Archive for Think Tank

Status Matters

This morning, I came across this article on reforming education, which summarizes a new report on comparative educational systems.  I haven’t had time to read the full report yet, but here’s the bit that made me sit up and take notice.

To improve its public schools, the United States should raise the status of the teaching profession by recruiting more qualified candidates, training them better and paying them more …. “Teaching in the U.S. is unfortunately no longer a high-status occupation,” Mr. Schleicher says in the report.

Our education system is predicated on the notion that luuuuuurve for teaching can replace status and pay. I can see why it’s an appealing idea, but it assumes that teachers* are just so fulfilled by the opportunity to nurture that they don’t need to be appreciated, trained or paid appropriately. For some teachers this may be true, but it’s hardly the way to manage the future of our country.

If you think the status thing doesn’t matter, let me tell you a story. When I was applying to graduate school, I looked into doctoral programs at a number of places, including an excellent program at Teachers College Columbia University. Now, TC’s specific ranking varies from year to year, but we’re talking one of the top five education schools in the country. I met with the man who is now my advisor and loved him**. I won a prestigious scholarship, which in turn gave me the freedom to define my own research agenda. The program’s close links with other departments meant I could do the interdisciplinary work I do best. Plus they were willing to invest in developing a research lab in my area. It was clearly the right choice for me!

Want to know the most common reaction I got?

“Why would you go there? You’re way too smart to go to an education school.”

This was generally followed by:

“You know, you won’t exactly be among your intellectual peers.”

Or sometimes by:

“Are you okay being stuck in education for the rest of your career?”

Yup, status message received loud and clear. Fortunately I was not scared off by these kinds of comments. I did go to Teachers College, and I did find a community of intellectual peers, and I do have diverse and exciting career options, including education programs. As I’d hoped, I had the freedom to do my own work, and the opportunity to teach and lead and publish early in my career; I do not think I could have had the graduate experience I did anywhere else.

At the same time, I find myself distancing myself from the institution when I would like people to see me as smart and competent. “I’m in an interdisciplinary research program,” I’ll say. Or, “I’m getting my PhD from Columbia GSAS.” These are both true, but they also let me avoid being pigeonholed. The moment I say the words “Teachers College,” I get a very different vibe***.

My determination**** is pretty legendary, and you can see that it does not make me immune to the status issue. So it makes me wonder just how common our silent losses are. How many people do rethink their choices when encountering these attitudes? How many people would never consider education as a choice in the first place? I’m guessing lots, and lots, respectively. Maybe I’m overestimating how much people care about status – but given my personal experience, I think not.

* And does it surprise anyone, given this rhetoric, that teaching is a female-dominated profession?

** He continues to be excellent on a daily basis. We both chose well!

*** This is doubly true because I’m a woman; you could do a reasonable status ranking of programs within Teachers College based on how many male students enroll in each.

**** It’s the good kind of stubborn!

A Reader’s iPad, Part Two

I’ve been reading on the iPad for almost a month now. Here are some more things I’ve noticed, in no particular order.

I’m reading a lot more non-fiction. I really enjoy marking up my virtual books, which is something I won’t do with physical ones – mostly because of the pain in the ass factor. It’s also intensely satisfying to know that my thoughts and insights will remain accessible to me after I close the book. I feel much more like I’m part of a conversation with non-fiction books now; they’ve become as alive to me as fiction always has been.

I’ve always been someone who prefers to read one book at a time, but I’ve made a mental exception for academic reading. Pre-iPad, I might read five or six fiction books while slowly working through something dissertation-relevant. I’m now much less willing to switch back and forth between academic and non-academic reading. The Sociological Imagination hung me up for almost a week – the longest I’ve gone in years without starting a new book! Unfortunately, a week without fiction makes me very cranky, so I think I’m going to have to get past my one-book-at-a-time hangup. Any ideas?

I cannot be trusted at the Kindle store. What, you mean I can have this book right now? I’ve been especially bad about buying the Kindle versions of books that are still out in hardcover. I don’t buy hardcovers, so it’s a delight to get these books months before I might otherwise have read them!

I’d really like to see more collection / curation services become available. For example, I would pay good money to buy a “Nebula Nominees” package. I value the convenience of not having to hunt down each book separately, and also the creation of an ad-hoc anthology for the short stories and novellas. Similarly, I’d totally subscribe to my favorite series and have the new releases automatically download to my device when they come out.

I’m using Kindle as my primary reading app because of its annotation system, as described in my previous post. I like the way iBooks lets you import any PDF, and Powell’s ebooks aren’t Kindle-compatible, and I love Stanza’s book-organizing features, but I’m not willing to spread my reading across multiple apps. I never want to have to ask myself, “Wait, what format do I have that in?” As long as Kindle’s got web-based annotation syncing, I’m tied to them. Unless someone knows of an app that lets me aggregate my books across services, and opens the correct app to read each one?

I was really excited to learn that I can lend Kindle books. Then I realized I can only lend each book once, ever. Not once-at-a-time. Not once per friend. Once. Ever. Period. I find this profoundly upsetting. All of a sudden, my decision about lending a book becomes incredibly fraught.  I have to decide whether this person is the best person I could ever lend this book to, since I never get another chance. And if it’s not a good time for them to read it, my one-use lending privilege went to waste! I understand that Amazon wants to avoid people replacing buying with lending, but there are other ways to do that. For example, maybe you have to go through a complex authorization sequence to reactivate your lending rights. I don’t mind inconvenience, but the current setup raises the mental costs of lending way too high.

I still haven’t found a way to dock the iPad near my bed, but I’ve got a great low-tech workaround: my partner goes to sleep later than I do, so he docks it for me. Yes, ladies and gents, that’s love.

Collegiality and Consequences

The thoughtful and courageous Courtney Stanton has recently gone from “very excellent” to “extraordinarily excellent” in my personal estimation. (Want to know how to do this? Be awesome. Then keep being awesome, but add data.)

In the course of blowing my mind, she said something that I think is remarkably important and I’d like to single out. At the end of her post, she writes an open letter to one of her harassers, concluding with this:

But kid, let me promise you right now: if you ever try and use the computer programming skills you got in community college to work in the video game industry, I will be expecting an apology from you about the harassing tweets and disgusting images. I can have a long memory when I choose to, and since you made such a compelling case for me to do so, I’m choosing to now. I hope you eventually grow up, but in the meantime your behavior shows you to be exactly what this industry doesn’t need. I’m not afraid of making that fact known should you attempt to enter it. You wanted my attention; you got it. Enjoy the consequences.

I recently wrote about being honest about people’s flaws, but I was putting it in terms of who you might or might not want to work with as an individual. However, Courtney’s hit on something even bigger: that these choices have an impact on the entire community. Let enough rape apologists, or trolls, or just plain jerks into a group, and eventually they start setting the social norms. That in turn has an effect on who wants to be in the group, and how they are treated when they are there, and I think we all know how this one goes.

My post, too, assumed a basic level of human decency. I’m happy to empathize with a colleague who tends to give harsh feedback on projects; if you’re prepared for it, his feedback is actually very helpful. But am I willing to empathize with someone who deliberately causes pain to others? A harasser? A abuser? A rapist? I’ve got a line, and once you’ve crossed it, crossing back is going to be pretty hard.

This is feeling particularly relevant right now, because recently I’ve done a lot of community, leadership and mentoring work. In the last ten days, I’ve:

  • Made over a dozen professional introductions
  • Arranged a job interview for a former student of mine
  • Critiqued a research design for a colleague, and suggested fixes
  • Volunteered my time to guest lecture in a different colleague’s course
  • Helped a peer refine her dissertation proposal
  • Consulted with a startup about their new product
  • Helped two would-be entrepreneurs understand my sector

And that doesn’t even count the meetings I’ve scheduled for the coming weeks and months!

I’m writing about this not to pat myself on the back*, but because it’s made me think about my responsibilities and obligations. Yes, I try to judge everyone fairly, but I have a limited amount of time and lots of people I could be working with. In whom do I choose to invest my time? When I help someone become part of the game design community, or for that matter the academic community, I should remember to consider how their presence is going to influence that community in the long run.

I’m lucky that, as far as I know, the people I choose to work with are Good People. For example, the only reason I’ve ever had to cringe at a joke has been because of a truly groan-worthy pun. I don’t worry that they’re going to behave unethically or exploit others or engage in random acts of senseless cruelty. But I’d like to formalize that commitment, so here goes.

If you ever would like help from me; if you would like introductions to my network; if you would like direction in your job search; if you would like to collaborate with me on a research project; if you would like me to guest lecture in your class; if you would like my advice about graduate school admissions, or your dissertation, or how to be a productive scholar; if you would like my insight into game mechanics or psychology or learning; if you would like any of these things, don’t be evil, because I will hold you to account.

You are probably wondering what I mean by evil. I happen to like Jonathan Blow’s summary: “selfishness to the detriment of others or to the detriment of the world.” In the end, though, I’ll be using my personal moral judgment. I’m by no means perfect, but I spend a lot of time thinking about how to behave ethically in the world and how to be a decent human being. I already use those ideas to guide my work, my relationships**, and even how I spend my money. It’s time to apply the same ideas to my life as a mentor, leader and teacher***.

Yes, there are a lot of corner cases and ambiguous scenarios. (“What if I did something evil a long time ago, but I’m reeeeeeally sorry now?”) If you’ve changed, or you didn’t mean it, or it was totally justified****, fine! The world is a complicated place, and I get that. But the burden of proof is on you, not me – and at the end of the day, I may still decide you aren’t a good investment of my limited resources. For that matter, my resources aren’t infinite. I may have to turn you down no matter how awesome you are.

By making this commitment public, I’m hoping to inspire others to do the same. I know so many people who mentor and advise and teach and lead, and I know that many of them likely already do think carefully about who they invest their time in. But what if we let people know that? What if people who care about our industry had an explicit model for decency? What if virtue – yes, I know, an unpopular word – were a way to access informal networks and formal power? I don’t know about you, but I think the game industry would start to look rather different from the way it looks today.

(I give it five minutes before I get trolled for this, but I’m posting anyways.)

* Okay, maybe a teeny bit of back-patting.

** In my personal relationships the bar is actually quite a bit higher than “don’t be evil,” but that’s another post for another time.

*** In some ways, I already think about this as a teacher. I have to teach the students I’m sent, as long as they conform to my institution’s standards, but I can infuse every lesson with a clear moral stance. I’ve been reading The Sociological Imagination and it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that, in fact, it’s impossible to teach without one. I just try to be conscious and explicit about mine. This is probably also a topic for a longer post, huh?

**** On second thought, you’re probably not gonna get very far with this one.

Valentine’s Play

If you know me, you know that I’m in love. I wake up every day delighted to spend my life with the Finest Man Alive(tm), who seems equally pleased to be sharing his life with me. I will sing his praises given any excuse whatsoever, and often when given none. The strength of our love brings me joy, confidence, and the security to be immensely bold in other areas of my life. He inspires me to be a better person in every way imaginable. It’s no surprise that I’m a charter member of Team We Love Love!

On the other hand, Valentine’s Day makes me profoundly grouchy. This isn’t sour grapes: my partner loves the entire Valentine’s apparatus. If it were up to him, we’d spend the entire day in a bathtub full of melted chocolate, sprinkling each other with rose petals while opening box after box of jewelry. Every year we carefully negotiate just how Valentine we’re going to be. Too little and he gets cranky; too much and I do!

(For the curious: this year we went out to dinner at the unbelievably fabulous Journeyman Restaurant, which I’m calling a win-win. Also he bought me a book!)

My usual explanation is that I don’t like Valentine’s Day for the same reason I don’t like Mother’s Day. Both days take a relationship that should be honored every day of the year, and reduce it to a set of arbitrary symbols performed on one special day. I’m of the philosophy that relationships are built out of the ordinary, not the extraordinary. For example, I’ve created a life where my partner and I alternate flower-buying weeks, so that we always have fresh flowers in our space before Shabbat. Some weeks they may be supermarket carnations, but they always honor and sanctify the reality of our lives together, not some fantasy of it. You can keep your dozen long-stemmed roses, thanks.

This isn’t the whole picture, though. I don’t mind celebrating birthdays or anniversaries, which also reduce down to “one special day.” I also don’t get cranky about, say, how you’re supposed to reflect on your behavior all year and not just on the High Holidays. So this got me thinking about what, specifically, about Valentine’s Day bugs me.

Then I read this paper by Carrie Heeter, and said, “Aha!” Heeter provides evidence* for something I’ve been saying for a while: mandatory play is not quite play. She and her colleagues made playing four different games mandatory, then looked at players’ self-reported experiences and in-game activity. “Resistant” players played for less time, had fewer positive and more negative emotional experiences, and were less focused in terms of attention. In other words, if you’re forced to play a game when you don’t particularly want to, it’s not engaging and pleasurable the way that games can (and should!) be**.

Now consider this excellent quote from Two Whole Cakes:

… romance has always made me vaguely uncomfortable. There is a pressure associated with being a female-identifying person on the receiving end of romantic shenanigans: I feel expected to giggle and coo, to blush and smile sheepishly, most of all, to be grateful.

The writer hits it on the nose. As a woman, I’m always haunted by the feeling that I’ve got a role to play – one which has very little to do with my desire to play the Valentine’s Game. I’ve got no control over the production of romantic shenanigans, yet I’m supposed to perform the emotional work of appreciation and cultural reification***. Yes, my partner and I can choose to Valentine in any way we please, but for me that always exists against the background of “should.” Differentiating my individual human responses from the mandatory feminine is possible, of course, but makes certain types of response feel inauthentic, produced, stage-managed.

Seriously, people: my partner makes me want to giggle with delight every day, but I do not giggle on demand.

What’s most useful to me about this insight is that maybe it can help my game design students (and colleagues!) understand the danger of what I call “designing from should.” Anyone who has felt the pressure to perform femininity – or, for that matter, masculinity – in a Valentine context can use that experience to begin to understand the resentment of resistant players, and can hopefully become a better game designer as a result. Similarly, anyone who’s ever played a DFS**** might gain insight into the ways that the delights of love can be compressed into the mandates of commercial romance.

As for me? I’m going to look for ways to make Valentine’s Day into Valentine’s Play next year. Check back then.

* Yes, it’s clearly still a draft paper, but Heeter does good work and I’m happy to trust her conclusions until the fuller version of this paper comes out.

** You’d think this was obvious, right? Unfortunately, I see a lot of serious game proposals that want to mandate play. This is probably a longer post.

*** A la The Managed Heart, whose argument I will not attempt to recapitulate here, but which I strongly recommend.

**** Designed From Should!

Judging Others, Judging Oneself

Periodically, students approach me for my opinion on who should be their academic advisor, or who to invite to their dissertation committee, or whose project to join as a research assistant. I feel that I have an obligation to advise them candidly and fairly, because their academic futures may depend on these choices. Similarly, I would like to know the risks, as well as the benefits, of getting involved with different graduate students, faculty members or non-academic collaborators. I’m lucky enough to have my choice of neat projects, so I have to be careful about allocating my time.

At the same time, I’m both personally and professionally cautious about saying anything negative about my colleagues. Professionally speaking, I don’t want to be the jerk who talks about other people behind their backs. Personally speaking, I want exactly the same thing! This is not just because of possible consequences, but because it’s not the kind of human being I aspire to be.

Balancing these competing obligations is a toughie. How can I be realistic about people’s flaws without being nasty? I’ve seen this issue come up a number of times in the past few weeks, both for me and for others, so I figured I’d try to set out my ideas with some clarity. If nothing else, reflecting on the choices I make will help me do better the next time I have to walk this line.

Here are my principles:

First, I try to speak from a place of empathy. No one* wants to be the bad guy, but no one is perfect, either. I try to speak about the flaws of other people with as much compassion and understanding as I’d want them to use when speaking of me. For example, I hate when people mention my flaws with the expectation I will change them immediately. (Believe me, if I could, I would.) Because I hate it so much, I try not to come across that way when talking to or about someone else.

Second, I emphasize how flaws are often the flip side of people’s best qualities. This lets me put any discussion of negative qualities in context of the person’s larger self. For example, I am strong-willed and determined – exactly the kind of person you want on your side if you really need to get something done. However, this also means that I can be incredibly stubborn.  The same things that make me awesome are the ones that make me difficult, while my mediocre qualities rarely get me in trouble!

Third, I keep it focused on the situation at hand. If someone asks me about, say, an academic advising situation, I will make sure that they know that any issues I raise are specifically relevant to academic advising, not fixed qualities of the person being discussed. I also emphasize that what is a flaw in one relationship can be a bonus in another. For example, some students want a lot of freedom to pursue their own academic projects. Others want lots of structure. An advisor that makes the first student happy will make the second miserable, and vice versa. Flaws are always contextual!

Finally, I keep it practical. I try to end the conversation with questions for further reflection or suggestions for action, rather than encouraging people to make character judgments. For example, I recently advised a friend about working with a particular individual. I told her this person’s strength was collaboration, but their weakness was that they were easily distracted when asked to work independently. We spent a few minutes brainstorming strategies for handling a distracted colleague, and my friend decided that implementing them was a worthwhile investment of her time and energy. Because she was able to make this choice consciously, I think their long-term working relationship will be a good one.

This approach is heavily based on the “treat others as you’d like to be treated” notion of moral behavior. I’m not perfect, and I don’t want my personal and professional relationships to be based on some unachievable ideal! I would much rather people knew what they were getting from me. That way they can choose projects that play to my strengths, or help build systems to support me where I’m weak, or decide that they’d rather not work with me before we have a meltdown. This is how I would like to be treated, so I make it my business to treat others that way (and, not-so-coincidentally, to model it as an appropriate set of behaviors for others to learn from).

It’s also, of course, based on research. I’ve been involved in a research group about creativity for the last … gosh, has it really been four years? One of the things we kept returning to is that excellence comes from playing to your strengths, then matching those strengths to the problems you choose and the ideas you grapple with. I want to spend my time nurturing my strengths and working in situations that reward them. In fact, I’d like to build a life for myself where even my flaws are strengths. You can’t do any of those things if you aren’t willing to acknowledge your flaws and work with (or around!) them.

I also came across this very interesting paper, which suggests that how positively we see other people may be a personality trait. I tend to believe that traits like these are relatively malleable, particularly given extended practice.  My repeated practice with the techniques of empathy, flipping, focus and practicality might be part of what helps me see the best in others, even when I’m not consciously using them.

I think the thing I need to work on most is my third principle, being focused on the situation. I still tend to speak about people’s qualities as if those qualities were fixed, when in truth people function very differently in different social contexts or in different groups of people. But practice makes perfect, right?


* Okay, maybe Sauron.

A Reader’s iPad

I’ve thought for some time that an iPad would be the perfect e-reading device for me. Now that I’ve acquired one (by which I mean: won one on the Intertubes) I can confirm that this is the case, though there are also several drawbacks I hadn’t predicted.

So what’s awesome about the iPad?

First and foremost, page turning is as fast and responsive as I need it to be. Some people may not be bothered by the black flash between pages on other devices, but I find it really disruptive. Using Kindle on the iPad, pages turn with no discernible delay or interference. I can even choose to scroll instead of flip, so I never have to take my eyes off the text. This was a deal-breaker for me on other devices and it’s awesome that the iPad gets it right.

Second, it’s transformative for doing research-oriented reading. I’m still developing my academic workflow, but I’m moving toward something like this one. I can access my entire research library of PDFs on the iPad through the Mendeley app, then annotate and highlight away. If something’s been published, I can do the same using Kindle. Crucially, highlighting becomes a zero-impact activity. I’ve never been a big highlighter, even when there are things I want to remember, because it breaks my flow. So far, though, I will do this on the iPad and I will like it. Also crucially, my highlights and annotations become searchable. I have dozens of books with post-its stuck in them at important points … but then I can’t find the information when I want it, unless I type things up right away*. Now I can easily see all my thoughts, not just for each book but across every research book I read using this technology. This is possible on an iPad in ways that other e-readers don’t support, because I’ve got a Mendeley app and a PDF reader / annotater and Kindle and Dropbox and a browser all on the same device. Super awesome.

Third, some Kindle books seem to have internal linking to, for example, footnotes. It makes handling references so much easier that I’d pay extra for a book with internal linking. Or what if I could click on references and have them automatically start downloading in the background? Not only would I pay for that feature, I’d end up buying a hell of a lot more books off Kindle. Can you imagine letting me loose on an “Other Books In This Series” page?

Finally, I would love to get rid of some of my vast book collection. There are many books I must own in hardcopy, whether for sentimental reasons or because they’re affiliative identity objects or just to enjoy their physical beauty. However, there are plenty of books where I really do just want the words. It’s not like I don’t love and use my books, but there are certain logistical problems with having a book collection that must be measured in cubic meters!

This sounds pretty idyllic, but there are a few problems as well. Here they are:

First, Shabbat. I’m going to be making some posts about Shabbat in the next few weeks, but (spoiler alert!) I don’t use technology** from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. That means I lose access to all my iPad books. I chose not to start reading a book on the iPad this morning, because I didn’t want to have to stop reading at sundown. Worse, it means I think twice about whether I buy a book on the iPad, if I can’t read it on my most reading-centric day of the week.

Second, PuzzleQuest. I’m sure I won’t be obsessed with this particular game for much longer, but there’ll be a new game (or app, or website) soon enough. Holding the iPad makes it easier to contemplate switching tasks, even when reading is what I’d rather be doing. Because I could be using the device for multiple things, it lowers the barrier for me to stop reading and start doing something else.

Finally, docking. I haven’t figured out yet how to read the iPad in bed, because then I have to get up and dock it before I can go to sleep. This is possibly just a logistical problem, but it’s a placeholder for a larger issue of size, shape, and not being able to give the thing the same knock-about treatment my books get sometimes.

None of these are deal-breakers, and I’m definitely a very happy iPad reader. I suspect these problems add up to one easy solution: I do the bulk of my non-fiction reading (especially research reading) on the iPad, and do the bulk of my fiction reading the old-fashioned way. But we’ll see how it shakes out!

And speaking of Shabbat, Shabbat Shalom!


* This only happens when I’m reading in order to write a specific piece of my argument … and even then, not always.

** With some exceptions, like taking the elevator to my high-floor apartment!

Laundry, Wikipedia and Cognitive Surplus

Several people have asked me what I think about this article on the gender gap in Wikipedia contributions. A study, which seems reasonably well conducted, found that under 13% of contributors to Wikipedia are women. Now everyone wants to know what it means – so here’s my take.

I’m not surprised by this finding, given what the research says about womens’ experiences. For example, as the article points out, women are socialized to think their opinions aren’t important. (See Sadker & Sadker’s research on the systematic ways girls get ignored in school, just for example.) The Internet is also full of misogynistic assholes who defend their behavior on ideological grounds. Encounter enough of those guys, and you don’t necessarily want to participate in forums where they’ll be.

What I am surprised about is that no one’s mentioned the leisure gap in this context. Clay Shirky’s brilliant article on cognitive surplus points out that Wikipedia is a product of leisure. But leisure, in our society, is not equally distributed. Young people have more leisure than older ones. This is because young people tend to have fewer time-consuming life responsibilities, such as children and extremely demanding jobs – and we see that reflected in the average age of Wikipedia contributors. Men have more leisure than women, on the other hand, because women subsidize the free time of men. We may be working fewer hours as a society, but the laundry still has to get done – and because women are doing it, men end up with the time to contribute to Wikipedia.

Just consider one example: married women self-report doing 70% of housework, while married men self-report 37%. You’ll notice those numbers add up to more than 100%, so let’s suppose women are big whiners and the mens’ numbers are correct. This means women would actually be doing 63% of housework, not 70%. But notice! Even by this most lenient standard, women are doing almost twice as much housework as men. This does not even get into other traditionally female responsibilities like eldercare, family relationship management, or the maintenance of social networks, nor does it address the fact that women are generally assigned low-control tasks that break up their leisure into dribs and drabs, while men are more likely to have uninterrupted chunks of free time. When you look at these realities – and how they’re domestically enforced – it’s a lot less surprising that cognitive-surplus activities like Wikipedia are often dominated by men.

Wikipedia is ultimately built by the people with the most free time. In our society that means men’s time, subsidized by women.

Not So Obvious

I’ve noticed that I’ve recently spent a lot of time writing about race and gender, and not so much time writing about stories, games and communities – particularly games. Considering that games are a major part of what I do from day to day, this seemed worth noticing.

This trend is partly because I’ve had to educate myself about race and gender issues as part of my dissertation work. I’ve been doing a lot of reading and a lot of thinking and encountering a lot of concepts that are shiny and new. Plus, a lot of what I read is Official and Academic in a way that games aren’t, or at least not yet, or at least not without contention. I’m always conscious that, when I go on the academic job market, people will be reading this blog and evaluating me*. It’s easier to make a post that pulls from cognitive psychology, or social psychology, or education research, than one that just talks about what I think about games.

Part of it, though, is less pretty. Games aren’t the most welcoming space for women, which I’m repeatedly reminded of. They’re also not the most welcoming space for academics. The attitude of “most academic books [are] out of touch” isn’t as pervasive as it used to be, thanks to the awesomeness of many folks on both sides of the industry-academia divide (and many who span it!), but it’s still clearly there. It’s stressful for someone like me, because I use game design as a research tool instead of just observing or criticizing games. When it comes to what game designers think of me and my work, I’ve got skin in the game.

Finally, part of me thinks my ideas are really obvious. I know that this is a bad case of the “obvious to you, amazing to others” fallacy, but it isn’t helped by the fact that I spend my days head-down in my dissertation. It’s surprisingly easy to forget that not everyone else is doing the same!

This post is just to say, then, that I’d like to write more about games. I haven’t written much about teaching game design, or running role-playing games, or why I think pleasure is so important. I haven’t written about the impact of Big Five personality traits on common game mechanics, or what I think every game designer should know about motivation, or even what I’m playing from day to day.

It’ll be a challenge to break down my ideas into relatively bite-sized pieces – because if I try to say everything about a topic at once, I might as well write a scholarly article instead of a blog post**. And of course I’ll still be struggling with the issues mentioned above. But I think it’ll be fun to try!

* If you are on my hiring committee, hi! I am awesome. You should definitely hire me.

** I have started several blog posts that became article drafts. Good for my career, bad for my blogging life!

Merit vs. Background … Fight!

The other day, a friend of mine was talking about her (white) uncle and why he hates affirmative action. She summarized his take as, “He was applying for a job, and it was down to two candidates. He had more merit, but the other guy got it because of his background.” Who hasn’t heard a variation on this story a million times? But something about the way she told it* made bells go off in my head.

In describing her uncle, she perfectly encapsulated the common thread of many anti-affirmative-action arguments: that considering someone’s “merit” and considering someone’s “background” are two different things. This can be framed overtly or covertly, but “merit” is one category, and “background” is another.

This categorization is, I think, precisely the problem with debates about affirmative action. It’s cognitively easy to assume that two categories are non-overlapping, especially when there are only two of them. For example, I read a great study about how parents stereotype their kids the most when there are exactly two of them, because they sort them into opposing categories on all kinds of factors**. Setting up “merit” and “background” as the two categories therefore implies – incorrectly! – that having more of one means having less of the other.

Treating “merit” and “background” as separate categories is problematic for other reasons. First, it implies that those are two different reasons why people get hired. We know that if there are two reasons given for an event, people tend to give less credence to either of them***. Affirmative action (as opposed to “pure merit,” whatever the hell that means) as a possible explanation for hiring a woman or a person of color makes people less able to see the actual merits of that individual, even when affirmative action was not used in the case at hand. Second, it makes the very specific cultural positions of whiteness and maleness invisible. Whiteness and maleness are certainly not coded as “backgrounds” because they are so very pervasive as the norm in our society – which puts them, thanks to our tendency to reason exclusively about binary categories, in the “merit” column.

The real answer, of course, is that “merit” and “background” are not separate categories. Instead, we need to reconsider what we mean by merit. Merit needs to be considered in the context of background, because if we judge people entirely by outcomes we are not getting the real picture of what they are capable of. Consider two people who want to be your investment manager. Candidate A says, “I have $100 in my last client’s investment account,” while Candidate B says, “I have $105.” Would you stop there and hire Candidate B? Or would you ask, “Well, how much did your client give you?” What if Candidate A answered, “I started with $50” and Candidate B answered, “I started with $100”? Who would you hire now?

Our ideas about “merit” are largely outcome-based. This makes about as much sense as only paying attention to totals in the example above. Merit can and must include the individual’s background and experiences, because you need to know not only what someone can do, but also just what kind of investment of resources it took for them to do it. Me, I’d rather hire someone who can do more with less, instead of investing a larger proportion of my own resources to get a number that looks larger on paper.

Unfortunately I think it may be too late to save the term “affirmative action,” because it’s become so tied to the merit-background binary. I do believe, though, that we need to change our ideas about what merit means, who has it, and where it comes from, because merit and background are not different things. And that, my friends, is what affirmative action is really about.


* And, just to clarify, she was reporting on her uncle’s opinions – not her own.

** I can’t find the link and still post this before Shabbat, but if you’re curious, ping me.

*** As per the previous footnote, I’m pingable.

The Awesome Life

I just wanted to say that Sacha Chua is awesome.

Oh, you wanted details?

Well, for one thing, she means it when she says she’s looking to help people out.  I pinged her for advice about blogging, and she got back to me with some helpful tips and an introduction to someone else thinking about the same problems as me.  I also found helpful advice in her archives.

For another, I’m delighted by her thoughtfulness about work-life integration.  I hate the term balance, because the term implies work and life are somehow opposed. At the same time, work – even flexible, playful work like mine – has a different experiential and logistical quality from other parts of my life, which means integration is necessary. Check her post on protecting free time for a sample of what she’s thinking about.

Finally, I’m delighted by the story of her wedding shoes.  (Of course, I may be biased.)

Go forth and be awesome!