Grinding and gameification

Cover Image via Massively on Joystiq

I’ve been thinking about grinding lately. Grinding in video games, per Wikipedia, “is a term used in video gaming to describe the process of engaging in repetitive tasks during video games.” It’s an issue in gaming, of course, and there are numerous posts about that already. (I fall in the middle on that – some grinding is necessary and even enjoyable, but find a way to make it integrated into the plot. I don’t wanna always be killing 10 more rats.)

But today we had our first meeting for the Teen Summer Reading planning committee, and we had a discussion about gamification. It was a brief discussion centering around our use of bingo boards last year. The bingo boards were not very popular, and we were trying to figure out where to go from there. How did we make it “fun” without the grind?

Now, my two cents on the matter is that while the world is full of fun things, and even fun ways to learn things, the truth of the matter is that eventually you have to grind at least a little. You have to go into a place you might not want to go and do something that feels repetitive to get the experience you need to move on. Once you’re proficient, you can hop into bigger adventures, bigger challenges. Heck, you can even show other people the best way to get around that particular dungeon. But they’ll come to their own grind eventually.

When I started baking, it was boxed brownies. All the time. No variation from the instructions. Dozens of boxes of brownies over the first couple months that I was learning to bake. It wasn’t always fun, but it was nice to see people enjoying the product of my labor. Occasionally I regretted offering to make brownies for an event, but eventually it became no big deal. I could make a decent batch of boxed brownies in my 30 minute lunch from work (true story).

From what I learned making endless brownies, I figured out how my oven worked differently from the test ovens in the recipes, or how to modify it to make it fluffier or denser, how to tell by smell when sugar smells done but not burnt. I could use those skills on cookies, then cakes, then pastries. The skills built on one another, but it started with just a little bit of grinding.

We ask students to study and do homework to gain proficiency. It’s not because we think that homework is so gosh darned fun. It’s because that repetition with tiny variations help them learn. We ask for a certain number of practice hours with a supervising driving before getting a driver’s license.

Sometimes we mix the idea of “paying our dues” in with grinding, and I want to be careful here. Paying dues indicates that you have to start at the bottom for a certain period of time, which is not something I’m necessarily in agreement with. I will, however, agree that that sometimes starting a new skill isn’t always fun – it can have its fair dose of grinding. The important thing is to make the grinding seem relevant. If we want teens (or kids or adults) to learn new skills using the library as a resource, we need to make sure that the boring parts are made incredibly relevant. Just like the level ups you get from killing rats and looting chests let you beat the next boss, skill introductions need to have a visible and important benefit.

They’re going to have to grind. Video game designers need to make it relevant to their game. It’s our jobs as educators to make it relative to the goals of a learner.

Catching Up on Last Year

Varric's Chest Hair from Dragon Age 2

From last year’s New Year’s blog:

I have smaller, simpler goals too: I want to start cooking dinner again, get back into baking, remember how to crochet and cross stitch. I want to write stories like I haven’t since I finished undergrad, and maintain the great friendships I’ve made with a little more gusto. I want to read whole books again, rather than just skimming them for papers. I want to beat DragonAge on something other than easy level.

I have been slacking on these goals. Granted, these were the small ones on the list. I did manage to graduate and get a job, so I don’t feel too bad about these. But that means it’s time for a revisit.

I still would like to cook more of my own meals. This means I’ll have to relearn how to cook since I do it so rarely.

I’ve been reading books (check out my first New Year’s Resolution about reading more diverse books). Audiobooks totally count as far as I’m concerned.

As for Dragon Age: Origins, I re-downloaded it to my new computer, and it’s next up on my to-play list as soon as I finish this second playthrough of Dragon Age: Inquisition. There may be a pattern here.

As for crochet and cross-stitch, I’ve more officially given up on these. They’re awesome hobbies, and I may come back to them, but for now I just don’t have the kind of interest it takes to keep up with them.

Trying to think of things that I missed. Any resolutions you’d like to share?

Ocarinas, Light Sabers, and Learning Gateways

It's Dangerous to Go Alone! Take This! Zelda/Star Wars Mashup

Cover image via Kotaku. Original owner’s site seems disabled, but if you know it, pass it on so I can credit.

About 2 years ago, a good friend of mine tried to get me into gaming. I was not enthused about the idea. I mean, I barely played Angry Birds. He sat me down in front of his console, put in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and sat down eagerly to watch me play. I was instantly… disenchanted.

Don’t get me wrong. Ocarina of Time is a great game – it’s still my friend’s favorite to this day – but it wasn’t for me. After that defeat, he practically gave up on me, convinced that if Link and Zelda couldn’t make me a gamer, then I was a lost cause.

A few weeks later, he mentioned that he was playing an MMO that I had heard of – Star Wars: The Old Republic – with his friends. Since I still wanted to get on board with some of his interests, and I already loved Star Wars, I figured why not? I created an account. I played a few quests. And then I went and bought KOTOR. Beat that. Twice. Countless hours (and dollars) later, I would say I’ve been turned on to video games.

My friend and I both laugh at the fact that he thought I could never start playing games. The real problem was that I didn’t want to play the same games he did. I still am not likely to ever sit down and play Ocarina of Time, but I do invest a lot of hours into Bethesda and BioWare games, and am branching out into some pretty sweet Indie territory (Gorogoa needs to come out yesterday).

Our problem wasn’t that I couldn’t be interested – it was that we were trying the wrong gateway. He was trying to usher me into games the same way he had been ushered in. While logical and well-intentioned, it just burned me out and made me frustrated.

Instead, I had an eye on the enjoyment other people seemed to experience, and poked around until I found my own way in. Gamers love to find workarounds, hacks, and glitches to get them where they’re going in ways that no one else has ever gone. Maybe I already had that motivation to go my own way (though that doesn’t explain my love of led-by-the-hand BioWare titles).

I know I’ve been guilty of the same well-intentioned error when teaching people new skills an interests. I know how I got interested in making/gaming/baking/books, and I want to show people in the same way. Sometimes this works. Other times though, my enthusiasm for the One True Way of getting involved in something can turn people off, leaving them feeling excluded and frustrated.

I can take a page out of my own book when I’m teaching. If the point of entry I’m most enthusiastic about isn’t working out, let them see the end goal – having fun learning something. Then share a WHOLE BUNCH of ways to get involved, even if they seem like the more boring, more intense, more complicated way. Each person will respond to different gateways. I certainly shouldn’t hold them back from trying each and every door.

The Thor Uproar

I’ve been trying to figure out how best to approach this topic. Much ink, tears, and maybe blood has been spilled on the topic of Marvel’s character updates this week. Some has been helpful and contributed to it, some has been vitriolic and takes away from the discussion. I’m certainly not passionate about either side – I can see the basic point about being concerned about a major character shift such as gender bending, for Thor. But I am curious about the uproar when comic books have been uprooting, altering, and replacing heroes and villains using the same name for decades.

The list of Thor versions within the Earth-616 continuity (the main continuity of Marvel’s opus, and generally the version of events to which all alternate histories and issues are compared) is fairly extensive already:
Red Norvell. 
Beta Ray Bill.
Eric Masterson.
Dargo Ktor.
That doesn’t include the actually alternate versions of Thor.

And then there’s Ms. Marvel, who goes through all sorts of shifts, including the most recent to Muslim New Jersey teenager Kamala Khan (which is a pretty great series). Clearly she’s not tied to one person, or even one side of the fight (Karla Sofen was a super villain sometimes.)

And Captain America. Isaiah Bradley was intended as an alternate version of this, but was eventually rolled into the Earth-616 continuity, where he is a superhero recognized with the African-American community, but unheard of to characters like Wolverine.

Comics have never really been limited, but they have always been hesitant. Much like the call for a female Doctor in the BBC’s Doctor Who series, and the argument against it, it can be hard to separate actual reasons regarding the character/plot, etc from sexism/racism/general curmudgeonry.

I’m just curious as to why this messes with people so much more than any of the other digressions. Is there something about a gender switch that is particularly disturbing?

Even Thor weighs in on the value of anyone who lifts Mjolnir: “When you first spoke to me about your problems, I had doubts…about you. They were quickly erased…when you lifted Mjolnir…for only a man or god worthy — pure of heart and noble of mind — could have done so! … A sacred bond unites all those who have e’er been privileged to wield Mjolnir! A bond which stretches far into infinity!” Sure, he’s talking to Captain America, but the only thing that matters is the purity of heart and nobility of mind when it comes to lifting Mjolnir and wielding the power of Thor.

So, if Thor, as we know and love him, wouldn’t have a problem with it, why should we?


Potions and Smoke

By Ralf Johann (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Game of Thrones sort of kind of spoiler alert (for a reference to dialogue only – no plot points).

A couple things happened this week in both TV and the real world that got me thinking.  First, on Game of Thrones, weird red priestess we love to hate Melisandre was talking to Mrs. Stannis Baratheon about humor, lies, and tricking people into being interested in the truth. This is a recap from memory, so forgive the obvious paraphrase:

Mrs. B.: If humor is lies, isn’t it best avoided?

Melisandre: Not always. See these potions? This one, when tossed into a flame, creates a column of smoke a mile high… Some tricks get people’s attention, so that they can see the light. You, Mrs. B, already can look into the light, and need no such tricks.

That bothers Mrs. B. a little. I mean, she’s the most devoted follower of the Red God we’ve seen – she is willing to sacrifice EVERYTHING for what she believes. And the priestess, the one she lets do pretty much what she likes in her personal and political affairs, is now telling her she intentionally tricks people to get them interested. It’s a strange moment to watch as blind faith fights with common sense. Guess which wins.

Pan over to the real world. I was looking at crazy, cool looking demos to do at the library for our Fizz Boom Read! days. One of my friends had posted a picture of his science camp pouring liquid nitrogen over a pool – a strong visual. That video is still private, so here’s something similar:

Note: DON’T JUMP IN THE WATER. People die doing that stuff. Nitrogen will displace the oxygen in the area directly over the water (the cloud) and breathing gets hard, but without the normal signs of asphyxiation. Again, cool to look at, not to swim in.

As I was looking at these demos, considering logistics of whether something like this would even be possible, something I was told came back to me. “You’re not actually teaching them science,” said a well-meaning co-worker. “You’re just wowing them with fireworks.”

It made me wonder. When I do one-off science demos as part of my storytimes or homeschool classes, and don’t dig into them, am I just showing them fireworks? And is there something wrong with “fireworks?”

It made me think about Melisandre, too. Columns of smoke to make the uninterested see something more deeply. To make it interesting when it would otherwise be obscure. To engage them where they are rather than waiting for them to get to me.

Maybe some of them only want the experiments, but there’s no harm in that. There will be a few who see it and ask questions, who will want to know more. They’ll be excited to figure out the why’s and how’s – they’ll learn to ask the right questions and make the right observations.

Maybe the kids can’t all look into the flames and see the truth, but for now, I’m ok with making a column of smoke with a little black powder.


Image By Ralf Johann (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons