Figuring It Out: Puzzlers, Weavers, Gamers, and Jazz

I get lost in my Boggle game, a word search application on my iPhone. I will play a quick 3-minute game and guiltily rationalize that I am comparing my score to my average, to see if I am functioning “on all cylinders”. “See…42!” Yep, that’s not too bad, I proudly think. Now granted, I did, after all, get a full night of sleep last night but then also I acknowledge that the “luck of the draw” also plays into it. Sometimes I get an awesome board to play on and yet sometimes I don’t. So, I had to rationalize all this because part of me believes that I am just wasting my time. I was also concerned when I realized how much time my children like to spend on online games such as Minecraft, an online “block-building sandbox” game with few set rules, where you can build anything that you can possibly imagine, including whole interactive worlds others can visit. It is like digital Lego building blocks but so much more. My son plays other online games that have such incredible graphics and realism that it is just shocking to someone like me, whose first video game was Pong; where we batted the white square “ball” of light between the two bars of light on either side. That was enough to keep us glued for a while back then. Now, I can hardly blame my kids for not being able to resist what is available to them.

Did you know that we spend three billion hours a week playing online games in the world today? The number must be larger during the global pandemic. With so many urgent problems in the world needing our attention, the social activist in me was worried that we were all wasting our time and talents. If it is a distraction from all the real problems in the world, are we doomed? But then again, with much war and struggle in the world, for social activists, this is much like constantly looking at that to do list. How do we keep it together? Seriously! Surely, we can’t focus on saving the world all the time; it is just too overwhelming and exhausting. So, I played Boggle and spent time in my art studio but still winced as the kids asked for additional “screen time”. I would think as most parents do; it would be better if they pulled out the Legos or go outside to play instead, but I reluctantly gave in to their requests. After a while, I challenged these popular thoughts; thoughts that were allowed to gestate by that extra screen time indulgence which created more frequent quiet evenings. I just wasn’t sure about what really was “worth our time”. I saw that
unless I was going to find out more about this gaming thing, there would be a portion of my kids’ lives that I couldn’t connect to and a portion of mine that I often felt guilty about. So, I sought to understand why we are so drawn to these things and what we are getting out of it. Ironically, I found a little more than that, all while “laying like broccoli” and “bumming” on the couch.

Two programs unexpectedly offered insights for me. One was a TED Talks presentation by game designer Jane McGonigal called “Gaming Can Make a Better World” and the other was Ken Burns’ “Jazz” documentary. I found some curious and unexpected connections between these things that we do in our spare time, the challenges that the world is facing, and to what jazz is like; how it is created, by whom, and what it does.

In the documentary, trumpet player Wynton Marsalis said these things about Jazz, and I think it spurred this whole inquiry. He said “[Jazz is] an art form that can give us a painless way of understanding ourselves. Jazz celebrates life; human life, the range of it, the absurdity of it, the ignorance of it, the greatness of it. It deals with [all] of it. The real power and the real innovation of Jazz is that a group of people can come together and create art; improvised art, and negotiate their agenda and that negotiation is the art.” With that, he had my attention.

The documentary continued and critic Gary Gliddens says, “Jazz is the ultimate in rugged-individualism. It’s going out there, on that stage, and saying, ‘it doesn’t matter how anybody else did it; this is the way I am going to do it.’” To me, it seemed that if we could take these principles from jazz and apply them to the problems we have and how we relate to each other, that we just may be able to first collectively visualize a better world, and then create that future; something not unlike tearing up the directions for that Lego creation and building something entirely new. This so-called “rugged-individualism” must have been a leading ingredient in many explorations that led to new discoveries.

This is what I have found; all this might not be as bad as I thought. In fact, it may not only be healthy to have several active forms of relaxation in your life, such as completing puzzles, video games, or crafting, it may also be good for the world. Further into the “Jazz” documentary, drummer Art Blakely said “Jazz, washes away the dust of everyday life.” What if these side activities did the same thing? Perhaps that’s why those games have us lured in? It seems more likely than not that these activities that allow us to rest, recuperate, or
process experiences in our lives are very much worthy of our time and attention.

There has been for some time now, a common assertion that in America, we just aren’t working hard enough still. In fact, Americans do work more and more hours with less and less rewards than many places in the world. My guess is that the modern motivator, the “bottom line”, has been spreading those assertions that conflict with the more accurate data. Many common studies suggest, and have suggested for some time, that
everyone needs time to rest or to participate in active relaxation to be healthy individuals. This real or perceived, lack of opportunity and unhealthy amounts of fear infused in our lives has an evidential toll on us that must be addressed. All of this strongly suggests that our natural inclinations to “slack off” are more complicated than simple laziness.

Jane McGonigal said “People often view games as the opposite of work, but some sociologists believe games are an idealized form of work. At their basic levels, work and play look a lot alike. We have built in emotional reward centers that encourage people to complete tasks.” She explains that we are hard-wired to seek a sense of accomplishment. “If the real world is not filling that need for opportunities for accomplishment, then the virtual world offers a surrogate place for that. Games provide several things that the real world doesn’t offer enough of; things like: a diversity of choices, the ability to go to places, and the ability to enter situations that are closed off to [us] in real life. They also provide immediately rewards, instant feedback, instruction, challenges [from which] to learn and grow, connection to whole communities of people throughout the world, and intensely creative outlets that were only dreamed of since the wooden building block.”

Advances in technology have created a new world and they always have. Every generation has its parents concerned about how they are spending their time. When the printing press allowed books to become mass produced, certainly there was a lot more people with noses in books than the generation prior. Their time became spent differently than their parents and it may have been difficult to become comfortable with that unfamiliarity. Perhaps more than a few of the first bookworms, were told it was a waste of their time also. I would like to suggest that we could look at everything with some fresh perspectives; wherever we might unexpectedly find them.

Ken Burns continues, “[Jazz is] an improvisational art; making itself up as it goes along, just like the country that gave it birth. It rewards individual expression but demands selfless collaboration.” And this is how Jazz may demonstrate how online gaming may create some of the best ideas in the future. McGonigal on the TED Talks explains: “Online gamers are becoming aficionados by investing these many hours on these virtual worlds.” As a game designer wanting gamers to be just as excited about saving the real world as they are
about saving virtual worlds, she has been creating online games where the players are given the virtual means and incentives to propose solutions to real world problems in a virtual environment that challenges and rewards achievement as an ordinary game would. She likens this phenomenon to that of ancient Lydia; a city who survived a year drought by playing games on one day and only eating on the next day; ending their struggle by sending off winners of the games to explore new areas to immigrate to. And when they did
move, it was because games offered a distraction to survive difficult times and the creative tools necessary to reinvent their future.

Writer Albert Murray said “When you see a jazz musician playing, you are looking at a pioneer; explorer, an experimenter, a scientist. You are looking at all those things because it is the creative process incarnate.” This quote brought me to reflect on needle crafts and weavers; the whole world of textile arts. It is my opinion that anyone who can take miles of string and turn it into something beautiful and/or useful has a matter-of-fact-ness about them; a determined and valuable practicality. As one of the more ancient and universal of all our “active relaxation activities”, this art form has been combining creativity, science, and practicality to solve real world problems throughout human history and across civilizations. By creating fishing nets, clothes, homes, (and so much more,) they have saved the world more than once. (Keep it up weavers!) Yes, that hot pad may not save the world single handedly, but as countless studies report, there are additional benefits to needle crafts on the individual as well. We are talking about integral coping benefits such as aiding the management of depression, assisting those enduring loss, and creating almost meditative
states to the ones who choose this form of active relaxation. These are the tools and talents of survivors!

So, whatever you are doing in order to rest, recuperate, or process experience, I believe these endeavors are worthy of our time and attention and there are many ways to pursue what you need. Let’s let our art, our craft, our play; these most valuable pieces of our lives, sustain us and help us reinvent a vibrantly bold, more beautiful, and even heroic future. What we are shooting for is what game designer Jane McGonigal explains as the “epic win: an outcome that is so extraordinarily positive that you had no idea that it was even possible until you achieved it; beyond the threshold of imagination. And when we get there, we will be shocked to discover what we are truly capable of.” We can really go for that real epic win as we imaginatively tackle the future with every tool and opportunity before us; be they crochet hooks, digital blocks, or jazz instruments.

Who knew we were already working on it!?

-Rev. JET

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