Transcript for “Jesse Danger: Systems thinking, game design, and novelty”

Episode, Jesse Danger: Systems thinking, game design, and novelty

Jesse Danger takes time out from teaching parkour to share thoughtful insights on topics such as systems thinking through game design, the role of novelty, and how to work with a group toward a single focus while still honoring the individual. Along the way we also discuss life lessons learned through playing chess.


Craig: Hello, I’m Craig Constantine.

Jesse: I’m Jesse Danger.

Craig: Today’s guest is someone that I have been tap dancing around interviewing for many months, and that’s mostly because I think of so many different things that we should talk about.

Jesse Danger is an influential figure in the sense that he’s simply doing what he believes he should be doing. And everybody has a different role to play within the larger sphere of movement and play and parkour and Art du Déplacement, and it’s my personal pleasure to get to sit down today and talk [00:01:00] about movement and education and learning.

Welcome, Jesse.

Jesse: Thank you.

From practitioner to facilitator

Craig: How did you get from the doer to the facilitator? So in the beginning, I don’t think that you had visions of becoming a parkour community leader, that you were just following your own path, and parkour was the path that you were taking. So, how did that turn into … Obviously you don’t do everything yourself, but how did that turn into you being one of the key people [00:01:30] who keeps the community moving forward and focused on what it is doing? How did you get from-

Jesse: Well, a big thing for me … I mentioned before the interview that I’ve been running experiments on myself since I was 12. One of the experiments was, “Okay, what happens if you set a time, say 6:30 to 8:30 every Tuesday, you’re going to go out and train? You’re going to do it the same time every week. Let’s see what happens.”

[00:02:00] The first thing that happened is it’s kind of rough to keep the schedule. I don’t even know if it’s helpful.

Craig: Oh no, it’s raining, right?

Jesse: Oh no, it’s raining, oh it’s getting cold, it’s winter. Nobody wants to come out.

Craig: Now I’m by myself.

Jesse: Now I’m by myself. But then what you start to notice is, after I train, I feel better. I feel better for like two days after that, too. So I could just do a few sessions of these a week, and [00:02:30] that would coast me on my feelings. Maybe not get me towards my ambitious goals, but it would help mentally regulate me. And that was hugely powerful.

And this just became this dedication to myself to go out and to train, and my promise to myself every Tuesday is to go out and get the training that I need, whatever that looks like. [00:03:00] Maybe I did a lot of jumping that week and I need to do some kind of recovery, like, I’m going to do that there. And listening to a friend of mine, he said, “If you’re truly connected with how you can heal yourself, then you can heal others.”

Craig: So the Movement Creative, depending on who I think I would talk to, they would have completely different opinions of what MC really is. Is it a business or is this organic creation? And I think in reality, it grew out of, [00:03:30] it became, structurally, legally, organizationally, it became just simply what it needed to become in order to do what you guys wanted to do with it. And I think there’s some really complex philosophical points maybe, that people in the United States need to unpack that are related to business versus the goal of the business.

If you create a business, are you creating a tool [00:04:00] because you need screwdriver to solve a problem, or are you creating a tool because you think the tool would be cool. And I think that’s really a subtle point, and maybe I’m wrong, everybody thinks that’s obvious, but I think that’s a subtle point that a lot of people miss. And they tend to throw the baby, the business, out with the bathwater. And they go, “Well, this particular business didn’t work well.” So they throw all business out, throw all businesses under the bus.

And my question for you specifically, since that was rambling, my question for you specifically is how [00:04:30] do you figure out what to do next when you need to put on your business hat? Or do you not have a business hat, and you just, you know, shoot from the hip all the time?

Jesse: Well, my biggest defining guidance is not to do anything offensive to my soul. I’ve done plenty of things that were offensive to my soul.

Craig: Name two. No, I’m kidding.

Jesse: But that’s [00:05:00] what is guiding me. I don’t think the Movement Creative has to succeed, I don’t think I have to succeed, I don’t think I have to make money, I don’t think I have to eat, I don’t have to breathe or be alive. I’m here on purpose, I want to be here, I want to share this, I want to eat, I want to enjoy life, I want to bring this out into the world. And coming from that core of, “This is a decision. There’s a million things I could do to make money.” This [00:05:30] has to be because I want to share this thing.

And if i want to share this thing, how can I share it in a way I totally agree with? And if it’s not working, then I need to look at myself and figure out what I need to learn or understand better, or even that relationship to business being a tool to help something come to be. That’s still something I’m working on.

Systems thinking through game design

Craig: Honestly, I think the hardest part about interviewing you is I can’t decide [00:06:00] what to talk about. So I ask guests all the time, is there something you would like to share in here? And Jesse just hit me with something I know nothing about, so you wanted to talk about?

Jesse: Systems thinking through game design. So my first school program was teaching parkour as a boss level, at a school called Quest to Learn. It’s partnered with Institute of Play. And I got [00:06:30] in there with a friend of a friend, an acquaintance, he knew that I did parkour and he heard that his students wanted to do it, so we ran a weeklong session, and it went pretty well. So they asked us to run another one. So we’re thinking about running this other one. And then they asked us to run an after school program, asked us to run a summer camp.

And as we are running more and more there, parkour is my [00:07:00] thing, but I want this to be co-created. I want this to be working within what values the school-What’s the school trying to do? What are these students trying to do? What’s important to them? Can we use parkour to teach them something a little bit more.

I’m in the school and I see they break systems down. You have a goal that you’re trying to achieve, and a challenge, what’s stopping you, what’s in your way. You have the space [00:07:30] that you’re in, you have the core mechanics, what you’re going to use to accomplish your goal. You have maybe some tools, some things you can use as well. And there’s rules to any system. There’s some sort of rules.

So I started working with Brendon Trombley, who I just got to go to China with, to coach in December. [00:08:00] Brendan is a game designer. He will design a simple game to teach about tyranny, where kids, every day, once a day, they’re going to vote whether they want to work or rebel. And if enough people rebel, the king [00:08:30] is overthrown and they have to elect a new king. If they work, one gold gets distributed to the king. And then the king gets to distribute it however he wants.

Craig: Oh, okay. There’s a feedback, right.

Jesse: So that’s the whole game. And you play this for one week with sixth graders, seventh graders. They’re going to experience tyranny for a week. But it only takes one minute a day, [00:09:00] and then it’s happening between classes. It’s in the lunch room, and it’s like, “We have to get this.” Or “Let’s get it this round, and then we’ll distribute to just our class.” And, “Well, that didn’t work.”

Craig: That’s what you said last time.

Jesse: But he’ll also make a game…he made a working hair follicle cell in Minecraft. So you could move around…

Craig: In the hair follicle.

Jesse: And [00:09:30] you could make the hair follicle grow one cubit if you operated the cell correctly.

Craig: That’s neat.

Jesse: And it’s like, “Oh, wow. We can really use these to teach something.” So it started being like, “Okay, well maybe we can use some games to teach movement.” And I think it transitioned totally for me, to how can I use movement to teach this idea? And this idea is, we’re playing all these different movement games, [00:10:00] different parkour games, and as we keep running the program, we’re playing games that other students have created in this process.

Then we’re asking students, “Well, what do you want to get better at?” Maybe it’s teamwork, maybe it’s jumping. Whatever it is, it doesn’t matter. And then saying, “Okay, how can we create a game that will make everybody who’s playing it better at this thing?” And that’s awesome. You can take some of your favorite games and you say, “Okay, [00:10:30] what’s the goal of tag? What’s the goal of hide and seek? And what are the core mechanics, what do we learn from this game? What does this game teach us? If we get really good at this game, what will we get really good at?”

And it becomes, “I can take this piece and this piece and I can…” Or, “I don’t like this game at all. Let’s change one small thing about it, now what happens?”

Craig: Completely different animal, right.

Jesse: You say like, “Okay, I want to play tag, but we only have one small room. How are we going to play it?” [00:11:00] You change the space a little bit, you change the system. You just pull one piece out and put one piece in, and you see like, how does this change everything? And to me, that was a hugely empowering tool. And I’m driving up on the car yesterday, everybody’s in the van, and I’m like, “What game can we play in a parking lot?” And I can just see, like…

Craig: All the people coming into the parking lot, like, “What is going on [00:11:30] here? 14 idiots running around in a parking lot.”

Jesse: Yeah, what are my goals? What am I trying to achieve here? I want everybody to move together to have a fun time. Be a little bit confused, warm up…

Craig: Movement check.

Jesse: Yeah, movement check. Create an equal space. Create a space that is too complex and too fresh for anybody to possibly be good at it. Which is also an important thing. We keep making these new games. [00:12:00] We don’t want to be good at these games, these games do not matter at all. We want to be adaptable. We want to be ready to play whatever game, and just be open to it, and see what we can gain. And how powerful is it to tell an eight year old or an eleven year old, “Make a game that you’re going to beat us at. Go out, find a parkour challenge that I can’t do. I’m gonna find one you can’t do, and he’s gonna find one neither of us can do, and then we’re gonna try each other’s challenges until we can figure something out about it.”

The importance of novelty

Craig: I’d like to talk a little bit about [00:12:30] the role of novelty, so part, it seems to me, of what makes those game structures work so well, is novelty levels the playing field. So if the game is novel to everyone in the room, then we’re all starting on the same place. And we have natural talents and strengths, but we’re all starting from the same place.

And it seems to me that you could also talk about the novelty that’s inherent in activities like attending a retreat, or this one is about winter, so we were doing things like going outside, intentionally underdressed, et cetera. And [00:13:00] we were hiking on a snow-packed, snow-covered trail. And I intentionally chose, knowing full well how this would work out, I intentionally chose to go in minimalist footwear with a pair of wool socks, knowing full well that my feet would be soaked, my toes would be frozen. And my intention was to go manage frostnip, was my plan for the day. Can I go and play in an environment where I would normally have on heavy shoes? Because that’s the safe thing, to protect your ankles. That’s the warm thing, that’s the dry thing, that’s the thing my mother is saying, “Put [00:13:30] your shoes on.”

So I’m wondering how necessary, how, I know that it’s important, but how deeply necessary is that novelty? Is it, one must find that novelty? Or if you find it once a month, that’s okay? Or should you seek it constantly? Do you have to get on an airplane and go to the International Gathering, versus just playing in your play lot? Like, how deep is that need for novelty?

Jesse: I think we can create a value [00:14:00] system around which novelty we prefer, but I don’t think that we need to. I think we can see that repetition is impossible, nothing will ever be the same as it was. Things are constantly changing. So everything is novel all the time, and whether or not we notice that is just up to our awareness. We can also intentionally create novelty. We can do something like not wear enough clothes, or challenge ourselves in some small but ridiculous way, and we can see what [00:14:30] comes of that.

And yeah, novelty levels the playing field. What that brings up for me is thinking about how, I think I heard Rafe Kelley say it first, talking about how kids play versus adults play. Adults play to win, and kids play to keep playing. And you can watch kids roughhouse, and they’ll change the rules of wrestling just so that either side can win. And it needs to be like 33/66, you need to have [00:15:00] like a third of a chance to win.

Craig: Yeah, a fair fight.

Jesse: And I noticed the same thing when I went to the International Gathering. We created a game, and there’s like six of us jumping around on these wooden beams. Then it stops being fun or somebody has really figured out a strategy, and it’s like, “We really gotta shake that up.” And we’re able to keep playing new versions of that same game for an hour and a half.

And how much jumping happened in an hour and a half? [00:15:30] Do you have to go to a CrossFit box and say, “You’re gonna do three sets of 60 box jumps.” What happens if you do 3 sets of 60 box jumps? Versus, “I think we jumped like 180 times. It felt good, we had fun, we connected with each other. I made friends in that moment that, I don’t know, I trust, I respect, I want to know more about.” It’s pretty powerful to [00:16:00] me. I know that happens at CrossFit as well.

Craig: Right. But the novelty is some sort of catalyst for—I’ve talked before about single serving size parkour friends—which I learned that from Fight Club. But there’s something about that novelty which makes those people click more quickly. So you could certainly find that novelty at any place. But that novelty is like a gateway drug to making that moment memorable, and making that moment deeper.

Jesse: Yeah. I think what I noticed, [00:16:30] finding all of these things that I was looking for in parkour and in the parkour community, and the people I was surrounding myself with, I thought it had to be that and it had to be in a certain way. It had to be pushing and challenge. It had to be doing something ridiculous, it had to be…and then maybe later it had to be training or having fun, or being able to goof off together. And now, what I see when [00:17:00] I sit in circle, is that I gain a deeper respect for everyone I’m sitting in circle with, and also everyone in my life. And I see elements of myself in different people, and I see ways that I’ve hurt people, ways that I’ve been hurt, new things to pay attention to, ways I can grow. It’s incredible.

Craig: Yeah, all because you’re listening.

Jesse: [00:17:30] Yeah, it’s a practice of listening.

How to focus and progress a group without alienating individuals

Craig: We’ve touched on a couple of different topics, kind of going in different directions, and I generally like to encourage guests to bring up random items. You wanted to talk about something in particular, sort of the bigger picture about our “discipline”. And I’m making air quotes around discipline because I don’t want to put it in a box, in preparation for you to form your thoughts.

Jesse: Not what I thought got me into parkour, but some of the contributing, maybe, larger factors [00:18:00] that brought me to parkour, and how I see resonance in other people that have come into parkour. Maybe they didn’t get along with team sports. They didn’t get along with competition. They wanted to do their own thing. And how that has created an emergence of, “Okay, how do we grow this thing? How do we work together? How do we work together in this isolated individual discipline? How do we integrate?” And I see that one of the most important things for me, in that [00:18:30] process, is working through and unpacking my relationship with competition. And my relationship with teamwork, and my relationship with…

Craig: With authority?

Jesse: Absolutely, my relationship with authority. And seeing what part of this is this fucked-up world, and what part of this is this fucked-up me? And seeing whether or not this is some kind of wounded child inside of me, that I can start to heal around it. [00:19:00] Because ultimately if I am modeling, practicing, and teaching, from that point, from that perspective, then I am limiting who will be able to be affected by this. And I don’t want to do that, because I think that we, in parkour, have come to some fantastic realizations of powerful movement practice that are widely applicable and could really help people in their lives. I don’t [00:19:30] want to limit it to just who I was, but I also don’t want to alienate who I was. I don’t want to create anything that I wouldn’t have wanted to be a part of.

And already, just by being a business, just by being an authority, by having a coach, a leader, somebody telling me what to do, how to do it, when to do it…

Craig: It’s kind of the opposite of what brought you in, right?

Jesse: It’s exactly the opposite of what brought me in. So how do I create that environment and the other environment? How do I bridge that gap, how do I [00:20:00] create an understanding of the discipline that isn’t coming from the perspective of a wounded child? And to me, this is something I see, I notice in myself, I’m like the wounded child and the philosopher. I’m both of these things, and I want that to be fully integrated. I want to be really connected with how I was hurt, but not just from that deep [00:20:30] personal perspective of hurt, but also like, “Yeah, I didn’t really like doing those things. I didn’t get along, I didn’t want to play by the rules, I…”

Craig: Team sports.

Jesse: Yeah. But now, can I go and play a game of basketball? I think with systems thinking through game design, it really taught me, “Oh, I can go play a game of basketball, I can just work on my communication. I can just work on my dribbling. I can just work on one small part of the larger complex, intangible game.” [00:21:00] I was unable to focus on what was, to me, operating on this level of mastery. I can just operate in this level of skill and drill, even if I’m playing in a game where everybody else is operating in mastery, we’re all different. We’re all masters of different things. And being on a team is really respecting and honoring that.

And there’s a power to this intangible direction that a group of people can move towards. But there’s an incredible power to working [00:21:30] together towards a single focus. And that is my challenge now. How do I work with people towards a single focus?

Craig: And facilitate that.

Jesse: How do we grow in this direction? It’s easy to grow in any direction when it’s just you. But if you want to be a part of something larger than yourself, you need to respect the larger social experiment. The larger [00:22:00] chemistry. What is the reaction when these elements are coming together? And is that purely respectful and honoring of everybody’s individual intentions and effort and attention?

Craig: It seems to me that goes both ways. It’s also that person, let’s call them the “broken child”, that we’re talking about, the broken child has to realize that they’re gonna outgrow that, or they’re gonna be healed, or they’re gonna move up or out and into the bigger tribal society. [00:22:30] But there’s also the exact opposite, which is just as important, which is that the tribe has to realize, the tribe’s job is not to fix the broken child.

The tribe’s job is to facilitate whatever the broken child, that’s a horrible metaphor, whatever the broken child needs. That person needs x, or y, or z. And it’s the tribe’s job to provide those things. So the tribe is responsible for that person, the fact that they’re broken, the fact that they need help, the tribe is responsible for that. And they have to facilitate that. They have to figure out what works in this person’s [00:23:00] particular situation. So that’s a very interesting point that you bring up.

Jesse: Yeah. And bringing it up that way, the tribe has to facilitate the needs, like that is ultimately the healing, is the tribe and the person deciding that nobody is broken here. Everybody has different needs, everybody has different value, everybody is bringing something new to the table. Can we hold space for that and allow that to emerge in the way that it will?

Craig: It just brought us all the way back to the circle.

Jesse: Or, [00:23:30] do we have to tell people how to do things, and how they’re wrong, and how they’re not good enough? Is that the only way to grow? Is that the only way to…

Craig: How’s that worked out so far? Let’s go back a couple million years, or last two thousand years, how’s that worked out?

Jesse: Yeah.

Is there a story you would like to share?

Craig: As I say often say, one of my personal passions is collecting stories from other people, because as I say all the time, the passion that comes through when someone tells a story really gives you a glimpse into what makes them who they are. So is there a story you would like to share?

Jesse: Yeah, I had just started parkour, I was [00:24:00] maybe a few years in, and my parents were always really supportive of me. They always gave me a lot of freedom, they let me build crazy stuff in their backyard. I’m not sure why. And they also let all sorts of people from all over the world stay with them. Sometimes lots of people. And the story I want to talk about is PKNY. So it was like, this big national gym. We had like 60 people at my parents’ house and we were barbecuing and we were [00:24:30] hanging out, and people are sleeping on the stairs and…

Craig: And your parents have a 7000 square foot rambling ranch, right?

Jesse: No, no, they have like a typical New Jersey suburban house.

Craig: Right.

Jesse: So yeah, there’s people crammed in the corners and we’ve got a couple old futons, and people have tents in the backyard. [00:25:00] And all these people have come, and this has become kind of normal to me. It doesn’t seem out of the ordinary or anything. I’ve now gone to other people’s places and slept on windowsills. And this is just, this is parkour, this is normal, this is what we do.

And I’m like, okay, I’m thinking about going out and training it at 2 a.m.. You know, we had trained all day. Everybody’s super tired. [00:25:30] The first day of a jam always gasses everybody out, and they always believe that they’re going to have some sort of magical energy…

Craig: Like a superpower I didn’t know about.

Jesse: But we talk about doing a 2 a.m. conditioning session, and I talked to a couple of the other guys who have been around a little bit longer. And they want to each teach and coach something. And at 2 a.m. I get up, and this is also something I did all the time. [00:26:00] It was just normal for me. Like, I’m gonna get out of my house, I’m gonna go, I’m gonna walk down the street, I’m gonna get to the train tracks. These train tracks, it’s a closed line, and you can balance on the train tracks for miles. And just going, we go to a schoolyard, we jump around, we climb around, we go, we’re balancing. And this was two or three times a week, this is not a weird thing for me.

So we’re going, we’ve got like 45 people. It’s 2 a.m.. We’re in a New [00:26:30] Jersey suburb. We go to a football stadium, and we’re doing a reverse quadripedal on the stairs and we’re climbing on the walls, and we’re carrying each other on the football field, and we’re like crawling, and climbing, and fighting, and playing, and challenging each other for just like, a few hours. And so now it’s like 4:30, and we’re heading home. And people wanted [00:27:00] to quit, people cried, we lost a few. There’s no great organizational structure, and no cell phones.

So people did know the way. They were like, “Oh, I’m gonna go to the bathroom. Just wait for me a second.”

Craig: Come back, everybody’s gone.

Jesse: Hour and a half later, they find their way back to the house. And the reason I’m telling this story, is because now I can piece together that that was not, that was a little atypical. [00:27:30] That wasn’t a thing that people did all the time. But a friend of mine said, “Oh, that was a really meaningful experience for me. I still think back to that.”

And that was like a riddle to me. Like, “What do you mean, you think back to that?” So yeah, now I think back to it too.

Life lessons from playing chess

Craig: Can you take me back to a point in time where you weren’t thinking about parkour? Like, give me a snapshot of Jesse, before you knew anything about parkour.

Jesse: [00:28:00] I used to play a lot of chess. I was on a chess team, when I was 9, 10, 11. Go to tournaments all the time. I really loved solving chess problems and playing the game, learning from the game, being a chess player. [00:28:30] I learned a bunch of different openings, you learn all the different moves, and all the different moves that can happen from all the different moves. And I remember meeting a guy, and he was playing in more of a style. He was playing around openings. Like, he’s trying to let someone else take the center so that he can take it back. And I was like, “Whoa, [00:29:00] that’s different. I thought you were supposed to do this other thing, that’s what I was taught. It’s totally different.”

And then I remember playing my uncle, and my uncle is a master. And I’m thinking in combinations, like, “How can I trick him in three moves?” That was my game of chess. How can I trick this person in three moves? How can I win in three moves? How can I get a piece, or a position, tempo, how can I get something in three moves. [00:29:30] And I lose every single game against my uncle.

And he was like, “I don’t know, I didn’t learn to play that way, I learned to play it positionally. I learned to pay attention to what the board is, and move positionally.” And it became a lot more abstract, but he said that to me, and I didn’t play him for a couple years. I played him again, and I won. And [00:30:00] I played him again and I lost. And I think I would still lose most games against him.

But it’s incredible to me, this idea of playing positionally. Looking at the board, not making this plan, this intention, actually, you can hold that possibility. But is each piece of it, also, helping? Is each piece of it also [00:30:30] moving towards your greater intention?

Craig: Is whole picture some unified whole?

Jesse: Yeah. And remembering that this is the small game. This is the finite game, it has an end. The goal in it is to learn something and maybe gain some connection with the person across the table. That has nothing to do with winning, that has nothing to do with trying to trick somebody, that’s a different game. That’s the finite game.

[00:31:00] The infinite game is being this chess player, being this person. What does it all contribute to the larger sense of self and who you are in the world? And that path of integration was groundbreaking for me.

Three words to describe your practice?

Craig: And of course the final question, three words to describe your practice?

Jesse: Resilient, adaptive, and delusional.

Craig: Okay, and why? Or do you care to unpack those, or you [00:31:30] just want to leave it at that?

Jesse: Resilient, I want to keep going, no matter what. Adaptive, it’s maybe the same thing as resilient, but in the moment. The ability to change, of course. And delusional, when I’m moving, I believe that I’m doing the best possible thing I could for the world.

Craig: Well thank you very much, Jesse. It’s a pleasure to talk to you.

Jesse: Thank you.