Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Gamification by Design

Gamification by Design co-authored by Gabe Zichermann and Christopher Cunningham is the first book I have read on the subject. Until now, the most entertaining thing I had read about gamification was an article by Ian Bogost.
Zichermann and Cunningham do a great job of introducing the reader to gamification. The clarification on what it is not comes in the Introduction - it will not help move bad or poor products. They use the metaphor of cake and icing to describe what gamification can and cannot do for you. A great icing job will entice someone to bite into the cake but it will not make them bite twice if the cake is not up to par. Gamification is icing on the cake.
The authors cite examples of success and failure with gamification through out the book to illustrate specific concepts. Each of them offer fascinating insights into human motivation. In the context of gaming in education, they argue putting education ahead of fun makes it less effective and actually impedes the process of learning. As a parent, I can attest to this. I have yet to come across a piece of edutainment software that was a big hit with my child in the way games like Angry Birds or Temple Run have been. As the authors say "Kids could smell the shift from fun to work a mile away".  That is certainly true in my experience.
If you want to learn how to think about introducing gamification into web and mobile applications, this book is for you. This is not a game development cook book but there are a few tutorials to get you started. A technology background would make this book easier to read but is by no means essential.
My only quibble with the book would be the examples selected in the chapter Gamification Case Studies.It would be nice to see more offbeat examples of gamification in action - where  companies have utilized gamification very subtly and been highly successful. The Yahoo or Quora models don't translate widely. Foursquare is a great gamification example but is in a niche where it works well. I was not able to see how any of that may translate to an insurance or brokerage firm for instance - businesses that are not the most "natural" fit for gamification. Even so, I am very glad to have learned how to think gamification and would highly recommend this book.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Stymied by Empathy

I found out this morning that my friend's husband had suffered a heart attack over the weekend. They are a young couple with a five year old boy. It took me a while to absorb the shock and collect myself enough to give her a call.  S is one of those women who make the combination of gentleness and strength look effortless.
She was supremely calm and talked about the positives in the situation - if they had delayed taking him to the hospital, he may not have survived. She was proceeding methodically, taking care of things she needed to and without anxiety. I on the other had broke down when she described how frightened her little boy was when he saw his father connected to wires and tubes, laid on a gurney and being wheeled away. 
I have played for hours with this child - in many ways, he fills my need for another child - a dream I may have to let go off at this point in my life. Imagining him scared and crying in a hospital as they tried to save his father was more than I could bear. I had to cut my call short because I was crying and had ceased to be any support for S. This has been a pattern in my life - when someone I care about has something unpleasant happen to them, I am completely so stymied by empathy that I am no real use to them in their crisis.
A mutual friend had the presence of mind to call S and offer her assistance with grocery shopping and babysitting - tangible things that will really be useful for that family right now. I have not been able to attend funerals because I was too scared I would get emotional and draw attention to myself instead of being there for the person who had suffered the loss. Months later, the bereaved have reached out to me to let me know that they were doing fine. I have felt mortified at my inability to check in on them when they needed it most.
When I got off the phone with S, I wondered what it might take for me to still have the capacity for empathy without losing the ability to be a source of strength and support to those I truly care about.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Tween Think

For a while now, J has been consumed by a certain game on her iPod Touch. I have seen such things come and go in her life and have been waiting as patiently as I am able for this rather irritating one to pass. 
Deliverance came about in an unexpected way. For two weeks now J has been on a reading spree. The books in question are several sets of quartets that can be read as independent stories or as a mega-epic. Any time she has to herself she is reading one of these things. Used to be any time she had, she played that nonsensical game that drove me nuts. 
It turns out that a buddy of J's had told her about a hack for said game. It allowed the game to play in an endless loop without user interaction and scored a theoretically infinite number of points on their behalf. I was intrigued by this whole arrangement that J seemed to find extremely satisfactory.
I thought the point of playing the game was to engage with it and win. J explained that it was scoring the points that really mattered and now that she had figured out a way to do that without "wasting" her time, she was able to "do things that are more fun". She no longer needed to compete with friends who scored more than her. 
Who would have guessed that playing that game was a chore she was relieved not to have to perform any more. I shared this piece of information with DB and he was just as bemused as I was by her logic. I don't suppose either of us have the ability to understand the tween mind.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Middle Ground

DB is the master in the fine art of relaxing and unwinding. Enjoying downtime does not come to me easily and I over-stuff my schedule just as I do my bags when I travel. Needless to say, DB will always have plenty of room in his and is befuddled by how I pack. The happy medium in our household would require us both of negotiate out of our comfort zones and meet somewhere in between.
It would be the place where I learn to relax and take more time off to pursue my happiness and DB can find the mundane routines of domesticity a little less irksome and limiting of his personal freedom.
While such compromise may appear the natural and indeed happy outcome of the marriage of DB and I, in reality, middle ground is harder to come by. To that extent, DB will try to put some of his domestic responsibilities into a clockwork routine so he does them without being conscious of the effort. For my part, I will include downtime in my calendar so I always get around to it. 
So in theory, we are each meeting the other's expectations and yet the way we go about it is completely at odds with the very intent of meeting that expectation. We are realizing the middle ground is not just about reaching a prescribed destination - the journey undertaken to reach there has the greater significance.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


Arriving at Four Corners,
the fragrance of her bursts
like an April shower.
The top notes of passion,
and longing in the middle
overlay base notes of
surrender. In the quietness
of the night, her bouquet
turns a blooming jasmine.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Autonomous Time

J has been learning classical Indian dance and from really loving it she has gone to being ever so slightly jaded. Learning any art form is a process with very little immediate or even short term gratification. If there is not enough raw passion to fuel the long, arduous years of learning with no payoff in sight, it is all too easy to quit. And I say this from experience. 

I used to learn Hindustani vocal music as a child and was supposed to have talent as well.
However, the monotony of riyaz was not something I could do past the third year of music school - it was easier to give up and that's what I did. The exhortations of the music teacher and my parents to hone my skills certainly did not help. That said, I am only too aware of the perils of being a nagging parent. Yet, I constantly remind J to practice dance and get irritated with her when she slacks and her movements turn rusty - its takes so much work to achieve grace and so unfairly easy to lose it. 
Lately I have been thinking about why it is that a lot of kids will sooner give up something they really love than stick with it to achieve mastery. I know J is at that tipping point where a little more pressure from me will make her keel - her love of dance will not be enough to overcome her resentment of the adults in her life managing her time. There is school, after school activities and little chores that occupy most of her waking hours. The deficit of autonomous time keeps growing and with it her resentment towards the activities that are responsible for that. To that end, doing anything that would be construed "constructive" by an adult is tantamount to further loss of autonomy and it is resisted furiously. In the child's mind their ability to rebel and protest is far more empowering and exhilarating than working on discovering what they really have passion for.
I wish I knew how to keep that spark alive in J, that thing she was born with that once made her dance to any music, improvise the pieces that she had been taught by her teacher, that feeling of physical oneness with music. There is something to be said of leaving good enough alone.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Together and Apart

Reading this Slate article reminded me of Rabindranath Tagore's Shesher Kobita. The idea of living apart from the beloved to keep the romance alive was an idea, the protagonist, Amit Ray was fond of. To that end, he and his love interest Labanya end up marrying other partners and not each other - the idea being that marriage will in the end taint the purity of romance. Interesting to see an idea from a hundred years ago make a comeback with every appearance of being ahead of its time.
The Fannie Hurst quote on marriage being “sordid endurance tests, overgrown with the fungi of familiarity and contempt,” is an interesting one. My marriage is relatively new so we are yet to be overgrown with the fungi if familiarity and contempt. There is a lot both DB and I have to learn and discover about each other. There are endurance tests but I would argue that is true for any relationship between two individuals. We endure the the attitude and tantrums of our kids, the outrageous demands of our temperamental boss, the antics of our somewhat unhinged relatives and so much more. We grin and bear most of that, kvetch when we are at our wits end and so it is with marriage. 
The article cites the advantages of such an arrangement "Time together is truly quality, not cluttered with mundane chores; personal idiosyncrasies tend to be appreciated, the way they are at the start of a relationship, instead of slowly morphing into grating annoy­ances; differences in standards of neatness and tastes in music and decor don’t need to be constantly negotiated or suffered through." 

The list of reasons does not have to be exhaustive , I prefer Tagore's rationale for living apart in an intimate relationship - it is a way to extend the honeymoon period for a long time and not let romance be tainted by the sordidness of the daily grind.