On cooperation in gaming.

On cooperation in gaming.

vowminiatureAt a buddy’s house recently, I played a cooperative board game.  In Vanguard of War, each player controls a character defending a church from an army of demons.  Many games of this ilk have been produced recently – Pandemic and Ghost Stories are among the most popular.

But my impression is that these games are best with a single player.  You’re attempting to solve a (typically randomized) puzzle created by the designer.  Maybe you’re the sort of person who enjoyed doing math homework with friends – if so, this type of game would probably be fun to play with a team.

Perhaps it’s a failure of my own education that I rarely worked through chemistry or physics problems in groups.  After all, few really big puzzles are solved alone.  To the best of my knowledge, no tech company of one is going to stop climate change or start a colony on Mars.

But something I look for in games – in any group project, really – is for the identity of the participants to matter.  There’s an increasing awareness that people from different backgrounds will often come up with different approaches to even highly technical problems.  A world in which only white males hold management positions at tech companies doesn’t just produce economic and social inequality – it also makes crappier technologies.

themindSome cooperative games have an element of this.  I played The Mind recently, in which players are dealt random cards from a numbered deck of a hundred, and without communicating (other than wait times) are supposed to dole out their cards in ascending order.  Any set of players should converge toward the game’s simple solution (waiting a constant duration per card number before tossing down your next), but it was still fun to play.  I imagine that a kid could enjoy ten or more games, especially with different teammates.  Will you reach a rhythm soon enough?

But in many of other cooperative games, the identities of the actual humans sitting around the table don’t matter.  If you’re talking through decisions with your teammates, each player’s personality is subsumed by the game.  In something like Vanguard of War, where each player is the primary controller of a single character, that game character’s personality matters more than your own.

And let’s say you play a game several times: with many cooperative board games, the way to maintain an interesting challenge as you improve is for your teammates to play worse.  Otherwise the game becomes easier precisely when you need it to be more difficult.  When a game is a pre-set puzzle, you and your friends can’t keep having fun by growing in experience together.

This is unfortunate, because I’d wanted to introduce cooperative games to my kids.  Isn’t that what all parents want?  For their kids to get along, to be the sort of friendly, helpful ally that people are happy to work with later on in life?

hiveBut then I realized that the best thing for me to do is simply change how I think about playing games.  A two-player “competitive” game like Go or chess (or Hive, a recent household favorite) doesn’t need to seem adversarial.

In chess, each person is given an objective, and, yes, those objectives are mutually exclusive.  But completing the objective isn’t really the point.  The purpose of the game is to have fun solving puzzles, and the person you’re playing with creates the puzzles for you.  The players in chess actually are cooperating, because they’re both setting aside reality in favor of an arbitrary set of rules that both follow for the duration of the game – and the game is only interesting if both players work together to create it.  If anyone doesn’t follow the expected rules, it wrecks the puzzle.

Go_boardPart of what makes “competitive” games interesting is that both players are striving to win – to capture the king, control the most territory, what have you.  A human consciousness is manipulating the puzzle that you’re trying to solve in real time.  Of course, this works best when both players have a fair chance of completing their objectives, which is a reason why I like Go better than chess.  There’s a built-in mechanism to accommodate less-experienced players.  And until the players have “solved” the game (like knowing the exact best strategy in tic-tac-toe or checkers), they’ll continue to have a fun challenge as they grow in experience together.

So I shouldn’t have been worried about introducing competitive games to my children.  I just needed to change the way I think about them.  If only I’d paid more attention to ecologist Mark Bekoff!

Bekoff has studied play for years.  In The Emotional Lives of Animals, he writes:

bekoffI was surprised to learn that [dogs’] bows are used not only right at the beginning of play to tell another dog “I want to play with you,” but also right before biting, accompanied by rapid side-to-side head shaking, as if to say, “I’m going to bite you hard but it’s still in play.”  Bows are also used right after vigorous biting, as if to say, “I’m sorry I just bit you so hard, but it was play.”  Bows serve as punctuation, an exclamation point, to call attention to what the dog wants. 

Infant dogs and their wild relatives learn how to play fairly using play markers such as the bow, and their response to play bows seems to be innate.  Pigs use play markers such as bouncy running and head twisting to communicate their intentions to play.  Jessica Flack and her colleagues discovered that juvenile chimpanzees will increase the use of signals to prevent the termination of play by the mothers of their younger play partners.  Researchers who study the activity always note that play is highly cooperative.  I can’t stress enough how important it is that play is carefully negotiated, that it is fine-tuned on the run so that the play mood is maintained.  There are social rules that must be followed.

Just the other day, my kid asked if we could play a game of “chest.”  I momentarily demurred.  But now that I’ve had time to reflect, I know – I don’t want to play against her, but I will happily play many games of chess with her.

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And probably with this guy, too.

On playing outdoors, and allergies.

IMG_3797K has been on a big kick reading books about sending students outside.  Obviously, I approve.  Being outdoors seems to make most humans happier, and people who spend time outside seem more likely to care about preserving our environment.  Plus, K even has scholastic reasons to ask students to sit contemplatively outside — it’s reasonable for students in a college-level biology course to practice fieldwork.

I try to get N outside a lot, too, but with her it’s probably not reasonable to use “learning to do fieldwork” as an excuse.  She’s a bit young to practice the extreme patience needed for successful fieldwork, so I thought it might be worthwhile summarizing a few of the recent studies on exposure to the world, allergies, and autoimmune disorders.

I should declare my conflict of interest upfront, though.  I’m extremely biased because I want you, dear reader, and your friends, and your family, to spend more time outside.  Unless you’re, I don’t know, living in a tent, roasting carrots & beats & whatnot over a firepit every evening… then you’re probably outside plenty.  It’s the rest of us, those who lead more normative modern lives, sleeping in air-conditioned homes, zipping about town inside our cars, hoofing it down concrete sidewalks, spending long hours pecking at our computers, who could use a bit more outdoor time.  I’ll try my best to keep this short so that you can rush outside and play, but if you feel antsy & want to go out now, go ahead!  I won’t begrudge your priorities!

The basic idea behind all of this was proposed by David Strachan in the article “Hay Fever, Hygiene, and Household Size.”  He observed that younger siblings were less likely to get asthma and proposed that the messy, disease-prone lifestyle of multi-child families was protecting those younger children.  As in, getting sick more often as a child, and having an absentminded older sister who tracks mud through the house, might lead to better health as an adult.

IMG_4568Which is a lovely theory.  At birth, our immune systems are relatively ignorant.  They instinctively know that they should destroy things — we are the product of untold millennia of selection for those who can survive routine infections — but they don’t know what they should destroy.  Exposure to pathogens trains our immune systems to recognize & attack those pathogens.  Repeated exposure to innocuous substances trains us to ignore those ever-present harmless components of our environment.

The modern world is very clean, though.  We wash our hands.  We eat less dirt.  We’re less likely to even walk barefoot through the dirt.  Most people in the United States don’t pull their drinking water from a river that another tribe upstream defecates into.  And that’s good.  We get sick less.  Children are more likely to survive to adulthood.  But it also means that many people’s immune systems encounter fewer pathogens than they “expect.”

If you’re in the market for a really evil social psychology experiment, I’ve got one for you: find a small child & every day explain to that child that he should expect to get into at least one fight per week at school.  Tell him, “There are so many bullies out there!  You’ll have to be ready for them!  Don’t let them catch you off guard.  One fight a week!  Maybe two!  It’s a jungle and they prey on the weak!”

Once that kid starts kindergarten, even if it’s in a total fluff district where his classmates are all sunshine and rainbows, he’s probably going to get into fights.  Because he’ll assume those fights are supposed to happen, so he’ll blow tiny slights way out of proportion… you used the blue crayon too long!  Pow!

IMG_4696The hygiene hypothesis purports that our immune systems are the same.  They expect fights, and so if we put them into too-clean environs, they become the bullies they’ve been warned about (bonus points if you’re thinking about the shipwrecked sailer from The Watchmen now).  Immune systems can rage against innocuous compounds — those are allergies.  Or, worse, they get so incredibly bored, they’re expecting fights and everyone is so incredibly nice, that they begin to attack their own hosts.  As in, our own bodies.

Fighting off foreign infections helps the immune system learn to distinguish self from other, but if there are too few outsiders, the immune system just starts wailing on a mirror.  Wondering why the kid on the other side can’t ever be knocked down.

Autoimmune disorders are the pits.

And for years it seemed like there was nothing to do, once you contracted an allergy, except avoid the thing that triggers your itching and snurfling.  Or, worse, triggers your anaphylactic shock, dizziness, maybe death from loss of breathing.

But there might be hope!

Recently, researchers have been testing whether you can retrain an immune system to ignore innocuous compounds.  For instance, peanuts: by eating a small amount of peanuts every day you might be able to train your immune system to just leave them be instead of going berserk trying to pick a fight.  Because it’s the immune system’s fit of rage that kills people, not the peanuts themselves.  If peanuts are always around, that familiarity might breed lassitude.

(NOTE: there are a lot of references for this, and theoretically the idea is sound.  But let’s say you or someone you know has a peanut allergy — please DO NOT try to cure yourself this way without contacting a medical professional & undertaking the project in a hospital setting.  If you want to look up more papers on this, go to PubMed and search for “oral immunotherapy,” but please note that very low doses of the allergens are used, and even with those very low doses some people can go into shock.)

Another strategy that seems to be working well is to introduce punching bags into classrooms… that way the battle-ready children have something to smack without disrupting anybody’s education.

Err, wait.  I mean, intentionally introducing parasites into the human body so that the immune system has something to attack & is less likely to inflame the bowels, joints, liver, etc.  Apparently the symptoms of several autoimmune diseases can be ameliorated by parasites; here is one recent reference but there are many others.

Of course, harboring parasites is often not fun.  But as long as the parasites make you less ill than your own body’s attacks against itself did, why not?  Because autoimmune disorders are horrible — attempting to treat them with parasites is way more reasonable than using tapeworms to lose weight.

And, as a new parent, I also spend time thinking about prevention.  I slather my pale baby with sunscreen before we play outside.  And I make her play outside — major lifestyle changes over the last few decades probably explain our current allergy epidemic, with the incidence of peanut allergies & celiac disease up to 1% or higher.  Huge numbers of people who’ll suffer from these ailments for their whole lives.

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The most striking data on allergy prevention suggests that you should raise children on a farm.  For a lot of people, that’s not really feasible.  Even if K & I had the space, we wouldn’t raise animals — given that we can live well without subjugating any critters, I don’t think it’s the right thing to do.  But we can still take N to visit the pigs at our local farmed-animal sanctuary, and hopefully that’ll help a little.

Plus, we play outside.  Yes, the epidemiological data suggests that being outside on a farm helps most, but you can do pretty well just by getting out, running around, and playing in the dirt.

(Although even playing in the dirt is tricky.  It has to be clean dirt.  Bacteria are fine.  Some other soil parasites — a kid might get sick, but it’ll often be temporary sickness.  The whole thing about an immune system needing work to do means that nothing comes free.  But, ingesting petroleates would be bad.  Or heavy metals.  Halogenated aromatics.  And — yay pretend capitalism where businesses are allowed to impose negative externalities for free! — a lot of that dreck has been dumped for years.  Here in Bloomington we have a big tire factory & dirt on the properties downhill from it are poisoned.  Unless you have access to a good mass spec, your best bet for learning whether land is safe for a kid to grubble around on is to read up on its history.  Which is crummy to have to do, but the peculiar incarnation of capitalism indoctrinated by the U.S. has resulted in many horrors that still reverberate.)

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