Tagged with " games"
Oct 17, 2014 - Social Studies    2 Comments

Wade in the Water

Last Sunday, I attended a training for white folks who do racial equity work. The organizers called it “Solidarity Training,” and that’s as good as anything, but what it really meant was this: “How not to be a racist asshole as you try to improve things for people of color.”

You’d think that would be easy—every person in that room was there because they have the very best of intentions. We were all pretty far along our own personal journey from ignorance that white is even a race, toward leveraging our privilege to help dismantle systemic racism. Many of us had been doing that work for years, some even for decades.

But the hardest thing for people who are in the group in power is to realize that intention is not enough. Just because you *meant* it to be flattering when you tell a woman she’s sexy as she walks by doesn’t make it so to the women who experience unwanted street harassment every day. Just because you *meant* it to be a compliment when you tell a young black man that his speech was “so articulate and inspiring” doesn’t mean that won’t feel condescending to men who meet with surprise every day when they show that they’re educated. Intention does NOT get the job done.

But it can be surprisingly difficult to tell the difference between fighting the system and benefitting from the system. One of the trainers, the inspired and inspiring Ricardo Levins Morales, used an analogy out of the physics world to explain how we can be oblivious of something so pervasive. When you jump out of a plane at 30,000 feet, he says, you feel like you’re falling at first. But after a bit, the feeling changes to be something closer to floating, because you’re falling at the speed of gravity.

So it is with racism. White people are born onto a nice, big, comfy raft that floats atop the stream of racist oppression. Because we’re on the raft, we don’t feel the constant pressure of the water that wears down the hearts and souls of our brown and black siblings. We don’t feel the struggle. And even if we climb off that raft and join hands and weather the stream together for a bit, somehow—maybe it’s with a job referral from a friend, or a previewed house listing before it’s really “on the market”—we find ourselves back onboard, despite our best intentions.

The raft ride has been particularly bumpy at various points in history—now, since Ferguson, is one of them. It happens because some people in the water try to climb on the raft. At the same time, some of the raft’s riders are trying to dismantle the raft itself, or jump into the water in solidarity. And the people who never even knew they were on a raft of history and privilege get nervous and frightened at having why they thought was a solid, level surface become so unstable.

Naturally, this made me think of GamerGate.

See, sexism is another river, and patriarchy is another raft. Movements like GamerGate and the MRAs (Men’s Rights Activists) exist in a moment where the rather splendid vehicle created by cisgendered, heterosexual, white patriarchy is under attack from all sides. Its riders didn’t notice that the river around them was rising, or that the ship’s own crew was changing. The new crew wants to park that vessel for good, and move everyone to a bigger ship with room for all the groups who’ve had to struggle upstream for centuries. That must feel terrifying to people who thought they were on solid ground, riding as they were at the combined speeds of so much privilege.

The fact is, though, that the river’s already flooded its banks. There are too many oppressed people, and allies who prefer to be in the water, to float along in ignorance anymore. Women have been in games for a long time, and all the yelling and threats in the world can’t make that river flow upstream.

Toward the end of the training, Ricardo announced that he would be distributing cards. I could see the little deck in his hand, but I had no idea what he meant to do with them. A surprising, somewhat unnatural ripple of excitement spread through the crowd, though; I wondered if they knew more about the cards than I did. When I got mine, it had a piece of art on one side, with a slogan from the disability rights movement: “Nothing about us, without us, is for us.” On the other side were some check-in questions to help us stay grounded when we feel compelled to act in a racially charged situation: “Why do I feel an urge to act/not act?” and “Who will benefit from my action/inaction?”

The ripple quieted down as people examined their cards, and I wondered if the people who’d been a-flutter with excitement were disappointed by the card they got. I wondered if the one they’d wanted would’ve just said, “I’m one of the good ones.” That’s what white people doing racial equity work really want, after all—a card that credentials them as not racist, as a proven ally. The problem is, it doesn’t work like that at all. “Ally” isn’t a title you earn; it’s a status you have to prove over and over again, mainly by just continuing to show up for what matters to communities of color. And nobody’s going to give you a cookie for doing the right thing, just like nobody’s going to give you a free pass when you mess up (and you WILL mess up, over and over).

I know a lot of guys in the world of games who probably wish they had that a “One of the Good Ones” card too. If I had them to give out, I can think of dozens of people who deserve them for living and working and playing by the guiding principles of inclusion and equity.

But that’s not how it works. Nobody gets a free pass; nobody gets a laminated card that’s good forever after. We climb off the raft, and we join hands with the people in the water and weather the current for as long as we can. At the same time, we accidentally get back on, and sometimes even block others from climbing aboard with us.

Maybe the card we really need is the one that says, “Time to get in the water again.”

Aug 27, 2014 - Game Theory    2 Comments

Any Way She Wants

Social media is afire after the latest Anita Sarkeesian video resulted in renewed rape/death threats against her. Sarkeesian makes the seemingly uncontroversial statement that women’s bodies are abused and killed for little or no reason in video games. As a result, some men are so enraged that they’re driven to hurl sexist, violent abuse at the very idea of women who come within fifty feet of a game.

The problem with that is that I am a woman gamer. So are many of my women friends. Many of them run games for their friends, and a growing number are designing their very own games. I am wildly proud to be included in all this. Many of those friends have written wisely about the unfettered misogyny and racism that plagues the electronic and tabletop game industries at the same moment when we see more women and people of color entering the hobby than ever before.

So I don’t have much to add to their insightful commentary. But I do want to say this to my fellow women in games:

Play whatever games you want.

Yes, of course that means the button-mashing robot invasion game, or the minmaxed mecha pilot, or the Napoleonic cavalry officer trying to win Waterloo. War games and LARPs and Minecraft and Burning Wheel–all of it belongs to you as much as anyone else in the world, and don’t let a soul tell you otherwise.

But you can also play the magical space princess romance game. You can play a game where the only measurable objective is to get the boy (or the girl). You can play a game that’s all about middle school gossip. You can play a game with no boys allowed.

You can play games with fluid, barely there rules, and super-crunchy tables of staggering detail.

You can play games of scientific discovery, and life in the military, and the pursuit of katana mastery, and young love.

You can play games of death-defying feats and fearless daring, where you do everything you can’t ever imagine doing in the real world.

You can play games with sex: grand, towering, chandelier-swinging heights of passion that include superhuman flexibility and magical potions of endurance.

You can play games where you get to hunt down and beat the shit out of your rapist.

You can play games that capture a perfect, impossible childhood with nothing scary at all.

Because games contain everything we are–right now, fragile, flawed, unfinished–and everything we could possibly be–brave, magnificent, powerful, unstoppable. So nothing is beyond the scope of games. If you use a game to tell your story, there’s a very good chance that it’s a story others want to play too.

Because these games exist in the dimensions of ourselves and our world, the dark things do creep in: racism, sexism, ableism, bullying, abuse. Some of that is unintentional, but we’re coming to grips with the reality that others don’t always see these things as a problem. Some even see it as a solution, a boundary fence to protect an imagined definition of games that’s confined only to their tiny vision.

Games are bigger than these people. Protecting our games from criticism smothers them until all the fire goes out. Improving games improves us all, and the world we play them in.

And nobody gets to say your game is less worthy because of what you want to play. You are participating in one of the oldest common human experiences in the world. Play it all, women. Play all the games, then make your own.

Aug 20, 2014 - Social Studies    1 Comment

Why We Fight

Gen Con is always hard work and outstanding fun. When I first started going over 20 years ago, my days were filled with back-to-back games. But over time, long hours with friends from all over the country overtook games. These days, work for Atlas Games and speaking engagements mean no games at all, and lots of friends mean bigger parties and shorter visits. All the same, I’ve got to say: it’s still a week with some of my favorite people, all in one place, and the love is bigger than our host city.

The mental dissonance was strong, though, for many of us. While we reunited with old friends and played new games, many of us were distracted and upset by news from Ferguson, Missouri. Conversations frequently went something like: “Hey, it’s great to see you! How have you been? Man, it’s messed up, what’s happening in Ferguson.” We felt outraged and helpless, and often uncomfortable at having to keep doing what we were at Gen Con to do.

There are other things I’ll probably write about as I process this year’s experience, but two things really stand out as unusual and fantastic (and they’re actually the same kind of thing). Two friends got engaged to smart, beautiful, graceful women in public proposals at Gen Con this year. One was a cool scene in the convention center’s hallway performing area; the other, a large, orchestrated affair at the ENnie Awards ceremony. Both women accepted enthusiastically, and in both cases, the onlooking crowd went wild. Here, don’t take my word for it: watch and (if you’re like me) cry-clap.

But almost immediately on Twitter, people began accusing the couple who got engaged at the ENnies of insensitivity, because they were happy while horrific events were happening in Ferguson. How dare they choose that moment to celebrate? How could they be so selfish as to think of their future, when the future of Mike Brown had been cut so terribly, unfairly short?

Here’s the answer, though: You celebrate when you can precisely because life is uncertain and short.

People in war zones know this. Love and babies and anniversaries all happen in places of oppression and violence. People go home from protests and watch dumb movies. People have sex in between airstrikes. Life keeps going on.

The people fighting for justice and racial equity in Ferguson probably know this better than those of us who haven’t had to fight systemic racism every day of their lives. We got the phrase “jumping the broom” because, even during slavery when families were torn apart everyday, African-Americans still fell in love and got married, defying the laws that said those marriages were illegal. To this day, some black couples choose to honor this tradition and jump a broom to seal their wedding vows.

Terrible, terrible things are happening in Ferguson, and Gaza, and Ukraine, and Syria, and Iraq, and other places too. If it would be even remotely helpful for me to go there and support the protesters fighting for immediate and lasting justice in their community, I’d be on the next Greyhound bus. I’ll keep turning out for those goals in my own community—no justice, no peace.

But everyday things are happening in those places, too, because the thing they’re fighting for is the right to live an ordinary life, unencumbered by oppression and strife. A lot of people are fighting that battle in other ways, every single day.

What the people who criticized my friends may not have known is that we almost lost one of them to suicide this year. As soon as I finished hugging and crying on him after the proposal, my first question was, “What’s today’s number?” He answered, “192,” and I replied, “Well, that’s your magic number now, isn’t it.” 192 is how many days it had been since he’d almost died. How many days he’d survived and kept fighting depression, in the hope of living himself into all the things that make life worthwhile.

His marriage proposal wasn’t in ignorance of the tragedy and brutality happening in Ferguson. It was in direct defiance of the despair and violence that almost cost him his own life. There’s not a thing wrong with celebrating the kind of progress that looks in every way like resurrection and restoration. We fight for hope, in many ways, everyday—on the streets of occupied American cities, and in the dark corners of our own minds. No, they’re not the same, but the goal is: to find love and meaning in peace.

Sep 20, 2013 - Uncategorized    1 Comment

What I Can Do For You

I didn’t set out to be a Woman of Mystery. Really, I didn’t–I’ve always thought the whole thing with secret identities was super-hokey.

But it appears that some folks don’t actually know what all I can do. That probably has a lot to do with having a number of different jobs, some of them concurrently. So I thought that maybe I’d write a post that just stands as a more chatty sort of CV, for future reference. I know I’ll be back in here to fiddle with the things I’ve left out, but this is basically me.


I have 15 years’ teaching experience. Most of that is at the university level, but I substitute taught for middle and high schools for 3 years, where I was a special favorite of the foreign language teachers. I also have experience teaching short-term history and foreign language courses for homeschool collectives where kids to get instruction on subjects a little more technical or diverse than most parents can provide.

I’ve written whole courses, including websites and primary source collections, for Western Civ, Intro to World Religions, Women in Religion, Early and Medieval Christianity, and Rhetoric and Composition. I lecture, I organize group activities, I lead discussion groups, I write and grade exams, and I give one hell of a test prep session. And I am exactly the person you want to bring along on a trip to a museum or an historical site. (I may not be the person you want to go see a movie about medieval times with, though.)

I can train folks on skills commonly used in (but not exclusively by) community organizing. I’m a good consultant on issues of diversity, especially women’s and LGBT issues and neurodiversity, because I can effectively articulate the reasons why things do or don’t work.


I offer professional services in copyediting and proofreading, as well as art direction. I edit for content, consistent style and voice, continuity, and flow. I can also check formatting in academic work using MLA or Chicago style. I’m good at highlighting problematic topics and language that might not be accessible or welcoming to every reader. And I’m like the kid from The Sixth Sense when it comes to proofreading: “I see typos. Everywhere.

I have had paid gigs editing and/or proofreading academic papers, roleplaying games, board game instructions, marketing material, self-help books, and SF/F novels. I’m eager to branch out into editing more genres of fiction (I would rule the world at romance novel editing), and I’m looking forward to my first paid job translating a major work from French to English soon.

I adore doing art direction, especially for RPGs, because I get very clear images in my head from the text, and I’m good at describing them for artists to interpret. I include copious photo references (all digital links these days) for people, places, correct period costumes, weaponry, and other relevant details.


I crochet, knit, cross-stitch, sew, and make jewelry, as well as a number of more or less useful one-off crafts. I brew herbal medicines in my kitchen, including “magic stuff” which may be the most useful substance ever invented. I perform tarot card readings (yes, it seems to work equally well over Skype, email, or Twitter). I blog, and I write short- and long-form fiction–I would dearly love to participate in an anthology. I can design meaningful multi-faith (or no-faith) rituals for any occasion, like weddings, memorials, or baby blessings. I’m good at public speaking, and have performed speeches, sermons, and MC duties. I’m designing my first card game; I’m also writing a roleplaying adventure that teaches social skills to kids on the autism spectrum.

Fix the Break

A week or so ago, I had a Brilliant Plan (TM). We’re making arrangements to take the whole family, our two sons included, to Origins this year. I’m beyond excited, but there’s a lot of apprehension there too. It’ll be the boys’ first con, and the first one I’ve been able to attend in several years.

It’ll also be the first con I’ve attended since I’ve known about my autism, and I expect that to be a revelation on a number of different fronts. I’ll be more attentive to the waves of sensory info coming in, and more patient with my preoccupation with the textures and graphic design of the costumes and games I see. I’ll understand why the exhibit hall and the crowded hallways between events take such a toll on my patience and energy. I’ll be more aware of how my autism affects my user experience of new systems and products. And I’ll be more mindful of how the chaos of the con environment uses up my available energy, focus, and physical reserves.

In the past, if I needed a sensory break from the crowds and chaos of large gaming rooms and the overwhelming stimuli of the exhibit hall, I had to schlep all the way back to my hotel room. Once there, the odds of actually returning diminish rapidly. When I finally stop moving so much, the tidal wave of pain and sensation I’ve been holding at bay swamps me, and I realize how much I’m hurting and tired. I can’t even think of going back to the convention center until I’ve had significant rest after that. It hurts to miss valuable time with friends I don’t see the rest of the year, but it hurts more to keep moving, to keep fighting my environment.

This year, I’m trying to do something about this. I’ve submitted proposals to both Origins and Gen Con–the two conventions I’m planning to attend this year–to establish a Sensory Break Room for people who are physically or mentally challenged by the rigorous environment of the con.

Part of this is wholly selfish. I don’t want to have to leave the convention center when (not if) my son needs a sensory break. I don’t want to have to go all the way back to our hotel room, where I know I’ll have fights over whether and when we go back, and why we don’t just stay and play XBox or something just between ourselves. He’ll be anxious and overwhelmed, literally by the amount of fun and multitude of choices available. And I don’t want to fight about whether we spend time at the place we came to spend time at.

The other part is more generous. If people like my son and I could really benefit from a room near the center of action where we can decompress for a few minutes, thereby gaining a few hours more of “on” time, I know we’re not the only ones who could use it. As people become more aware of neurodiversity, true introversion, and other conditions that make con activities challenging, it seems like the next logical step for adaptive services is to offer a nearby room where folks can go to recharge their batteries. Much as there are now nursing rooms available for moms who take their babies to cons, I think sensory break rooms are the future of necessary accessibility options for con attendees.

But what do I mean by a “sensory break room”? Let me do the negative definition before the positive one. It won’t be a hangout for people who just need a seat. It won’t be a quiet place to play quiet games. It won’t be a craft room for game widow(er)s looking for company. It won’t be a nursing or babysitting room.

The room will be screened off, instead of requiring users to open and close a clanky door. The lights will be kept quite low, probably too low to read properly, but there may be some soft, shifting colored lights to focus on. No music or other noise will be permitted, but a small fan or ionizer will run to provide white noise as an auditory buffer. Nobody will bug anyone else, but neither is it a nap room. If someone falls asleep, the monitor will wake them up after five or ten minutes, and each user will be responsible if they accidentally sleep through an event they’re supposed to attend. I’m hoping that the folks most likely to use it will be generous in bringing some adaptive tools to share–weighted blankets, exercise balls, fidgets, and other comforting objects. 

There won’t be a cost to use this space–I would no sooner charge for access to a wheelchair ramp than I would for access to this room–and its primary function will be as a room to decompress. Even just 15 minutes for most people gets them back another 2 to 3 hours of time to participate in con activities. The importance of this downtime cannot be overstated for making it a successful event for a significant number of people.

I’ve had a very good response from folks on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+, and I’m hoping that enough positive pressure on the Origins and Gen Con organizers can help us achieve a pilot test for this resource. I’m trying to figure out whether it’s possible to get enough con-goers to volunteer for a shift monitoring the room while it’s open (probably 10am-6pm Thursday thru Saturday), or whether I should see if I can get the local Autism Societies to get a few folks who would be willing to work a two-hour shift each day in exchange for a four-day badge. Either way, I’m also trying to pull together some of the best game designers/GMs in the industry to run “reward games” for the folks who put in the time to make this resource work well.

Think about that look–you know the one–when you see someone about ready to meltdown in the middle of the dealer hall, or at a game table in a deafening room of other game tables. No, grownups don’t throw temper tantrums the way kids do, but you can see the tightening in their shoulders, their jaws. Their eyes get wide, flash around to scan the room for exits and clocks to tell when they get to escape. They get snippy, impatient, or they shut down entirely: “My character just goes along with everybody else.”

There’s a way to avoid that happening quite so often. A room to decompress in, to take that break from the light and noise and sights and crowds, can stave off those sudden attacks. There are still kinks and details in the plan to work out, but I hope it sounds like a good idea to enough people that we can start to leverage some positive pressure on the con organizers. Whether or not you’re going, please communicate to Origins and Gen Con organizers that you think that this resource is valuable and worth accommodating in the outskirts of the main convention area.

Sometimes you have to break to get put back together. This year, we can provide a safe space for our fellow gamers to do that.

Show and Mattel

I know the Internet is designed to inspire fury. That hasn’t been the majority of my experience with it, but lately, it seems determined to correct my underestimation of its rage-inducing qualities.

So before I proceed with this post, please go read this article about why Mattel thinks moms don’t “get” toy cars. Go ahead–I’ll wait for you.

Thanks for taking the time to do that. You may or may not be seething with anger right now. If you’re not, that’s okay, but I’m going to explain why I (and several other mothers I know) are. Let me put on my sherpa hat.

PROBLEM #1: THERE’S A VP AT MATTEL FOR “BOYS’ TOYS AND GAMES.” I’m the mother of two boys, and I’ll be the first to say that they play with different toys, in different ways, than many girls would. Griffin was about nine months old when he distinctly said “Vroom” to a squishy car toy which none of us had yet bothered to introduce to him by name or sound.

But I’ve been told I “play wrong” for a girl since I was two years old. Imagine that: TWO YEARS OLD. That’s the year I saw Star Wars on a drive-in movie screen and was hooked for life. All my friends in preschool were boys, because they would play what I wanted to. In sixth grade, my teacher introduced me to games of war and strategy, and I was hooked once again. I went on to be the only girl among 23 boys in the Strategy and Tactics Club in high school, and I was very happy there. I never felt left out or isolated because I was doing what came naturally to me.

Even as an adult, I’ve mainly played games with men, but the many women gamers I’ve played with over the years were as viciously cutthroat as they needed to be to succeed. If anything, we were more terrifying because we collaborated to do awful things, and we needed to set down our needlework or knitting to wipe out whole parties of monsters or even the roof of a building once. “Knit one, purl one…natural 20…I kill it. A lot.”

There’s no such thing as “boys’ toys” and “girls’ toys.” There are just boys and girls who play with toys. Whichever ones they pick, they’re doing it right. It’s okay to appeal to some of the differences between the genders, but the pink-and-blue-washing needs to stop NOW. If you want to see how a company can tailor toys for greater appeal and accessibility to one gender or another, consider the upcoming “girls’ line” of Nerf toys, which feature ergonomic adjustments to make them easier to use, as well as styles that correspond to popular culture models like Katniss and Merida. Disney should follow their advice with the Marvel line–I know a whole lot of girls and women who will happily fork over for some good Marvel toys, games, and apparel.

PROBLEM #2: HE FELT THE NEED TO EXPLAIN TO A ROOM FULL OF MOTHERS WHY THEY WERE DOING THEIR JOB WRONG. There are many ways mothers do do their jobs wrong, and society isn’t shy about telling us so. We know we’re not perfect, but unless you’re the sort of mom who’s likely to end up in court, you’re trying very hard to do your best. The days of the pretty moms who won’t lie down on the floor in their crinolines and frilly aprons to play with kids of both genders are past. I play with my boys, and I play hard. I certainly don’t need a toy executive to tell me how to make my kids happy or have a good time.

Moms are bad enough on themselves and each other. Tiger Moms, Princess Moms, Geek Moms, Stay-At-Home Moms, Working Moms…we’re all being told we’re doing it wrong, that our kids will end up in therapy for sure if we don’t buy them the right things and hover over them like paranoid black helicopters every second of the day. Petersen’s voice shouldn’t be in this discussion at all, let alone lecturing a room full of “mommy bloggers,” whatever the hell that sexist, reductive label means.

PROBLEM #3: HE THINKS THERE’S ONLY ONE WAY TO PLAY WITH TOY CARS. This one particularly burns my ass, because I know from experience that he’s wrong. When I was a kid, I played with toy cars by lining them up in perfectly symmetrical, parallel rows, sorted by shape, size, and color. Then my sister would walk through the lines like Godzilla, kicking them to kingdom come. And then I would line them up again in different patterns. I picked my favorites by the way they felt in my palm, my closed fist.

I realize that much of this comes from my autism. But I know I’m not the only one who didn’t play smash ‘n crash all the time. In fact, most of the boys I knew didn’t play with their favorite cars at all–they set them on a high shelf where they’d be safe and beautiful. Petersen’s model of play is a marketer’s one, not a player’s one. If you smash your cars all the time, your parents have to buy you new ones all the time. Planned obsolescence is not a game.

PROBLEM #4: HE DOESN’T UNDERSTAND WHY KIDS WOULD RATHER PLAY WITH OTHER TOYS. Finally, Petersen doesn’t understand why toy cars are less relevant today. The problem lies in a few areas. If a kid wants to pretend with cars these days, why would you want to drive a four-inch replica across the berber carpet when you can boot up the XBox or Playstation or 3DS and actually feel like you’re driving a real car? Why play with a pre-made car when you can build your own models?

Cars have the same problem I see occasionally with “action playsets”: they’re single-use toys. There are only so many ways you can play with a toy car, or with the Spiderman 3 Sandstorm Action Playset. You basically get to recreate one storyline, and then you’re done. The reason action figures and dolls are more popular is because you can tell infinite stories with them. An imaginative kid (i.e., all of them) doesn’t even need every action figure, because one character can be many characters. LEGO offers another solution to this problem by offering single-use builds with infinite rebuilding potential. Who wouldn’t rather play any story you can think of, rather than “They drive somewhere. Along the way, they crash into something”? According to child development expert Penny Holland, single-purpose toys are far more damaging to our kids’ minds than toy guns. Think about that for a second.

The graph in the Bloomberg article suggests an even more interesting quandary to consider: There’s a gender gap in board games too. According to their statistics, 46 percent of girls between ages 6 and 12 list board games as their favorite toy, as opposed to only 33 percent of boys. I’d be interested to know which games girls are playing, because we’re past the days of the Barbie Dreamdate Board Game (which I played, I’ll have you know, and ended up marrying Poindexter in real life). 

Board games aren’t even strongly marketed, as far as I can tell, for one gender or another. RPGs (tabletop, video, and online) are, though, and I’d be interested to see a more nuanced breakdown of a wider variety of games. I’d also like to know whether the gender gap among young girls and boys who play board games correlates to the education gap–there may be room for board games to help boys catch up on certain academic and social skills that they aren’t getting enough support for in schools that have to teach to the test.

All this fury has direction. We don’t have to settle for executives trying to sell our kids crappy toys. We know what our kids like, and we should put our money where their preferences are. Play has the capacity to teach and to heal, as well as to entertain. As parents, we shouldn’t settle for anything less.

Family Game Night: Friday Night Lists

I haven’t done a Friday Night List in a while, mostly because when it’s summer break, Friday night’s no different than any other night. But now that we’re wrapping up the first week back to school, it’s a blessed relief for all of us to flick off the alarm for tomorrow morning, so I thought I’d celebrate.

NEWS ALERT: We are a family of gamers. Shocking, I know. But even more than it being both work and passion for the Darling Husband and me, gaming has become instrumental in our parenting and education styles. They’re fantastic ways to sneak math and reading into their intellectual diet, and kids’ll often tackle concepts far more complex than grade level eagerly to master new levels of success in the game.

And, possibly more importantly, they’re perfect rehearsal spaces for a variety of social skills that all kids need work on, not just kids on the autism spectrum. Games teach turn-taking, graceful winning/losing, flexibility at unpredictable change, calculated risk-taking, cooperation, and enjoyment of others’ enjoyment. Honestly, how many adults do you know who have all those mastered?!

So, here’s a list of what we most frequently play at home these days. It’s very, very far from complete, and there are a number of embarrassing omissions, most notably Marvel Heroic Roleplaying (the DH’s current sandbox) and Once Upon A Time (one of my company’s best kid-friendly games, gorgeous 3rd Edition due in October ). But good games rotate through our regular play schedule, and we’ve got a few great new ones on deck to try out too. Here’s what’s in demand at the moment:

1) GLOOM (Atlas Games): This one is evergreen for my kids. In Gloom by Keith Baker (art by Todd Remick), you’re in charge of a truly despicable family, and it’s your job to make them as miserable as possible before bumping them off in a horrible way. Meanwhile, you want to shower blessings and joy on your fellow players to prevent them from meeting the same fate. Up is down, and down is up, and kids positively cackle with delight when I moan and thrash and castigate them for something so repellent as a picnic in a park. Educational Skills: Positive and negative integers, and awesome new vocab like “consumption,” “dysentery,” and “chastised.” Social Skills: Turn-taking, cooperation/collaboration, winning/losing, strategy.

2) GET BIT (Mayday Games): A new favorite by developer Dave Chalker, the mechanics are very simple and attractive: You are one of a line of swimmers being chased by a shark. You have cards 1-7 which you play to determine each round’s race. The one left at the end of the line gets bit. The swimmer pieces have detachable body parts that give a satisfying LEGO-like snap when they come off, though the little pieces require kids to pay special attention during clean-up. Educational Skills: Probability, anatomy (?) Social Skills: Turn-taking, winning/losing, strategy.

3) WILDCRAFT! (LearningHerbs.com): I was attracted to this game by Kimberly and John Gallagher because it teaches kids to recognize common medicinal plants in nature and their uses, and I’m all about nature awareness for my kids. But the game mechanic is purely cooperative, and fosters truly collaborative game play toward the goal of getting everybody to and from the mulberry patch in the middle of forest in the time between sunup and sundown. Players draw Danger Cards for ailments like bee stings, fatigue, blisters, and sunburn, as well as plant cards; a system of symbols and detailed botanical drawings make the game playable even for pre-literate kids. And they collect Cooperation Cards that they can use to bring the last player up with them to get through the forest faster. Educational Skills: Plant recognition, herbal medicine. Social Skills: Turn-taking, cooperation/collaboration, strategy.

4) CASTLE PANIC (Fireside Games): In this game by Justin De Witt, players defend a castle in the center of a board shaped like a bullseye, which is accurate, because you’re under heavy siege by monsters of all kinds lurking in the forest around your keep. As the monsters advance on all sides, players cooperate to defend their walls. It’s largely hopeless, but it’s excellent fun to toss resource chips and skilled warriors back and forth and see how long you can hold out this time. Educational Skills: Um, trolls? Castle building? Social Skills: Cooperation/collaboration, strategy, graceful losing (not much winning).

5) LIGRETTO DICE (Playroom Entertainment): Otherwise known as “The Noisy Game” in our house, each player gets a cup full of six-sided dice of four different colors in this game by Inka and Markus Brand. You shake and dump them out, then race to put your dice on the board in ascending order in each color column. It’s a little bit Yahtzee, a little bit speed game. Adults might have to throw a few games ’til the kids get up to full speed, but once they climb the learning curve, it’s game on. Educational Skills: Numbers, colors, pattern recognition. Social Skills: Fast decision making, calculated risk-taking, winning/losing, strategy.

6) BLINK (Out of the Box Games): Another speed game (designed by Reinhard Staupe and artists John Kovalic, Ariel Laden, & Jurgen Martens)  in which players work through a deck of cards by add to two central piles by matching the number, color, or shape of symbols on the cards. Like the previous, adults may have to handicap themselves a bit at first with younger kids, but it’s great for preschoolers and remains challenging long after they’re literate. It’s also a good, portable game to keep handy for unexpected, open-ended waits (along with LCR). Educational Skills: Colors, numbers, pattern recognition. Social Skills: Fast decision making, winning/losing.

7) MUNCHKIN (Steve Jackson Games): There are so many variants that took off from the original dungeon-raider theme, designed by Steve Jackson and illustrated by John Kovalic; our copies are Super Munchkin and Munchkin Axe Cop. You build a hero, outfit him with gadgets and armor befitting the theme, and go up against villains to win loot. Early in the game, you need more points than you probably have in your hero alone, so players need to negotiate with players to fight off high-value villains, but as players start getting their heroes close to their game-winning 10th Level, those team-ups start turning toward piling more villains on the frontrunner, forcing him to run away or lose valuable assets in battle. Educational Skills: Addition, greater than/less than comparison, reading. Social Skills: Turn-taking, strategy, cooperation/collaboration, calculated risk-taking, negotiation, winning/losing.


Aug 14, 2012 - Game Theory    6 Comments

The Amazing Gen Con 2012 ProfBanks Scavenger Hunt!

As I mentioned in my last post, my plans to attend Gen Con this year have derailed, but I’m determined to see the sights all the same. Like any discerning nerd, I don’t want to see everything, but I want to see everything I want to see.

But the Darling Husband will be on the clock 24/7, so he can’t be my virtual tour guide. Besides, while he is a Paragon of Manhood and an Amazing Font of Miraculous Amazingness, he can still only be in one place at one time, at least until our children perfect that technology for next year’s science fair.

But YOU, darling Gen Con attendees, you can be everywhere.

So I’m asking you to be my eyes in Indy, and I’m willing to reward you well. I have swag and I have skills, and I’m not afraid to dish them out to the people who take my favorite pictures in each of the following categories. But I’m a cruel and whimsical benefactress, so the only way to make sure you win something awesome is to take lots of pictures. I’m trying to work out a way to post them all on Tumblr, so everyone else can enjoy them too, but for now, the only solution I have is posting them on Twitter with the hashtag #ProfBanksScavengerHunt. If you’re a friend on Facebook, you can also give me links there.

Want to appeal to my greedy, materialistic self? If you find something extra-nifty that I simply cannot live without, you have two choices. If it’s free, you could grab one for me and give it to my DH. If it’s not free, you can tell him where you found it and how much it is. (He’ll be at the Margaret Weis Productions booth #1519 in the Dealers’ Hall for most of the con.)

So here’s the list. Be sure to respect the people whose faces, costumes, and products you intend to photograph, first and foremost by asking permission. Ask nicely, too, just like I would. And say thank you.

1) Cool Doctor Who people and stuff. People in clever costumes, uncanny look-alikes, nifty tie-in products, RC Daleks, or even just a particularly creepy stone statue in the downtown that might be a Weeping Angel in disguise. All Doctors, companions, and feature characters are fine by me.

2) Kids in costumes. Let me stress this: get permission from the parent or guardian.

3) Men in kilts. I’m going to assume this is self-explanatory. No, I don’t want to see what’s underneath. Unless it’s Spanx–then DEFINITELY take a picture.

4) You with one of my favorite games: 221B Baker Street, Circvs Maximvs,  Run Out The Guns!, FVLMINATA, Nobilis, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, Spirit of the Century. The first two are out of print, and relatively hard to find, so especially with those, if you find a copy somewhere, please tell my Darling Husband about it.

5) Anything with Alexander Skarsgård on it. He’s best known as Eric Northman on HBO’s True Blood, but I’m happy to see him anywhere, in any role, or au naturel.

6) People in costume outside the convention center. I love the absurd, so the more incongruous the costume and the place and/or activity, the better.

7) Your favorite piece of swag this year. Free or cheap, it’s got to be exclusive it is to Gen Con 2012.

8) Obscure literary/math/science jokes. I like them in art, on t-shirts, anywhere you find them. Extra points if they’re entirely unintentional.

9) Games happening in unusual places. I define “unusual” as NOT in the convention center or hotel rooms and lobbies.

10) Same-sex kisses in front of the mall food court Chick-Fil-A. Extra points if I know one or more of the people involved in the kiss. ABSOLUTELY ZERO POINTS if anyone catches you being an asshole to a Chick-Fil-A employee or customer while you’re at it.

11) Random acts of kindness. See someone holding a door, or giving up a seat, or boosting up a kid or kender for a better look? Snap a picture. If you miss it, stop the person, thank them for what they did, and ask them to dramatically recreate it for immortality.

12) Typos, bad apostrophes, and other grammatical catastrophes on signage. It doesn’t have to be official Gen Con signage, or even Gen Con signage.

Remember, there are prizes on the line, and I’m inclined to be as inventive and extravagant as my participants, so please join in if this sounds fun. I really appreciate your service as my remote operatives. I can’t wait to see you there next year.


–Points OFF for food pictures

–Points OFF for negative geek or gender stereotypes


Welcome Home

One summer day when I was about 10 years old, my grandma was driving us down to catch an old movie in the blessedly cool interior of the old Oriental Theater. We came to stop at an intersection, not far from the MECCA Arena.

And a man in full plate mail and medieval tabard walked over the crosswalk, right in front of our car.

I was in the front seat (it was the ’80s–seat belts, wha?), and my jaw dropped to my lap, where it remained for the rest of the car ride. When I finally achieved intelligible thought, my one focus was: “Wherever he was going, I have got to get there too.”

When I was 16, I finally got there: Gen Con. I’d been playing AD&D in our church library on Sunday afternoons for a few years, and tabletop strategic wargames for a few more years than that. So when some of the guys said, “Let’s go to the big game convention in Milwaukee,” I was all in. Of course, I didn’t know that’s where the guys in plate mail were from, but I found out fast enough.

I was too uncertain to assert myself at the big tables, full of miniature mecha-robots and World War I dogfighting planes, surrounded by very intense, slightly malodorous young men. And I wasn’t ready to ask questions, to invite myself into the pick-up roleplaying groups scattered throughout the convention center and the labyrinthine guts of the arena building. I was a young woman, and there weren’t many of us there.

Instead, I just took it all in. Dice, in numbers and colors and polyhedrons and sizes I’d never dreamt existed. Men, like carnival hucksters, hawking their models or settings or must-have game accessories. T-shirts with slogans and jokes I mostly didn’t get (though I loved the Douglas Adams references; I’d never seen those in America before). And enthusiasm–so much enthusiasm, everywhere.

I came again the next year, and the whole world had changed. TSR was under siege, in their four-story castle in the center of the dealer’s hall, but there were sappers among us in the crowds, skulking around in clown white and satin capes. Vampire: The Masquerade had arrived, and with it, a small but palpable influx of female gamers, drawn to a game that made strengths of drama and emotion and relationships.

I didn’t get to all the Gen Cons during my college years, but I kept my foot in the pool. I looked at the new games, lurked and watched, occasionally sat down when invited. One year, I waited all night in the lobby of the Hyatt for someone from a scheduled AmberMUSH get-together to recognize me. Only after about three hours of waiting did it occur to me that nobody knew what anyone else looked like in real life.

I’d been married for about three years before I went again. It was a homecoming, but it was also the Darling Husband’s first trip. He’d read about Gen Con in magazines and rulebooks, half a world away, never dreaming he’d not only ever have the chance to go, but to go for the purpose of meeting his heroes. He’d earned a place on the (volunteer, but still nerd-prestigious) Whitestone Council, the organizers and fact-checkers-par-excellence of the online Dragonlance Nexus, and as a result, was invited to meet Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, authors of the groundbreaking Dragonlance novels. He was gobsmacked at every turn, and I basked in his excitement and some better-planned meetups with Amber friends.

Gen Con became an every-year thing for a while there. I mourned through the last one in Milwaukee, but did so with good friends, good (Persian) food, and hours-long sessions of a pirate RPG that cleared a good section of the under-arena area and left me hoarse for days afterward.

That was also Connor’s first trip to Gen Con, when he was six weeks old. I didn’t see another mother with an infant in arms the whole time, and I had to crouch in stairwells and on bathroom floors to nurse him. I asked Warwick Davis (Willow, Professor Flitwick, etc.) to hold him for a picture. Surprised and nervous, he acceded. (I cannot find the digital file of this picture, which is driving me crazy, and my scanner won’t work. Trust me, it’s adorable.)

Next year, I watched the con breathe and unfurl its wings in Indianapolis, expanding into the vast new spaces with a sigh of both sorrow and relief. And it grew and grew, every year–every year, more of a reunion and a blessed, brief respite from the Mommyverse. At Gen Con, I was just Jess again, not Mommy. I needed that.

But Griffin came to his first Gen Con when he was three months old, and though I still needed to find secluded corners to breastfeed, at least I no longer felt like I was the weird woman with one tit at time on display for interested passers-by. Sure, there were still jerks who thought families didn’t belong at the convention. One of them said, behind me in the crowded dealer hall, “I can’t BELIEVE someone would bring a FREAKING STROLLER in here. This isn’t the place for that. How selfish.”

To which I turned around and replied, “At least I can park the extra forty pounds I’m pushing around in here and walk away from it.”

I hear there are nursing rooms, changing stations, and child care providers now. It makes me so happy. It says to me, “Gen Con belongs to all of us, and I don’t have to grow up and give it away if I don’t want to. I’ll keep coming, I’ll keep gaming, and I’ll raise my family here.” The Gen Con community is aging, yes, but it’s maturing and diversifying too.

I hoped this would be the year I brought my boys back to Gen Con and let them get dizzy and overwhelmed and excited and exhausted by the people, the choices, the magic. But it didn’t happen. I haven’t gone for four years, and I miss the friends (family, really) I’ve made like I would miss a limb. But I know that, when the stars are right, I’ll come back, and I’ll tell my boys, “Here’s where you belong. You’ve belonged here since before you can remember.”

And Gen Con will be waiting for us with open arms.

Role of a Lifetime: Reverb Broads Summer #3

Reverb Broads Summer, Prompt #3: Who are your role models? (by Dana at Simply Walking on this Earth)

As I got thinking on this question, I realized that my list of role models was, in fact, very short. This is not to say that I’m not surrounded by a beloved community of inspirational people. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of people whom I admire more than words can express, from Nobel laureates, to fellow parents, to brilliant academics, to powerful advocates for a more just and loving world.

But I make the distinction between those whom I admire, and those from whom I’ve consciously modeled some part of myself. I’m not much of a follower, even for people I admire–it must be the mile-wide anti-authoritarian streak in me. I’m a weird, idiosyncratic independent, and while I synthesize lessons from everything I see and learn around me, I almost never seek to fit myself into anyone else’s pattern.

The only case I can think of where this is not the case is in my teaching. I’ve been inordinately blessed by an abundance of phenomenal, life-changing teachers throughout my academic career, and their styles of imparting knowledge and wisdom (not the same thing) were hugely influential in the formation of my own teaching style.

When I moved to Whitewater, just before fifth grade, I’d only had one teacher who had rocked my world: Mrs. Smigelski, the Gifted and Talented coordinator at my suburban Milwaukee elementary school. She introduced me to ideas like brainstorming other uses for completely mundane objects, like a row of cardboard egg carton bumps (what, they’ve got a better name?) or the empty bubbles cough drops fit in. Sure, it sounds hokey, but it was a break from the soul-crushing boredom of constant work on academics I’d mastered before I’d ever darkened the school’s doorway.

The teachers I encountered when I started in Whitewater exploded every idea I’d ever had about how school was supposed to be. Both my fifth and sixth grade teachers were men–a novelty in my world so far. They used games to teach, lots of games, from weeks-long roleplaying games about early American settlement and Western expansion, to intensely strategic board games about Roman chariot races, solving mysteries in Victorian London, and World War I aerial dogfights. With these tools, they got a level of attention and work out of 10- and 11-year-olds that, faced with my own son of that age level, I find frankly astonishing. And, among all the games and lessons, they found little ways to introduce us to culture that most kids don’t discover for decades. We thrilled to some of the most terrifying ghost stories I’ve ever come across. We listened to Bill Cosby records and read funny stories by Patrick McManus. We watched episodes of Sherlock Holmes Mysteries, the pitch-perfect Jeremy Brett ones.

From these teachers, I learned that games and humor could teach just as (if not more) effectively than rote memorization. I learned that an anecdote that humanizes a concept or a period of history sticks with students far longer than dry recitations of names and dates. And I learned that good games not only teach about their setting, but they teach about being a good person–learn the rules, take your turn, think creatively, work together, win and lose with grace and empathy.

When I got to high school, I encountered teachers who further shaped my idea of how the mentor/student relationship could be. Much of this was due to the extra work they put in, far above and beyond the school day bounded by bells. Our social studies teacher was also our yearbook editor, locked into the school weekend after weekend on interminable deadlines. Our English teacher was also the drama program director, supervising endless rehearsals and set-construction sessions. Our French teacher helped us organize the annual Mardi Gras dance, and bravely ventured across France with about two dozen high schoolers. Our Band director was also the one who pushed us around the field to learn marching band drill, and coordinated our enthusiastic efforts for pep band during basketball season. And our Choir conductor (also my church choir conductor) baked us treats and prepped us for contests and musicals.

And for all their time and effort, they got shenanigans. We called them by first names and nicknames. We pulled pranks all the time. We signed such luminaries as Han Solo, Mickey Mouse, and Elvis Presley out of study hall into the yearbook office. We talked Madame into letting us play petonque in the classroom, and go Christmas caroling in April to the Spanish class next door. We sang Monty Python’s Lumberjack Song in the football stands while waiting for the marching band halftime show, hoping to earn that quelling look from our usually unflappable band director. We put Cheez Doodles and Dr. Pepper into the yearbook index (Doodles, Cheez and Pepper, Dr., respectively).

The shenanigans weren’t the point, though, and the teachers saw clearly that our hijinks were a sign that we loved them and trusted them to know that we didn’t lavish our twisted affections on just anyone. And I learned that you don’t have to sacrifice authority or respect when you reach out and befriend your students. If kids love you, they’ll do extraordinary things, without the teacher even needing to ask. And if they trust you, you can go places–talk about awkward subjects, teach sensitive lessons, confront harsh realities–that a safer relationship couldn’t support.

So I’ll be my own kind of parent, and friend, and activist, and writer–I’m never going to be quite like anyone else, and I’m good with that. But as a teacher? I want to be just like my role models.