Our Game Is Just A Bit Different

I'm going to wander around a little bit and end up talking about gardening and a favorite question of mine: How can we feed ourselves, all of us, good food from nearby? That's a worthy puzzle. Which may make it okay to consider games for a minute.

What's probably already old news in a certain valley in a certain west coast state caught my attention recently: a strand of public thought asserting that games matter much more than I had thought. Games, in this case, meaning mindsets and skills largely rooted in video gaming that carry over into the rest of life and shape the worldviews that form our culture.

In "The Network Man,"a recent New Yorker profile of LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, Nicolas Lemann says Hoffman views business as "the systematic playing of games." Lemann reports a conversation between Hoffman and a friend in which both men speak about building online support for political candidates in gaming terms.

Lemann says, "Everything about Reid Hoffman—his business, his political activities, his philanthropy, and his social life—is based on a premise about how the economic world will work from now on. . . .Hoffman is convinced that we can fix the problem through Internet-enabled networks." And the current president of LinkedIn, Jeff Weiner, says, "The vision is to create economic opportunity for everyone on the globe," which Hoffman believes can happen only through internet-based initiatives. There is much to this article, including puzzling over the extent to which the tech-dependent start-up entrepreneurialism in that California valley can—and cannot—be replicated to make a good life and a good economy for everyone in the world.  I recommend the article. Quite chewy.

And along comes SuperBetter, both a game itself and a book by Jane McGonigal about the ways game-like approaches to life challenges can build resilience, solve problems and make us happier. Usually I think of myself as "not good at games," but it depends on the game. Fictionary, Telephone Charades, the esoteric Merrimack Valley card game 45s, and any games Bernie DeKoven leads—I'm in, with joy. Oh, and Authors, the childhood game with beloved cousins that shaped my life, thanks to Louisa May Alcott's calm image among the guys.

I have yet to form my first online game addiction. I already spend too much time viewing a screen each day. Even so, shining a light on gaming as a serious force shaping our culture and personal habits makes sense to me.

Kentuckians find a different sort of game utterly absorbing. I'm not thinking of basketball or horse racing. Perhaps it's more puzzle than game: "What can I grow?"

Growing food—gardening, farming—absorbs a lot of our time and energy, and I hope it always will. In fact, I sense far more interest and engagement in growing food among my urban neighbors than at any other time in my life. Backyard chickens' needs for nighttime shelter dictate social schedules. An apple tree has a six-year catalog of back stories before its determined human planter finds the right combination of tactics to produce a large yield. Friends volunteer at Seedleaf community gardens even though they do not grow food for themselves. And many friends do grow food, as best they can, from basil to bok choy and way beyond.

I got an early look at Kate Black's fine new book, Row by Row: Talking With Kentucky Gardeners, which lets us in on the thinking of a wide range of Kentuckians as they talk with Kate about why they do the hard, hot and heavy work of growing food. Kate herself invests extraordinary effort in gardening in the heart of Lexington. She knows how to listen and how to hear what Bev May means when she describes planting corn in her great-grandmother's field. Kate's careful oral history curation shows the reader both the sun and shadows of loving land and growing things. In Bev May's case, her garden benefits from the blessing of generations before who removed the rocks so the soil is easy to work. At the same time the dark possibility of nearby mountaintop removal looms.

Kate's ear and her gardener's heart catch and share the excitement first time Kentucky gardeners Seema Capoor and Ashish Patel feel for their garden, and connect that love of growing food back to their earlier lives in India. Urban, rural and suburban gardeners, experienced and new gardeners, young and elderly gardeners, "legacy" Kentuckians and recent immigrants to the Bluegrass all share their love for gardening in Row by Row.

Kate's gardeners sometimes find words fail them when they try to explain the essence of their passion for gardening. Yet they share words and Kate adds context and connection that help us consider the puzzle of how to feed ourselves. We build, I think, on what's already in us: the wonder of seeds, plants and their habits. The connections between earth and table. And the exquisite soil and climate of Kentucky. Ours is a pro-growth state.

Gardening may be our state game. Ripe tomatoes and their winter derivatives of juice, sauce, ketchup, preserves and jam may actually be better than basketball. As frustrating as gardening can be when the season is too wet, too hot, or just plain weird, gardening offers lots and lots of ways to win.

I assert, on no authority at all, a counter to the idea that the only economic game going forward will be tech-based. I appreciate computers, smartphones and the internet, and even social media, most days. Yet the agrarian game that suits our commonwealth so well can sustain a different, rich, abundant, satisfying economic future. Soil, seeds, plants, markets, plates, tables, conviviality and community suggest an economic option with a wider platform—earth itself—and more entry points for joining play.

A lot of people find the growing game at least as compelling as the tech game. In time, I trust, we will find the clues and solve the puzzles to build and share the economic benefits of this agrarian game that suits our place so well.

Rona RobertsComment