Archive for the ‘balance’ Category

Pokémon Go and Work/Life Balance

January 2, 2017 1 comment

I love casual games, though I’ve written before about how they can sometimes be disruptive. Surprisingly I do not find Pokémon Go particularly disruptive. As promised, it promotes walking (you get credit for hatching Pokémon eggs the further you walk.) And it has other interesting qualities I could not have predicted when I started playing it.

Most importantly and most surprising: It promotes better work/life balance. When I am out for a walk, if I have Pokémon Go open, I get credit for the distance walked. As a result, I tend to leave the app open, which means I don’t check my email. That means I am more truly not at work, for my walk.

The bad news of course is that I’m looking at my phone, rather than at the scenery. But generally speaking I find I still appreciate where I am, and enjoy chatting with people I am walking with. It takes little of my attention.

If I am playing while walking with people who are not playing, I never stop to do a gym battle. A gym battle takes a couple minutes, and that’s too long to ask friends to wait. It’s also important to leave the sound off. Most people always leave the sound off. I leave it on when I’m walking alone, because the audio feedback means I spend less time looking at my phone. After you throw a Pokéball, it takes a few seconds to see if you caught the Pokémon or not. If you listen to the sound effects, you can stop looking at the phone and listen for whether you caught it. But if I’m walking with other people, the sound is annoying, and also misleading—they assume I’m more distracted than I really am.

My second surprise: it is a participatory exploration of probability and economics. Probability is fundamental to the game—each time you try to catch a Pokémon, a circle around it shows whether you have a high (green), medium (yellow), or low (red) chance of catching it. A player is constantly calculating: How hard will this be to catch, and is it worth it? It’s a constant reminder of the basic laws or probability: past trials don’t affect the outcome of the next one.

When you try to catch a Pokémon, you have to decide: Am I going to throw a regular Pokéball, a great ball, or an ultra ball? The latter are increasingly rare, but have a higher catch rate. The more powerful the Pokémon, the harder it is to catch, and the higher quality Pokéball you need to use. If I use too cheap a ball, then I have to try again, and again—and might miss catching it entirely, if it runs away. Choosing to use a regular Pokéball might mean I wasted five or more balls, rather than using one or two great balls. It’s like the game is whispering in my ear over and over: don’t be cheap, don’t be cheap….

An economist friend noticed right after the launch of the game that it demonstrates the “sunk cost fallacy”: If it was worth throwing those previous six Pokéballs at that Pidgey, it’s worth throwing one more.

Pokémon Go is good for certain times and places. It’s great for travel, because different places have different Pokémon. It was fun to catch all the Growlithes in San Diego (a Pokémon common there and rare in most other cities). It was particularly fun to use at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, which had a safari-like quality of Pokémon on the day I visited. When you’re visiting a zoo, you do a lot walking, and wander from exhibit to exhibit. Playing Pokémon Go at the zoo made the whole experience more fun. When a rare Pokémon appeared on the radar (a Snorlax), I got to chat with strangers who came to try to catch it from around the zoo. On the other hand, it was also nice to go a number of places (like the lighthouse and beach at Point Loma in San Diego) where there was no cell service, and I put my phone away. The trick of course is knowing when to put your phone away when there still is cellular service.

I won’t lie—I do sometimes play when I shouldn’t. Particularly when I’m somewhere I don’t want to be. A Pokéstop is a place you can get free Pokéballs and other useful items every five minutes. Fortunately or unfortunately, there is Pokéstop accessible in a conference room where I have a number of boring meetings. For a long meeting, I find playing a casual game helps me to pay more attention to the meeting. The distraction is so light that I am still paying attention to the meeting and less likely to zone out entirely. But it’s perceived by others as disrespectful (if they catch me with my phone under the table), and I probably shouldn’t do it. Like any casual game, Pokémon Go requires mindfulness in when you choose to play.

Whether Pokémon Go survives in the long or even medium term depends on whether the developers can keep adding features and special events to keep it interesting. But for now, it’s a casual game that fits into my life better than others.

Activity Balance: An Alternative Approach to Manage Kids’ Screen Time

May 11, 2016 3 comments

Our boys (ages 10 and 12) love video games. And following the truism that every generation has media choices that baffle their parents, they also love watching videos of other people playing video games. They would play and watch all day, if we let them. On weekdays, by the time they get home from school and finish their homework, we don’t mind if they spend the free time that remains playing games. On weekends, we have always limited their screen time.

This policy has always chafed. A few months ago, our twelve-year-old protested, exasperated, “Do you have any evidence that too much video games is bad for you?” I patiently explained, “It’s not that video games are bad for you. It’s that we want you to have a balanced life—read a little, get some exercise, play some video games, practice your saxophone. If you did any one of those activities to the exclusion of others, we’d ask you to balance more: ‘Put down that book and go play a video game! You can’t read all day!’”

Five months ago, it occurred to me: Why not make the policy better match the rationale? Instead of limiting our kids’ screen time, we started requiring them to do a variety of activities each weekend day: read, exercise, and practice their musical instrument. As long as those things are done at some point during the day, they can have as much screen time as they like.

So far, the policy is a huge improvement. There is much less grumbling, and better balance in their weekend days. When asked how the policy is going so far, our twelve-year-old explained that he agrees that reading and exercise are important. (He’s less sure about music practice!) He also finds the new policy makes for a more relaxing weekend day. Our ten-year-old comments, “I like it better. The point is so that I do other things with my day, and I think it’s fair.”

The day-to-day implementation is not without challenges. We still need to remind them, “Did you exercise yet today?” And if the reminder comes too late in the day, it’s just not going to happen. If we forget to remind them and monitor, the new system deteriorates to a full day of screen time. But then again, the old system did too (“Did you forget to turn the timer on? How long have you been playing?”)

It’s encouraging to me that our kids have embraced the values that underlie this system—that you must make choices about how you spend your time, certain activities are important, and balance is important.

What approach does your family use? Leave me a comment!

Categories: balance, games, kids

A Great Experience That Must Stop: Words With Friends and the Mindful Use of Technology

April 6, 2013 11 comments

I wrote a couple years ago about how much I enjoyed playing Farmville, and how glad I was to quit it.  And a week ago I quit another fun game: Words With Friends (WWF), Zynga’s version of Scrabble on Facebook.  It’s been a peaceful week.  My quality of life has improved.  Which is odd because the game seems so lightweight–a social and casual game that doesn’t demand your attention at any particular time (like Farmville does), or any particular quantity of time (you can play for a minute or two).  So why do I feel like a burden has been lifted? 

I first need to tell you how much fun WWF is.  I like word games, and WWF is a challenging one.  I take genuine pride in a good play.  And though there is certainly luck involved, it’s primarily skill based–and I’ve been improving in both knowledge and tactics.  I can tell you now that there are no valid two-letter words beginning with c or v, that there are five s’s and two blanks, and that a ‘ratel’ is a small african mammal also known as the honey badger.

As I wrote in my last post, I feel close to people when I play WWF with them.  I’ve played with my cousin, colleagues in my field, friends from high school, college, and graduate school, a former student, and my new department chair.  I feel closer to all those people as a result.  You do learn something about people based on the words they play. I had to laugh when a mischievous friend from college was playing naughty words, while in another game a kindly colleague from another department was playing Christmas words just in time for the holidays.  People are funny.

It’s a fun game, and making a move takes only a couple minutes.  You can play right away after your opponent, or you can wait a day.  It’s creative, challenging, and fun.  So what could be wrong?

Well, one big thing: WWF was slowly taking over my life.  Consider the following situation.  I’m picking my kids up at aftercare at their elementary school.  When I arrive, they are somewhere in a large school building (Doing art in the cafeteria? Out on the playground?) and they are paged to come to the lobby.  It usually takes about five minutes for them to stop what they’re doing, clean up, travel across the building, find their backpacks and coats, and be ready to go.  So it’s a perfect time to make my WWF move, right?  Perfect except that if I’m playing a couple different games, I won’t be done when they arrive.  So I put away my phone, but part of my brain is still thinking about my move (what words end in ‘u’? ‘Tofu’?  ‘Bayou’?) rather than paying full attention to what happened at school today.  Until I finish making that move, I won’t fully be there.  And it’s like that through my entire day. The little gaps I have don’t match the amount of time it takes to make my WWF moves.  The fact that you can play on your phone makes the temptation pervasive.

The design of WWF draws you into playing more and more games in parallel.  Once you start a game with anyone, it will suggest you as an opponent to other friends.  And it seems rude to decline, especially when invited by someone you are fond of but haven’t seen in a while.  After each game, it asks both parties if you’d like a rematch.  If you don’t say, “OK, one more,” your opponent probably will.  It seems impolite not to–especially if you just won.  And pretty soon one game at a time becomes four or five.  A single move can take less than a minute.  Or you could pore over it for longer than you realize (‘I know there’s a seven-letter word in these letters!’)

I confess that I can get intense about the game.  It’s funny because I don’t care if I win at other computer games I play like MMOs or puzzle games.  But I guess I take pride in my skill with words more than other things, and I take the game too seriously.  I don’t mind if my opponent makes a spectacular move–bravo for them!  But if I accidentally leave a triple word score open when I didn’t mean to, I’m genuinely angry with myself.  When I’m focusing on a WWF move, I’m seriously concentrating.  It brings out a competitive side of me that I don’t like.

Fitting WWF into my life worked better when I was playing fewer games. And it worked better when I decided I would only make moves at the start and end of the day.  But then I’m waiting for a meeting to start and folks are late… OK, I’ll make a WWF move. But wait, now the meeting is finally started and I’m still thinking about words ending in u again.  You’ve heard this story before, haven’t you?  This story was weaving its way through my life.

I’m definitely never playing Farmville again.  I’m not sure about Words With Friends. The challenge for all of us is to understand how the technologies we use affect the daily rhythms of our lives. And to make mindful choices.


Categories: balance, games, mobile computing Tags:

Separation Between Work and Home, from 2001 to 2011

September 12, 2011 1 comment

Ten years ago yesterday, I did a remarkable thing: I went to work. I was having breakfast at the kitchen table, and turned on CNN around 8:40 am. It was on when the newscasters first reported  that “a small plane” had hit the World Trade Center.  I called my mother in New York City–“Mom, turn on your television!”  We watched together for a few minutes.  Before the second plane hit, I went to work.  I had a CHI paper to work on, and the deadline was approaching.

By the time I got to work, it was apparent that something more serious than a freak accident was happening.  My PhD student, Jason Elliott, called the lab–should he still come in today?  I remember  telling him yes, get your sorry posterior in here!  We have a paper to work on! And what is the possible benefit in wallowing in mind-numbing disaster news coverage all day?  The longer we wait to look at the news, the more we’ll get the real story and avoid all the confused false rumors and speculations.  It’s all too terrible to contemplate, so let’s just get some real work done, OK?

Looking back, what strikes me is that in 2001, there was less news at work.  At home, I had television and radio. At work, I didn’t. Sure there were websites with news–but they presented text and still pictures–and much less quickly updated than is the norm today. Video and audio online were rare.  By going to work, I could focus on my work.

On December 25th, 1992 I wrote an essay called Christmas Unplugged about the way the Internet is reducing the separation between work and home.  I tried to publish it in time for Christmas 1993, but no one was interested.  A year later, I sent it out again, and got an immediate positive response. It appeared in Technology Review in January 1995.  Since then, the interconnectedness of work and home via the Internet has slowly increased. Yesterday was a fascinating point of comparison.  In 2001, work was still a somewhat separate realm. In 2011, if something momentous happens, I don’t think going to work could help you block it out. The news is in my Twitter stream. In fact, today news arrives  faster when I’m at work than at home!

The ability to avoid distractions and focus on news is just one of many consequences of this connectedness.  Another is the ability to work at home. Which is both good and bad.  When I was a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab, people were in the building at all hours of the night.  Sometimes we were working late, and sometimes we were playing Diablo.  Two or three nights a week, my graduate advisor, Mitchel Resnick, was nice enough to offer me a ride home–typically around 11 pm.  When I was back to visit recently, I asked if people still kept crazy hours there. The answer I got was: people still work just as hard, but they do it from home.  Whether this is a net gain or loss for either productivity, sociability, or work/life balance I can’t say.

People have always had to make choices about work/life balance.  The difference today is that geography is no longer a tool we can use to help.  Work life, home life, and the greater world around us are with us at all times on our desktops and our phones, all mixed together. We still need to make those choices, but we can’t implicitly make them by choosing to be at the office or not at a given time.  Maybe we need new tools to help.

Laptops in Class

January 24, 2011 5 comments

At the first class of each semester, I raise the issue of laptops in class.  Here’s my rant:

When I go to a meeting, I almost never bring my laptop. I have a light one and I could easily bring it along. But I know that if I do, I will not pay attention. <class laughs> I am terrible that way. Someone will start saying something redundant, boring, or irrelevant, and I’ll take that moment to  look down at my laptop. I’ll check my email. I’ll check Facebook or Twitter. <class laughs> My attention will stray, and when I look up again I will find that the boring/irrelevant moment is long over, and I’ve missed something significant.  I’ve missed part of the point of why I bothered to be there in the first place.

I know some of you genuinely find it helpful to take notes on a computer. I also know that others really do use your computer to look up more information about what we’re talking about. And sometimes those contributions are invaluable to the whole class. I also know that some of you are on Facebook or checking email. You need to ask yourself a question: What do I want to get out of being here in class? Can I better  accomplish that with our without my laptop? For me, there’s no contest–I’ve got to have it closed or I might as well not come. You may be different. Think about why you are here and how best to accomplish your own goals for being here.

There’s just one thing I ask: if you do decide to use a computer in class, please do not use it for anything that might distract your fellow students. In particular, please do not play any real-time games during class. <class laughs> I’ve had multiple complaints on my course evaluation about students playing games during class. Whether you pay attention is your choice, but please don’t distract everyone else.

There’s a short version of this on my syllabus as well. I have been fairly successful in getting rid of folks playing first person shooters in class with this speech.  Whether it’s had any impact on how much attention people pay, I can’t say for sure.  I’m cautiously optimistic that it helps.

How do you handle laptops in class? Are there other issues of misuse or overuse of mobile and social computing that you’ve tried to address with your students? With your peers? With your family?  We are still in the early stages of understanding the choices we all make about best use of these new technologies.  Let’s share strategies!  Leave me a comment–I’d love to hear what people have tried and what seems to work.

Saturday Morning Cartoons and Other Choices About Technology Use–Thoughts on Sherry Turkle’s “Alone Together”

January 23, 2011 Leave a comment

When I was a kid, Saturday morning cartoons were a weekly ritual. I watched several, and carefully planned which channel to watch at 8, 8:30, 9…. It was important to me. I sat there for hours, and loved it. I looked forward to it every week. My husband Pete had the same experience. We share an encyclopedic knowledge of Bugs Bunny and Scooby Doo.

Did that harm us? I don’t know. I feel kinda like we turned out OK. But we would never let our kids vegetate all Saturday morning that way. Saturday mornings they usually have a soccer game (spring and fall), basketball game (winter), or swimming lesson (summer). They get half an hour of TV a day, and we don’t ever just give them the channel changer and let them watch whatever’s on–they have my old TiVO, and they pick among shows we have recorded for them.  (Their current obsession: Myth Busters. Hooray for good TV! But we don’t mind when they get on a run of lighter fare like Phineas and Ferb.)

So what happened in the intervening generation? We are both the product of what I would call typical middle class families of the time.  But in the years since then, our cultural sensibility about appropriate TV use for kids has shifted. In a great paper to be presented at CSCW 2011 this March, Morgan Ames, Janet Go, Jofish Kaye and Mirjana Spasojevic show how currently practices about kids’ “screen time”  today in America vary by social class.  Middle class parents worry about limiting their kids’ use of all kinds of screens (TV, computer, video game, and cell phone) much more than working class parents. What impact will this have in the long run? It’s an intriguing question.

Television is seductive. The easy thing is to just let kids watch what they want. Today, we have come to a point where parents (at least educated parents) are making choices to not do the easy thing and let kids have all they want. But it took a generation for those cultural norms to begin to evolve, and that process is still happening.

My reflections on the indulgent TV habits of my youth were prompted by Sherry Turkle’s insightful new book Alone Together (which I am currently half done reading). In it, Turkle draws attention to many of the “three hours of Saturday morning TV” issues of the present. Teens texting over 100 times a day on average? Parents using smart phones at the dinner table? Professionals flying all the way to Tokyo to attend a meeting but then opening their laptops and ignoring the discussion? This can’t be healthy.

Turkle is a psychoanalyst, and psychoanalysis is an inherently normative undertaking. Psychoanalysts help people identify what “the good life” is for them personally, and learn how to make choices that help them achieve their full human potential. This often involves some compromise between individuality and cultural norms. What is “healthy” and what are the limits of the acceptable range of “normal”? These are profound questions for any individual. But what happens when our new cultural “normal” gets out of whack? That’s the fundamental question posed by Turkle’s book.

If all the other kids get to watch three hours of Saturday morning TV, it becomes harder for me to tell my child he can’t. If all the other kids are texting continually, it becomes harder for any one teen to refuse to join in. A generation later, there is some structural resemblance to the challenges. But the difference is, the intensity has increased. We have upped the ante. As pervasive as television once was for my generation, the media issue of today concerns every waking moment of kids’ lives–their phones are always there.  A key issue raised by Alone Together is that our cultural “normal” is drifting away from “the good life” for all of us.

Of course there are wonderful aspects to mobile and social computing technology too. I was Turkle’s student over 20 years ago, but through Facebook and Twitter I learned that she was going to be a guest on The Colbert Report. Before she went on, I wished her luck, as did many other friends and colleagues. I feel privileged to have been able to wish her well in advance, rather than hearing about the event third hand a week later. I will never be on Colbert, but I feel like I shared a bit of the moment. I can tell you countless stories about staying in meaningful contact with old friends, looking up an interesting fact for my kids on my phone that led to a deep discussion at just the right moment, and more. There are entirely good reasons why this technology is so popular and so pervasive. But we still need to put the technology back in its place–both in terms of how and how much we use it. And that may take another generation.

A Tiny Slice of Media-Free Time

June 7, 2010 5 comments

When I ride the exercise bike, I watch TV shows saved up on my TiVo.  You will not be surprised to learn that I typically ride for 45 minutes, the length of a one-hour drama while fast-forwarding through commercials. When I drive, I listen to satellite radio–unless I’m talking with other people in the car. When I wait on line at a store,  I look up stuff on my phone–stock news, the weather, my Twitter feed. Sometimes I’ll play with my phone while walking across campus, if I’m walking alone.   In my office, I use my computer all day–except when I talk with students. All day every day, I am engaged with either people or media. I am never alone with my thoughts.

Or I wasn’t, until I started swimming laps again last week. I used to swim regularly many years ago, but was inspired this summer to start again. And was immediately struck by the re-introduction of quiet time. Time with no media, and no other people. Time to let your mind wander.

Today while I was swimming, I planned what we’ll do when my Dad comes to visit from California this weekend. I thought a bit about what he likes and what he hates, and what would make his visit fun for everyone. No, I did not solve an open problem in computer science. Yes, I do think we’ll have a nicer time this weekend because I swam today.

The big slayer of quiet time is my iPhone. I’ve had it now for just about two years. Before that, I had crummy smart phones that I hardly used, except to check the time of my next meeting or actually make calls.  But the blasted iPhone actually works. And it’s always with me. One moment of quiet, and my hand slips to my pocket. I suppose I could choose not to do that. But the lady in front of me is–egads–writing a check! Why not see what funny thing someone posted on Facebook?

Is it romantic of me to think we need some slices of quiet time in our lives? Am I succumbing to Luddite tendencies? How does it change who we are as individuals and as a culture if quiet time becomes scarce? Could we design an experiment to show one way or the other? What outcome would we be looking for? Happiness? Clarity of thought? Stress? I’m not sure.  I’ll need to think about it. Maybe if I have a quiet moment….

Categories: balance, social computing
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