Friday, January 26, 2007

Learning poor behaviour from video games

This has been the summer holidays where our household has been overrun by video games. It all happened when my son (the 6 year old) went to play at another boy's house and his mother observed him losing dramatically in a video game we had but never let him play. Suffice it to say, he needed skills and plenty of practice. So the flood gates opened.

Basically, the six year old, the eight year old and the thirty six year old have been absorbed for hours and days on end on the GameCube. That has left me and the two year old to our own devices. Of course, the two year old is often amused by being handed a controller and so becomes part of the whole thing, leaving me just to watch.

One of the popular games is Super Mario Cart: Double Dash. My son played this quite a bit. The major event occurred when he finally won a race against his older sister. This was much to our delight but suffice it to say lead to tears, complaints about the intrinsic speed of the motor vehicle and arguments about the aggregate relative allocation of time spent on these games.

I ended up consoling my daughter that ultimately this was all her fault. You see in this racing game, there is an option that has one person drive while the other throws things. My daughter always took the wheel while my son was stuck on back throwing things. I argued that what this meant is that he had developed those skills while she had not. After he had practiced, finally, driving, he was able to tackle the race with a full arsenal and so won. That was part of the story. The real part that I also explained was that he had caught up and so with a bit of luck he might win from time to time so she would have to deal.

Anyhow, she dealt by switching games. This time to Pikmin. This is a game that obsessed our thirty six year old some years back and that obsession has resurfaced. Basically, this game involves some guy who crashes on a planet and in order to get off needs the help of little creatures called pikmin to gather parts and fight dangerous creatures.

Now there is alot of press about violent video games. You know ones that involve shooting, slicing open, punching and all sorts of other things said to cause children to learn poor behaviour. These games getting rated M or some such and so parents avoid them.

On the other hand, we have Pikmin that involves cute little creatures. However, to my observing eyes, it is truly horrific in its message. Basically, the pikmin are slaves. They are born and bred to serve the invading spaceman and to assist him in vast quantities just to leave the planet. A planet he leaves in ecological ruin by killing off natural predators; usually while they sleep. And this killing off is done by the pikmin who are unceremoniously thrown at the dangerous creatures and who died in vast numbers. Some pikmin also die by 'accident' drowning as they can't swim but blindly follow the spaceman across a pond or what have you.

I have argued that perhaps the pikmin need more respect and should have some rights but to no avail. Instead, the thirty six year old can be heard to say, "don't worry about them, you have plenty more back on the ship." Then fifty odd pikmin get abandoned, unprotected on the planet only to get eaten alive or squashed.

So apparently, rampant genocide and slavery are rated G. I am not the only one to think this. When it comes down to it, if we are looking for games that might lead to brutal dictators being bred, look to Pikmin rather than Grand Theft Auto. The latter at least is localised violence rather than the meaningless, short term exploitation of an entire planet.

Repeated punishment

In Slate, Emily Brazelon discusses proposals to outlaw spanking of children. Ultimately, there are two forces at work here. The first is the fact that violence -- even restrained beating -- is outlawed between adult to adult. The second are concerns about what damage spanking children might do. The former is enough for me not to spank our children but the idea of outlawing it for everyone has to be based, at first instance, on the evidence. If it turned out that the evidence was favourable (that is, it did little harm and helped with discipline), then we would have to move on to morals to deal with the policy issue.

But the Slate article tells us that the evidence is mixed but ultimately stacks up against.
This is the sort of research impasse that leaves advocates free to argue what they will—and parents without much guidance. But one study stands out: An effort by University of California at Berkeley psychologist Diana Baumrind to tease out the effects of occasional spanking compared to frequent spanking and no spanking at all. Baumrind tracked about 100 white, middle-class families in the East Bay area of northern California from 1968 to 1980. The children who were hit frequently were more likely to be maladjusted. The ones who were occasionally spanked had slightly higher misbehavior scores than those who were not spanked at all. But this difference largely disappeared when Baumrind accounted for the children's poor behavior at a younger age. In other words, the kids who acted out as toddlers and preschoolers were more likely to act out later, whether they were spanked occasionally or never. Lots of spanking was bad for kids. A little didn't seem to matter.
This seems broadly sensible and likely. It is the repetition of spanking as a punishment that is a problem. It could suggest that parents are unrestrained and relying on it too easily. Alternatively, it could suggest that as a punishment, for some children it does not work. To repeat it over and over again just doesn't help.

This blog hasn't looked at punishment yet. It is a little surprising because economics and game theory have lots to say about it. The economic theory of punishment is simple: set the punishment at just the level to deter behaviour. If the offender understands this, the possibility of punishment will deter the behaviour and no punishment will actually be given. That is, punishments that work, deter behaviour and are not repeated.

So if spanking is used as a punishment, if it is repeated, that means it isn't working. Stack that up with the evidence that it is the repetition of this type of punishment that causes damage and you have a case for outlawing repeated spanking. As Brazelon argues, if that involves outlawing the whole lot and then only prosecuting the worst offenses, then the case for the policy is made.

Notice that notions that spanking is the "only thing a child will understand" do not change the policy here. Repetition indicates it is not being understood the right way and so if that leaves a parent with nothing in the toolkit, so be it. The point here is spanking is not really in the toolkit. The other point, as I heard somewhere, is that this same argument also applies to tourists who need directions; a mild flogging is the only thing they will understand!

But the same principle -- repetition means failure -- applies to any sort of punishment. When it comes down to it, even those like myself who will not engage in any physical pain as punishment, shouting, incarceration and other forms of punishment, are not guaranteed to be any less emotionally damaging at a first order. And their repetition will likely generate the same ill effects as spanking.

In our house, the main form of punishment is the "dreaded" corner; that is, incarceration. Our house doesn't actually have many corners -- some rabid architect did away with them -- but do the place called the corner is a little dark space just inside the door to the garage. What this means is that being sent to the corner means isolation but also a mild chance of being hit by an inswinging door (so I guess we have a chance of physical punishment!).

Many offenses can entail being sent to the corner. Rudeness, tantrums, violence towards siblings, inability to resolve arguments, refusals to obey 'orders.' So the punishment is dealt out quite often. But it is not repeated often for the same offense.

But we also have orders of magnitude of increasing punishments. Corner first, denial of television, sent to room and sent to bed early all can be employed. Occasionally, things get out of hand. One day my eldest daughter at 3 years old, refused to do pretty much anything. Punishments escalated until she was in her room, naked and screaming with no toys. Not a pretty moment nor a proud one for me and it required a second parent to resolve the whole thing. But that is the exception that proved the rule. In that situation, punishments per se, didn't work. Something else was going on that would require more effort to resolve.

Our second eldest son was another matter. Whereas our daughter would be dutifully distressed being sent to the corner (something that indicated to me the message have been delivered), our son wouldn't react at all. He would go to the corner. Sometimes we would hear him singing, "I'm in the corner, I'm in the corner." It was a merry ditty but it often triggered discussions as to whether it was working. Well, forget immediate distress, the truth is, the behaviour wasn't repeated. That is the measure of success rather than looking at distress.

To my mind, there is a part of me that enjoys being innovative about punishments. I like irony. Failure to share a toy properly can lead to confiscation. Confiscation does not mean the toy is removed from sight. No, instead it is put high on a shelf but on display for all to see and not forget. Of course, real irony would be to take the toy and slice it in half. I have threatened this but not had to carry it out.

But you don't always have the time or energy to be creative. What you need then is credibility. As a game theorist, I worked out how to do this and managed to build a reputation in short order. I also know that their imagination is much more active than my own. So when I am not getting compliance with a request or order -- such as getting ready for bathtime -- I stand there and close my eyes and saw "I am thinking up a suitable punishment and if, when I open my eyes, you haven't done x, I will tell you it." Well, a flurry of activity always ensues. I do not think I have ever had to actually think up a punishment and who knows what they think it might be if I ever did! Technically, this is a situation where there is no punishment, just a credible threat of one. It will be interesting to see if this ever comes up in a future therapy session.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Birthdays gone wild

In Time today there is an article on extravagant children's birthday parties. Kids getting picked up in limos, $600 birthday cakes and $38,000 venue fees. The article makes all that seem like the norm. Of course, it is not. But I like most parents are pretty sure parties have become more extravagant than they ever were in our day. At Birthday Party Ideas you can see the lengths some people go to. But I suspect that is more for the challenge of it.

A website, Birthdays without Pressure, has been launched to put a lid on all that. As we all know, parents need restraints and boundaries and so it will draw a sympathetic ear. Here are some suggestions of my own as to how to contain birthday parties to sensible levels.
  1. Party favours: shop for party favours sensibly. What I did was going to one of the bargaining toy outlets and find a bunch of $5 educational toys or small lego sets that were remaindered. One year I got a heap of scientific experiments. They parents loved it. They all put it down to my role in the community being an educator. The truth was it was from my role in the community of being cheap.
  2. Activities: no more than one activity per party. Parties are ridiculous if they take place at an exciting place (like the zoo) but then also have a magic show and what have you. The marginal value of an extra activity is probably negative. Don't do it.
  3. Combinations: my belief is that the biggest cost of increasing class sizes in school has been party proliferation. When school begins, everyone from the class is invited. So for a class of 24 kids, that means that you are attending a party every second weekend. Add another child in your family and that is one a week. It creates a strain. The better solution is the amalgamate parties in the class. My preferred outcome would be to nominate one day per quarter as birthday day and then combine all of the kids parties from that quarter. I could only ever get one or two parents to go along with this and so it never happened. However, we have been able to successfully combine at least one other birthday with ours from nearby dates. It literally halves the cost of an equivalent party and parents love it too.
  4. Have more children: now I don't mean invite more children. Instead, as you have more children the average extravagance of your party will decline. This is because by the time the second and third child come around, you are done with all the party planning. They just get less extravagant.
  5. Cost saving: the final suggestion is to look for profit opportunities in parties. As regular readers know, we did this just last year without awarding winning tupperware party. It takes some entrepreneurship and some luck but there is nothing like complete offsets.
I just took the Birthday Party Pressure test at Birthdays without Pressure. Here is the result:

The scale is from 1 to 20, so this isn't too bad. What seems to have earned us extra bonus points was my submitting the party suggestion for the Birthday Parties Ideas contest. Too much pressure apparently.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Harford on Toilet Training Incentives

As regular readers of this blog know, there is some subtlety to the application of economic incentives for toilet training. Our experiences are documented here, here and here. And we are currently in the midst of doing this again for Child No.3.

Tim Harford, who has written the successful book The Undercover Economist, has just discovered these issues and writes in the FT:

Let me start with the elder Miss Harford, who this week demonstrated that she is well capable of controlling her bodily functions. She peed on the floor five times in quick succession in an attempt to divert her mother from feeding the younger Miss Harford.

Fine. She knows how to use the potty, so all that is now required is the right incentive. Chocolate coins turn out to be the sort of currency a two-year-old understands. Successful use of the potty earns such a coin. It works, and is money well spent.

Yet two days into the contract, problems are emerging. What is “successful use of the potty”? She doesn’t always make it there in time. But at this early stage, we choose to accentuate (and reward) the positive. In a month’s time I will be less impressed, but can we really move the goalposts then?

Even straightforward incentives can be manipulated. The great pole vaulter, Sergei Bubka, repeatedly broke the world record by a centimetre - and earned a cash bonus every time. I have visions of the near future in which Miss Harford empties her bladder one drop at a time in order to scoop bagfuls of chocolate coins.

As we are discovering, apparently black-and-white matters of performance can quickly become shades of grey. It is much more tempting to resort to discretion: if we’re happy with Miss Harford’s performance, chocolate coins will be forthcoming.

This sounds a bit like your boss’s vague promise to review your pay some time the year after next. Employees know that bosses are lying weasels and wisely ignore such empty words. Daughters know that parents are lying weasels too, which is why we must keep our incentive payments as unambiguous as possible.

Suffice it to say, Tim Harford's worries are likely to become reality and so the game for him is truely afoot.