When musicians become gamers

Video games like the Guitar Hero franchise and the recently released Rock Band give gamers a chance to become “musicians”, if only in pretend. It was by happy accident (thanks to shuffle mode in iTunes) that I heard a discussion yesterday with NPR music blogger Carrie Brownstein on an (unfortunately unknown to me) NPR program on the subject.

The discussion centered on what Carrie had written in the post Are We Not Gamers?, which in turn derived from a review of Rock Band that Carrie wrote for Slate.com.

The line between gamers and non-gamers is clearly diminishing, if not already obsolete…. The best and newest games, such as Rock Band, meld the virtual with the actual; they make little distinction between what is palpable and what is imagined. With Rock Band, you are hanging out with your very real friends, playing along to the master recordings of real songs, and on screen you are atop some of the biggest stages in the world.

Of course, the truth is that you are nowhere except in front of your TV. But Rock Band professes that it doesn’t matter–though you might not be creating memorable music with your friends, you are creating a memorable, real-life moment, all with the help of the unreal.

I likely would not have written anything here about that discussion (or the blog or the review), except for something that happened to me on Monday night. On that night, I attended a parent’s meeting for my son’s high school band (he’s a percussionist) at which a local music store salesman presented SmartMusic.

My first thoughts (I hesitate to say) as he went through the demo were along the lines of, “This is a lot like Guitar Hero, except with real instruments.” To say that I was impressed with the system would be an understatement. Of course, it could have just been good salesmanship by the rep, but I don’t think so. Here’s the basic description of SmartMusic in their words:

Students never practice alone when they have SmartMusic at home. This interactive, computer-based practice system helps students get better faster, and makes practicing more fun. With amazing accompaniments for more than 30,000 titles, challenging exercises, and the ability to record personal CDs, SmartMusic is the future of music learning.

With SmartMusic loaded on a computer, students plug in a vocal or instrumental microphone and begin practicing. They play or sing their part with accompaniment and receive, in real time on the computer, detailed feedback on their performance. Ideal for woodwind, brass, string, and vocal musicians of all levels.

SmartMusic is your instant backup band that makes practicing fun!

If you remember Marc Prensky‘s 12 reasons games engage us, SmartMusic seems to meet all but the last one. Basically, they’ve taken the things that make learning in video games fun and applied them to learning in real life.

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When gamers become parents

With the holiday shopping season already in high gear here in the U.S, and the annual blitz of advertising – especially for the big ticket items like video games and systems – in full assault mode, many parents find themselves trying to decide what kinds of games they are willing to let their kids play.  Since many of these parents were, or maybe still are, gamers themselves they find themselves in the situation of maybe wanting to deny their kids the pleasures of things they themselves enjoyed at that younger age. 

What to do?  Check out Clive Thompson’s commentary You Grew Up Playing Shoot’em-Up Games. Why Can’t Your Kids? – from Wired.com for some thoughts on this:

Gamers like me have spent years railing against ill-informed parents and politicians who’ve blamed games for making kids violent, unimaginative, fat or worse. But now we’re in a weird position: We’re the first generation that is young enough to have grown up playing games, but old enough to have kids.

So it turns out that, whoops, now we’ve got to make sober calls about what sort of entertainment is good or bad for our children. And what, precisely, are we deciding? I started making calls to my gamer posse find out.

Parenting is one of the hardest, and most important, activities that any of us can ever try to master.  And it is only getting more and more complicated as our children “grow up” faster and the tools and information they have available to them increase.

Having said that, Happy Thanksgiving to all my readers here in the US.  And to my non-US readers, enjoy the time you have with your family, whether it is a formal get together like our Thanksgiving or just a weekend in the park.

How do knowledge workers, especially new ones, learn how to be knowledge workers?

When I asked for a time out from all the myriad tools that seem to continually pop-up, especially social networking and collaboration tools, I didn’t expect that time out to last three months. (And I really didn’t expect the time out to end because of yet another tool, but that’s a story for a different time.) But the time out has given me a lot of time to think about what I’m really interested in writing about.

I’ve realized that it is very difficult to talk about the concept of mastery in the abstract, and it kind of misses the point if all I write about are the successes (like in sports) of the process, instead of the process itself. I’ve also realized that what I’m really interested in understanding the nature of knowledge work and how individual knowledge workers obtain mastery in their craft.

If the idea of knowledge work as craft sounds familiar, it’s not because of me. I first remember coming across that idea several years ago in Jim McGee’s Knowledge work as craft work; I’m sure you’ve seen that or other similar pieces. Jim’s article has many excellent insights, and I’m sure I’ll get around to all of them eventually, but the following is what brought the question in the title of this post to mind:

All along the way in this old style process, the work was visible. That meant that the more junior members of the team could learn how the process unfolded and how the final product grew over time. You, as a consultant, could see how the different editors and commentators reacted to different parts of the product.

My brothers both work in a trade (plumbing and electrician), and I’ve had many conversations with them about the process within the trade unions of developing young plumbers and electricians from apprentice through the master grade. I’ve also taken a renewed interest in this process as described in the biographies of historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin and Leonardo da Vinci. Jim’s description of how the junior members of the team learned the process sounds very familiar in that context.

How did you learn how to be a knowledge worker? Did you spend your early years in an “apprenticeship” or were you just thrown into the fray? How do we help new knowledge workers learn their craft? How do we get knowledge workers, new or otherwise, to accept their profession as a craft? And how do we, as experienced knowledge workers, become even better at it?

These are the questions I’d like to explore in more detail as I move forward. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Trust your instincts and your training

Daryl at the Anecdote blog recounts a master’s story from the world of surfing in the post Letting Go. In the story, as told by champion surfer Kelly Slater, Slater finds himself in a bad spot following the first (of three) heat of the championship finals and is faced with a choice: try as hard as he can to pull out a miracle; or go out and surf.

Like a true master, Slater chooses the latter and comes away with two perfect rounds. The moral of the story: Trust your instincts and your training, and don’t overthink it.

Anecdote, as Daryl mentions, is a “blog on business narrative,” so this post may seem to some to be a bit out of place. But, as Daryl also says, “there is some important wisdom in this story that is applicable to other areas of life.”

While the specific process of achieving mastery may depend on what it is we want to master, we can all learn from the experiences of masters in any field.

A tale of two mothers

I wrote the early drafts of this review several months ago, when I first read the book Strange Son. For various reasons, I never completed the review. And for various other reasons, I finally have. So, here it is.
– – — — —–

Although I’m glad that I read Strange Son, I can’t say that I ‘liked’ or ‘enjoyed’ it. On starting the book, I gained an almost instant dislike for Iverson, or at least the Portia Iverson depicted in the book, that made it nearly impossible for me to read more than a few pages at a time.

More than just a personal dislike, I found her attitudes towards other people, especially autistics and most especially her own autistic son, repugnant. I almost gave up trying to get through it several times (my wife stopped at page 26, it angered her so much), but I did eventually make it to the end.

Iverson, co-founder of the Cure Autism Now (CAN) foundation, and her son, Dov, are one of the two mother/son pairs of the title. The other mother and son are Soma and Tito Mukhopadyay. Iverson first learns of Tito while attending a conference she had organized for CAN, as she describes in the opening of the book:

“There’s a boy I think you should know about,” Francesca Happe began, gesturing for me to sit down. “His name is Tito.” The renowned psychologist from England, whose specialty was autism, continued: “He’s eleven years old and he lives in India. He’s quite autistic, but he can read and write and he’s very intelligent.”
She smiled at me and paused before going on, as if to gauge my reaction.

“Tito is a wonderful poet as well,” she continued. “He’s even published a book, an autobiography with some of his poetry in it.”

“And he’s autistic?” I asked in disbelief, thinking I must have misunderstood.

“Yes, he is definitely autistic. … There is only one Tito in this world, and no one else like him. He is his own disorder,” she replied with certainty.

I knew that no one had ever heard of such a severely autistic person being able to write and communicate independently. But wasn’t there even a remote chance that there could be others who looked and acted just like Tito but couldn’t communicate? At the very least, couldn’t Tito provide an extraordinary window into the most severe kind of autism?

The bulk of the book describes Iverson’s efforts to answer that question. The first step was to get the Mukhopadyay’s from India to the United States so that Iverson could have Tito studied by various medical, neurological, and behavioral experts. The book is replete with stories of Iverson taking the two around the country to be seen by various specialists, meeting with limited success at many. These little vignettes provide some interesting insight into what the medical profession apparently thinks (at least thought, since most of this happens from 1999 – 2003) about autism. And it is not pretty. “He can communicate? Then he’s not autistic” seems to have been a very common reaction, as was, “His mother must be somehow signalling him with what to type.”

Throughout the book, we (the reader) get to know Tito and his mother a bit.

In a nutshell, Soma changed her role as parent, from the ‘typical’ mother that acts as a guide for her child to dedicating herself to a mother working directly with her son to help him find his way in the world. She helped Tito understand the world around him, and helped him learn how to communicate – quite beautifully – through his writing.

Though the relationship becomes somewhat strained as time goes on, especially as Soma begins working more with other kids, the love between mother and son is evident and never in doubt, at least not in my mind. (Iverson’s depiction of how Soma treats Tito is reminiscent of how a person would treat a pet dog they were trying to tame; based on the rest of the book, I think this is probably more a reflection of Iverson’s attitudes towards autistics than it is an indictment against Soma.)

To me, Soma and Tito’s story was the most important of the book, the story that I really wanted to know more about. It was the story of a parent reaching out to her son, accepting him for who he was and working with that. Unfortunately, their story comes across as a sub-plot to the larger story of Iverson’s devotion to “finding treatment and a cure for autism.”

In many ways, Iverson’s description of her, and her husband’s, reaction during the period immediately preceding and following the autism diagnosis will be familiar to many parents of autistic children. Confusion (What is autism?). Guilt (What caused it? Could I have prevented it?). Despair (Can I cure it?). Embarrassment (I don’t want anyone to know. What will people think of me?) At this point, there are many paths a parent could follow. Soma followed one path with Tito; Iverson chose a very different path.

Where Soma changed her role as a parent and dedicated herself to Tito, Iverson essentially abandons her role as parent and dedicates herself, not to Dov, but to fixing Dov.

The events in the book take place in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. Sadly, things probably haven’t changed much in the past few years. (I’ve hear that evidence of this can be found in Jenny McCarthy’s recent book about her autistic son, but I’ve not been able to get myself to read it.)

Something for Nothing

As with religion, and I’m sure many other things, it is hard to discuss the concept of mastery in the abstract. To talk about religion you pretty much need to discuss it in the context of a specific denomination. Likewise, to discuss mastery it is easier, and more meaningful, to discuss it in the context of a specific activity or field of endeavor.

Every now and then, though, I come across something that I think captures the spirit of the concept of mastery. And sometimes I rediscover something that I enjoyed a long time ago, and realize that the reason I enjoyed it so much is because it spoke to my interest in mastery.

Even though it is now nearly 30 years old, the Rush album 2112 is still a classic. Aside from the epic title track, one of my favorite Rush songs has always been Something For Nothing. I hadn’t heard it in a while (the iTunes shuffle mode hasn’t come around to it recently), but hearing it last night (I had placed disc 3 of the Different Stages: Live CD into the CD player) I realized why I enjoy it so much (aside from the great music!).

Here’s a sampling of the lyrics by Neal Peart:

Waiting for the winds of change
To sweep the clouds away
Waiting for the rainbow’s end
To cast its gold your way
Countless ways
You pass the days

Waiting for someone to call
And turn your world around

You don’t get something for nothing
You can’t have freedom for free
You won’t get wise
With the sleep still in your eyes
No matter what your dreams might be

Those last three lines pretty much say it all, don’t they. It’s good to have desires and goals, but you can’t wait for someone else to give it to you. You have to go out and get it for yourself, and it may not be easy. (In other words: Execution is key.)

Of course, the rewards are worth it in the end as the lyrics, again, so eloquently capture:

What you own is your own kingdom
What you do is your own glory
What you love is your own power
What you live is your own story
In your head is the answer
Let it guide you along
Let your heart be the anchor
And the beat of your own song