This past weekend, I downloaded “Pac-Man Championship Edition” on my roommate’s Xbox. I played the heck out of that sucker.
My other roommate invited me to learn, and perhaps play a game of Go. I told him I wasn’t interested.
And that’s when I realized something. When I play games – video or boardgame – I play games that are simple, repetitive, enjoyable, and don’t require a whole lot of mental processing. My roommate plays games that require deep thought, strategy, complexity, and practiced skill. In other words, the games I play – Pac Man, Katamari Damacy, MegaMan, Team Fortress 2, etc, are designed to turn my brain off. My roommate plays games like Go, Chess, Reversi, Warcraft 3, all designed to turn his brain on.
And this wasn’t always the case. When I was a kid, I used to love the Final Fantasy series, but as I entered grad school, I had significantly less patience for it. Even old games I used to love don’t seem nearly as appealing now as simpler games you can pick up and start playing – the casual stuff.
Which made me realize something. We recently made a viral-marketing game called “The Network Rockstar Challenge.” Around the same time, Cisco put out a game of their own – a sequel, in fact, called “Edge Quest 2,” to promote its ASR series of routers. And the two types of games are very dissimilar. “Rockstar Challenge” is a trivia game with some pretty hard questions in it – making you think, quickly. Cisco Edge Quest is a game where you move a spaceship on some tracks and pick-up powerups, and it’s more important to move your fingers quickly than anything else.
So when I look back on my life, and I compare the times in my life when I was playing simple games compared to the times in my life when I was playing complex ones… a pattern emerges. The more complexity and mental stimulation I was getting from other activities – usually my day job at the time – the less I needed mental stimulation in my free time. Conversely, in times in my life when I was working boring jobs, I’d be playing games that required a lot of thinking and mental gymnastics.
College was the time of Goldeneye and Mario Kart, but after graduation, working in data entry, I got into ultra-complex pen-and-paper RPGs and played through Final Fantasy 7 and 8. Grad School was the era of Katamari Damacy and discovering the joys of retro gaming through emulation.
So, anyway, right now, I work for NetQoS as the editor of this blog as well as “the video guy” in the company from time to time, and I moonlight as a field producer for an independent film company in town – and let’s not forget that I’m also 30,000 words into my non-fiction book on electoral reform in New Zealand… Pac-Man just about hits the spot.
And that’s when I realized that maybe next time, when we do a game, we might want to do something slightly simpler, because our intended audience, after all, is network engineers, system administrators, and the occasional CIO or CTO. As a group, y’all have to think quite a lot in your day jobs.
Earlier in this blog, I noted that technology geeks gravitate towards games like D&D because they give people simple boundaries to storytelling, and straightforward challenges to overcome. I wonder if this idea can be taken further – that smart people will tend to hit a balance of complexity in their lives. And if so, if simplifying network administration and engineering through easy-to-understand tools doesn’t really make the overall life of the network engineer much easier because the network engineer will then use the “brain cycles” they save to take on a new and more complex task then they were dealing with earlier.
In this way, you hit a paradox: Using network monitoring tools to be proactive about networking issues and working with preventative maintenance is less of a mental challenge than “putting out fires.” Now, ideally, the network engineers work proactively in order to free up time and mental energy for taking on the next big complex task. But I wonder if there’s not something about our geek minds that prefers reactive firefighting to proactive monitoring because firefighting is more challenging work than making sure nothing goes wrong in the first place. It can be annoying to be constantly busy at work, being constantly bored is hell for smart people.
It’s not just gaming – I know more than a few people, myself included, who are actually a bit disappointed by computers and operating systems that “just work,” feeling more than a bit nostalgic for the days when you had to configure modem IRQs via jumpers on the card. These are the type of people who have no good reason to install Gentoo instead of Ubuntu, but do so anyway.
I think we’re all comfortable with a certain level of “challenge” and seek to introduce that into our daily lives. I don’t think it’s static, either – that we can build up a “challenge tolerance” over time. In fact, things like military boot camp and the first year of law school are designed to do exactly this.
So I guess what I’m saying, is not to let the lack of challenge lead you – consciously or unconsciously – to make your job more complicated. Use the tools you are given to solve problems, so that you can come up with new challenges rather than repeatedly dealing with the old ones. And if you’re in a position to manage some smart people who need challenges, give them not only the tools they need to simplify their position but newer, greater challenges that they can now accomplish.
Considering that I thought of all of this while playing Pac-Man… maybe sometimes our brains work most efficiently in a “lower gear.”
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go swallow some pills and listen to repetitive techno music in a dark room somewhere…