J.D. Moyer

sci-fi writer, beat maker, self-experimenter

Category: Gaming

Why Dungeons & Dragons?

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I play Dungeons & Dragons almost every week (and sometimes more). I love games in general, but D&D is my favorite game. Here’s why:

1. It adds knowledge.

As a kid, D&D sharpened my math (especially probability) and expanded my vocabulary (especially martially: cuirass, hauberk, greaves, trebuchet, arbalest, spetum, glaive). As an adult, world creation pushes me to expand my knowledge of geography, climatology, history, ancient religions, and literature.

2. It stretches my brain.

A game of D&D unfolds as a sort of structured improvisation. Ideally, the dungeon master (who creates and runs the world) and the players co-create the storyline. Nobody knows what’s going to happen next. The mental challenge of impersonating a character is difficult and exciting. Some of this happens on a superficial level (imitating various accents is not a required part of the game, but for me it’s a fun part — right now I’m working on a South Irish accent for my druid Shoren Shallows, something like Nathan Young on Misfits). Some of it is deeper. In real life I’m sensible, sane, and reasonable (most of the time). The characters I play in Dungeons & Dragons are usually kindhearted, but also eccentric, unreliable, erratic, and slippery. When I run a game (as dungeon master) I play villains and monsters who are cruel, malicious, conniving, greedy, and psychopathic. At the very least this kind of role-playing is cathartic. At other times it even feels therapeutic, as if I’m exploring or reconciling the shadow aspects of my personality.

3. It makes me happy.

In his book The Social Animal, David Brooks cites research claiming that joining a group that meets at least once a month produces the same happiness gains as doubling your income. Playing D&D definitely boosts my own happiness. I couldn’t tell you exactly why. Maybe it has something to do with hanging out with friends and drinking beer. Maybe it’s because the activity itself is engaging and challenging but not overtly competitive; the players might want to impress each other but there is nothing to prove. I’m not recruiting here — D&D (and tabletop role-playing games in general) aren’t for everyone. Many would find the pace too slow, or the record-keeping aspects too work-like, or the role-playing too awkward and stressful, or the people who play to be too nerdy. But for people who enjoy simulation, improv, fantasy, strategy, and cooperatively generating narratives, there’s nothing else like it.

4. It’s cheap.

D&D and other tabletop RPG’s (like Pathfinder, Fate, 13th Age, Numenera, Call of Cthulhu, and Runequest) can be expensive hobbies, but they don’t need to be. Resources for 3rd-edition are available for free under the Open Game License. To get started you need a group of people (ideally at least three and no more than seven), a rulebook or electronic rules document, polyhedral dice, a few miniatures, pencils and paper, a table and chairs, and plenty of time (at this point in my life the time is the most expensive element). Compared to almost any other form of entertainment, D&D is a bargain. A single night of clubbing in Vegas could easily set you back a grand. That much money invested in D&D gear would result in an epic collection of hardcover rulebooks, dice, miniatures, and terrain. It could even get you started on converting the spare bedroom into a medieval tavern.

5. The nerds won. So why not join them?

We’re in a strange cultural epoch. Watching Game of Thrones counts as mainstream entertainment, programming computers counts as a regular job, and jock types play a game called “Fantasy Football.” So D&D might be a notch less nerdy, relatively, than it was when I was growing up, because collectively we’re all nerdier. Some of my friends and family still shake their heads a little at my refusal to give up my nerdy childhood pastime, but mostly they get it; it’s entertainment.

THE REAL DANGER OF DUNGEONS & DRAGONS

In the seventies, during D&D’s initial run of popularity, there were some hysterical reactions linking the game to devil worship and teenage suicides. These are the same people (mostly fundamentalist Christians) who are aghast at the popularity of Harry Patter (witchcraft!) and consider our culture to be awash in “occult influences.”

I agree that D&D is a threat to Christianity. Polytheistic pantheons are a part of the game, and I could see how reading Dieties & Demigods could lead to a relativistic view of religion (it did for me). To some Christians, this is a threat.

But overwhelmingly, role-playing games are a force for good. If you have any doubts about this, watch this video — it might change your mind.

But there is a real danger of playing Dungeons & Dragons. Sitting for hours, consuming soda and/or beer, and eating salty snacks is bad for the waistline and bad for cardiovascular health. D&D works best as a lifestyle element if there is some other outdoor/exercise-type hobby to mitigate the sedentary calorie consuming. Something like larping. Or for the hardcore types who aren’t afraid to lose a tooth, there’s this:

RPG Renaissance

D&D and other tabletop RPGs are enjoying a surge in popularity. Sometime in the next year Wizards of the Coast will release their new edition of D&D (even more remarkably, Forbes is covering Dungeons & Dragons). Celebrities like Wil Wheaton and Vin Diesel have championed the game. Nerd culture in general in on the rise. I think we’ll see tabletop RPGs rise in popularity for some time. I predict they’ll steal “market share” from television and video games.

But if it doesn’t go that way, I’ll still play. D&D has been my favorite game for thirty years, and I don’t see why I can’t keep playing for at least another thirty.

What’s your favorite game that you keep coming back to, year after year? And why?

Minecraft — It's in Your Head

Minecraft spawn view from reddit's Deltasquad03

Lately I’ve been playing Minecraft, the underground video game hit developed by Markus Persson, a bearded Swede who goes by the alias “Notch.”  Persson developed the game in about a week before releasing it to the public, and Minecraft is currently in the midst of a popularity explosion unprecedented in the history of independently developed video games.  A day in September saw sales of 25,000 within a single 24 hour period, and total sales have exceeded 300,000.  I predict mainstream awareness (say, a New York Times feature) within 30 days.

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Reverse Hack Video Game Psychology to Increase Real Life Motivation (and Why We Play Video Games Instead of Living Life)

Is it time to uprez your game?

Well-designed games, more than any other form of entertainment, directly hack into our motivational substructures.  They play into our desire to achieve status, collect things, complete tasks, explore the unknown, solve mysteries, be powerful, and make tangible progress (otherwise known as “leveling up”).

Ian Bogost's Cow Clicker

Video game theorist Ian Bogost explores and satirizes this aspect of games with his Facebook metagame Cow Clicker.  The game is maximally minimalistic; all you do is click on a virtual cow at regular intervals (the game that Cow Clicker satirizes, Farmville, is a mass social networking game phenomena with more users than Twitter, netting hundreds of millions in revenue for its creators).  Bogost states that his game “distills the social game genre down to its essence.”  His point is that game architecture can be distilled into simple psychological tricks the designer uses to engage the player.  In a well designed game, these tricks are used with brutal (or in some cases, subtle) effectiveness, and the game is hard to stop playing.  Some game designers have even been accused of making their games too addictive.

A good game cleverly manipulates us, playing on our various urges (competition, avarice, curiosity, desire for completion or closure).  In the context of the game, our skills are a good match for the tasks at hand, and rewards are frequent and well-timed.  Real life, on the other hand, is messier.  Our skills are often a poor match for the tasks at hand; what we need to do is often too easy (and therefore boring) or too hard (and therefore intimidating).  Rewards come unevenly and sometimes apparently randomly; we can work diligently for years or even decades and the world will basically shrug at us.  At other times, we can’t believe our good luck, and don’t feel worthy of the good fortune life bestows upon us.

Are there ways we can apply the motivational energy (or dirty tricks, depending on how you look at it) used by video games to our real lives?  This is one area where I completely agree with game designer/theorist Jane McGonigal (I discussed her recent thesis in my last post); I think we can.  McGonigal gives a brilliant example of this technique when she describes how she recovered from a debilitating concussion.  What else can we do to “reverse hack” the tricks video games play on our minds?

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On Video Games, Motivation, and The Psychedelic Realization

Is the cake a lie?

Jane McGonigal has some provocative ideas about the potential benefits of video games.  Her TED talk is a good introduction to her thinking, which can be summarized as follows:

  • Young people in countries with strong “gaming cultures” (think U.S. or South Korea) put some serious hours into gaming (especially MMORPGs like World of Warcraft) — hours roughly equivalent to total secondary school education.
  • The massive amount of time invested in virtual game worlds causes a permanent shift in psychological makeup, generally for the positive.
  • The qualities developed in these uber-gamers include a sense of “urgent optimism,” the ability to “weave a strong social fabric,” the enjoyment of “blissful productivity,” and the experience of “epic meaning” (she explains all of these terms in the TED talk linked above).  All in all video games create “super-empowered hopeful individuals” (at least in the context of their games worlds).
  • These positive qualities can be harnessed and used to solve real-world problems, via the use of “world-saving” games that promote social awareness and include real life actions (one example is a “peak oil” game designed by McGonigal that encourages players to make changes in their real lives that will reduce their real life oil consumption).

I found McGonigal’s talk to be thought-provoking and refreshing.  I think she may be on to something, but overall I find her views to be Panglossian.  McGonigal sees the millions of hours we collectively spend in game worlds as an escape from real-world problems and suffering.   She seems to overlook the possibility that video games themselves might be a causing real problems.

Gamers, hard at work solving the world's problems.

Well-designed video games can be so addictive that susceptible types (myself included) can be pulled in to a degree that will appear, to any dispassionate outside observer, to be excessive, destructive, and possibly demented.  More so than other forms of entertainment (novels, movies, magazines, etc.), it is easy to lose entire work-weeks to video gaming.

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Strategies for Multi-Class Characters

You'll need multiple skill-sets to deal with this bunch.

Since I don’t have a 9-5 job, I’m faced every morning with a vast, intimidating landscape of possibilities for what to do with my day.  It’s the way I’ve arranged my life — completely on purpose — but I’m not immune to fits of aimlessness, time-wasting, false starts, procrastinating by reading interesting blog posts or news articles, and so on.  Best case scenario is getting up and completing the most important task of the day before breakfast.  A just-as-likely scenario is puttering the entire morning away and not actually “getting down to work” until around 2pm.

Over the years I’ve tried a number of strategies to most effectively manage my time.  I’ve tried rigid schedules; dedicating various blocks of the day to various activities.  Those never stick.  I invariably just do what I want to do when I want to do it.  The efficient time management question is one I haven’t fully answered — a problem I haven’t solved.  Once in awhile I’ll hit a good groove that might last for weeks or months, but that will be followed by a less focused (or even aimless) patch during which I make little or no progress towards my long-term goals.  What’s the optimum strategy?  What’s the best time-management algorithm for artists and freelancers who don’t have fixed schedules?

Are You a Multi-Classed Character?

Beware Megemus, the evil druid.

I grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons, and never really gave it up.  Once in awhile I still paint miniatures, and I ran a short campaign a few years ago that was a blast (it was called Fickle Godlings and featured an evil druid named Megemus who wanted to destroy villages and farmlands in order to return them to their wild, forested state).  I also love computer RPG’s (role-playing games) — some modern games of this genre manage to be both visually stunning and emotionally engaging (Elderscrolls Oblivion and Fable 2 are my personal favorites).  Role-playing games in general keep getting more and more popular.  Critics of D&D and RPG’s in general (both tabletop and MMORPG’s like World of Warcraft) accuse gamers of being everything from escapist to occultist, but the role-playing meme keeps growing.

The “character development” model that originated with D&D (choose a class or specialty area, improve your skills and “level up”) has now permeated into mainstream culture.  You see the model in hundreds of games, and many famous movie characters seem more like role-playing game characters than anything else (Neo in The Matrix, for example, downloading the kung-fu skillset).  Applying the RPG character development model to you own life, as a mental exercise, is fun and potentially useful.  Seeing yourself as a character in a game-world can give you some helpful objectivity.  What’s the overarching narrative of your character’s life?  What skills is your character developing?  What are your character’s desires, goals, and strategies?

Continuing this analogy, we can say that single-class characters — those people that choose a single skill area and dedicate themselves to it wholeheartedly and without distraction — in most cases advance most quickly.  On the other hand, multi-class characters — those people with a myriad of interests who refuse to specialize in single area — advance more slowly, but ultimately end up with a more versatile skill set.  Which are you?  Fighter?  Magic-user?  Or Fighter/Magic-User?

I’m definitely in the latter camp.  I’ve tried at various times in my life to focus on just one thing, but it never sticks.  So I’ve accepted myself as a multi-class character.

Navigating the dark forest of time-management decisions.

Pitfalls & Benefits

As I declared in the first section, I’m still struggling with the question “What’s the best use of my time each day?”  Do I have too many goals in too many areas?  Am I a double-threat or a dilettante?  Pitfalls of pursuing too many areas at once include:

  • never putting in enough focused time in any one area to achieve mastery, not racking up the Gladwellian “10,000 hours” required to “level up”
  • gaining only superficial knowledge and skills — dilettantism
  • bouncing around from one activity to the next without clear goals
  • feeling like you are following “inspiration” when you are in fact following moment to moment whims

On the other hand, if you can apply the right kind of discipline, there are possible benefits to to pursuing multiple skill-sets and/or careers simultaneously:

  • by going with whatever activity is currently capturing your interest, you can spend more time in a state of flow
  • you open up the possibility of rewards (income streams, kudos, career advancement) in multiple areas
  • you create a sort of robust ecology in your life (ideas cross-fertilize, the whole system is resistant to crashes)
  • you can fight with a sword and also project fireballs from your palms

So what is the “right kind of discipline?”  While I don’t have a complete answer, I’ll share the strategies I’ve come up with so far.

Strategy #1 — Set Concrete Goals for Each Class

Perhaps your passions include violin, kung-fu, and vintage comic book collecting, and you also enjoy your day job as a nurse at a hospital.  It’s worth considering what  you ultimately hope to gain from each activity area.  Maybe you decide that comic book collecting is just a hobby — you enjoy it but you’re not interested in turning it into a career buying and selling rare comic books.  Playing violin, on the other hand, is something you want to take to the next level.  So what does that level look like?  Do you want a seat in a reputable orchestra?  Do you want to perform regularly as part of a string quartet?  What are your goals for you-as-violinist?

And what about your day job as a nurse?  Is it just something you do to earn money, or are you interested in advancing in terms of skills, position/title, and pay?  Maybe you decide you’re tired of the crazy hours at the hospital and you’d rather become a nurse practitioner and work in a private practice.  With that goal in mind you enroll in a master’s in nursing program.

What about the kung-fu?  You really enjoy it and don’t want to give it up.  Also, your school doesn’t use a belt system so you can’t choose “become a black belt in kung fu” as your goal.  Instead, you choose to specialize in the Five Ancestors style, with a special emphasis on the deadly Dim Mak pressure point strikes originally introduced by Hian Loo, the “Lady in the Green Dress.”

With your goals clearly in mind, you’re well on your way towards being a Nurse Practitioner/Concert Violinist/Five Ancestors Style Master.  Congratulations!

Strategy #2 — Work Towards Long-Term, Most Important Goals First

He practices battle-axe techniques from 8am-10am each morning.

It’s possible to get work done late at night.  Possible, but unlikely — especially if you’ve had a long day and a glass of wine with dinner.  The morning hours are likely to be more productive — for most people that’s when your head is most clear — when your mental energy is more focused.  That’s a great time to get something important done.  Kung-fu or violin practice maybe.  For me — writing happens in the morning, or not at all.

When you don’t have one all-consuming passion, but rather several that burn brightly, you’ll need to prioritize carefully.  If possible, consider what the top task or goal for the day is the night before.  Then get up and complete that task immediately — before breakfast — maybe even before coffee.  The sense of accomplishment will stick with you throughout the day and you may experience a cascade of productivity as a result.

Long-term goals often get pushed aside to meet short-term goals or immediate obligations.  The consequences of not meeting our short-term goals and obligations are often quite clear (like getting fired if you don’t go to work, and not being able to pay your rent).  Consequences for not working towards our long-term goals can be just as devastating, but they can sneak up on us.  As in, Oops, my life went by and I didn’t really do what I wanted to do.

Strategy #3 — Say No Thank You to Time-Consuming Distractions

As a multi-class character, you’re probably a person who likes to say “yes.”  You enjoy taking things on, trying out new things, and collaborating.

To some extent, you’ll need to fight this impulse.  If you try to do everything that interests you, you’ll flail about and never have enough time to dig in and go deep into any one area.  Cal Newport describes Steve Martin’s approach to success as “diligence” — a specific application of discipline via which you resist the urge to start additional projects and work on other things (besides your main goal).  Newport, paraphrasing (or maybe quoting?) Martin, uses the phrase “ruthlessly whittle down your ambitions to a needle-thin point.” While we’ve already established that that’s not going to happen (we’ve accepted we’re poly-ambitious types), we can still apply Martin’s advice.  We can still say “no thank you” to time-consuming projects that don’t directly further our goals.  As often as not, the originator of these project ideas will be us — our own minds will find things to do to distract us from our essential work.  Sometimes these ideas represent real inspiration — they can energize us and open new doors, but more often they’re just “fun” distractions that will grow into time-sucking monsters if we let them in the door.

For example …

A few years ago I got the bright idea to start an investment group.  I invited some of my smartest friends, pitched them on my idea, and the Bling Trade Collective was soon born.  We got together about once a month to discuss investment strategies, drink wine, and eat cheese.  It was fun, and would have been a good idea if I had taken a more informal approach.  But no — I wanted to do it right.  We actually pooled our money, came up with a detailed partnership agreement, and started an investment club business.  As the instigator I ended up doing the tax forms most years (both federal and state).

This project took way more time than I expected it too.  It didn’t end in disaster — we actually made a little money despite the 2008 crash (“dozens of dollars” as we like to say) and we’re all still friends.  The meetings themselves were fun.  We never agreed on an investment strategy, but that didn’t matter.  What I regret is actually making the group a business; this approach required large amounts of paperwork and more formal procedures for determining who was in the group, how we would decide and execute investment transactions, etc.  I still need to file our final set of tax forms next year.  The whole project is a perfect example of a giant distraction I invented myself that didn’t further any of my main life goals.

Starting the Dungeons & Dragons campaign was a similar experience — it was fun to return to my childhood passion and create a fantasy world from scratch (including an entire pantheon of gods and detailed descriptions of various ecologies and economies in the game world).  But after a few months I realized, with horror, that running the campaign could easily take up 100% of my timeOne of our players moved to Costa Rica and we decided to put the campaign on the shelf.  Maybe D&D is something I’ll take up again if I ever retire (since I don’t play golf).

Back to you — our hypothetical kung-fu/violinist/nurse … perhaps your kung-fu master has asked you to teach the kung-fu youth class.  You’ll be paid and your own membership fees will be waived.  Plus, you love working with kids.  But after careful consideration you decide to politely decline.  Teaching the youth class doesn’t help you get any closer to any of your goals — it would just distract you.  You’d rather use the time developing your strike techniques and working on your “monkey style” footwork.

You'll need effective strategies to deal with David vs. Goliath situations like this one.

Strategy #4 — Take “Creative Sabbaticals”

If you can arrange it, organize large blocks of time (at least two weeks) to dedicate to working on a single goal or project.  Let people know you’re not available for other work during this “chunk” and then dig in.  Use more self-discipline during this period of time than you normally would; force yourself to focus for longer periods of time and resist all distractions.  You may find that you can accomplish an enormous amount in just a few short weeks.

I’ve used this strategy to get large blocks of writing or music composition completed.  My other work (managing the label, database work for clients) tends to pile up during these sabbaticals.  So I might work less on creative works in the weeks that follow, while I catch up.  Still, it’s worth it to be able to focus 100% — to completely immerse my mind in creative work and problem solving — during that time.

You, as a violinist, have long wanted to master the notoriously difficult solo in Shostakovich’s Concerto No. 1.  You’ve quit your job at the hospital and now have some free time because your start your master’s in nursing program.  You decide to dedicate two weeks to learning this piece, practicing at least four hours each day.

Strategy #5 — Find Ways to Waste Less Time

There are a number of strategies for “stealing back your time” that have been detailed by various writers.  Here are links to a few:

Delegating, outsourcing, doing less, simplifying, having less stuff, being better organized, disconnecting from the internet — these subjects are receiving a lot of attention these days.  All these techniques come down to asking yourself a couple simple questions:

  • Does this thing I’m doing actually need to be done?
  • If so, do I need to be the one doing it?

This kind of questioning and behavioral analysis is fundamentally different than stealing time from yourself — from areas like sleep, or fun times, or time with your family and friends.  Your body, subconscious mind, family, and friends will forgive you for ignoring them for brief periods once in awhile, but if you regularly steal from these areas to make up for time you waste on the internet, farting around, faux-working, preparing and eating 5-6 meals a day, etc., then you need to re-evaluate.

That’s it!  I hope all you multi-class characters out there found this post to be helpful.

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