I AM ANGRY. A mom posts a picture on Facebook of breastfeeding and is taken down for obscenity, but a fan page for a woman-hating mass murderer is ok? What the hell is wrong with us, all of us, if these things just happen and we let them?

I'm a mom, a wife, a mother, a sister, a daughter, a friend, a co-worker...I have every right to choose who has access to my body and when. So does your mom, your wife, your girlfriend, your sister, your daughter, your friends, your co-workers. Thinking otherwise is not just misogynistic, it's obscene. It IS hate speech to say I don't have that right, just because I happened to be born with a vagina instead of a penis. It doesn't matter what I look like. It doesn't matter what I'm wearing. It doesn't matter if I said yes before I said no. It doesn't matter if I've been drinking. It doesn't matter what time it is. You're not entitled to anything without my permission and I have the right to revoke that permission at any time.

When I read that Facebook is protecting these hate pages against women and allowing them to be hosted on their platform, I was going to quit Facebook. It's tempting to walk away, to simply say "I'm out." But that doesn't solve the problem, does it? Because I may leave, but then who will say this is not ok? Who will say it if I don't? How can I have these conversations with my daughters about men who marginalize, sexualize, objectify and victimize women if I don't stand up and say it's not ok? How does this get better if I don't work to make it better?

I'm staying on Facebook, but I'm not here just to post pics of my kiddos and beach selfies and geeky memes. I'm staying to be vigilant and to fight. I'm staying to say it's not ok to tell girls they need to dress more modestly because boys can't control themselves. I'm staying to say it's not ok to victim blame. I'm staying to report pages that hold up misogynist extremist mass murderers as role models. I'm staying to try to be a feminist role model for my sons and daughters.

Why are you on Facebook?

Monday, May 12, 2014

Becoming a mom

When Jackson, my firstborn, was about to turn 1, I knew I wanted another child. My pregnancy with him had not been easy, and with 3 months of bed rest fresh in my mind and the complications I experienced with a second round of fertility medication, another pregnancy seemed too great a risk. We decided to adopt. In the late summer of 2004, I traveled to Russia to meet my son Vardan. 

When people ask, I've compared the process of international adoption to pregnancy. The first trimester is filled with emotion, anxiety, and trying to figure out what all of this means to you...with adoption, it also means A LOT of paperwork. More than you can even imagine. It also means a lot of decisions. One of the unique decisions that you can make in the adoption process is selecting the gender of your child. I agonized over that decision, until one day, sitting alone in the car and talking to...I don't know. Myself? the Universe? God? I heard myself say, "Jackson needs a brother." And so the decision was made. 

The next few months, like the second trimester, is just waiting. And waiting. Your paperwork has been submitted and you fill your days thinking about your new child, wishing, wondering and trying to make plans. The last few months are just like the last trimester of pregnancy. Can I just have this kid already? I want to meet him! The wait is almost painful with anticipation.

My last trimester of the adoption process began with the arrival of an email with two pictures attached of our "referral." He was beautiful. Big brown eyes, chubby cheeks, and curly brown ringlets covering his head. From the minute I saw him, I was in love. We had a name picked out for him, but when we saw him, we knew he'd already been appropriately named Vardan. Every day waiting to meet him after receiving that email was agony, but a few weeks later, he was cuddled up in my arms for the first time. Our first trip was to officially accept him as our son, and then we had to leave him at the orphanage and wait 6 horrible weeks until our second trip to Russia and court finalization of the adoption, when we could bring him home.

It was that second trip, after leaving the orphanage and walking around the streets of Sochi with him, that I feel like I actually became a mom. Sure, when I had Jackson, I had that moment too, holding him in the hospital, the nurse came in to give me a shot and he cried in empathetic pain and I knew that he was MINE and I was a mom. But it wasn't until I had Vardan, 18 months old and holding on to me like a koala bear, that I really felt what it meant to be a mom. 

Some people have asked me why I chose international adoption. The selfish truth is that it seemed easier. There is an abundance of babies in overseas orphanages who need homes and families to love them. But it wasn't even that. I didn't want my son's "real mom" showing up some day. I didn't think I could handle the competition of another mom. This little boy was mine and I didn't want to share him.

As I walked along the Black Sea shore, holding my son, I felt desperate. Suddenly, unexpectedly, I wanted to meet Vardan's birth mom. I knew that it was not a competition for who was more of his mother, and I desperately wanted this stranger who had given birth to my son to know that he was going to be ok. I don't know much about her. I know he was her first child, that she was an immigrant from Armenia, and that she was only 4'10". I know that she was a hairdresser, was homeless and living with a friend, she didn't smoke, and before she gave birth to our beautiful boy, she visited the orphanage on numerous occasions to make sure that he was going to be ok. That's the piece that stuck with me: she wanted to know he was going to be ok and there was no way for me to tell her.

I can only imagine her life, and the circumstances that led to her decision. I can only project my own experience of motherhood on her, this woman who lives on the other side of the planet, who gave me the most precious gift in all the world. When I was flying back from Moscow to New York City, all I could think was: I want her to know he's ok. He's safe, he's beautiful and he's going to be ok. I wanted her to know that it didn't even phase me on that flight when he stayed awake for 36 hours and only wanted me to hold him, feeding him Cheerios one-by-one. I wanted her to know when Jackson met him for the first time after our long trip home from Russia, the first thing he said was "Oh brother, I've missed you so much." Later, I wanted her to know when we got his asthma controlled and he said his first English sentence (I want that!) and he got his hearing aids. I want her to know how he's shockingly gifted at Legos and that he plays a mean trombone. I want her to know that he's got a big heart. I want her to know that he asks about her, and wants to learn Russian so that if he meets her someday, she'll understand him.

If you've seen my family and I walk in to church on Sunday, you know that we take up a full pew. Together, my husband John and I have six children. Some people have said, "Oh, you're a blended family!" and usually we reply, "No, we're just a family." And this is why:  our family is not defined by biology, but by choice.

Your heart, the love you can give, is not finite or discriminate. It multiplies and grows in ways you can't anticipate. When you have a child, you think, I could never love another person as much as I love this baby. And then, miraculously, you do, with the next child, and the next and the next. There is no limit, and that love is not tempered by the circumstances that brought a child to you, only by the openness with which you bring her into your heart.

John tells me that I have a big heart, and if I do, it's because each kiddo that came into our family...by birth, by adoption, or in our big fat geek wedding last summer: Jackson, Vardan, Sallie, Clarisse, Elvis and Zevon, have shown me how to open my heart bigger and wider, not just to them, but to the people, history and circumstances that brought us together. I've learned that being a mom is very little about giving birth to someone and everything about the choices and sacrifices you make for another to help them grow. I understand now that it’s only a good thing to have more people to love and nurture our children. Our family is big and complicated and, more than anything, loving. 

On this Mother's Day, I'm thinking about Vardan's first mom, his Russian mom, his biological mom. Maybe I'll be able to share the blessing she gave me with her someday. Until then, thank you - cpaceba, Anna, for helping me see what it means to be a mom.

Monday, April 28, 2014

A pirate girl looks at 40

When I was young, up to and even in my early 30s, 40 seemed far, far away. I could never have imagined, not in a million years, what my life would look like as I reach my 40th birthday. In my estimation, by 40 I'd be a big shot, changing the world in grand, ambitious ways. I didn't really have a plan for myself, other than being very important in some highly recognizable way that made the world better for my having been in it. 

So here I am, reflecting on my mistakes and lessons learned as I reach this milepost which, now that I'm here, doesn't seem so momentous anymore. It almost feels like hanging too much importance on a single step in the process, like the new phenomenon of celebrating 8th grade "graduation" or worse, kindergarten graduation...i mean, really? And yet, it seems as good a time as any to debrief with myself (and evidently anyone who reads my blog) on what 40 really signifies.

If you've ever heard the Pirate vs Ninja personality assessment, or the iteration Pirate - Ninja - Cowboy, I am clearly a pirate: throwing it all out there, wearing my heart on my sleeve, too honest to be a sneaky ninja, too ambitious to relax and enjoy the ride like a cowboy. It's ultimately being a pirate girl that has shaped my life so far and landed me here, ironically near the ocean, with a list of miserable failures and joyous accomplishments 

Here's what this pirate girl has learned at 40. I wonder what I'll have learned in another 40 years?
  • Everybody has big ideas. The coolest people are the ones that do something about them.
  • Even your best ideas are terribly flawed. You should let other people help you improve them.
  • My mom is (almost) always right. 
  • Happiness is not tied to how much you weigh.
  • Fitting into my skinny jeans still makes me happy.
  • Nothing makes me happier than hearing my kids laughing. 
  • 80s pop culture was the best. 
  • Power corrupts absolutely. Think about that when you get a little power.
  • There are bullies and mean girls at every age. Ignore them. Their desire to hurt isn't about you.
  • If you can't ignore them, talk about them. It's easier to ignore them with friends to distract you. 
  • We undervalue water. We shouldn't be taking it for granted.
  • At the end of the day, the most limited resource we have is time.
  • Always tell the truth. Especially when it's hard.
  • If someone asks you to lie, still tell the truth. And get away from that person.
  • Some people want to believe the lies. Distance yourself from those people, too. 
  • There are a lot of really smart, kind, loving people in the world, but they aren't well-organized, so they're sometimes hard to find. 
  • Find work that is fulfilling. You don't have to love it; even the best jobs have bad days and downsides. Find something that when you wake up on Monday morning, doesn't make you dread heading into work.
  • There will always be Mondays when you dread going into work.
  • Don't settle.
  • The most important decision you make in life is who you choose to spend it with. 
  • Be gentle with others. They have volumes of stories you know nothing about.
  • Don't assume. 
  • Actions speak louder than words.
  • People change all of the time, but you can't change them.
  • Dance as often as you can. You can't be sad if you're dancing. 
  • Be silly.
  • Take risks. The worst that can happen is usually not all that bad, actually.
  • Approach every situation with love.
  • You don't get a second chance at everything. 
  • Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone.
  • By the time you're old enough to eat anything you want whenever you want, you're wise enough to know that you shouldn't.
  • There's nothing like having a long talk with my sister. 
  • There's nothing like having a long talk with my daughter.
  • Even though I don't want them to know it, sometimes my kids are smarter than me. 
  • Go outside more.
  • Play more games.
My sister and I are born on the same day, a year apart...my first, best birthday present. Enjoy your last year in your 30s, sissy...I'll see you on the other side of the hill ;)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

All this useless beauty

I've been forming a realization lately, which either means that I'm gaining some form of enlightenment or I'm getting old (or both...it's probably not an either/or situation). I've been realizing that the Internet has become a source of frustration and disappointment.

Don't get me wrong, there are many reasons I love the Internet, even beyond funny cats. I can connect with people all over the world. I can save time and money doing research, planning, shopping and working. I can find information about just about ANYTHING that I want to know.

It's this last one that is actually pushing me over the edge. While I can find information on anything I want to know, it's often the case that that I get more information than I NEED to know. Finding what I want, when I need it, is priceless. Finding 1000x as much as I need and having to weed through it, or often getting distracted by it, costs me whatever time and money it might be saving me.

Worse, for every Upworthy-esque story I might read, there are just as many troll comments or Kardashian-bashing references. People say all kinds of mean things online, mostly to people they don't actually know, without thought to what the impact of their words are...or worse, with intent to hurt. The Internet is an amazing place and one that can suck the light out of you.

A few weeks ago, I got a song title stuck in my mind: All this useless beauty. It's a song by Elvis Costello. I read somewhere that he wrote it after watching people's reaction to art in a gallery, but it wasn't the song that got me...it is that one lyric, the title: all this useless beauty.

I live in an ridiculously beautiful place now and it often amazes me how many people who have lived here for a long time stop seeing and appreciating how beautiful it is. I can round a corner on the freeway in the morning and see the waves crashing against the sand, palm trees framing the Santa Barbara shoreline and I literally stop breathing for a second and sometimes some interjection escapes my lips, unintended. It is that beautiful.

All this useless beauty.

What good is this amazingly beautiful place if people don't appreciate it and protect it? What use is beauty if it doesn't inspire us to do good?

I'm starting to feel the same way about the Internet. There is beauty in the Internet, in what it can do to make the world better. There is connection and emotion and yes, even love. And yet, there is so much ugliness and hate and pain and despair and injustice that it has begun to eat away at me. It can paralyze me and it can distract me from the things that bring me joy and inspiration.

I can only make the world better if I can focus on the beauty. Because for me, it's not useless. It inspires action. It inspires hope. It spurs me on when I'm feeling discouraged. It reminds me that life is beautiful. The Internet has become a place where it's harder and harder to find the beauty, masked over and over again by the ugly. It's not the Internet's fault; the Internet is not the bully. People are. People who hurt and use this tool, this forum, this technology, to spread negativity and banality. The Internet has become the focus of that song lyric for me: all this useless beauty.

I'm going to do something about it. I'm going to step away from the things that distract me and focus on what inspires me. I'm focusing my energy on appreciating and protecting the beauty of the Internet and I'm letting it inspire me to do good. I have a plan, so stay tuned. The Internet doesn't have to be useless beauty.


Monday, April 14, 2014

What I want to do when I grow up

Yesterday we packed up the kids and headed down to LA for the LA Times Festival of Books. It was a wonderful day and there were many highlights, but for me, the best part of the festival was the interview of Daniel Handler by Ransom Riggs. Early in the interview, Ransom asked Daniel (who I'm trying hard not to refer to as Lemony Snicket), if he always knew he wanted to be a writer. After a joke or two, Daniel responded yes, he couldn't remember a time when he didn't want to be a writer.

It got me thinking about whether there was anything that I always knew I wanted to be. Ironically, as we herded our 6 kiddos around USC's campus surrounded by books, I had to admit that I didn't always want to be a mom ;) If you would have asked me when I was 6 or 7 what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have told you I wanted to be a marine biologist. Around 9 or 10, I had changed my answer to a teacher or a lawyer. In high school, I was voted Most Musical and was awarded a music scholarship to college. As an undergraduate at Michigan State, I changed my major 4 times, finally settling on Speech Pathology, which required me to immediately go to graduate school. When I started my master's program at Penn State, I realized I really didn't want to be a researcher for the rest of my life, and I didn't want to be a clinician either...so I changed my major in grad school and got my Master's degree in education.

Since then, I've been a teacher, a training manager, an instructional designer, a project manager, a sales professional, an entrepreneur, a game designer and now a product manager. Along the way, I was also a college professor and authored a book. And, a surprise to everyone who knew me when I was young, I also have 6 amazing kiddos who I am helping to raise.

Maybe I'll never be able to answer that question of what I want to do when I grow up. Maybe that's just part of who I am, curious and open to new opportunities. I know that I want to leave the world a better place than I found it and that I want to spend my days passionate about what I do. Maybe that passion in me isn't fueled by one career, but the challenges presented by a varied and unknown path of diverse accomplishments.

If I had to answer that same question from Ransom Riggs, I think I'd answer it this way:

There's never been a time when I didn't love to learn. I love the challenge of trying something new and not giving up until I succeed. I always knew that I'd find a way to fill my days trying to make the world a better place. At different times, that has looked like different things. As the world changes, so must I if I want to keep trying to make it better.

That's what I want to do when I grow up.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Learning through "infuriating feedback"

One of the things that I'm most passionate about doing well when designing learning is providing feedback. In immersive design, practice without feedback is useless, and often can reinforce the wrong behaviors. For example, if you're trying to perfect your golf swing, heading to the driving range and hitting a bucket of balls without the guidance of a golf pro to help critique your form may lead you to practicing a whole bucket full of bad swings. 

Yet very rarely do any of us perform a task in a vacuum; we're constantly bombarded with feedback, both subtle and obvious, that reinforces what we're doing well and discourages us from continuing less than stellar behaviors. We love hearing the good stuff, getting that positive reinforcement. In game design, quick victories are by design to make players feel good, feel confident, hoping to hook them in to continue playing even as game play becomes more difficult and complex, and victories and positive reinforcement are harder to come by. In "real life," the same dynamic exists. I love to hear the feedback of people after I speak, to hear how something I said struck a chord or helped them make a connection or see something in a different light. Even better, I love when people compliment my kiddos, as that provides me with some positive evidence from non-biased sources that I'm doing ok in the toughest job that I have.

Negative feedback, critique and even punishment surround us every day too. I am always amazed as a mom about how often I have to say, "chew with your mouth closed," or "put some clothes on," or "put your dirty laundry in your hamper, not just on the ground next to it." More subtle things, like a look from my boss or my husband, are enough to make me pause and consider what I just did to elicit that reaction. In game design, negative feedback design creates for interesting play dynamics; losing points, finding yourself in a death spiral that you just have to wait out, or an abrupt game over when you make a bad decision are all ways to provide critique to your play performance and prompt you to try again and do better.

This continuous flow of positive and negative feedback help us learn and shape our future behavior. Other factors contribute to our decision-making, but ultimately, it is the balance of potential risk and reward that are in constant competition to determine the decisions that we make, and we depend on this river of feedback to help us determine if we're on the right path.

Which leads me to the best boss I ever had. 

Imagine you're at work, managing a big project and people and faced with situations and decisions that are new to you. You have a one-on-one with your boss and you go in prepared to describe the situation and get insight and feedback on how to proceed. When you enter the office, your boss is nose to the laptop and barely acknowledges you're there. You know that you have limited time, so you ask if you should get started. "Yes, go ahead," your boss says, still not looking up from the laptop. 

You start describing the current status of and issues with the project. You describe what you've done so far to resolve issues as they've come up, and you end with the current dilemma and request advice on how to proceed. 
To which your boss replies, still not looking up, "what do you think you should do?"

Infuriating. If I knew what to do, I'd just do it! I want guidance, I want insight, I want feedback!

I had a couple of meetings that went exactly like this with my boss. Every time I left those meetings, I was pissed. How rude! What am I supposed to do? Why didn't my boss give me any advice?

And yet...

I was getting feedback. My boss was saying: "you don't need me. You actually know how to proceed. I trust you to figure this out. If you make a bad decision, that's ok, you'll come back to me and I'll repeat this again and you'll try something new, until you find the right answer."

It was these "non-feedback" meetings that gave me confidence to make decisions. They helped me learn to reflect, consider options and take my best guess. Sometimes I didn't make the best decision, but often I did. As I worked with my boss longer, our meetings became less about resolving issues and more about personal development and strategy. 

Coaches, mentors and managers can give helpful advice and guidance in some situations, but the best way they can be leveraged is to challenge you to do your own thinking and growing. When you're designing practice in immersive learning, consider designing with infuriating feedback: opportunities for reflection and safe failure. Not only will you build confidence in decision-making, but you'll be teaching leadership and reinforcing risk-taking and experimentation.