Playing Games with Balance

By Rebeldad Brian Reid

About a week ago, I stumbled on a simple yet extraordinary autobiographical video game called Gravitation. It's the brainchild of a guy named Jason Rohrer, and it chronicles -- if that's the right word -- his efforts to achieve balance.

The gameplay, elegant as it is, almost defies expectation. Essentially, you have the choice to play ball with your child (modeled in the game after Jason's son Mez) or do "work" by collecting stars. But each decision about work or family affects the way the game progresses. Start to finish, the experience takes only 8 minutes, and it's probably best to experience the freeware game (if you can get away with it today) before reading about it.

I caught up with Jason to talk through how the game came into being and how it reflects his day-to-day reality:

Most people tend to think of work and family as separate spheres that are to be balanced but not mingled. Gravitation, however, seems to suggest that family influences your work (and vice versa). How has that played out in your life?

Because I work from home, there's very little separation in my life between family time and work time. I do have "official," no-family work time each day, but it's pretty short. I fill in the gaps whenever I can. Thus, life and work blend together and both interfere and augment
each other.

There are obviously a number of ways to play the game, and it's probably nonsensical to talk about "winning," but do you have a favorite way to play?

Perhaps you can't win, but you can get a high score. In order to do so, you need to maintain a very tight balance between work and family. All work, and you're at the mercy of your extreme emotional cycles. All family, and you may be emotionally fulfilled, but you will achieve none of your creative goals. Thus, the game mechanics are tuned toward the idea of balance.

If you play Gravitation a certain way, your son disappears (or remains). Is there a value judgment behind that element of the gameplay?

Actually, Mez sticking around if you stick around is a pure consequence of the design, and it's the one part of the game that does not have a specific meaning. During the game, he tries to "sneak away" whenever he gets the chance during the last three minutes. This, of course, symbolizes him growing up and not wanting to play with you anymore -- you lose the emotional anchor that you may have been taking for granted for the past five minutes. He essentially just vanishes, but I don't want you to see him do that, because it would look odd. So, he only vanishes if he's off screen, and if you keep him on screen the whole game, you give him no chance to vanish.

A lot of people have read into this ("I stayed with Mez the whole time, and he never left!"), but they probably decided to conduct this experiment *after* they noticed him leave the first time ("Hmm... I wonder where he goes? Let's play again and watch him to find out.") Thus, I think "Mez leaving" is a point that registers with everyone, and some have called it the emotional climax of the game. "Mez staying" is more of a fluke.

Has the process of thinking about and creating the game changed the way you view work-life balance?

I created Gravitation, in part, to teach myself how to better manage my creative and family life. Not so much to teach me about balancing work and family, but instead to teach me about not grabbing at too many ideas at once during a creative rush. The aftermath of project pile-up is pretty miserable.

Brian Reid writes about parenting and work-family balance. You can read his blog at rebeldad.com.

By Brian Reid |  March 13, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
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Comments

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mehitabel

"Better to play board or card games -- i.e., real games! -- with one's family than merely to play a game about them."


Ditto. And one's pets!

Posted by: chittybangbang | March 13, 2008 7:49 AM

And the clock problems continue. . . .

Posted by: laura33 | March 13, 2008 8:10 AM

second?

Posted by: ffarkel | March 13, 2008 8:18 AM

First!

Better to play board or card games -- i.e., real games! -- with one's family than merely to play a game about them.

Posted by: mehitabel | March 13, 2008 8:27 AM

I don't know. I remember progressing to the level of The Sims where you get to have a baby, and then having mine taken away by the social worker who appears on screen -- for forgetting to feed it because I was so busy at work and cleaning the house and mowing the lawn and all. And I remember feeling oddly, strangely bad about it -- and also kind of humiliated since my kids were watching me play. Not that it had any longterm repercussions or anything . . .

Posted by: justlurking | March 13, 2008 8:34 AM

To the clock-tender: I was first at 7:27 AM EDT, Chitty was second at 7:49 AM EDT. Laura and ffarkel can duke it out for third. Oh, and WaPo ate this post the first time (sigh).

Posted by: mehitabel | March 13, 2008 8:34 AM

"Because I work from home, there's very little separation in my life between family time and work time."

Jason Rohrer, quoted by Brian Reid | March 13, 2008; 7:00 AM ET .

Back when I lived ten minutes from work, I could come home every noon and the "lunch committee," consisting of my wife and my two little ones, would hand me my lunch in a brown paper bag. Once, they told me that the hen that had been setting inside a chimney-like arrangement of bricks on our driveway had hatched her eggs. I took a look. The chicks were trapped inside. So I approached the chimney to let them out, and the mother hen came out and made quite a fuss -- who was this man? Is he going to eat her babies? I pulled a brick out of the bottom layer and went into the house to eat my lunch. When I came out, the little chicks had found their way out of the chimney and were already pecking at the ground.

"Between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act, lies the shadow."
-- Thomas Stearns Eliot

The day "On Balance" talked about keeping kids from fighting in the car, I mentioned that we did not have that problem because we moved to within a seven-minute drive of their school. There's no fighting in the van, but now --

"Between the wife and the workplace, lies the Beltway. Between the Lab and the little ones, lies the Beltway." There's nothing like an hour's commute to draw a bright line between family time and work time.

Posted by: MattInAberdeen | March 13, 2008 9:37 AM

Depressing. It's hard enough to maintain balance in regular life. Playing a game about it just seems sad.

Posted by: anderssen.h | March 13, 2008 9:58 AM

I don't find this depressing at all. I've played games with my kids to learn about money (money 101 by rich dad poor dad)...why not a quick game to be reminded about the pitfalls of unbalance?

OT: and back to the acc tourney going on in the background

Posted by: dotted_1 | March 13, 2008 12:26 PM

I played before reading.. I stayed with the kid the whole time at first.. wondering why there was even a score board.. then I played and got a star..

I never was bummed when the game ended and I didn't get all the stars.. but I'm instantly bummed out when I return from a start hunt and the kid is gone..

I'd rather play ball all day... but I suppose that's why I'm a stay-at-home Dad.. a few stars is ok..

What's missing is another adult to represent society that ridicules the parent for playing with the kid instead of getting stars...

Posted by: Eat2surf | March 13, 2008 1:00 PM

Hi Leslie,
This one is off topic. I'm just winding down reading the book "The Other Mother," and I noticed that you're one of the reviewers listed on the cover. For those of you who haven't read it, it's a story about two women--one a stay at home mom and one a working mom--and it's told in sequence, but it flips back and forth between narration from each of the two women. It's quite a dark story, but very interesting. It shows the inner working of each woman's mind...and how either choice, whether it's to stay at home full time, or work--doesn't leave a woman completely happy, or balanced all the time. It's also interesting to see the assumptions each privately makes about the other. So, Leslie, I would love to know a bit more about what your feelings are about this book, and how closely it rings true to life. And has anyone else read it? Did you ever do an On Balance about the book The Other Mother? If not, it would be interesting to do.

Kattoo

Posted by: kattoo | March 13, 2008 2:38 PM

Cute game and concept, but really, a bit too broad of a brush to be taken seriously and I think anyone who already is dealing with the issue doesn't need a game like this.

I'd say put it in high school for teens to play with and discuss.

Posted by: EmeraldEAD | March 13, 2008 3:04 PM

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