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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.

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:

Farmville as Hobby

July 26, 2010 24 comments

My strawberries are almost ready to harvest. Next, I think I’ll plant lilacs–I haven’t tried those yet. Linda sent me a maple tree. I haven’t seen her since our visit to California at Christmas. I think I’ll send her a present back–maybe a chicken. My four-year-old watches over my shoulder, riveted. After we work on our virtual farm for ten more minutes, I suggest that maybe perhaps we should go weed and water our real garden?

It’s fashionable these days to make fun of Farmville, and with good reason–it’s a dreadful computer game. As A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz points out, it doesn’t meet any of Roger Callois’ criteria for a game at all. He writes that unlike games:

“(1) Farmville is defined by obligation, routine, and responsibility;
(2) Farmville encroaches and depends upon real life, and is never entirely separate from it;
(3) Farmville is always certain in outcome, and involves neither chance nor skill;
(4) Farmville is a productive activity, in that it adds to the social capital upon which Facebook and Zynga depend for their wealth;
(5) Farmville is governed not by rules, but by habits, and simple cause-and-effect;
(6) Farmville is not make-believe, in that it requires neither immersion nor suspension of disbelief.”

Ian Bogost wrote a wonderful parody of Farmville called Cow Clicker. Bogost writes that he made Cow Clicker because he “realized that theory alone might not help clarify social games.” To me this is nothing less than brilliant. You click your cow, it moos, and you wonder about the whole genre in a new way. But as a colleague quipped, the one shortcoming of Cow Clicker is that it’s actually sorta fun. But why? What are these games, and why are they wildly successful?

Here’s my answer: Farmville isn’t actually a computer game–it’s a computer hobby. In his book Hobbies, Steven Gelber points out that “hobbies developed as a category of socially valued leisure activity in the nineteenth century because they bridged the worlds of work and home” (p. 2).  He continues,  “before about 1880 a hobby was a dangerous obsession. After that date it became a productive use of free time” (p. 3).  Gelber writes:

“As leisure, hobbies provided a respite from the normal demands of work, but as a particular form of productive leisure they expressed the deeper meaning of the work ethic and the free market. Hobbies gained wide acceptance because they could condemn depersonalized factory and office work by compensating for its deficits while simultaneously replicating both the skills and values of the workplace, a process I refer to as “disguised affirmation.”

Disguised affirmation allows participants to think about an activity as leisure-time recreation while it functions as a form of ideological re-creation The capacity of hobbies to act simultaneously as resistance and accomodation serves to remind us that we have to examine all the meanings of leisure to understand any of them” (pp. 2-3).

Farmville is the ultimate hobby, the ultimate idealization of work.  In Farmville, with a simple click, I can plant strawberries, wheat, or maybe a peach tree. The product of my near-effortless labor will be beautiful, and there for me to harvest in an equally effortless fashion–if I am merely attentive to return at the right time, like the good worker that I am. I can dream of building an empire, and with simple persistence it will be mine. And better yet, if I’m feeling impatient, for an amount of real dollars that is modest, I can have what I want without the wait or the work.

In addition to playing on themes of work, Farmville also creates its own elaborate gift economy. In Farmville, your friends can help you out. Gifts are free–it just takes a thoughtful moment, and a cow is on its way to all those near and dear to you. I can also stop by friends’ farms and fertilize their crops. Maybe they’ll stop by and fertilize mine. Today Linda and Katie stopped by to help my farm, and a hundred years of anthropological research explains all the ways I am obligated to reciprocate. A real gift carries more meaning because resources and non-trivial effort were involved. But even stripped down to this minimalist form, a Farmville gift is still a powerful act in a social network.

Farmville is also an exploration of landscape and the built environment. Things getting a bit cluttered? Let’s put that building in storage, and rearrange the cherry trees into an artful cluster. Liz Losh‘s farm is an impressive take on the English country garden, with meandering stone walls and things in bloom in all the right places. The landscape of my imagination is at my finger tips, and is infinitely reconfigurable.

Since I first tried Farmville, I have had a couple lines of Wordsworth caught in my head:

“The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”

In this respect, Farmville is rather like the wildly popular game The Sims. You may not have enough money for a mansion with a big-screen TV in every room in real life, but you can on The Sims. That grand plantation is yours on Farmville, if you just work hard enough or sacrifice a bit of real money for virtual goods. One of the hobbies Gelber focuses on in particular is collecting. He notes that, “the collection became the sum that created the value of its parts, bestowing singularity not only on often mundane items but also, by extension, on the collector as well” (p. 4). Massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) have a similar quality–a significant part of the pleasure of the game is in collecting the best and most unique set of magical gear for your adventures. My succinct summary is, “It’s all about the hat.” A good magic hat is a pleasure to possess and use. And here we can see the strong tie between consumerism and identity building. As I finally get my boots of speed or build my perfect farm, I am affirming myself as worthy and establishing myself as a particular kind of person within the community. As Gelber says, a hobby  is both a relief from the culturally dominant value of consumerism, and also an affirmation of those values. I’m not a billionaire in the real world, but online I have the virtual goods. I have escaped my station, and yet affirmed the idea that your goods mark your station.

I believe we can understand more about why people play games like Farmville by looking hard at stamp collections, sewing circles, and model railroads than by looking at the history of computer “games.” Computer “hobby” is a better mental model.

If you like this blog post, please send a virtual chicken. Thank you.

(With thanks to Beki Grinter and Josh Berman for suggesting I read Gelber’s book a few years ago and to Andrew Miller for sending me the terrific Liszkiewicz post.)

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