Friday, April 27, 2012

Is the preschool rat race a sign of doom?

[This post was originally published at the Parentonomics blog at Forbes on 22nd April 2012]

It is common fodder these days to take a look at what the super-rich are doing and frown. Sometimes, it is easy like this account of a day living like a billionaire. Other times it is a little harder like the $180,000 nanny; after all, a nanny is getting a great income as a result. In today's New York Times, economist Robert Frank takes aim at pre-school.
In education, the problem is that a quality is inherently relative. A good school is one that compares favorably with other schools in the area. Although a school’s quality depends on much more than the size of its budget, additional resources can obviously help.  And given the vast sums of money that some parents now have at their disposal, an explosive — and largely unproductive — arms race is inevitable. 
Tuition at elite preschools has been soaring,  sometimes to much more than $30,000 a year and occasionally within sight of $40,000 — or above that of some prestigious colleges. Yet excess demand persists, and jockeying for acceptance is the subject of much New York lore.
Frank suggests that capping fees can stop this problem or at the very least, more taxes on the wealthy to curb such spending. And maybe that is just his point: the rich should have less because they spend irresponsibly. But as the article mostly deals with the pre-school problem I thought I'd focus on that.

If you have the means, is spending an inordinate amount on pre-school a bad thing? Well, it isn't clear that it is bad for children. Study after study has demonstrated that if you are going to put your money somewhere in the education system, pre-school is the best place. Getting children resources early is better than trying to correct mistakes later. To be sure, these studies are aimed at getting more resources better placed for children in poor families and so cannot easily translate to situations where parents are wealthy. But it stands to reason that it is possible this expenditure could be doing some good. At the very least, Frank's entire argument is premised on that: unless early childhood education is doing good why spend $40,000 a year on it, if it isn't going to translate into good outcomes later on?

But let's assume for the moment that the expenditure is as frivolous as having a luxury good or any other good designed to "show off." Is there harm in the expenditure? If parents are racing to spend more of their own money on education, that surely alleviates the budget issues of public education. Of course, that extra money may be going somewhere in particular, perhaps to higher teacher salaries. Once again, it is usually the case these days that we want teachers to be paid more. This is not something to frown about.

Perhaps it is more subtle. Higher pay for teachers at elite pre-schools filter down to upward wage pressure for teachers elsewhere. The good teachers end up with the wealthy children. If that is the case, it is an issue of equity -- good teachers do matter. But there is also a longer-run issue. Even if public teacher pay remains low, the upside possibility of elite pre-school pay may cause more college students to consider that career path. So in the long-run we may end up with better teachers. But I'll admit, this is a possibility. If so, it is a measurable one: we can look at the New York situation and see if the change in teacher mix is causing an issue for the non-wealthy.

Another possibility is that there is a selection effect on the children side. The elite pre-schools aren't just caring about money but also, as part of that, about the type of kids they are admitting. If they are selecting on academic potential, so be it. If they are selecting on behavior, then where are the poorly behaved children ending up? This could be stretching the resources of other schools more but it is also the case that being wealthy does not translate automatically into well-behaved kids so it isn't necessarily an issue with the amount spent on schools but the notion that schools are free to select whom they want.

My point here is that the notion that what the wealthy are doing with their money is spending it on their kid's education seems way down the list of things that we should be concerned with regarding income inequality. Indeed, it represents an opportunity. The wealthy want to spend more to ensure that their kids get a good education. That is great news. What that means is that we can delve into the system to ensure that some of the potential side-effects of that don't arise. For instance, in order to receive government accreditation, pre-schools may have to admit some share of students from different backgrounds or some other selection device. I will not pretend to know here how precisely that could be done. The point is that there is money going to education and if there was required to be a little more in order to improve outcomes for others, there is scope here. This all sounds like more of an opportunity than a huge concern.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

10 Ways to Evolve Horror Games

Around 10 years ago, a lot of very interesting and ground breaking horror games were released. These include Silent Hill (1999), Fatal Frame (2001), Forbidden Siren (2003) and a few more. Since then not much has happened in the video-game horror genre and little has evolved. So what exactly can be done to push horror in video-games further? To answer that I will here present a list of my top 10 things I think could take horror game to the next level:

1) Normality
In most games the player usually starts out in some strange and not very normal situation. In our own game, Amnesia, the story takes place in early 19th century and has the protagonist waking up in gothic castle. Not something very easy to relate to. Other games see the player has some secret agent, has them trapped in a spooky town/village, etc. All of these are very abnormal situations, and something few of us will ever find ourselves in.

However, much of the good horror in other media starts of very mundane. They build on the having the audience strongly relating to what is taking place and being able to draw close parallels to their own lives. For horror games this would mean to establish a very familiar situation and then slowly introduce the horror there. The goal is for the terror to not just be inside the game's virtual world, but to reach into the real as well.

2) Long Build-up
Most games want to kick off the action as soon as possible. Even games with a drawn-out introduction, like Silent Hill 2, introduce the horror elements very early on. The problem is that sustaining a really high level of terror is only possible shorter bursts and the more the audience has to contrast to, the greater the peaks intensity will feel. Ring (Japanese version) is a prime example of this. While it does kick off the horror early on, the whole movie is basically one long build-up to a final scare moment. Horror video-games need to embrace this sort of thing more, but in order to do so a two common traits need to let go. First of all, the game must rely a lot less on a repeatable core mechanic, since we want the player to deal with actual horror elements as little as possible. Secondly, we must perhaps revise the game length and be satisfied with an experience lasting three hours or less, so that all focus can be on establishing a single (or just few) peaks of terror.

3) Doubt
Many of the best horror stories raise the question whether a phenomena really exists. Is the protagonist really seeing ghosts, or  is it all in her mind? Since other media like film and books are very grounded in our reality, this sort of thing comes natural (although it is still not always easy to sustain). However, in video-games the player is in a virtual world with its own rules and entities, and this leaves little room for the player to doubt if anything could really exist. Solving this is not an easy feat though, but I think a first step is to embrace the previous two entries in this list, normality and a long build-up. If the player can relate to the game as "real-life" and gets enough time to establish this idea, then she will eventually start to compare any features of the virtual world with the real. Eventually she might doubting if the ghosts, monsters or whatnot are really there. Also, some sort of sanity mechanic can also do the trick, but it must be a lot more subtle then any previous attempt. The player cannot see it as a game system, but has to view it has a feature of their own mind. This is not an easy thing to establish, but that is not the same as it is impossible.

4) Minimal Combat
I have talked plenty about this before (see here and here for instance), but it is worth stating again. The worst thing about combat is that it makes the player focus on all the wrong things, and makes them miss many of the subtle cues that are so important to an effective atmosphere. It also establishes a core game system that makes the player so much more comfortable in the game's world. And comfort is not something we want when our goal is to induce intense feelings of terror.

Still, combat is not a bad thing and one could use it in ways that evokes helplessness instead. For instance, by giving the player weapons that are ineffective the desperation of the situation is further heightened. This is a slippery slope though as once you show a weapon to the player it instantly puts them in an action game mindset. That does not mean weapons and combat should be abolished, but that one should thread very carefully, and finding the right balance is a big challenge for future horror games.

5) No Enemies
By this I do not mean that there should be no threats to the player lurking about. What I mean is that we need to stop thinking of any creatures that we put into the game as "enemies". The word enemy makes us think about war and physical conflict, which is really not the focus in a horror game. It also makes us think less about why these creatures are in our virtual world. The word enemy is such an easy label to put on other beings, and then not worry about anything except that we need to destroy or avoid them. This is how wars work after all.

If we instead think of these creatures as merely inhabitants of our virtual worlds we need to ask ourselves why they are there, what their motivations are and so forth. This brings a new depth to the game which is bound to color the player's imagination. If we can establish our hostile beings as calculating, intelligent beings with an agenda, we vastly increase the intensity of any encounter and can make the terror so much stronger.

6) Open world
By this I do not mean that horror games should strive to be GTA-like sandbox experiences, but simply that they should allow more freedom of movement. Most horror games set up a very strict path for the player to follow even if they have, like Silent Hill, a large world to explore. Instead I think the games should allow for the player to skip certain areas and to go about in the world in a free way. This increases the player's feeling of being in a real world, increasing any emotions associated with it. This is also closely related to the goal of achieving normality. Without a forced structure and more open world, it should be easier to give the sense of everyday life.

7) Agency
Horror games are so effective because they can make the player feel as they are there when the horror happens. Other media, especially in the horror genre, have to try really hard to accomplish this, but for games it comes almost automatically. It is then a waste that many horror games does not take advantage of this properly and destroy the sense of agency in all kind of ways. By far the biggest culprit are cut-scenes, especially when they take away control at scary moments when the player's actions should matter the most. Another problem is connected with the open world entry above and the player constantly being fed where to go and what to do.

The way to go forward here is to make sure that the player is involved in all actions that take place. The scenes that are so often left out (and replaced by cutscenes) are often vital aspects of the horror experience. Whenever possible, the playing should be doing instead of simply watching.

8) Reflection
The video game medium can better than any other give sense of responsibility. If something, caused by the protagonist, happens on the screen then the player has been part of that. This opens up for the game to be able to reflect itself upon the player and to make players think about themselves while playing. Games have been trying to do this in the past, but I do not think it has come very far yet. So called moral choices are very common in games, but are hampered by being obvious predefined selections (chose A, B or C) and by being connected to the game dynamics (making the choice more about what is best for the player stats wise). I think that the choices need to come out as much more organic for the player to truly feel as if they have caused them. To be able to do this a strong sense of agency (as mentioned in the previous entry) must be achieved and the player must truly feel like it was their own choice (which ties into the "open world"-entry above).

I also think that this can be taken a lot further than simply testing the player's ethics. It can put player in very uncomfortable situations and to really make them evaluate themselves as human beings. The game could also lure them into mind states that they never thought they had in them. It can explore the nature of good and evil and similar subjects in away that would be impossible other medium. In the end this can lead to some really personal and terrifying experiences.

9) Implications
What really brings some horror home is how it has some kind of implications in real life. This can be something like the fear of TV-sets that Ring manages to achieve, or the bleak and disturbing universe that Lovecraft's stories paint. Elements like these are almost entirely missing from video games and again it ties into other entries on the list. Normality is probably the most important, and if we are able to achieve that it will be much easier to tie stuff of the game into everyday life. A game that can achieve this successfully takes the horror to a new level, by being something that the player carries with them long after having put down the controller.

10) Human interaction
The final entry will also be the hardest one: to bring human drama into the game's actions. Most horror in other media does not have the phenomena/situation per se as its focus, but instead its effect on people. The Exorcist is a great example of this, and so is The Shining. However, in video-games the main actions still revolve around inanimate objects or brainless foes. By having the player's actions being directly tied to other people, the horror gets so much more personal and intense.

Achieving this is not an easy task though. My opinion is that it is not a technical problem, but one of design and to place a larger burden on the player's imagination. Simulating a fully (or at least seemingly) sentient  human being is a really hard problem. Simple solutions like dialog trees come often out as stiff and prefabricated. Instead one should go the route of simple actions, like Ico for instance, and build upon that by being vague and hinting instead of trying replicate a book or movie. Exactly how to go about is an open question, but the any steps closer to success can mean a lot of the horror experience.

End Notes
That concludes my 10 steps for better horror games. It will be fun to see if they are still valid 10 years from now or not. If you have any other ideas on how to evolve horror games, please say so in the comments!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

It's time to give children the vote

[This post was first published on the Parentonomics blog at Forbes on 20th April 2012]

Children can't vote. It is the most universally applied principle of democracy that exists today. In most countries, the voting age is 18. In some, it is higher. Some countries have 21 as the voting age. Japan has 20. Austria stands out with a voting age of 16; unless, of course, an 16 year old Austrian wants to vote in European elections in which case they have to wait two years.

But if you think about it, there is no reason why the minimal voting age is so high. Do children have human rights that need to be defended? Absolutely. Are children impacted on by government policies? For sure. And are children forced to pay taxes (and remember this was a huge basis for the fight for American independence from Great Britain; "no taxation without representation")? They sure are. These notions alone tell us that they need a voice.

So what are the objections to enfranchising children? The first that pops to mind is the usual -- they are too young to make an informed judgment. Look if "making an informed judgment" were the criteria for participation in elections -- and not just Presidential but all of the ones adults participate in -- then we would have to be much more careful screeners of current voters than we are now. Have you ever cast a ballot without knowing what it was about? On many issues, it could be argued that making an informed judgment decreases with age. Consider rules about privacy on the Internet or rules in relation to private moral issues such as gay marriage. Being a fresher voice with the times may make you more active, more concerned and more informed than older counterparts more fixed in their views. In any case, this type of view is just a short jump away from the notion that children do not have the intellectual capacity to make voting voices and we should recall that the same argument motivated the lack of enfranchisement of women and racial minorities (and in some countries racial majorities) for decades and centuries.

The second objection is that children are unduly influenced by others. Perhaps they are influenced by the media. Of course, on that score, it appears that adults are equally susceptible and the fact that children might watch different media may be a good thing for democracy. Perhaps teachers will have an undue influence. That may be worrisome but there are worse outcomes and, in any case, the political diversity of teachers is probably high enough that no single teacher could hold sway over large groups of children. Certainly there is less risk of that than some celebrity holding sway over large groups of adults. Finally, perhaps parents will have too much influence. Again, wasn't that the reason why women were denied a vote -- on the claim that their husbands would have that influence when, more likely, it was the fear that they wouldn't that caused resistance to change.
The third objection is that very young children can't frame the issues or understand what the candidates are proposing. So if we push things to the limit, it is hard to imagine babies, toddlers or children who cannot read being able to physically vote. But this is no argument to wait until they are 18 (when they can drink as well as vote).  This is an argument to wait until they are 8 or perhaps pass some basic civics test.

Consider the upside of enfranchising children. For starters, there would be engagement on a whole set of issues to do with them and also with families as a result of allowing children to vote. Now some have proposed that perhaps a child's vote can be held by their parents as a proxy until they are of age (see this discussion by Miles Corak on Demeny voting). It is true that this will bring family issues more attention but, of course, children may differ in their views on a number of issues from their parents.

But more importantly, by giving children the vote, they will be engaged early on and more interested in policy issues so as to formulate their own views. Democracy flourishes on engagement as much as it does on who gets to vote. Children may well be more likely to take this right seriously and also to take a longer-term perspective on many issues. That was certainly the case with my own children when I gave them a voice in my own voting.
Voting (Photo credit: League of Women Voters of California)
When it comes down to it, if you are sceptical about all this, when you look into your heart as an adult, aren't you worried that by giving children the vote, that policies will change in a whole set of ways you don't want? That children won't share your views and that politicians will respond to that by acting in ways you don't want them to act. Perhaps you have an image of candy subsidies although you might want to check on that when you look at what happens with sugar in most countries!

And if that is really your objection then what you are saying is that you don't want a group to have the vote precisely because it will give them political power and reduce your own. And that is about as anti-democratic a view as is it possible to have.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Mirror Mirror, off the wall

[This post was originally published on the Parentonomics blog at Forbes on 15th April 2012]

This weekend we took the kids (13, 11 and 7) to see Mirror, Mirror; the new Snow White comedy starring Julia Roberts and Nathan Lane. Now you might think that I would be able to review this movie without giving away plot details. After all, you all know the plot, right?

Well, think again. Now the basics are still there. The Queen (Julia Roberts) is jealous of Snow White and orders her killed. That leads to her meeting the Seven Dwarves and then eventually setting in a sequence of events that unseats the Queen. Oh yes, and there is a prince that is a big part of the picture. But otherwise, things evolve rather differently. 

As one would hope for in a modern retelling of a fairy tale, the princess -- here Snow White -- is quite independent (a la Fiona in Shrek or Drew Barrymore's Cinderella inEver After). Now that often means that the prince has to be relegated to some form of uselessness. Not this time. The writers go to great lengths to put the two on an equal footing which is more that can be said for the prince in his battles with the dwarves. For me, there was a struggle in achieving that but, for my kids, they loved the whole thing; and we have a mix of a girl, a boy and another girl who would ordinarily refuse to admit she enjoyed any movie with a princess other than Leia. 

This movie also retained the interest of the adults. Now the idea there was to have the story told from the Queen's perspective. If it were truly an adult movie that might have allowed some sympathy for her, for example, a background story that made us understand how she came to be so vain. But no. The Queen is a wretched as she is in Disney or any other version of Snow White. And what that means is that she is not the sole focus of attention and the story drifts well towards the third person. This is somewhat disappointing as it is that challenge that would have made this terrific for adults. In the end, we are left to appreciate some quite funny moments and the little points where the retelling differed from what we had experienced in the past.

Now my criteria for kids movies is simple: you want to take kids to the ones that are enjoyable and hope to fog your kids off on the ones that are excruciating for adults. On that score, for Mirror Mirror you want to be strategic. Offer to take your kid's friends to this one and allow them to 'return the favor' for some other movie (not Brave of course) in the summer.

Can you outsource your child care on a plane?

[This post was originally published on the Parentonomics blog on Forbes on 14th April 2012]

In a recent post, I noted that Air Canada's policies that restricted seat selection might leave some other adult sitting next to, and by default, taking care of your kid on a flight. I also noted that might not be so bad, for you, the parent. Now while Air Canada's approach seems somewhat strange (asking parents for money to sit next to their kids), there was the hint of an opportunity here. Sometimes parents might pay good money to not to sit next to their kids.

Enter Nanny in the Clouds, a service that caters for just that [HT: Dean Karlin]. This is a web service that allows parents to identify other adults on a flight who might take care of their kids. And if you are the sort of person who wouldn't mind taking care of someone's kids on a flight, the service lets you signal your availability. All going well, if you find a match, a price is negotiated, Nanny in the Clouds gets $10, and everyone is happy.
There are several interesting issues associated with this idea. Basically, Nanny in the Clouds is creating a labor market where none currently exists.
Audio-animatronic versions of Mary Poppins and...
Audio-animatronic versions of Mary Poppins and Bert in The Great Movie Ride. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That's a good idea but it is really only going to work if its liquid -- that is, if there are lots of people registered and matches can be made. In the best scenario, one entrepreneurial nanny is able to claim a couple of rows of seats at the back of the plane and earn money from the flight. Indeed, people might actually be able to justify flying just to offer nanny services. There could be something there but, as Dean Karlin points out, surely then it would make sense for airlines rather than a third party service to offer to broker some deals. After all, they routinely try to facilitate 'exchanges' between passengers when flights are over-booked.

But there is another problem. Let's consider for the moment, who is going to want this service? Now some well-off parents already have nannies for which airline duty is part of the deal. So this is probably for a lower income tier. The best opportunity is for situations where the parents want to sit in business or first class and leave the children back in coach. And if we add to the mix a long-haul flight, the gains from trade seem enormous. In that world, this market will work well indeed.

That, however, is not the only type parent that might find this opportunity worth the trouble and money. Specifically, the parents of 'lemons' might find this worthwhile. The term 'lemon' here refers to used cars that are of poor quality. So if you are a buyer of a used car, you are worried about getting a lemon. So too if you are a potential supplier of cloud-based nanny services. The whole deal may be worthwhile if a child just needs to be supervised but might otherwise happily take care of themselves or, more generally, behave well. But it could be very costly indeed for the nanny if the child is a 'lemon' which could include poor behavior or alternatively being a poor flyer. It would be hard for would be nannies to negotiate air sickness contingent pricing.

The problem, of course, is that parents know their children and so if you, as a nanny, priced in the risk of getting a lemon, parents of good children will not take the deal and you will just be left with lemons. To be sure, there may be gains from trade here but it is also the case that the market is thinner as a result and might take a while to sort itself out. Nanny in the Cloud could help by allowing parents to rate nannies but also nannies to rate children. But I suspect that last part might be somewhat controversial.

It would be interesting to see how this works. Alas, I have both stingy and have children who, at least on flights, aren't lemons. So I won't be availing myself of the service. But for anyone who does, the comment forum here is open for stories of your experiences.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

My Little Pony will Blast you into Oblivion!

[This post was originally published at the Parentonomics blog at on 30th March 2012].

That is precisely what you will get if you try out this great new site: What the site allows you to do is take the audio from one toy advertisement (say, Battleship) and place it
Lego Friends
Lego Friends (Photo credit: Per Olof Forsberg)
with the video of another toy advertisement (say, My Little Pony). While the result is to tell us what we already know -- toy manufacturers treat boys and girls differently -- it does so in a beautifully stark manner. That makes it worth your attention if only to see how similar the structure and narrative of these ads are despite their markedly different tone and orientation.

Actually, GenderRemixer specifically target Lego that has been in the news lately releasing Lego sets designed specifically for girls. If you try this tool outyou can play around with those advertisements too. Lego recently released 'Lego Friends' that were designed to be played with as well as built. This all came from Lego's own research that suggested a gender difference in how kids play with Lego (boys build and girls play they found). And, of course, given that no such research that is devised to determine differences in average behavior can possibly suit all comers, that generated controversy. In my household, with two girls and one boy, 'Lego Friends' were completely unappealing. Why? My eldest daughter (13) is only interested in building stuff from sets. My son (11) wants to build set to understand how he can change them. While my youngest daughter (7) loves the Star Wars sets so she can reenact the scenes from the movies. Now, of course, that last bit is consistent with Lego's research about play versus building. But she wanted to play with the sets related to the movie she loves and not some alternative Lego structured scenario. 

Marketing is a tricky business but, as a parent, I'm sensitive to the messages marketing sends. Despite years of progress so reasons that have long kept me troubled, the market still finds it worthwhile to target genders differently. They do this for adults as well as for children. But it is the children we worry about because we worry about reinforcement of stereotypes. In my case, we have ruthlessly used the hard hand of parental preference to stamp these things out. While for our eldest, we achieved our goal (perhaps too far), for our youngest, we got Star Wars but we also could not rid ourselves of American Girl Place. Call it all just part of the ongoing battle of wills.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Worse than baggage

The best thing you can say about kids and travel is that they are worse than baggage. Now Westjet solves the problem. They will make a ton.

GPS Enabled Sippy Cup

Over at Forbes I discuss an exciting new breakthrough in sippy cup technology. Finally, the inclusion of GPS! I believe this is my first scoop.