Examining Narrative Games as Art

I recently finished playing Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead, a wonderfully constructed game and a tremendously moving piece of interactive fiction.  That got me thinking about video games as narrative art, and that had my mind wander back to an old debate between the late film critic Roger Ebert and Clive Barker.  The fundamental disagreement is characterized here:

Barker: “I think that Roger Ebert’s problem is that he thinks you can’t have art if there is that amount of malleability in the narrative. In other words, Shakespeare could not have written ‘Romeo and Juliet’ as a game because it could have had a happy ending, you know? If only she hadn’t taken the damn poison. If only he’d have gotten there quicker.”

 Ebert: He is right again about me. I believe art is created by an artist. If you change it, you become the artist. Would “Romeo and Juliet” have been better with a different ending? […]

Barker: […] Let’s invent a world where the player gets to go through every emotional journey available. That is art. […]

Ebert: If you can go through “every emotional journey available,” doesn’t that devalue each and every one of them? […]

And this is something that I wish Barker had characterized better because it’s so obviously a poor description of great narrative games.

Incidentally, I’m not trying to criticize or argue with Ebert.  The former would be piling on to an argument that’s long since over.  As for the latter, I’m obviously too late.  I just want to discuss that central point.  Because Ebert’s claim does seem reasonable on the face of it.  It’s hard to imagine a great film where control over direction, camera work, and even script is (sometimes) essentially handed over to the audience.  It was clear to me from experience that this didn’t destroy the narrative intent of the game creators, and that something powerful was gained in return.  But at the time Ebert’s remarks seemed so off the mark I don’t give that central point the nuanced response it deserved.

Constrained Choice

Barker failed to make a crucial distinction between an art-form as a whole and individual instances of that art-form.  Cinema could also be described as allowing the viewer to go through “any emotional journey available”, but an individual movie does not.  Great narrative (or you could say “cinematic”) video games also don’t present the player with “any emotional journey available”.  Telltale’s The Walking Dead is a tragedy.  Like Ebert’s example of Romeo and Juliet, the structure of the story does not permit a (satisfying) happy ending.  Telltale’s representation of The Walking Dead is more interactive than (most) stage presentations of Romeo and Juliet, but the interactivity of that representation of the story still doesn’t permit a happy ending.  A central question of Telltale’s The Walking Dead is whether it is more important to protect a child’s physical safety or their ethical/emotional humanity, in situations where you can’t protect both (or maybe not even either).

The Power of Dialog

Barker failed to address Ebert’s point about directorial control head-on.  Given that audience-members are (probably) not great directors, and they haven’t even looked over the script in advance, interactivity implies a loss of directorial control that is clearly a loss in terms of ease of conveying a specific artistic vision.  The correct question is:  What is gained in return?

One answer is that cinematic games have the potential to engage in actual dialog with the audience.  They can have different reactions to different player choices.  And, importantly, this is generally a distinct, small set of reactions to a distinct set of constrained choices.  Dichotomies (and false dichotomies) are a very important feature of human thought, and a key bit of artistic potential that cinematic games have that cinema does not is the ability to explore that feature through interactivity.


The dialog of interactivity (often, but not always, achieved by games through interactive dialog) gives games a powerful way of putting the audience in the shoes of a perspective character.  This is done in several ways:

1. Collaborative character interpretation: The players interpretation of a character influences interactive character decisions, which in turn influence how the character is portrayed as the narrative continues.

2. Forced parallel between audience emotions and character emotions: Games can use interactivity to force a parallel between character emotion and player emotion through game mechanics.  Well-crafted game mechanics can induce a whole range of emotions, including hope, disappointment, triumph, frustration, suspense, tedium, flow, surprise, and epiphany.  That goes for non-narrative games as well, but in a narrative game you can use those mechanics simultaneously to scenes where the character is feeling the relevant emotion.

It’s not simple, there are real costs to doing so.  If you want to create the emotion of suspense or triumph, you probably need to back that up with a real possibility of failure, often with no better way to get back to the story than “back up a bit and try that again”.  And sometimes the objectives are contradictory; it’s hard to produce a mechanic that makes the player feel the character’s feeling of frustration without thwarting the forward progress of the narrative, or making the player so frustrated that focus is drawn away from the narrative instead of into it.  Still, there are tricks that can be employed to have mechanics work one way in the game-as-game and another way in the game-as-narrative.  Often this involves concealing the true nature of a game mechanic, or setting up player expectations and then thwarting them.  Telltale’s The Walking Dead does so with quicktime events, which generally are “press X to not die” sorts of affairs, but used in other situations to get player emotions to mirror character emotions as diverse as suspense (a character doesn’t know if rescue will arrive on time), false hope (a character thinks they can struggle onwards if they try hard enough, but they can’t), and blind rage (a character thinks a fight they are in is a life-and-death struggle even after their opponent is helpless).

If you think that it’s somehow inartistic to layer over a (narratively) disconnected art-form in order to get the audience in a particularly receptive emotional frame of mind, note that cinema does the same thing with music.  Of course, games can use that trick, too.

3. False interactivity: Games can get moments where they have their cake and eat it, too, when it comes to directorial control.  If you do a good enough job with getting the audience in the right state of mind, you can create a situation where the player’s action is invisibly constrained, offering them a false choice that seems like a real choice, where the player is really getting inside the characters head when they realize that there is only one thing they can do in this situation.

Probably the most powerful example of this I’ve encountered is this scene from Ico, which occurs just after the “second act” in the game’s story.  The cutscene breaks back into interactive gameplay right in the middle, where the protagonist has been separated from his friend and must quickly decide whether to leap a widening chasm to join her or to leave her behind and flee for safety.  It’s a false choice, there’s no significant narrative for players who choose the latter, or even those who hesitate too long, just a game over screen.  But that usually doesn’t matter, everything in the narrative and the mechanics of the gameplay up to that point sets the player up to make the right choice for the narrative, without hesitation.  Instead of being a loss of directorial control, it’s a powerful moment of congruence.


Predicting the Present

Idea #7: The best way to accurately predict the future is to accurately predict the present.

I was listening to Democracy Now! this morning about the NSA scandal (ongoing) and the (now long-established) use of private contractors to analyze digital records, the sort of activity that would be obviously illegal if physical documents were involved instead of digital ones, when I was suddenly struck by the memory of Cory Doctorow’s comment about science fiction writers predicting the present. Because, in fact, Cory Doctorow wrote this one before, a short story called “The Things That Make Me Weak and Strange Get Engineered Away” (after the Jonathan Coulton song), published in 2008.

The story hits all the key points: Private contractors analyzing vast quantities of metadata for the surveillance state, and the sort of conflict between hired geeks and their authoritarian masters that results. Of course, in that story the private contractors are a cloistered society of lifehacking monks, but obviously a good science fiction has to push those predictions of the present a little in a future-weird direction. Doctorow’s story is a bit of a warning, too. The story at least raises the question of whether the withdrawal of the nerds into their own sousveilence society removed their effectiveness as an obstacle to the security state (in more way than one).

Well worth a read. And worth pointing out, especially since I’m not the only one thinking about fiction as warning in light of recent revelations.


Extremist Terrorism's False Flag

As a resident of the Boston area in the aftermath of the marathon bombings, I have to say the conspiracy theories have already gotten really annoying.  In this case, the simple hypothesis is actually very well supported, and conspiracy theorists tend to support their hypotheses with observations that are just as likely or almost as likely if they were completely incorrect.

But I do want to say a little bit about this concept of a false flag operation in the context of terrorists like the Tsarnaevs.  One of the things that’s odd about such a terrorist attack is it’s extremely unclear what sort of goals it might hope to achieve.  At least, it seems unlikely to frighten the US towards an isolationist policy, or achieve any end that directly supports the goals of (the violent extremist flavor du jour) militant Islamists.

The proliferation of this sort of tactic might be best understood under the concept of a false flag.  In a false flag operation, an attack is disguised so as to provoke a misdirected response.  In the archetypal case, this involves a government falsifying an enemy attack (or secretly facilitating a real enemy attack) to bolster public support for military action against that enemy.  But there’s an alternative scenario, in which an enemy seeks to have one of their potential allies blamed for the attack.  Even if the ally is not fooled by this ploy, the provoked counter-attack could provide the need to unite against a common enemy.

The best counter-attack against terrorism, therefore, is as restrained as it is effective.  I don’t mind that the police and military told people to stay home on April 19.  I don’t mind that they searched Watertown house by house.  Yes, it’s costly and disruptive, but having a bomber on the loose is also costly and disruptive.  Yes, the guy wasn’t found in the initial search, but there’s only so much you can do with limited information.

Ultimately, though, the town is getting back to normal.  We feel no need to buy the extremist’s implicit declaration that there’s a war on.  We can treat them as ordinary criminals.  Boston has dealt with those before.


Real Life Cypherpunk

No, the hurricane didn’t blow this blog away, but I’ve been hosed nonetheless.  Still, I want to get back to writing, so will maybe stick to something a bit shorter-form.

Lately, I’ve been fascinated with the rise in value of Bitcoin (BTC), a distributed, anonymous, cryptographic token transaction system intended for use as a currency.  My original thought on the technology was “nifty idea”, but never would have thought it would have much in the way of real value (not that virtual goods can’t have real value, but BTC isn’t, by itself, much of a game).  I certainly didn’t see it rising again after the initial bubble and crash, but if you look at the charts, you’ll see that the value is now above the June 2011 bubble and crash.  That crash was precipitated by a security breach and subsequent flash-crash at Mt. Gox (the largest Bitcoin exchange). Subsequent high-profile security breaches in the immediate months following surely didn’t help, but it’s worth noting that such incidents didn’t cease in November 2011, BTC was able to regain its value despite the occasional digital bank-robbery.

So given my interest, and my surprise, I was fascinated by this essay by Gwern on anonymous black-market website Silk Road (the site itself can be found here, I link to this for educational/informative purposes only and not to encourage you to do anything illegal).  The essay is a very detailed, down-to-brass-tacks look at how Silk Road works and what its weaknesses might be.

Silk Road is designed to conduct business with only the minimum amount of information possible.  A normal e-commerce website ends up with the following information:

  1. Payment information for the buyer
  2. Payment information for the seller
  3. Reviews left by the buyer for the seller
  4. Information sent by buyer to seller (including at least a shipping address)
  5. Information sent by seller to buyer (if sent via site)
  6. The seller’s name / pseudonym
  7. Users IP addresses
  8. Metadata about users connections

Making the process anonymous involves several technologies:

So Silk Road actually ends up with:

  1. Bitcoin addresses the buyer used to transfer bitcoins to Silk Road
  2. Bitcoin addresses the seller used to transfer bitcoins from Silk Road
  3. The reviews left by the buyer for the seller
  4. Encrypted gibberish sent by the buyer to the seller (including at least the buyer’s address), plus a public key for the seller (which everyone can see)
  5. Encrypted gibberish sent by the seller to the buyer, if any (the buyer has no need to post a public key, they can send it to the seller in their message if they need a reply)
  6. The seller’s pseudonym
  7. The last hop of the connection path users take to access the site

Silk Road can also strengthen their resilience against outside attack by only keeping recent data for items 1, 2, 4, and 5, and no data for item 7 (there is, however, no way for users to verify that they are in fact doing so).

Silk Road also employs several technologies / methods to mitigate the effects of anonymity:

  • Pseudonymous escrow
  • Reputation economy (presumably the reason they allow for pronounceable seller pseudonyms (6), while keeping information to an absolute minimum in so many other ways), plus methods for quantitative and qualitative analysis of buyer feedback data
  • Seller account auctions (SR admins say the primary reason for this is to make the sort of attacks (note that includes scams or stings) that can be done with new accounts at least very costly to do repeatedly; of course, this also makes money for whoever’s running Silk Road)

So Silk Road not just a straightforward application of Bitcoin.  Bitcoin is just a main ingredient in the whole cypherpunk stew!

Also, this is not to imply that the system doesn’t have weaknesses.  It still falls short of the goal of full cryptographic anonymity.  For one thing, the seller ends up with a physical post address for the buyer.  Postal addresses are a lot harder to generate and anonymize than Bitcoin addresses or private keys, and the movement of physical packages is a lot easier to inspect and trace than TOR connections.

Gwern suggests that Silk Road could be brought down through DDoS or acquiring a large number of accounts for some coordinated scam.  Acquiring new accounts to do individual stings is too high cost for too little gain, especially since the value of “flipping” a Silk Road buyer is very low (there’s little they can do to get information on Silk Road sellers).  Perhaps law enforcement will decide to do some stings anyways to make an example of a few cypherpunk drug-purchasers; the ineffectiveness of that tactic as a deterrent doesn’t stop people from trying.

Gwern doesn’t mention the demise of Bitcoin scenario described by Moldbug in this post, where the value of Bitcoins is brought down by a broad-scale legal attack on the Bitcoin exchanges, indicting them all for money laundering (Bitcoin tumblers might be more deserving of this attack, but targeting the exchanges will be easier and more effective).  That wouldn’t prevent people from trading Bitcoins for goods.  But Silk Road’s selection still isn’t as good as Amazon’s, and Bitcoins are still not sufficiently liquid when it comes to things like rent and groceries, so the value of a Bitcoin in rent and groceries still depends on the exchange rate with less science-fictiony currencies.  Not that it would be impossible to find someone on Silk Road to ship you food, but you really don’t want to buy your necessities at black market prices if you can help it.  Being able to spend money earned at a black market premium on things not sold at a black market premium is a big advantage of illicit trafficking.


Hurricane Downtime

This blog will likely go down for some time due to the storm.  Not that anyone is following that closely, but see you when things are back up.

Update: Or maybe not.


The Rationalist Elect

As a fan of logic puzzles and rational decision theory, I’d encountered Newcomb’s Paradox before.  The puzzle goes as follows:

Omega (a powerful (but not supernatural or causality-violating) logic-puzzle creating entity) has set up two boxes.  Box A contains $1000.  Box B contains $1,000,000 or nothing.  Omega offers the choice of taking Box A or taking both boxes.  But Omega has made a prediction (and Omega’s predictions are almost always correct) about the subject’s choice, and put the million dollars in Box B if and only if the subject was predicted to take just Box B (without using an external source of randomness, people who flip a coin and choose based on that do even worse than those that just choose both boxes).

This is one of the most contentious philosophical problems in decision theory.  One of the things that’s interesting about it is that it’s hard to just deny that the premises are logically coherent.  You can sustain the paradox without Omega being perfect in it’s predictions, so long as Omega can be usually right, by increasing the amount to be maybe placed in Box B.

Newcomb’s Paradox is one of the problems that the denizens of Less Wrong discuss extensively because rationality is their raison d’être and decision theory is (in one sense) the theory of what it means to make rational decisions.  The consensus there is that the right solution to the problem is to one-box (that is, to take just Box B), and Eliezer Yudkowsky make a compelling argument for that, which is essentially this: Given the premises of the problem, people who take just Box B walk away with $1,000,000, while people who take both boxes walk away with $1000.  Therefore, it’s best to put aside qualms about strategic dominance, (the illusion of) backwards causality, and whether or not this Omega fellow is generally a jerk; just do the thing that reliably wins.

To put it another way: It’s a premise of Newcomb’s paradox that one-boxers usually win, and it’s a pretty poor game theory that gives advice that contradicts a scenario’s premises.

I was reminded of this puzzle again recently because Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber has this unusual observation on it:

I was reading a postgraduate dissertation on decision theory today […] and it suddenly occurred to me that Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic has exactly the structure of a Newcomb problem.

[…] place yourself in the position of Max Weber’s Calvinist. An omniscient being (God) has already placed you among the elect or has consigned you to damnation, and there is nothing you can do about that. But you believe that there is a correlation between living a hard-working and thrifty life and being among the elect, notwithstanding that the decision is already made. Though partying and having a good time is fun, certainly more fun than living a life of hard work and self-denial, doing so would be evidence that you are in a state of the world such that you are damned. So you work hard and save.

[…] you work hard and reinvest, despite the dominance of partying, because you really really want to be in that state of the world such that you get to heaven.

It does seem to follow from the premises in a similar way, so presumably the conclusion would be analogous.  That makes sense.  When dealing with omnipotent and omniscient entities, trying to find loopholes is widely regarded as a bad idea.

I guess the problem for Less Wrongians (and here, I really must give credit to Crooked Timber commenter Prosthetic Conscience for the link, though some of the overlap in our ideas was independent) is that despite usually being atheists, they are often singularitarians, so they may genuinely worry about effectively omni* entities messing with them (or at least some version of future-them).  Sinners who could yet end up in the hands of an angry god-like-entity.



I’ve been away from here too long, hosed by work and politics.  The presidential debates sure are interesting.  Wait… what was that about Barack Obama?  No, no, I didn’t mean that debate.  I meant this debate:

Round two:

Who the heck is moderating these?!  I guess it makes sense when you see the guy’s campaign ad:

The political cartoon has a venerable history, but I’m beginning to think the political remix is really capturing the zeitgeist of modern political satire.  Here’s something a bit more musical:

More from MC R-Money:

But before you think Romney’s the only one who’s been taking on a turn for the musical, I had to find some quality musical remix satire for Obama.  And not just the different, though also funny, type of remix that’s not political satire per se.  (This sort of thing is somewhere in the middle.)

Here’s one that’s pretty good (though probably cheating a bit and NSFW for swears):

What makes for a great political remix?  What’s your favorite example?


Robot Cars and Shell Games in Florida

It was very interesting to watch this video opposing Jeff Brandes in his bid for the Florida State Senate:

It’s probably the first political attack ad (political ad in general) to focus on driverless vehicles.  And there’s just so much to dig into!  It’s this amazing mix of forward and backwards thinking.

It’s got the designated-old-person narrator pushing the anti-autonomous-vehicles position when autonomous cars are likely to be an incredible boon for the elderly (stuck as they are in a car-dependent society with diminishing sight, hearing, and reaction time).

It’s got the misleading misquote from a Forbes article:  The ad says “Driverless Cars for All: More Dangerous Than Driving - Forbes”, but the actual Forbes article is titled Driverless Cars for All: An Idea More Dangerous Than Driving (emphasis mine), which is not about driverless cars being physically dangerous but the opposite, the “danger” is that manually-piloted cars will be forced off the road in the name of safety.

It quotes the headline of an opinion piece titled Will driverless cars really slow for pedestrians?, but that piece doesn’t imply that driverless cars won’t slow for pedestrians, just that there are complicated tradeoffs involved, and that driverless cars don’t solve that issue by their mere existence.  (Personally, I think autonomous cars will be great for pedestrians, but it’s unreasonable to expect that you can make everywhere safe to cross just by adding more computation and reducing reaction time, all while maintaining fast roads.)

It gets even weirder when you look into who’s funding the ad.  Just who is this Committee to Protect Florida?  Well, a PAC of some kind, they’ve got a hilariously generic description of their purpose.  But they disclose their expenses and contributions.  (Note that the “ecoreport” part of the URL probably has nothing to do with “ECOlogy”, but rather stands for “Electioneering COmmunications”.)

Expenses seem unsurprising, lots of postal spam and media advertising.

Politifact has a page on them (they have not gotten to this ad yet, though):

The Committee to Protect Florida is headed by Rockie Pennington, a political consultant for Richard Corcoran, a Republican candidate for State House District 45.

Corcoran, eh?  What’s he got to do with Brandes?

“I am honored to receive the endorsement of Richard Corcoran,” Jeff Brandes stated. “We worked hard during the 2010-2012 session to address the public’s desire to eliminate wasteful government spending and burdensome regulation. I will continue championing reforms in the State Senate that will boost small business and get Floridians working again.”

A major contributor to the Committee to Protect Florida is the Florida Leadership Fund, which has a very similar website and an even vaguer mission statement.  That gave to Brandes’s State House campaign in 2010, but now seems to be supporting his opponent, James Frishe, in the State Senate race.

Another contribution is Americana Media.  Which contributed web-design services, maybe?  They seem to specialize in blue websites for Florida politicians.

Committee to protect Florida is also supported by MARK PAC, which is where things get a bit weird:

Back in 2007, the Florida Elections Commission fined Democratic operatives Jeffery Ryan and Sara Henning a whopping $209,000 for  illegal financial dealings over several years through a political committee called Florida House Victory that had been set up to support Democratic candidates for the House.

This was all reported at the time. What got lost later was that Democratic Party lawyer Mark Herron—instead of Ryan or Henning—paid off the fine in two installments in Dec. 2007 and June 2008 through another political committee called MARK PAC, which drew its cash during the same periods from two Florida pari-mutuels, the Florida Police Benevolent Association, and health care giant Hospital Corporation of America (HCA). Democrats say there was nothing wrong with the arrangement, and insist the state party had nothing to do with House Victory or paying off the fines.

Anyways, there’s a lot going on here.  It’s amazing just how complicated political campaign funding has become in the US even at the state level.  A good thing to keep in mind as the 2012 presidential race accellerates to full velocity, with no one quite sure who’s behind the wheel.

Full Disclosure: I don’t work on autonomous vehicle technology, but some people at my company do.


Free-Range Parents and Gender Equality at Work

Two recent essays in The Atlantic discussing feminism and work-life balance caught my attention recently.  The first, by Elizabeth Wurtzel, has the striking title 1% Wives Are Helping Kill Feminism and Make the War on Women Possible.  Here’s a snippet that captures the gist of it:

I have to admit that when I meet a woman who I know is a graduate of, say, Princeton — one who has read The Second Sex and therefore ought to know better — but is still a full-time wife, I feel betrayed.

And one from the second, much longer essay Why Women Still Can’t Have It All by Anne-Marie Slaughter:

[…] I’d been the woman congratulating herself on her unswerving commitment to the feminist cause, chatting smugly with her dwindling number of college or law-school friends who had reached and maintained their place on the highest rungs of their profession. I’d been the one telling young women at my lectures that you can have it all and do it all, regardless of what field you are in. Which means I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot).

The essays made a splash in the feminist blogosphere.  One thread of the reaction I followed from here:

But beyond that, the housewife model is what makes male superiority in the workplace possible, and creates disincentives to more family-friendly workplace policies. Men who have stay-at-home wives literally have nothing other than work to worry about. […] That model enables men to work longer hours and be more productive; women in the workplace cannot compete (yes, stay-at-home dads exist, but there are a few thousand of them in the United States, making them uncommon enough to be insignificant for the purposes of this conversation). And of course men see that women can’t compete, and it cements their view that women aren’t as capable, and they end up mentoring bright young men who in turn rise up the ranks. […] Corporate cultures that are built around a man-and-housewife model aren’t exactly family-friendly in the first place, and making them really change is going to be impossible unless men are forced to change their behavior. So far, the corporate response to large numbers of women leaving has been to make it easier for women to leave. […] If none of those men had stay-at-home wives – if the men currently occupying the highest-level jobs in the world had to take as much responsibility for childcare and homecare as working mothers — you can bet that corporate culture would look very different.

To here:

There’s much missing in the framing of these debates—from the expectation of power and privilege to a limited idea of what success is. What’s irked me is the continued assumption that this is a women’s issue. The problem isn’t that women are trying to do too much, it’s that men aren’t doing nearly enough.

A new report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that women—even those with full-time jobs—still do the bulk of housework and childcare. On an average day, 48 percent of women and 19 percent of men did housework. Married women with children who work full time spend 51 minutes a day on housework while married men with children spend just 14 minutes a day.

The breakdown of childcare responsibilities was not much different—55 percent of working men said they cared for their kids on an average day, whereas 72 percent of working women did. Women also reported spending more time during the day caring for their children than men. [links theirs]

Back to here:

As an aside, I have a secret fantasy of gathering a team of men to go to every male-dominated discussion (on specific issues in the law or a certain genre of film or investigative journalism or whatever) and when it’s Q&A time, earnestly ask the male panelists how they balance work and family.

That one has a list of suggestions for addressing the issue, beginning and ending, notably, with:

First, don’t marry or move in or reproduce with men unless they pull their own weight. Seriously. That might mean you end up alone. That might be a better option.


Eighth, I don’t really know what else, except all of these discussions are part of the reason why I am extremely hesitant to reproduce. [Emphasis mine.]

(Note that I’m doing some really rough excerpting here, and none of these should be taken as substitutes for the original sources.  All worth your while, especially the original essays.)

That line of discussion reminded me of a book I read recently.  Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids looks at twin and adoption studies and argues that there’s not much middle-class parents can do to effectively benefit their kids beyond giving them good genes and a reasonable middle-class upbringing.  More labor-intensive methods of parenting yield little result (either due to the extra work having minor effects or mixed effects).  Given that good parenting requires less effort than expected, the book argues that middle-class people should simply consider having more children.

Here’s a relevant passage on the rise of childcare hours among American parents:

[…] As expected, dads do a lot more [childcare] than they used to.  Since 1965, when the average dad did only three hours of child care per week, we’ve more than doubled our efforts.  Given how little dads used to do, though, doubling wasn’t hard.  What’s amazing is the change in the typical mother’s workload:  Today’s mom spends more time taking care of children than she did in the heyday of the stay-at-home-mom.

Back in 1965, when the typical mom was a housewife, she spent ten hours a week specifically focusing on her children’s needs.  By 2000, this number had risen to thirteen hours a week.  This happened despite the fact that today’s moms are much more likely to work outside the home, despite the fact that moms have fewer kids, and despite the fact that dads are a lot more helpful. […]

One pattern hasn’t changed: Stay-at-home moms spend more time with their kids than working moms.  However, both kinds of moms went from about eleven hours per week in 1975 to seventeen hours per week in 2000.  Working moms went from six hours per week in 1975 to eleven hours per week in 2000.  Modern working moms spend as much time caring for their kids as stay-at-home moms did thirty years ago.

These weekly totals sound low because they define “child care” narrowly.  Reading a book on the couch while my sons fight Playmobil wars wouldn’t count—even if I occasionally urged them to play nice.  When parents get full credit for multitasking, measured child care shoots up about 50 percent. [ed: I think that may be an under-estimate, compare this to this, for example (noting that the bins are different)] But however you measure, the main patterns remain.  The average dad has roughly doubled his effort.  The average mom spends more time taking care of her kids than she did when the average mom was a housewife.

[…] If the statistics are right, it’s clear why raising kids feels like a chore.  By the standards of the Sixties, modern dads do enough child care to pass for moms—and modern moms do enough child care to compete for Mother of the Year. […]

(This article indicates these numbers have continued to rise, especially among the college educated.  Though there may be over-reporting there; the article indicates the surveys do make a similar distinction between primary and secondary child care, but the survey methods may differ.)

It’s not that child-raising has become harder.  America has become wildly safer for children, both in terms of factors that parents have little control over (disease, war) and things that parents might hope to protect their children from some of the time (violence, accidents).  And that reduction in risk isn’t from the increase in childcare hours itself, crime rates have gone down across the board and accidents have become less dangerous mainly due to medical technology.

Another book, Free Range Kids (the author also writes a fantastic blog), argues that a culture of fear perpetuated by the extremes of the fear-and-blame-focused 24-hour news cycle and anxiety-driven status competition among parents has lead to an extreme system of parenting that’s bad for the well-being of parents and children alike.  We worry about and obesity, and then don’t allow kids to go outside.  An all-but-entirely-illusory fear of abduction leads to “don’t talk to strangers” hyperbole that leaves kids deprived of their best and easiest way to get help when they’re separated from parents and in trouble.  And much of that addition childcare work ends up being spent on car trips (a far, far greater source of avoidable danger to children than stranger abduction, but for some reason one which doesn’t get much attention in the corporate news media).

It’s also worth noting that for some of the things where nurture really does have a significant effect (e.g. people having positive memories of their childhood), more laid-back parenting could also be productive.  As the article above relates:

“Parents are feeling like they don’t have enough time with their children,” said Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute in New York, which conducts research on the work force. “It’s a function of people working so hard, and they are worried they’re shortchanging their children. I’ve never found a group of parents who believe they are spending enough time with their kids.”


Dr. Galinsky notes that although working parents typically feel guilty for not spending more time at home, children often have a different reaction. In a landmark study published as “Ask the Children” (Harper, 2000), she asked more than 1,000 children about their “one wish” for their parents. Although parents expected their children would wish for more family time, the children wanted something different.

“Kids were more likely to wish that their parents were less tired and less stressed,” Dr. Galinsky said.

(As an aside, it’s worth noting that some of the rise in childcare time is simply time freed-up by the use of labor saving technology in other sorts of household chores.  But technology should also be labor-saving in other sorts of childcare, especially the indirect kind.)

Given that context, there are a few important things to note:

1. It’s important for men to do more housework and childcare work, but specifically in a context that allows women to do less housework and childcare work (and specifically less of the sort that’s tedious and labor-intensive).  Just having everyone do 12 hours of direct childcare a week (in two-parent families), plus some multiple of that in for-the-whole-household chores and keeping-an-eye-on stuff, wouldn’t be better for women, men, or children.

2. The culture of unnecessarily labor-intensive parenting makes this whole gender-equality in work-life-balance problem look harder than it is.

3. The need to get companies to stop relying on the “housewife model” is still absolutely crucial.  For one thing, very young kids are still going to need loads of supervision (though modern American parenting still manages to be way more labor-intensive than necessary even in that case).  But the social model of helicopter-parent, always-supervised child is just as much of a problem, and just as much of a gendered issue.

4. The extent that “parenting correctly” has become some sort of class-anxiety-ridden status battle is bad.  Having that be another thing men expect their wives to take on for them is even worse.

Which brings me back to that first essay.  Wurtzel writes:

Seriously: Did Romney actually tell his wife that her job was more important than his? So condescending. If he thought that, he’d be doing it. […]

Hilary Rosen would not have been so quick to be so super sorry for saying that Ann Romney has never worked a day in her life if we weren’t all made more than a wee bit nervous by our own biases, which is that being a mother isn’t really work. Yes, of course, it’s something — actually, it’s something almost every woman at some time does, some brilliantly and some brutishly and most in the boring middle of making okay meals and decent kid conversation. But let’s face it: It is not a selective position. A job that anyone can have is not a job, it’s a part of life, no matter how important people insist it is (all the insisting is itself overcompensation). Even moms with full-time jobs spend 86 percent as much time with their kids as unemployed mothers, so it is apparently taking up the time of about 14 percent of a paid position. And all the cultish glorification of home and hearth still leaves us in a world where most of the people paid to chef and chauffeur in the commercial world are men. Which is to say, something becomes a job when you are paid for it — and until then, it’s just a part of life. [emphasis mine, links theirs]

So here’s another angle on that:  As feminists have pushed for women’s equality in the workplace, America has been making (middle-class) parenting more like a job, more like a career.  Status conscious, labor-intensive, very concerned with doing things “the right way”, who to blame when things go wrong, who’s qualified.  Wurtzel is dead right to note the emptiness of that “most important job in the world” rhetoric, but it’s also worth noting how that rhetoric has become embedded in the structure of modern American parenting.


The Bumpy Downside

One big debate within the peak oil community is if the world is facing an economic contraction due to scarce energy, will that be a “fast” or a “slow” collapse?  In a fast collapse, failures cascade in a rapid, catastrophic way.  In a slow collapse, there isn’t out-of-control acceleration, but past problems and a shrinking resource base undermine the ability to deal with future problems effectively, so the slide cannot be easily halted.

In 2005, I would have leaned towards “fast”, but I was wrong.  All signs, including the Baltic caviar price curve for oil (instead of the sustained high prices I would have expected) point to slow.

A great case-study for this sort of collapse in modern times is the fall of the Soviet Union, which Dimitri Orlov analyzes in his book, Reinventing Collapse.  So I was struck by a recent blog entry that discusses how Greece is now following a similar pattern:

What brought this thought about was reading the heartbreaking article: Suicides in Greece increase 40%

And I remembered a comment I head from Dmitry Orlov in an interview about how much of his high school class were now dead. Yet there were no headlines and there was never any official crisis or emergency. They did not die in gunfights over scraps of food like in The Road. Rather, more quotidian things like alcoholism, unemployment, suicide, homelessness, exposure, lack of medications and ordinary sicknesses like bronchitis and pneumonia took their lives.  Russia’s life expectancy fell dramatically. It’s birth rate declined. Public health fell apart. Suicide rates went up. The population shrank. Entire towns became abandoned. In post-collapse Russia there was a slow die-off that occurred outside of the daily headlines that no one seemed to notice. They were ground down slowly by day-to-day reduction in the standard of living, a million little tragedies that, like pixels in an image, looked like nothing until the focus was pulled back.

And right now the entire continent of Europe is looking an awful lot like post-collapse Russia […]

An excerpt really doesn’t do it justice, go read the whole thing.

On a similar theme, consider this post on bus fuel efficiency improvements:

Orion buses, by stark contrast, are so far almost doubling the miles a coach can travel on a tank. Thanks to the fact that the diesel engine driving them is half the size of a conventional bus’s, they are also quiet enough for the driver to hold a conversation with a passenger on the freeway without either raising their voices. Oh, and don’t let that small engine fool; they move up hills faster than the conventionals. These buses are nice.

And they are going to be needed. As the financial crisis deepens, more and more are riding the bus. A financial analyst stumbled upon probably the best graph yet for visualizing the present perhaps post-peak world […]

The graph is question is this:

The post goes on to note:

Remember my excitement over the new Orion coaches? One of their chief investors in the hybrid technology, Daimler, has decided that increasing bus fuel mileage is simply not profitable:

Daimler Buses North America no longer will manufacture buses at its Orion facility in the Oneida County Industrial Park, officials announced Wednesday…

“Daimler Buses considered all possible options for reconfiguring our transit bus operations in North America,” said Harmut Schick, head of Daimler Buses. “But at the end of the day, Orion is facing a situation where the cost position is not competitive, the local market is in a continued slump and growth opportunities are not available from selling the product overseas.”

It’s not because these buses won’t prove cost effective in a future with ever-rising fuel costs. That’s not it at all. It’s because an era of ever-rising fuel costs will force everyone to reorganize their expenditures. Businesses that rely upon cheap fuel will cut back or go out of business, and closed and/or downsized businesses can’t pay as much in taxes.

Taxes pay for buses.

So just when they need to cut back on their own travel expenses, many workers will see a shortage of buses available to get them to and from work.

That’s slow collapse for you.  Mundane problems with mundane solutions so close at hand.  And yet…