Know Your Stuff was coalescing slowly in my brain for awhile, but finally came together, appropriately, at 3am on Black Friday 2012. The day after Thanksgiving in the United States — which is roughly a month until Christmas — is deeemed “Black Friday” because it is the busiest shopping day of the year (a black day if you are a retail worker). Companies capitalize on this by offering all sorts of crazy-cheap deals to get people into stores where they will fall into a shopping frenzy and eventually buy out everything in sight. This strategy, sadly, works. I mean, who doesn’t like a good deal?
I certainly do. Which is why, on this particular Black Friday, when my baby son woke up at 3am and wouldn’t go back to sleep I turned my web-browser to check out the deals at Old Navy’s web site. We are travelling to Atlanta for Christmas, which some years gets very chilly, and my boy had just grown out of his last comfy sweatshirt. So I visited my friend Old Navy and sure enough, there in all its fleecy, bear eared, stripe-ied glory was an adorable little sweatshirt for just $10! Added to cart. Oh hey, here it is in another cute color! Always good to have a back-up. Added to cart. Hmm, he could use some more pants maybe — here’s some cute ones! Added to cart. Oh man, lookit this hat! Have you ever seen anything more adorable? Added to cart. Maybe another pair of pajamas. Cart. Hmm. I’d better get something for big sister too so she doesn’t feel left out. I don’t really see anything I like that much, but she might like this. Cart.
All of a sudden, my virtual shopping bill which had started with one item at $10 became a ppound of clothing at over $100! (At least I now qualified for free shipping). Fortunately, my moment of clarity came to me BEFORE I confirmed the order. ”Wait a minute…” a voice inside me said “I thought I was going to SAVE money here. And do we really need all this stuff? Where does all this stuff COME FROM anyway?”
It was 3:45 am, on the busiest shopping day of the year, that I began my first Stuff Quest.
My relationship with Stuff has been evolving over the last couple of years. While I have spent many of my adult years fairly broke (yet never poor), my family still has managed to amass quite a huge quantity of Stuff. Its a little strange and confusing. What’s even more strange amd confusing is the fact that, no matter how much stuff we collect, we always seem to want more. We really don’t buy that much overall, but I do find myself spending an awful lot of mental energy, and occasionally time, obsessing over something I’d like to buy. I’m pleased when I have a package on the way, or I have just scored some great deal at Goodwill, or I have a new crafting book to page through. I’ve been known to take my “mommy breaks” at Target, blissfully grabbing this or that thing that my family “needs”. There’s something incredibly satisfying about it.
I don’t think I’m a shopaholic. And I really don’t spend that much money on crap I don’t need (we have barely used our credit card in the last three or four years). But I like cool things. I like things that are quirky, or unique, things that not everyone has. My husband and I were pratically beside ourselves with delight when we walked into a used toy and game store in Vancouver and found 1) The He-Man role playing game, 2) Greg Costikyan’s Red-Dawnesque RPG The Price of Freedom and 3) The socialist consciousness-raising board game Power Struggle. We probably shouldn’t have bought all three, but at the time the thought of having these treasures on our game bookshelf when friends came to visit overwhelmed us.
It makes me uncomfortable, that I like stuff so much. There have been times when I have stood rooted to the spot in some store holding some bauble in my hands for 5 minutes or more, warring with myself about whether or not to buy it. Eventually I put it back on the shelf, feeling momentarily proud and self-righteous but with a lingering remorse and sense of unfulfilment that sticks around for the following week (or more). Or else I decide “I deserve this!” or some other justification, and bring it to the front pleased with myself for my bold decision of self-care but shot through with a guilt that might never fade.
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Damn, damn, damn…
We have whole industries devoted to helping us keep our stuff; the Container Store (which I love) and the prevalence of rental storage units speak to this, not to mention the huge number of books available designed to help guide you to cleaning out clutter and organizing your stuff.
If you ever watch shows like Clean Sweep or Clean House (both of which I love), you can see similar emotional wars in the home owners who are being asked to part with their beloved stuff. What makes these shows compelling isn’t really the process of clearing clutter (although I do find it interesting what people have in their homes) but the emotional attachment people have to various items and how different people in a family deal with these emotions. Often, when the family members are asked “What happened to get your house like this?” the answers will have something to do with a loss. A loss of a family member, a loss of a job, a loss of an expected lifestyle (a baby is never born, a child loses their job and moves back in). Filling up a house with crap never fills up the holes in someone, but it seems worth a try. Why? Why would we even have this expectation? Why would we turn to stuff for comfort instead of ….? Another person, a hot bath, a walk in the park…?
We have a stuff problem. But of course its about more than just stuff. The stuff itself doesn’t mean anything; its the meaning we imbue it with that actually impacts our lives on a day to day basis. However, the stuff doesn’t just start having meaning when we buy it. It comes from somewhere. Someone made it. Its made out of something. It is made in a place, perhaps halfway around the world.
I decided to start an experiment. Which, of course, takes the form of a game. Its a game I made for myself, but if you would like to play along I invite you to do so. Its called Know Your Stuff and you can find the rules here. Its a game about understanding the stories behind our stuff; before the stuff gets to our homes. My expectation for this experiement/game is that by knowing more about the stuff I’m thinking of buying, I’ll probably buy less and I’ll only invite things into my home that I feel good about. I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, if you’d like to participate, let me know your results and we can compare notes and trade links and start a whole Know Your Stuff game club! That would be fun. Maybe even more fun than a mommy date at Target.
Alot of things have happened since I last visited this blog. I had another baby. My first baby started kindergarten. I graduated from UCSC with an MFA in Digital arts and New Media. I started a couple jobs. I still haven’t finished my Kickstarted game, Before You Close Your Eyes.
But even though my last bout of real writing ended when I submitted my thesis paper in July, words and thoughts have been piling up inside my head. Its time for them to start coming out.
My relationship with games has changed quite a bit since I first started writing Aliens In the Desert 9 years ago. I feel as though my relationship has deepened. A little like how you love someone but then one night the both of you are a bit drunk walking on the beach and you are telling each other personal stories that reveal dark secrets and hidden vulnerabilities, and the next day you aren’t sure that you can be friends anymore but once that shock wears off you love them more than ever. A bit like that. I’ve been making games professionally for nine years. That hardly makes me a “veteren” but It has been enough time to accumulate some interesting experience, shed some tears, go through the wringer a few times. I’ve also had a lot of time to think about this medium that I love, consider its place in the world, and bemoan its wasted potential.
Rekindling this blog is partially my effort to stop bemoaning, and start doing. I have a tendency to get ahead of myself. I like to jump in with both feet, usually without looking to even see how deep the pool is. But life has changed. I need to slow it down a bit. With a full time job, two young children and an indie game project undereway, the most I can afford to do is dip a toe in the water. So here I go. Dip dip dip.
Once I figure out how to do it properly, I am going to archive all the blog posts from before a certain date. I feel like what is posted here should be relfective of my current observations and thoughts of games, and not the process that led me here. Expect the blog to be more about Socially Responsible game design, and my own experiments with social consciousness. Expect, too, that the range of topics may broaden (gasp) beyond games. I need an outlet for my thoughts, and this is the venue I’ve chosen.
So thank you to anyone who reads these words. I hope you enjoy what’s to come.
As one of my self-chosen assignments for school last quarter (grad school is awesome like that) I chose to conduct interviews with socially conscious game makers. From CEOs of companies to independent game developers to professional researchers, these individuals all share one passion (that I share as well!): Using games to make the world a better place. I was particularly interested in investigating what drove them to this path and how they are managing to traverse it.
The questions I asked are as follows:
In the book Be Bold: Create a Career with Impact, the authors discuss the concept of a “moment of obligation” which is the defining moment when you felt called to a particular purpose. Sometimes this is one particular moment in time, sometimes it is a build up of many things over time. Could you describe your “moment of obligation” in creating socially conscious games?
What is important about the work you do?
What unique advantages do you feel games have as a medium for this type of message?
What has been your biggest challenge in creating a company around socially conscious games?
Is your company organized as a profit or non-profit? What do you feel is the advantage of this approach? (If you would prefer not to discuss your business, feel free to skip this question).
What would you consider the most important advice for beginning social entrepreneurs in the area of games?
The answers I got back showed people who are completely invested in what they do, and who truly believe that games are one of our most important paths to change for the future.
I will be dispersing my resulting interviews out over the next few months, at the rate of one a week. Keep your eyes peeled for some really interesting stories and insights about what drives these makers of truly exciting game projects.
In an attempt to come to grips with my own not-always-positive-often-ambiguous relationship with money, I recently talked to financial advisor and super good friend Briana Cavanaugh , who loaned me this most excellent book: The Soul of Money by Lynne Twist. I’ve been reading it almost non-stop for days. It is about much more than money, and has brought into full bloom some thoughts that had been slowly growing in my brain for months, possibly years.
Twist identifies what she calls the “Toxic Myths” of scarcity, myths from our culture about how money works, and how we should relate to it. She says these Toxic Myths are: There’s Not Enough, More is Better, and That’s Just the Way it is. She states that these myths are not only deeply deposited in our consciousness, but they are ultimately destructive to ourselves, those around us, and the planet.
It occurs to me that these cultural myths, and others, are perpetuated in our media as well. Including games. Maybe ESPECIALLY games, because playing games calls on us to practice and perform these myths. We learn best by doing, and games are all about doing.
Specifically though, the Myths identified in this book appear in games over and over and over again. ”There’s Not Enough” is a common strategy utilized for gameplay — any game that has any sort of resource management, from Monopoly to Star Craft. “More is Better” appears as a winning condition for most games, a very common gameplay pattern in the form of “collecting” and is a driving force in MMOs and online social games as well. ”That’s Just the Way it is” is intertwined with the very definition of a game — i.e. playing by the rules.
This has gotten me to think about how games participate in and further the myths of our culture. But even more, its created in me an obsession for how we might design games to do things differently. Part of The Soul of Money is about how we can re-write these myths, tell a new story, in order to change ourselves and ultimately our world. My game designer brain has been kicked into overdrive considering how one would make compelling games that could re-write these myths. Twist talks in great depth about the concept of Sufficiency, that we all have exactly what we need.
What would a game about sufficiency look like? What would the goal be? Could we let go of “More is Better” as a way to win a game? If we were going to get rid of winning as a concept, how would the game end? Most (maybe all) collaborative board games rely on some scarcity of resource, often time, to create excitement and challenge. Could we have a collaborative game that doesn’t rely on this gameplay pattern of “There’s not Enough” and still have a fun game?
Last quarter I started a card game design that I am still working on that begins to address some of these myths, but its a hard design problem. Thinking about how to design such a game has forced me to really re-think both games and our cultural assumptions. My brain sometimes has felt like its being pulled and pushed around like silly putty.
Do you want a game design challenge? I challenge you to design a game completely in line with your values. If you were going to create this game as a blueprint for how the world should work and present it to someone who had the power to remake the world as you wanted it, what would your game be like?
ps. still working on the site re-design. Bear with me.