Tuesday, February 25, 2014


Anthropologically, games are fascinating.

Games are a universal feature of human cultures, and serve us in functions as diverse as recreation, fortune telling, and selecting leaders. 

Some games are simple, while others are mind bogglingly complex. Some games use no props or pieces at all, while others command complex economies that exist only to produce the necessary bits and pieces. Many games are community property, passed down from generation to generation, while at the same time there are entire industries devoted to inventing, manufacturing and marketing new games. Games can serve simply to pass time engaged with others, or even alone, while some games are played in deadly earnest and taken seriously as reflections of the unseen forces of the universe.

The one thing that is common to all games is this: they represent a transcendence beyond our physical limitations to allow us to exercise and compete directly on a mental level.[1]

Games, in my opinion, are one of the key things that make us human - or perhaps more accurately they are a sign of the things that make us unique as a species.

And, philosophy aside, games are fascinating in and of themselves. [2]

Like everyone else, I started playing pretty much as soon as I could interact with the world around me, of course. But not much of the sort of play babies engage in could rightly be called games. The play is mostly physical, mainly aimed pretty directly at developing a variety of critical skills like being able to control limbs and perform precise manipulations with fingers, tongue and lips. Soon, this play transforms into something more social - a kind of rudimentary "tag" or wrestling, where as much as anything the goal is communication with parents and siblings. These aren't really games either, but something I think could be classified as games emerge naturally and much earlier than we would imagine:

If you watch children playing [3], you will notice that at some point even children who aren't yet verbal will begin imposing rules on their play: toy animals need to be set up all facing the same direction, certain types of play must take place in defined spaces (even though the space in question isn't actually necessary to achieve whatever the goal is), certain actions are repeated, sometimes in elaborate sequences that are triggered by specific events.

As they get more verbal, children begin formalizing and communicating rules for their play ("the red squares on the carpet are lava, so you can't step on them") and when several children play together regularly you'll notice that they build up a handful of fairly formal play scenarios each of which has a corpus of agreed-upon rules.[4]
Seeing this sort of thing emerge quite naturally in children's play, it becomes completely unsurprising to see how ubiquitous truly formal games are in all societies and at all ages.

But of course the level of formalism we see in children's play is very different from what we see in "real" games.[5]
The games humans play, even the simplest ones, have strict sets of rules that may evolve over the generations, but are remarkably well conserved in many cases. Some games change radically over time, but the games that stay with us either start out fairly stable or quickly mutate into a more stable form. [6]

Do you remember the first formal games you were introduced to?

I would actually be willing to bet that most of us don't - formal gaming creeps into our lives at a remarkably early age.

For myself, I recall participating in formal game play as early as 3 or 4 years old - my earliest game-related memory is of sitting at a formica table playing a rather strange game that involved assembling plastic pieces to build an insect.  I have no idea what it was called.  I also observed game play of course, as cribbage, canasta and a plethora of other social card games were a part of nearly every gathering at some point.

Later on, I played snap and similar games with older relatives, and was introduced to snakes and ladders, draughts and chess.

More complex board games entered my life with my introduction to Risk and Monopoly at 8, and that was the beginning of the end. I have continued to be interested in games since those early days, and have delved into some of the most complex game rules ever - entire systems for simulating fictional worlds at various levels of detail.

Matching games, sequence building games, dynamic games of logic and strategy. I have played at least a few games from every category I'm aware of, and yet the scope of games I have never heard of - let alone played! - remains huge.

Games serve all sorts of purposes in our communities, from providing structure[7] for socialization to measuring the threads of fate.[8]  Games provide scope for play and for self-development, and they also form the basis for socialization, even when we're not playing them: while not many people will discuss the latest chess tournament with their neighbour on the bus, some do and no doubt you can think of times when you've discussed games with others.

Games are part of what makes us human, I'm convinced of that.  But more than that, games are one of the things that build our human relationships.  Despite the worry that computers and ever-insular ways of living will kill "real" games entirely [9], I don't think they're going anywhere any time soon.

If nothing else, just look at the top 10 apps being installed on smart phones everywhere: even if most of them are solitaire versions, nearly all of them are games!

1. Obviously, things like soccer and even track and field can be considered games, but for the present essay I am thining in terms of two categories - sports, which formalize physical competition and as such are not really that different from the sort of play that other animals engage in, and games which may simulate physical competition, but which by nature minimize the importance of physical strength and endurance in favour of mental acuity and reflexes. This may be an arbitrary division of recreational activities, but an in my opinion an important distinction.

2. Surely our ability to be fascinated by the abstract rules that govern games is in itself a sign of what makes us human?

3. Here I'm going to distinguish between play in general and games (and sports) as a specific case of human play, invoking a kind of Levi-Straussian taxonomy of concepts to help clarify matters.

4. In fact, children's play has been studied extensively by the social sciences - for an example of the anthropological study of play, see Schwartzman, Helen (1978) Transformations: The anthropology of children's play. Plenum Press (New York).

5. I'm uncomfortable with the dismissal of "child culture" as somehow unworthy. I'm speaking here about the complexity and persistence of the framework of games - the structure of children's play can be as sophisticated as the formal games we normally recognise as such, but are unlikely to be as complex and typically have quite fluid "rules" which I think sets it apart from what I'm referring to as games.

6. The metaphor inevitably evokes evolution, but of course it's important to keep in mind that this is not Darwinian - games mutate and combine and reform in all manner of ways probably more Lamarckian than anything else.

7. And excuses! 

8. While the purpose isn't play, there are senses in which things like the Tarot, the I Ching, rune casting, etc. can be considered games in the sense that they use formalized rules and set pieces to produce a given end.

9. There's apparently some dispute over whether things like Halo or Donkey Kong truly qualify as games by a strict definition.

On the Hipster

From Spider Kiss (1961), by Harlan Ellison

There is a kind of girl who is seen at certain (right) bars, at jazz nightclubs of the Birdland variety, at cabana clubs, who dances the merengue with the proper hip movements, whose person is all one, the same person, a type.

It is difficult to describe this type, this person - so many of this person.

A description needs specifics - and all the specifics of this person are nebulosities.  Unless you know what to look for, unless you can sense them (as the poet said: sniffing strange), see the aura that surrounds them, you will have no idea of the subjects in question.

The girls are easier to spot than the men.  The men generally have casual Peter Gunn haircuts or pomaded pompadoured hair; they usually wear Continental clothes (like the little Italian messenger boys on Madison Avenue) or they wear the one-button rolls.  They come in many shapes and shingles, but they aren't too important here.  The girls...the Girl...this girl.

This girl has fine legs that look tight and good in her straight, tight skirt.  No matter whether this girl is one hundred percent Italian or two hundred percent Yiddish, her profile is strictly Irish.  Clean-cut, Sultry, Desirable, Empty.

Surface-seeing.  Easy to covet, these girls, this girl is too easy to covet.  This girl's hair is soft, glowing and probably (today) in an artichoke.  she taps her hands when she hears the music.  She applauds at the wrong place, before the number is finished, when an unimportant, saying-nothing soloist has pyrotechnicked.

She is the girl the conga player eyes from the bandstand.

She is a hipster.

there is a great deal of difference between a truly "hip" person (that indefinable awareness of what is right, what is current, what is lasting; beyond sophistication, beyond class, it is the essence of being "with it") and a hipster.

A hipster is a pseudo.  The good-looking girl from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, who feels stifled (for the wrong reasons) in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, and emigrates to Chicago.  Look for the girl two months later in the bars on Chicago's Rush Street.  Look for her just off Times Square; on L.A.'s Strip.  You know her.  The sleek, well-fed, looks-to-be-good-in-the-hay chick who crosses her legs too high.  The chick who gets her meals bought, who has to worry about paying only for her extensive clothing needs and the rent.

Often, it's only the clothes.

This is the girl who thinks Don Ho is a jazz singer, who goes to Birdland to hear Herbie Mann's Afro-Jazz Sextet because he plays the kind of jazz you might (if you were a hipster) cha-cha to.  This is the girl who wears charm bracelets that jingle.

This is the empty woman, without her own standards, with a Hollywood conception of reality, the girl who talks during the sax man's solo.

See then, a cultural phenomenon.  A leech personality, singularly devoid of purpose, of substantiality.  The shadow-people.

Saturday, February 15, 2014


Footprint on the Moon - Image from NASA archive
[Neil Armstrong passed away on the 28th of August, 2012. Reflecting on his life and legacy inspired me to write this essay, originally published elsewhere]

I am fan of the e-book revolution, and frankly think that railing against the ways in which e-books will destroy literature stinks of the elitist terrors that accompanied the shift from monastic scriptoria to the printing press as a means for

the mass production of texts. Just like the printing press, the e-book offers the world of the printed word to even more people, and the ability to copy and transmit entire textbooks to the opposite side of the planet nearly instantly can’t be ignored, even if there’s still work to be done to make the technology needed to read e-books available everywhere.

Oh, make no mistake: e-books have their disadvantages like any technology, and just as the widespread adoption of the printing press eliminated the “demand” for beautifully hand-illuminated volumes I’m sure there will be dimensions of the modern printing industry that will suffer as e-books gain more and more traction. There will be less need for beautiful covers, for example, since e-books need “covers” that are easily viewed both full-size and thumbnail-size –for which simple is better. Book sets designed with spines that come together on your shelf to create another image will be impossible to implement, of course. Certain writing techniques that rely on the author’s ability to control the layout of the page will die as well.

One wonders if the easy-come, easy-go nature of electronic files will push writers to produce lots of short, easy to read pieces or take advantage of the lack of space limitations to write enormous rambling tomes. Worse, the desire for ever-cheaper – sometimes free! –books may make it more difficult for publishers to support writers working on projects that require extensive research or travel.

Yes, there are many things that e-books will change about literature of all kinds. The type of literature – the style, the length, the genre – may well change. But despite the nay-sayers’ predictions of doom I find it difficult to believe that e-books will end books entirely. Like the printing press before it, the technology will force changes, but the fundamentals will likely stay the same.

No, the main issue I see when it comes to e-books is something much more subtle: ephemerality.

Consider Sumer and Akkad, the Egypt of the pyramid builders, the first Emperor of China, the religion of Mayan kings, the Achaean Greeks of Homer. What do these all have in common? What we know of them comes from what they wrote down.

Writing technologies have changed over the millennia, and as we’ve developed better ways to publish more words that can be distributed more widely, the corollary has been that the technology involved has become more ephemeral. The Sumerians inscribed their work on clay tablets that could be fired to create a lasting record. Most ancient civilizations cut words in stone, though of course such records were rarely much more than names and dates. The Egyptians learned to make papyrus, and the Chinese of the same era scratched words on strips of
bamboo, which could then be laced together and rolled. The skins of animals have been laboriously split into sheets and used for writing. Later, paper was invented in China and spread throughout the world as
a cheaper alternative to papyrus. Later still, we found yet cheaper ways of making huge quantities of paper from relatively small quantities of raw material, resulting in newsprint and the filmy papers of the cheapest of cheap pocket books. And now at last to “printing” our words with electrons – yes, the devices to read the
words are expensive, but the cost of reproduction is essentially nothing, and so with a few watts of electricity we could flood the world with copies of a new book. 

Sounds incredible, doesn’t it?

But think about this: Sumerian tablets are still with us, as are Egyptian inscriptions and Chinese bamboo scrolls. Mayan walls, either carved or painted with their intricate hieroglyphs can be found in forgotten temples in the jungles of the Yucatan. Huge, heavy tomes laboriously copied by hand after hand record fragments of Aristotle
and Plato on sheets of vellum and parchment. And all of these things have come down to us over hundreds – even thousands of years.

The ancient papers were heavy and robust, but even so they dried and crumbled over time, and one has to be very careful to avoid destroying the eldest documents we still have. Newer papers are worse still, some yellowing and cracking over mere years – let alone decades.

And what of electrons?

Theoretically eternal, this turns out to be the most ephemeral of all.Computers crash, viruses wipe memories, hard drives fail – even the amazing CDs and DVDs we love to use for “long term storage” are unlikely to last for more than 10-15 years before the plastic and metallic film break down and become unreadable - the contents lost

What irony, that in this age when our technology and education makes it possible for us to produce in one day more publicly available knowledge than entire centuries of civilization before us we have embraced technology that may well let our knowledge evaporate within just a few decades if we should ever fall.

Thankfully, even if all our words should fail there will be one record of our achievements that should last for centuries at least:

Neil Armstrong's footprints, pressed into the dust of the Moon like cuneiform.

No mere words could be so eloquent.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Children of the Future

AVG Technologies [1] recently released results of their 2014 study on how computing and networking technologies are shaping our lives.  The takeaway?  That many young children (in the 3-5 age range) can effectively use a tablet or a computer mouse, and perform tasks like play PC games before they can muster the (physical rather than electronic) digital dexterity to tie their shoelaces. [2] This has led to a flurry of articles in the media, many of which are either lauding how digitally native upcoming generations will be, or decrying the fall of civilization that will surely result.

Personally, I think many of the results are indeed reflective of real changes in the ways in which children are learning in their early years, and I do find these changes troubling – though perhaps not quite “fall of civilization” troubling [3] and almost certainly not for the same reasons as many of those crying “Doom! Doom!” [4]

Unlike many who decry youth’s increasing engagement with technology, I’m an unabashed futurist.  Forward is the only direction possible, in my opinion – and the only direction in which solutions will be found for the problems our past technological advances have caused. I don’t believe we can turn back the clock, but I don’t think we can ignore history either – and that’s where my concern comes in.

I don’t actually think there’s anything especially wrong with a toddler being able to operate favourite games or access favourite videos on a parent’s tablet. Educational packages aside [5] the reality is that for those of us living in the developed world these technologies are all around us.  Learning to operate a TV remote or a tablet application or a PC is actually part and parcel of life – these are skills that children will need sooner or later anyway, and being able to experiment with them early on will help them to quickly navigate new devices as they get older. [6]

No, my concern is not with children engaging with technology – it’s the implication of the study that they’re not engaging with the rest of the world.

Let me be clear: I am not referring to studies that suggest that media consumption may be bad for very young children.[7]  What concerns me is the fact that children – particularly very young children like toddlers – have a great deal to learn about the world, and only a finite time in which to learn it.  Time spent learning to operate a television, tablet, or for that matter a typewriter will necessarily use time that might otherwise have been used to learn letters and numbers, to develop the fine motor skills needed for writing, drawing and tying shoelaces, and to have deep, meaningful interactions with older children and adults.

Learning how to master technology is certainly a key skill for the future – in fact, I feel strongly that technology that remains a mystery has the potential to master you: understanding at least the basics of how things work and the principles that apply is an important part of retaining our agency in the modern world. 

But technology is an addition to our lives, not a replacement for them and those other skills are still necessary.

In some cases – learning to draw or to write – technology can be leveraged in fairly obvious ways to enhance the learning process, so to some extent both the traditional skill and the skill of using technology can be learned at the same time. [8] But in other cases – learning to tie shoelaces – there is no substitute to the physical act[9], and for others – interactions with older children and adults – while technology can play a role in extending relationships to those who aren’t actually present, there is accumulating evidence that direct physical interaction is an important dimension of both motor and cognitive development.[10]

And of course all this ignores entirely the known benefits of engaging with the physical environment – play that involves the natural world is yet another thing that play with technology necessarily limits.[11]

Learning about and experimenting with technology is an important part of growing up human in any developed country these days – after all, that’s why we worry so much about low income communities where access to computers and the internet is not universal.

But learning about and experimenting with being human is the most critical thing, and excessive focus on our new toys may lead us to neglect remembering who we are, and the rather primitive scaffold on which we’ve built this civilization.

Somehow, we need to find ways to integrate learning about these new technologies into the learning children have needed to do for centuries - if we don't, we may see the whole thing tumble down.


1 Yes, the online antivirus and security company based in the Czech republic – it seems they have decided to do a series of online surveys every 4 years, presumably mostly as a publicity event but also as a way of understanding the way the threat landscape is changing. While I’m sure the technical dimension of the study is very well designed, it may also be wise to take the results with a bit of salt, considering the source.

2 Among other things, of course. This just happens to be the comparison the media have jumped on. There are a number of articles doing the rounds, but they all say the same things with minimal local editing.  Here’s an example.

3 I say perhaps because actually the reasons I do find it troubling have the potential to, if not topple our civilization, at least hamstring it.

4 I am not ashamed to admit that I am compelled to accompany this cry with this image: 

If you know what this is, and where this picture comes from, I tip my hat to you.

5 Which are mostly useless, I might add. Not that such technologies can’t offer any educational value, but that research has consistently shown that the results are very much hit and miss.

6 Of course, we already know this – how many people have a young relative who effortlessly works through the menus of a new camera or other device that adults need to think carefully about?

7 Despite articles like this one saying that “the jury is in” in fact the jury seems to be emphatically out on this – the apparent developmental delay associated with media exposure was found to be absent in adult-directed media consumption in this study and this one suggests that television viewing combined with parental discussion of what was seen is a positive correlate to toddlers’ theory of mind.

8 I think the caveat “to some extent” is important here – while there are many good drawing apps and alphabet teaching apps available, there are also some truly awful ones and even the best are limited by our current touchscreen technology. As good as it is, it’s still digital, with the limitations that imposes.  The multisensory experience of actually holding a pencil and putting it to paper is wholly analog by comparison, and the engagement of multiple feedback channels is well known to enhance the learning process. This is something that digital methods of learning don’t – yet – offer.

9 Admittedly, in the age of Velcro actual shoelace tying might be of questionable importance…but manipulation of cords and knots is one of humanity’s fundamental technologies, and applies in so many other contexts!

10 A particularly interesting recent study suggests that the rough and tumble play in peer-to-peer and father-child contexts (commonly observed not only in humans but in other mammals) actually plays a part in cognitive and social development. Certainly, it’s difficult to conceive of ways in which online interactions could lead to complex understandings of pain, the physical experiences of others, etc. that seem to form the foundation of our theories of mind.

11 Language fails me here – our technology is obviously part of our natural environment, but it seems evident that engaging with the non-human-mediated dimensions of our natural environment is also important.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Shamed for Being?

From the CBC article here.
Today, I came across a news article from Brandon, Manitoba regarding a young man who has been told not to return to school until he abandons his religious practice.

To be fair that is a rather dramatic way of summarizing the situation, but ultimately that's the result.  I’ll summarize here, but for full details you should really read the article.

Essentially, grade 11 student Stephen Bunn practices a type of spiritual practice common among Canadian First Nations[2] called smudging.  Smudging involves burning a bundle of “medicine”[1] and wafting the resulting smoke across the face, head, body and limbs as part of a process of ritual cleansing that normally accompanies prayer or meditation. (details vary by region and practice of course). Apparently, the lingering scent of the smudge was noticed, and after being mistaken for possible drug use (sage and marijuana can be confused by people not familiar with either one) he was ultimately informed that because the school has a scent free policy [3] he would have to refrain from smudging before coming to school.

Stephen initially stopped smudging, but after a discussion with family members decided to start again and doesn’t seem to have had any trouble.

From all accounts[4], the school is trying to work out how to handle the situation fairly so hopefully things will work out well for him, but one has to wonder how the situation reached this point at all.

Granted, the school has a scent free policy - and having experienced the smudge ceremony a number of times in the past [5] I know that the scent does cling, and although I personally like the smell it might be unpleasant to some. A strict reading of the scent policy would seem to obviously mean that Stephen shouldn’t come to school smelling of smudge smoke.

But it’s not that simple.

Stephen’s reasons for taking up the smudge ceremony as part of his daily spiritual practice aren’t really relevant, though they are given in the article. What’s relevant is that this is a standard practice of the spiritual tradition he subscribes to. Regardless of what one thinks of religion generally, the fact is that in Canada people are free to practice their religious and spiritual traditions, and one could argue that the philosophical dimension of a high school student going to the effort to learn about and practice his family’s traditions has educational value. Moreover, apart from the original questions about drugs it doesn’t appear that anyone at the school has complained of the scent of smudge smoke – surely that has to be a factor in determining whether a given scent violates such a policy or not?

And in any case, the whole issue of scent-free spaces is fraught with controversy, and the general opinion of the medical profession at least seems to be that scent-free policies are of questionable value anyway.[6]

On top of this, Stephen isn’t the only person to have had trouble because of smudging – Briana Ireland of British Columbia had her tenancy application refused by a landlord as a result of her smudging practice, according to this report by the CBC.

Looking at this issue even-handedly, it’s true that unlike prayer, or hanging a religious icon, or taking days off to celebrate holy days, smudging has lingering physical effects that can be sensed by others, so the opinions of others are certainly relevant at some point: Stephen shouldn’t try to smudge in the school locker room for example, and Briana would obviously not be permitted to smudge in the hallway of the apartment building.

But insofar as these practices do not have an impact on other people anything that they do as part of their spiritual practice is really none of anyone else’s business.[7] Singling either one of them out for punishment on the basis of their spiritual practice smacks of discrimination.

In both cases, I doubt that there was any conscious intent to specifically single out First Nations people for discrimination – but that was the ultimate result.  The issue is partly ignorance – a simple lack of understanding of what smudging is, and what’s involved – but the fact that in both cases there was a leap to the assumption that there were drugs involved is telling.

Some people routinely assume that First Nations people are drunks or drug addicts.  While it’s certainly true that some First Nations people have substance abuse problems, not only is this not a universal trait but even among those who do have a problem with drugs their drug use is entirely unconnected to any spiritual practice.

I don’t think that First Nations spiritual practices should automatically be granted a bye for any legitimate concern that we might have – there are much more common religious and spiritual practices that can easily be twisted to serve the egos of religious leaders, and there’s no reason to suppose that First Nations practices are immune to this.

But we must find some way to eliminate the ignorance and the prejudice that is holding urban First Nations people down.

It’s time to make a change.


1 Medicine isn’t really a good translation, but it’s the best we’ve been able to do in English to reflect the spiritual powers discussed by most North American aboriginal religious practice.  As a necessarily simplified explanation, medicine can refer to spiritual force, to symbolic representations of spiritual force (which can then serve to invoke or direct it), or to material objects that are imbued with spiritual force.  In this case, the medicine is composed of dry medicine herbs – one or more of sage, sweetgrass, cedar or tobacco. From my understanding of the traditions of the Brandon area, I expect Stephen was using a smudge bundle comprised mainly of sage and cedar, possibly with sweetgrass as well as tobacco isn’t often used in daily ritual. For a brief but useful outline of Great Lakes/Eastern Plains First Nations tradition see here. For an explanation of the meaning and use of the Four Medicines from a Manitoba perspective, see here.

2 The term First Nations is used to refer to the various peoples who have lived in Canada since before colonization by Europe. From the article, and from context, Stephen appears to identify as Dakota Ojibway. But the term used in the article is just “Dakota” so he could also be Dakota Sioux.

3 Many schools in Canada now have scent free policies in order to handle allergies, asthma, and the general unpleasantness of having someone wearing a strong scent. As it happens, the Brandon School Board has a scent free policy, though I’m not clear on how it would apply here since it seems to be aimed at scented personal care products.

4 Well, implied by statements in the article.

5 Both in the context of First Nations ceremonies led by Elders and in another tradition that also uses “medicine” (not called that) for purification purposes.

6 The Canadian Medical Association published an opinion piece in 2011 that noted that the allergy/illness dimension was questionable, leaving only the issue of dislike which seems a bit of a slender reed to support a ban on scents. Senger, E. (2011) Canadian Medical Association Journal, 183(6) pE315-6

7 The spiritual practice of Rastafarianism and other religions that make use of drugs that are specifically forbidden by law is a complicated issue of course: on the one hand, these are illegal drugs, but on the other hand the matter is a spiritual one, not a legal one – it’s not as though they’re trading in the drug for profit. Until more rational drug control policies are in place, I suspect that we will need to continue with the practice of having the courts decide on a case by case basis whether a given practitioner gets a bye.