Monday, January 16, 2006

Games, Libraries, and Semiotic Domains

I’m always surprised and delighted by serendipitous convergence of ideas ... let me share what I mean ...

One of the points I always make is that libraries need to be able to answer questions, inspire new questions, create interaction that builds understanding, and provide opportunities for engagement that changes lives and builds communities. So how does gaming fit into this world of librarydom? Perfectly ...

We know that games (unlike tricks) are not just for kids ... as Mr. Gee says, games are semiotic domains ... they are worlds of meaning that incorporate language, culture, story, and learning. They connect us to our innerselves, to the people around us, and to our history. I didn’t realize it until yesterday, but games are what provided me with an opportunity to know my grandparents ...

When I was a kid, my parents, grandparents, and their friends would spend countless hours around the dinning room table playing pinnocle. Long after I’d gone to bed, I still hear their voices in constant motion. Chatting, arguing politics and ideas, telling stories, cursing their luck ... it was the sound of relationships being built and strengthened ... it was the sound of family ... the sound of community.

As I got older, and began my trek into adulthood, I was allowed to watch them play ... to listen to the language ... to be a part of it without actually interacting. But this was also when I first began to connect with my grandparents. They were people of the Great Depression ... they had worked hard to survive together and had built up a comfortable life that they would never take for granted or even feel secure would be there the next day. They were gracious without gushing and seemed to keep themselves hard around the edges so as to ensure that they’d never forget the hard times. As a little kid they were hard to get to know ... they were harder to want to know. But as we sat there in their dining room, and I heard the stories of family members and friends, as I listened to them rib one another and laugh, and as I grew to understand the meter and rhythm of their interactions, I began to get a sense of them for the first time.

Baseball was the other connection. I grew up in Upstate New York in the days before cable TV spread the games of the Atlanta Braves and the Chicago Cubs to every nook and cranny of America (okay, so now I even sound like my grandfather!). Back then (you know ... in the olden days), we could catch a weekly ballgame on TV, but radio was still the only way to get the daily game. When my grandparents would visit, my grandfather and I would sit in the living room and listen to Phil Rizzuto and Bill White talk about the Yankees. My grandfather would sit there with his Seven-n-7 and a handful of peanuts recounting Yankee players and teams of the past. He’d talk about guys whom I’d never heard of, but who – years later when I had the great fortune of working at the National Baseball Library – I learned about and reshared with him. He was gruff on the outside, and like I said earlier, hard to get to know ... but when we’d talk about baseball he softened and gave me a peek inside at the person he was ... the life he’d led ... the history he’d seen ... it was the game that allowed that ... that was our common semiotic domain ... our shared experience and language and culture ...

Games are important to the future of libraries ... regardless of the venue or medium in which they are played, games enable us to meet new people, to interact with them, and build relationships that lead to community. Games are about stories ... yours ... mine ... and ours. These stories help us learn about and from one another, and they help us form our other circles ... our other semiotic domains.

So ... play on ...

Friday, January 06, 2006

People as Quantum Machines

This is a little choppy ... bear with me ...

Way back on December 21, 2005, Kathy Sierra from Creating Passionate Users talked about The Quantum Mechanics of Users ... it was all about waves and particles and how, by observing a user, we can actually change how he or she uses our services ... and not necessarily for the better. Her focus was on the difference between what people do and use versus how they describe what they do and use ...

She quotes Gladwell (from Blink) where he talked about the jam experiment ... the long-and-short being that when people were asked to choose the best jams their picks were in line with experts (add that to the list of my fantasy job titles ... Jam Expert), but when they were asked to say why they made the choices, suddenly their choices changed ... The simple act of asking changed the results ... but why?

As I found myself poring over the comments left on her post, I came across one from Dave Rogers (no relation) who talked about the idea of extra-experiential intellectualization, attributing it back to "God in the Dock" by CS Lewis. According to Dave, Lewis wrote that people didn’t/couldn’t intellectualize when they’re in the throes of something (passion, laughter, sorrow, etc.) ... instead, he says:

"Human intellect is incurably abstract... Yet the only realities we experience
are concrete--this pain, this pleasure, this dog, this man. While we are loving
the man, bearing the pain, enjoying the pleasure, we are not intellectually
apprehending Pleasure, Pain or Personality. ... This is our dilemma--either to
taste and not to know, or to know and not to taste--or, more strictly, to lack
one kind of knowledge because we are in an experience or to lack another kind
because we are outside it.”

On a more personal note, this totally ties in with something a friend of mine (not aware of my newly piqued interest in extra-experiential intellectualization and quantum mechanics) said to me earlier today. He was trying to "think" through an emotional conundrum ... saying "no matter how I look at the problem and the way it's making me feel, I can't seem to think through a solution that I like." In quantum terms ... his waves were willing, but his particles were weak. He was trying to use his particle (i.e., thinking/logical) mind to shape his wave-shaped emotions and was failing miserably. I guess the physicists among us would have expected it ...

In the end Kathy says:

“We have to get better at making inferences from what we observe without
intervention. We have to get to the spirit of what we observe, rather than
focusing on the specific details. We have to recognize that what they do says
much more than what they say, especially when they're not saying anything at

I’d add that we need also to remember our waves and particles ... that while we absolutely need to get better at inferring without changing peoples' behaviors, our true test will be to determine which part of our human quantum machine our patrons will be using as they both experience and intellectualize what we provide.