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
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.
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