I’ll be straight up: I’m not much of a gamer. Up until very recently, we did not have a console in our home and it was something I did not miss. But it wasn’t always this way.
I grew up when video games weren’t much of a thing. I have a foggy memory of a friend getting an Atari in the late 70s (yeah, I’m that old), but video games in the home weren’t common. I grew up playing most video games in a smoke-filled arcade, digging quarters out of my dad’s back pocket while he chased the high score in 1942 bomber. My sister and I would always go through our allotment of quarters in the first 10–15 minutes, but since dad was good at his favourite game, he’d still be playing his first or second quarter when we ran out. The arcade owner was a friendly guy who’d give us free licorice when we got bored of waiting for dad to finally finish. Those Saturday mornings were good memories.
Finally, around the mid-80’s, the NES became the hot item and my friends and I would pool our allowance and paper route money to rent a console and try to beat Super Mario Bros in a weekend. A little later, it was the Sega Genesis and NHL hockey. I spent a lot of time leading the Canucks to the Stanley Cup in full season mode.
As a young adult, I stopped gaming for a number of years. It seemed I always had more interesting things to do and I was bored of NHL hockey. That was until the first Playstation came out. I’d consider that the pinnacle of my gaming experience. I spent a lot of hours in my early twenties playing Tomb Raider, Final Fantasy, Gran Turismo, and a lot of Madden football (I switched favourite sports in the early 90s). And my core group of friends would get together for a lot of nights of GoldenEye (still one of the best group games I’ve experienced).
When I was a child…
I share all this because games were a part of my walk with Christ. It was during this period in my early twenties that my first marriage fell apart. And as we had two children, I suddenly felt the need to evaluate where I was in life and what had led me there. And while marriage involves two people, God showed me the part I played in failing my wife and children. Selfishness was the root issue.
And video games were a core part of where I invested my energies. So I quote the apostle Paul in the heading above because I realized that games and movies and the pursuit of entertainment were how I focused on pleasing myself above all other things.
This is not a judgement: I’m not against video games. As with many things, it’s the dose that causes problems, not the substance itself.
But for me, I decided this was a part of my self-focused childhood that needed to be left behind. As God led me to himself, as he slowly transformed my heart to enjoy the taste of heavenly things, I began to leave behind some of things that used to take my time and energy. And games was one I dropped completely.
That was some 20 years ago. But here I am with a new family, including 4 children between 14 and 8 years old. As they go to school and spend time with other children, gaming is a subject that had become much more prevalent over the past 3–4 years.
Parents in 2018 have a lot of choices to make regarding screens and their children. How much is too much? What should they be able to watch, play, consume? How do we track it? Stay involved? These are very common questions.
My wife and I prayerfully consider these questions constantly (for ourselves as well). Slowly, we let gaming into our home a little at a time. We purchased some games for the Mac App Store. Then a couple for the Apple TV. Finally, we picked up a used Wii last summer. The kids enjoyed them all, but as is the way of these things, there was always something better out there. When your console is two generations behind, you’re the odd kid out (although not quite as weird as the kids who don’t have any at all).
Finally, we got a Nintendo Switch this past spring for one son’s birthday. I’m not ready to let my twelve-year-old play Call of Duty. And likely never will be. But I do believe there are some quality games available that can be a shared experience.
For our family, that is playing Nintendo games. We have a lot of fun playing Mario Kart as a family (we’ll have tournaments occasionally). And my boys and I are all greatly enjoying Zelda: Breath of the Wild. We can’t play it together, but we sure enjoy sharing where we’ve explored during screen time.
Look for the positives
As many of us face these hard decisions, I thought I would share what led me to the decision to where we are today.
First, I wanted to join my children in what they’re doing. I’m not the best when it comes to dropping everything and saying yes when my children ask me to play. I’m getting better, but that’s likely because play has morphed into playing basketball more than make-believe. At any rate, if my kids were going to seeking out games, I’d rather be involved and aware of what they’re doing instead of them trying to fulfill that desire at any one of their friend’s house.
And we’ve found just that with Nintendo. If a case can be made that video games can be “good for us”, then I think Nintendo is making those kinds of games. There’s a focus in their games that goes beyond mere violence. Most of us are familiar with the various options of the Mario universe and I can say I don’t feel bad about my kids playing them. Or playing them myself.
But I’d like to take a moment to sing the praises of Breath of the Wild. For some reason, I never tried any of the Zelda games over the years. But the latest version for the Switch is one of the best games I’ve ever played.
The content is clean and friendly for all the ages in our home (yes, you fight monsters — but it feels very cartoonish and non-threatening). The landscapes are lush and graphically stunning. The mechanics of the gameplay just feels good. But what has impressed me the most is that there’s so much to this game: it’s a large world that encourages exploration.
It reminds me a little of the Final Fantasy games of my younger years. Large worlds, goals to accomplish, weapons to find, spells to learn. But Breath of the Wild is much more enjoyable because I’m not just pointing characters around and making text-based decisions. Instead, I climb trees and mountains, swim in the rivers, and fight the bad guys by hand. And that’s not all: you spend your time hunting and foraging, then cooking meals and elixirs. You have to think about supplies and starting fires and having appropriate clothing.
All in all, I believe this game is more wholesome than a lot of options and it has a touch of realism to it. There have been a number of conversations where my wife has had to take a few moments to realize the topic was a video game.
Back to the larger topic, I do have some concerns about games in general.
One is the false sense of accomplishment that games give you. Zelda does this very well. You have your main quests, but also a lengthy list of side quests you can tackle. It’s very goal oriented and each time you sit down to play, there is a sense of satisfaction at completing a portion of the game when you’re finished.
I want my children to understand that this is a false illusion. You have accomplished nothing beyond entertaining yourself. In a culture where entertaining oneself is a primary form of idolatry, I want to be very careful with the example I set and how we communicate about it to our children. Entertainment is serving yourself. Which is fine and good, but in a proportionate amount compared to how we spend our time overall.
The second concern is the sheer amount of time. I was surprised the first couple of times I played Zelda (again, it has been some 15 years since I last experienced this type of game) by how time flew by. I’d say to myself, “I’ll just finish this shrine trial” and then be shocked that 45 minutes has gone by. We’ve only had this game for 5 weeks, but I’ve probably played around 10–15 hours of it so far.
We all have to decide how much is too much. But it is something to be evaluating regularly.
As with everything, we try our best to find balance as parents. Both for ourselves and for our children. For now, we’re really enjoying playing and talking about this game. Tomorrow? We’ll see.
I recently shared a list of personal blogs that I enjoy. But I neglected to add Alan Jacobs to the list. Perhaps it’s because he maintains several blogs, some regularly, others less so.
But his primary personal blog is one I subscribe to, and it’s almost like a digital commonplace book. I first mentioned Alan in this space because of Habits of Mind in an Age of Distraction. Since then, I’ve enjoyed his site and several other longer essays on other sites. The one at the top included, which is a profile of Jacobs by David J. Michael. If you’re not familiar with Jacobs’ work, this is a good place to start.
I appreciate Alan Jacobs for his writing on theological matters, but also because he’s a man of faith willing to take on the subject of technology. Indeed, he embraced the internet from early on, as mentioned in this piece:
Jacobs began thinking more seriously about technology in the late 1990s, when he taught himself to code. At that time the internet was emerging as a vibrant place for intellectual conversation, and he became an early and active participant
But even more so, Jacobs, a veracious writer on many topics, saw changes in himself brought on by changes in technology. And he’s not been afraid to tackle that subject either:
By the end of that decade, Jacobs noticed he was losing his ability to focus on books for extended periods of time. Worried that it might never return, he made strenuous efforts to reclaim his attention and made adjustments to his online habits. He also started to work out ideas around concentration, reading and technology on a new technology blog called Text Patterns. He collected these ideas in Reading in the Age of Distraction, which argued for the value of “whim” in reading and made recommendations for preserving the pleasure of reading amid the noise of the internet.
Another related piece by Alan himself is Tending the Digital Commons: A Small Ethics toward the Future. Cal Newport has referred to this article a few times in recent months and for a good reason. In it, Jacobs outlines a few issues with the current state of the internet and the “walled gardens” of Facebook, Twitter, Google, and the like. And (this is where I finally get around to relating this to last week’s issue) he makes a case for running one’s own website:
For the last few years we’ve been hearing a good many people (most of them computer programmers) say that every child should learn to code. As I write these words, I learn that Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, has echoed that counsel. Learning to code is a nice thing, I suppose, but should be far, far down on our list of priorities for the young. Coding is a problem-solving skill, and few of the problems that beset young people today, or are likely to in the future, can be solved by writing scripts or programs for computers to execute. I suggest a less ambitious enterprise with broader applications, and I’ll begin by listing the primary elements of that enterprise. I think every young person who regularly uses a computer should learn the following…
He goes on to list several skills that all relate to running your own site. Buying a domain name, choosing a good web host, and writing some HTML & CSS. It’s a long piece, but he sums it up well.
I am, in short, endorsing here the goals of the Domain of One’s Own movement.
I haven’t even mentioned the books that he has written, two of which are very high on my to-read list. If you’re looking for a new site to subscribe to, I suggest Alan Jacobs is a worthy addition!
The Value of Owning Your Own Domain
We all have those people we follow online that we admire. The people who get us excited when their site pops up in our RSS feed reader, or when they share a link to their site on Twitter. For me, Craig Mod is at the top of that list.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about people making their own home on the web. Not on places like Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. You can achieve success there, but it never feels to me like I’m getting a fuller picture of the person behind the persona. However, with a personal website, one complete with writing, examples of someone’s work, and a healthy dash of personality, you get a more complete sense of the author’s humanity.
In a podcast I refer to below, Craig had this to say (slightly paraphrashed):
I've looked at all the stuff I've worked on, and the thing that has, if you want to make it really evidence based… the things that I have worked on that have had the most interesting returns … have come from writing.
And that's really it. Writing and then sharing your words with others has value that can be hard to measure in the short term. But if you zoom out and look at the long view, maybe with someone who has been owning their own domain and publishing there for over a decade, you can start to point to the value of running your own site. I've shared my own journey before, but Craig Mod is a person who might exemplify this value in the most obvious
Last week I shared a handful of posts on using pen and paper. This week, I’ve got a handful of links to share that all involve Craig Mod. If you’re not familiar with his work, I think you’ll appreciate his writing style as well as the topics he tends to write about. He spends a lot of time writing long form essays on photography, books, and publishing. But in the past couple of years, he’s shifted a lot towards technology and its effects on how we live.
All topics we care about in this space. I hope you enjoy!
Published a year ago, I finally finished this piece early in 2018. As usual, it’s a piece written well enough that I read it through despite it involving a lot of discussion about cameras and photography. Topics that don’t usually capture my attention. But, it’s Craig Mod.
But the root of the article is a focus on how our tools enable us to create.
Many of us, to varying degrees, fetishize certain objects as having magical powers that enable, most often, creative processes. …This is not to say that the right notebook or camera or sewing machine produces brilliance — of course not. But the right tool in the right hand might be the very thing that whispers to that artist. “Hey, what about this?” A dollop of permission.
Craig talking about cameras is a thing. He does it often enough and it’s clearly a passion. Enough that I’ll read about it, even not being interested in the topic.
Long time readers know of my love for a good email newsletter. Craig’s Roden Explorers is one of the best. The last two issues have both been enjoyable, specifically when he touches on his recent 3 day meditation retreat and his Kumano Kodo walk.
As I finish this up, I’m on a new train, a post-vipassana train, hurtling past Mount Fuji towards Shin-Osaka. Those three vipassana days were hard. Make no mistake — these vipassana course are not “fun.” They’re trying. And the first three days are definitely the worst, the hardest, the most exhausting. So a three days course is kind of like asking for all the bad and very little good. It was a great refresher though, and I’m looking forward to seeing how much I can carry with me onto the Kumano Kodo.
If you enjoy a good newsletter like I do, give this one a try. They’re normally quite infrequent (the last two were close together), perhaps one every 2 months. But they are worth the wait!
In one of the two Roden Explorer emails above, Craig mentioned being a guest on the Longform podcast. I’m glad he did as it was a very enjoyable listen.
I mentioned above that I enjoy Craig’s writing enough that I’ll read his thoughts on topics that usually do not interest me. But I’ve noticed a gradual shift in his content.
His early essays were often focused on photography and books. But of late, he seems to have shifted slightly to focusing on how technology is affecting the way we live. Topics you hear a lot about here, like attention, distraction, and the like.
In this episode, he said a lot of good things. But this jumped out at me:
You pick up an iPad, you pick up an iPhone—what are you picking up? You’re picking up a chemical-driven casino that just plays on your most base desires for vanity and ego and our obsession with watching train wrecks happen.
You’ll hear similar sentiments in his essay How I Got My Attention Back, as well as in his guest appearance on Hurry Slowly. It’s great to have a writer and thinker like Craig giving this subject attention.
Speaking of podcasts that feature Craig as a guest, I wanted to share one more. Back in the day, when I was still running my own business, Shawn Blanc and I started a podcast with a not-so-great name. It was a lot of fun, although it was not a form a media I was any good at.
Listening to Craig on the Longform podcast got me thinking about the episode where Shawn and I interviewed him for Creatiplicy. Surprise, we talked a lot about books, how they were changing with the arrival of the iPad and iPhone, and about focus and attention. That episode aired in September of 2011.
Eight years ago.
I’m still talking about the same things. And I’m still struggling with how to best manage my attention. But it was fun to listen to an old conversation with a good friend and someone I admire. If you can get past my boring monotone, you might enjoy it as well.
Back to my thoughts above about making a home for yourself on the web, I’ve been thinking about my own “home”. It’s been 18 months or so since the last refresh, which is usually when I start to get the itch. There’s always a desires to play with type and create a new aesthetic. But there’s also a desire to clean up.
Running a personal site for 10+ years means there’s always some artifacts that clutter the place up (not necessarily for the visitor, but for the person running the site). Anyway, whenever I get the urge to change things up, I review the other sites that I am currently enjoying. And when a person takes the time to create their own little corner of the Internet, I like to share.
Here’s a few sites I’ve enjoyed visiting over the past year.
Michael A. LaPlante makes the case for writing things down in order for them to be of use to you later. Well, he lists two benefits, the other being to capture your creative ideas. In a sense, this is journaling as many people see it. And I’d certainly recommend it as a valuable use of time for anyone.
I’ve shared a similar habit for myself when it comes to my job. A part of my journaling habit is to write one entry per day that summarizes what I’ve done. That has been very helpful to review why some decisions were made, or to recall what I did on a specific day.
In a related theme, Shaunta Grimes shares how the concept of a commonplace book made using notebooks click for her. It was basically how she has used a notebook for so long, but without her being aware of such a thing. In her case, this usage fits well for paper notebooks.
In her post, she’s very clear on what this is not:
I’m not talking about a journal. I’ve never been great at journaling. This isn’t a reflective thing. Just a notebook for writing down my ideas or other people’s thoughts or what other people have to teach me.
Instead it’s a notebook:
…that I carry around with me and write lists, bits of eavesdropped conversation, notes from a meeting, recipes, reminders, quotes, ideas for projects.
Over time, you get a lot of joy building up this resource you can draw from again and again. If you’d prefer a digital tool for creating this type of resource, may I suggest using Day One? Here’s my setup (a 3 part series).
On the topic of commonplace books, Drew Coffman has been kicking some butt on this topic. He decided to take this idea and make it available to anyone. He recently created Collected Goodness, a site where he shares books, podcasts, movies, and web articles. Oh, and poetry and Scripture as well. That’s impressive on its own.
But he also takes the time to share choice excerpts from each, as well as his own thoughts. Just writing extensive notes like this is impressive, let alone setting up something where he can share it with the world.
Last, Darius Foroux shares how journaling can make you a better person. There’s no shortage of articles on this subject. But he makes the case that we’re bad at this habit because no one ever shows us how to do it. He then proceeds to share some tips on how to become a successful journal keeper.
First, get clear on your why. For me, there’s only one reason to keep a journal: To manage myself.
Again, there’s no shortage of this type of article in 2018. What I liked about this one is the brevity, the solid advice in 3 short tips, and the absence of nonsensical blathering.
If you frequent Medium or places like The Cramped, you'll note that this current focus on pen, paper, and other analog tools is not new. However, it does seem to be a trend that is on the rise.
How Do You Think About Mental Health?
Gosh, “mental health” is such a loaded term. Thankfully, it’s something that carries a lot less stigma today than it has for, well, ever. It’s a term our culture is becoming more comfortable talking about and accepting.
I’m not sure why we treated it differently than physical health for so long. Myself included. Like most people, if my friend had a broken leg, I would recommend he see a physician. Obviously. I would not tell him, “You just need to change your thinking.” Or to “shake it off.” Or any of the other stupid things we’ve tended to say to people who were struggling to cope with certain aspects of their lives and how they thought and felt.
Close to home
Full disclosure: I am no expert on any of this stuff and I have no special wisdom to impart. There’s always the risk of Instagramming things, giving an impression online that does not reflect reality. That is not my goal here: I simply want to share our experience. I explained the gist of this article to my wife, and she had some strong words about being real.
I must confess that I may have been stuck with my old mindset if things had been different in my own life. But in recent years we’ve dealt with our share of mental health issues in our home. My wife had a full-fledged panic attack one year that manifested in acute chest pains. 4–5 years later, we can look back at that moment (and the subsequent bouts of anxiety) and be thankful for healing and growth. But it was not easy to go through — and she still struggles with anxiety every day.
After a while, we realized one of our children was struggling with anxiety as well. It manifested differently: through slowly developed, increasingly complex routines for various scenarios. If you know anything about it, you stop making jokes about OCD (Obsessive-compulsive disorder). Preferring your desk to be set up a certain way is not the same thing. OCD can be severely debilitating to living life, especially for a young child.
And we have another child who suffers from separation anxiety. Thankfully, we were better equipped to help our kids because of what my wife had been through.
While you cannot solve mental health issues with a list of bullet points, I’d love to share a few things that helped us. And again, my wife leads our home in this area — and I’m so thankful for her wisdom and nurturing care.
That’s an obvious statement. But I fear that there is still a stigma about seeking help for mental or emotional issues that make it hard to admit we need help, let alone seek it out (especially for men). So the obvious needs to be stated.
Therapy is not a bad word. It’s a blessing to live in a country where qualified, capable, and caring professionals are available to help people cope with their thoughts, anxieties, and feelings. CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) can be a beautiful thing!
You wouldn’t hesitate to see your doctor if you developed chest pains. And you would see a physiotherapist regularly if it meant you could keep playing your favorite sport. So don’t be fearful of seeing a therapist for emotional or mental issues — and be quick to recommend it to your friends and family before a problem gets worse.
Last, if you have someone in your life who has a mental health issue, getting help isn’t just for them. It’s for you as well. Taking the time to learn about the illness and how to cope shows a willingness to work together with those you love. This is one are I need to improve myself.
One of the biggest challenges people face when dealing with their mental health is feeling alone in their suffering. When you take the time to educate yourself and become familiar with how people can cope (and hopefully recover), you’re showing your love in action.
I say this not because it comes naturally to me — it doesn’t. But it does for my wife, and she leads our family in this way. I’m inspired by how she ensures she knows as much as possible about an issue our children face. Without her, I’d be ill-equipped to help my children in any way.
Talk about it
Related to the last point, talking about mental health is vital. When you’re willing to talk about your issues, you’ll quickly discover other people in your life will be struggling with the same types of things. But when you’re sick, it is so easy to feel as if you’re the only person on the planet who is going through whatever you’re facing. And that you’re the only one who can’t “get it together”.
The more open we are, the more we normalize the reality that we all struggle with our thoughts and feelings. That's the biggest reason I wanted to write about this, even at the risk of giving a false impression.
For those of us who claim a faith of any type, be sure that you’re not minimizing someone else’s struggles. It’s easy to make things worse.
Of course, a healthy spiritual life can help us deal struggles of all types. But that cannot be forced by one human onto another. Be loving, but encourage your loved ones to seek help from professionals rather than handing out your own advice.
Ask yourself some pointed questions
Last, make sure you’re taking the time to ask yourself hard questions. Do these make you uncomfortable?
Why do we think about injuries to our mind differently than we think about injuries to our body?
Why do we have compassion for someone who struggles with chronic back pain, but feel like someone who struggles with alcohol addiction just needs to “get it together”?
In this matter, being a good spouse, parent, child, friend, or neighbour looks the same as a lot of things. Listen well. Be available. Love in action.
Again, I’m not an expert in this stuff. But our home is like any other — we have struggles to get through. And the ones we’re experiencing have taught me a lot about how to think about mental health.
You’ve likely seen this article already, but it’s worth revisiting a few times. I enjoyed Cal Newport’s comparison of the social internet and social media, but this specific post hit home more for me.
Not only does he offer some practical ways to embrace the social internet, but one of those tips is dear to me: own your own domain. He sums it up well:
I can tell you from experience that this approach is harder than simply setting up a Twitter handle and letting the clever hashtags fly, but it’s immensely more satisfying to produce things when you’re not a data point in some Silicon Valley revenue report.
When you run your own site, reality is harsher. If people don’t truly care about what you have to say, or don’t truly care about you, they’re not going to stick around. You have to earn their attention. Which can be really, really hard.
Add to that, he quotes Alan Jacobs a couple of times. Alan is quickly becoming one of my favourite writers and happens to own his own domain as well.