A Briefly Lucid Dream

You may be wondering what I've been up to. Or not. But I'll tell you anyway.

I've been working on my Flash physics engine, in particular, the collision detection and response. It's been a lot of fun. It's great to be solving interesting problems that I care about, being able to fix things and see them have an immediate affect, and build cool things that actually exist, instead of just being in my mind. The latest cool thing I've built with it is Engine Prototype 05, a ragdoll and a ball.

I expect to continue working on that for the next week or so.

I've also added a bunch of stuff to my deviantART gallery, like this weird painting of a scene from Ishmael, and a bunch of my nature photos from last year.

And I learned that yawning is the best thing ever, like yoga or meditation but easier, so I've been yawning constantly for the last few days. And I expect to continue doing so. *yawn*

Anyway, this morning I had a very brief period of lucidity while dreaming, falling asleep again after waking up early. All my lucid dreams so far have been wake-back-to-bed occurrences. I thought you might find it interesting.

I was walking along a sidewalk, thinking somewhat abstractly about how I seemed to have just been dreaming. Then suddenly I realized that if that was true, then I was still dreaming. I immediately lay down on the grass and tried to see it up close, but all I could see was an indistinct blur. I couldn't see my hands either, so I knew that this was a dream.

Then the scene couldn't hold itself together any longer and it shifted somehow. I found myself talking with my parents about what had just happened, and I wasn't really sure if I was still dreaming or not. From there, I got carried away by the dream and lost my lucidity.

After writing that down, I happened to read the previous entry in my rarely-updated dream notebook, from earlier this year. I found it quite intriguing and poetic, and thought it would be worth sharing here.

I was hiking a winding path in the snow along with many other people. They had lost hope. The majority had decided that the best way to go would be to nuke the whole place, with them in it. I didn't want to. But the missiles were coming.

I was terribly anxious. I could not bring myself to surrender to the situation and accept it. When the explosion came, I woke up. It may likely have been a false awakening.

I felt better about it then, that maybe death is just waking from a dream. I remember thinking, back in the snow, that I wanted to keep this identity and all its memories and attachments to people, that I couldn't be ready to merge with oblivion and leave it all behind.

My second dream was about these traveling people who were also sea creatures. As they imagined their future, they saw themselves falling into water, which they feared.

I pushed them into the water, and they suddenly realized that they were meant to be in the water, that they were already where they wanted to be, free.

What do you see when you imagine your future?


Optimizing the Mood Web

food web? ...or mood web?

I've thought quite a bit about my goals, my motivations, what excites me in general. Which is good.

But I've never really tried to look at my motivation in terms of concrete, moment-to-moment experience. Recently, however, I've begun to notice some recurring patterns in my motivation. Doing certain things, experiencing certain things, will reliably get me excited about certain activities or projects to a significant extent. The effect is so strong, I'm amazed that I haven't noticed this before.

The list below is what I'm calling my "mood web" - as in food web - the description of all my triggers and what they get me excited about. Well, not all triggers, but the important ones, at least.

It's a slice of a mood web. You can see a few chains there - the way listening to songs that I've picked for my game ideas inspires me to flesh out the designs further, and then looking at the design sketches I've made inspires me to actually start making the games. But for the most part, these pieces are separate.

Still, they are useful. Have a look into my mind:

Walking outside to look at plants gets me excited about...
  • making a game in a procedural forest or garden
Walking outside in the rain at night gets me excited about...
  • making Environment Sketch 02 - Winter Rain
Walking by houses with nice bamboo gets me excited about...
  • making flutes out of bamboo
Practicing Aikido gets me excited about...
  • making Aikido games in Flash
Teaching Aikido gets me excited about...
  • designing a lesson plan to give people a taste of Aikido
Watching videos of other martial arts gets me excited about...
  • learning those martial arts
Reading about personal development gets me excited about...
  • improving my life and habits
Reading emails from people gets me excited about...
  • writing emails to those people
Reading through old idea notebooks gets me excited about...
Reading old calculator game ideas gets me excited about...
Singing along to I'm on a Boat gets me excited about...
Listening to songs I've picked for games gets me excited about...
  • designing those games
Looking at design sketches for my games gets me excited about...
  • making those games
Looking at design sketches for my physics engine gets me excited about...
  • making my physics engine
And let's not forget this one:

Eating corn chips
gets me excited about...
  • eating more corn chips
Which can sometimes be a problem.

I hope that by understanding my own mood web I'll be able to more consciously choose how I spend my time. If I've decided that I should really be working on programming my physics engine, then I know that I should take the time to look through my design sketches and diagrams, as opposed to reading articles about Overcoming Procrastination or something like that. And if I don't have any inspiring design sketches, I should make some.

All of this may seem obvious, but it is something of a breakthrough for me. If I have not already locked onto a project, I often lack focus because so many different experiences trigger excitement in me, each of them directed toward different projects. And I had no idea how to deal with this.

But now that I've discovered how reliable these triggers are, I can really pay attention to what causes me to gain or lose interest in a project. The mood web is a framework that allows me to start making meaningful observations about myself. And I can now choose to activate or avoid specific triggers when I want to focus on specific projects instead of letting my mood get bounced around randomly.

Even further, I wonder if I can begin to modify my mood web, to nudge my response to certain situations and begin to associate them with different projects in order to build accelerating feedback loops. Perhaps a form of search engine optimization for the mind?

How about you? Do you also notice a reliable pattern to how your motivation changes? I'd be very curious to see what other people's mood webs look like. I imagine that they would be very different from person to person but I'm not sure how. Share yours in the comments and maybe we can find out! :)


Understanding Time

I've been trying something new today.

I have a tendency to get stuck when I'm on the web - checking email, posting on Twitter, reading articles, replying to forum posts. It's like I start turning to stone, my mind gets stuck inside the computer screen. I think fifteen minutes have passed when an hour has gone by.

This is a problem. Not only do I end up spending more time than I want doing trivial tasks, I also neglect my basic needs and can easily go without eating lunch just because I suppress the physical pain I feel in order to focus on taking care of just a few more emails, a few more replies, a few more articles.

And now, I think I've found a solution.

The main problem is inertia. The longer I sit there in front of the computer, the more reluctant I am to get up. So I keep myself mobile - getting up and walking around every so often. But how could I make sure I do this?

It turn out that the answer is easier than I expected. As I found this morning, all I have to do is set a timer for five minutes, and put it in another room. When the timer goes off, I get up from the computer (that's the hard part) and walk over to the timer. I don't have to stop using the computer after that, I just restart the timer and go back to whatever I was doing. And then I do it all over again in five minutes. And five minutes after that. And so on.

I haven't had any trouble getting up for the timer - after all, I never let myself sit down for so long that I get completely stuck. After a while it becomes instinctive, Pavlovian, like waking up to an alarm clock. The hard part is making sure I get enough of a mental break that I can actually slow down and get some perspective before going back to the computer.

One thing that helps me is to put the timer in a different place every time. Hide it, even. This forces me to engage with the physical world, to acknowledge the third dimension, to get out of my head and get in touch with the place where my body lives, if only momentarily. Plus it's kind of fun. It helps me experience my ordinary surroundings in a new and refreshing way. And it's such a weird feeling to be looking for this timer, guided only by the sound of it beeping, with no recollection of where I put it just five minutes before.

What's strange is that already I find myself getting up naturally at five-minute intervals, right before the timer goes off. I get up for a drink of water (thanks to my newly instilled mobility) and then a few seconds later there goes the timer. Very interesting.

But the most striking thing about this whole exercise is how horribly skewed my perception of time is. I don't know if my timer's broken, but it feels like that thing is going off every two minutes, not every five. And I'm pretty sure the timer is working, because even my computer clock agrees. Yet almost every time I hear that timer go off, I'm thinking, "How has it been five minutes already? I just sat down!"

One thing that might help is to keep track of how many times the timer has gone off, writing down the current total every time I restart the time. I could write it in terms of minutes, even. Because it really feels like a lot less time has passed, and this might help me tie the feeling to the numbers.

Hopefully, using these timers will retrain my brain to perceive time more accurately. Who knows, maybe it will even help me in long-term planning. Though I might need another tool for that.

There are a lot of useful things you can do with timers and productivity - for example, the "48 minutes of flow" mentioned in this article. I've done something similar before, and it helps. It's just a matter of using your physical (or virtual) environment to reinforce your goals. It's like level design, applied to your own life. Why not?

You could even use this mechanic in an actual game. Put a timer in the game and give them a little reward for responding to it when it beeps, and the ability to put it somewhere else and start it again. Kind of like the Milano cookie effect in reverse. Could be useful.


Playtesting the Enemy

You've probably heard that it's a good idea to playtest your game. If you haven't heard, well, I'm telling you now. It's a good idea.

But how about playtesting other people's games?

I was reading a book called Don't Make Me Think, a classic in web design and usability. At one point, the author suggested doing a usability test of a competitor's website before you start designing your own.

Why not apply it to game development?

If you're thinking of making a particular type of game, find an existing game that may have some relevant similarities, and do a playtest of it.

Find a random person, sit them down in front of the game, and observe. Watch for what they enjoy, what confuses them and where they get frustrated.

Then repeat with other random people and other games. Do it with both good games and poorly designed games. You will learn more by testing both than by only looking at one or the other. See where the bad games fail and what the good games do differently.

And then when you go to design your own game, you will know what mistakes to avoid.


Deconstructing Artificial Emotions

A while ago, Daniel Cook wrote a game design article about how to provoke artificial emotions in players. His suggestion: give players a physiological nudge somehow, raising their heart rate, getting their adrenaline going, and then provide contextual cues about what emotion they should be experiencing at the time. And apparently, the players will be tricked into thinking they're actually experiencing the emotion you've set up.

Are all emotions are artificial?

I don't know, but I have noticed some interesting patterns through my own introspection.

Anger and sadness and frustration and despair, before they solidify into these emotions, start out as an indistinct feeling of tension inside. It is possible to focus on this tension before it is nudged - by my own assumptions and expectations - into one of these negative emotions.

The thing to remember is that the tension is all internal, in my own mind, and not somewhere outside in anyone else or any thing.

At the point where I notice this tension, before it becomes a full-blown, directed emotion, instead of reflexively reacting to it, fighting and getting defensive, I can listen to the motivations behind it. This is empathy. It's a lot like Aikido, except with emotions instead of physical attacks.

First of all, I can think of what expectation or fear or desire or need is causing this tension that I feel, and then, even further, I can think about what need or tension is behind the other person's actions or speech if another person is involved. Maybe this will help me resolve the tension or at least let it pass through me without escalating into something bigger.

One thing that sometimes helps me dissipate dangerous levels of tension safely is to listen to very fast, energetic music while lying down with my eyes closed. After a while, I can transition to more calm, repetitive music while I try to empty my mind of the assumptions and beliefs that are directing my tension outward.

Those who can maintain their composure and relaxed attitude even in difficult situations have probably mastered this ability to release internal tension before it manifests as emotion.


Concluding the Inaugural Experiment

Earlier this year, I tried a little experiment.

I created a forum signature, attempting to start one of those chain letter-ish memes that seem so clever to the people who participate in them, and so utterly not for everyone else.


I believe in Barack Obama as my personal savior. If you do too and aren't afraid to admit it, copy and paste this into your signature.

So what happened?

Apparently, nothing. No one got offended, and no one really got the joke or thought that it was all that funny or clever. It probably wasn't.

Well, one person copied it. But it didn't last long.

Oh well.

Time to try out a new signature! :)

How about this?

I believe that games will be as significant a new medium as the printed word ever was, and as powerful a force for change.

I am here to make that happen. Making life more fun

It's not a joke this time. It's sincere. Upon recommendation from books like Finding Your Own North Star and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, I've been trying to come up with a way to phrase my life goals, in a way that is inspiring yet specific enough to help guide my moment-to-moment decisions.

Because I need a reason to get on the computer and work instead of reading self-help books and stuffing my face with corn chips.

I'm still working on it. But this is a start, something short enough to put into a forum signature. I've been thinking about this for a while now, and I expect to keep adjusting it. I might even try brainstorming a list of possible life goals, as suggested here.

We'll see. :)