Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Not-So-Friendly Teamwork

As a kid in school, I felt bad about groaning inwardly whenever a team-based game was announced in gym class, and cheering inwardly about 'every man for himself' type games. I'd been taught that team games had all these virtues - building comradery, teaching people to work together, encouraging cooperation - did I not appreciate those virtues? Was I a selfish person because I didn't want to be on a team?

No. I'd simply noticed something. When we played games where every player succeeded or failed independently, no one cared if I did poorly. I'm not a very athletic person, never have been. I can't consistently hit a semi with a ball, much less another person. When I played only for myself, that never mattered. I could fail most of the game and still have lots of fun.

But put me in a team, and the bullying starts. At best, I could just hide in the background and do nothing, and they might ignore me. More often, people would start getting mad at me whenever I missed a throw, claiming I was useless and so on. At the same time, the opposing team would be uncharacteristically nice to me, even though most of my usual bullies were boys and we usually played boys versus girls. In one game, where you had to steal balls from the opposing team's base and players who got caught were stuck at their base until rescued, I'd actually deliberately get myself caught so I could fool around on the football net framework thingy while joking around with the same boys who usually bullied me.

In World of Warcraft, my favorite part is questing. No one but me cares if I have to retry a quest boss 10 times in a row before I finally kill him. If the entire game consisted of questing, I would be much happier.

But it's a multiplayer game. And as such, there are times that I'm supposed to work with other players to complete various achievements - and even worse, this is the only way to get really good loot. The battlegrounds (where 15 or more Alliance fight 15 or more Horde) aren't that bad, because I can fade into the crowd and no one notices that I've spent most of the battleground waiting to resurrect. At worst people level criticisms at large categories of people (eg 'everyone who is dpsing in mid instead of going after the flag') and I usually am not doing the same thing as everyone else.

The worst are the dungeons. Five players form a team to take on very difficult monsters - three damage-dealers, one tank, and one healer. Occasionally, I get a good dungeon group, especially in the lower to middle levels. But very often, I find people looking around for someone to pick on (usually me) and verbally abusing them. People will inspect what gear you're wearing and if it's not (in their opinion) the optimum gear for your class and role, they'll freak out and try to get you kicked from the team. They will also kick people for using the wrong combinations of abilities, or sometimes for no apparent reason at all. Sometimes they'll kick a person for a failure that another person caused, such as kicking the healer for not healing when the tank didn't wait for the healer's mana to regenerate. Or kicking a tank for dying when the healer was trying to be a damage instead of healing. Or kick a damage for dying because the tank didn't keep the enemies off of him or her.

Honestly, if I heard that there was an offline version of World of Warcraft where all the other players are replaced by non-player characters who can do the same jobs, I would cheer. That would really make my day. Of course, far better would be if people could avoid freaking out over everything another player does that could possibly be criticized, but I don't know if that's even possible.

And I don't think it's coincidence that every game that people turn vicious in is a team game. And the fact that I hate all team games doesn't mean I'm not a team player or someone who appreciates cooperation and such. It's a reasonable reaction to the way teams tend to act.

I think it's the fact that in a team, your success or failure could depend on another person instead of on yourself. For psychologically healthy people, this isn't that big a deal, because failure isn't a big deal - it's just a game, after all. But for a perfectionist, failure is devastating. And if your success or failure depends on other people, then you may decide to scrutinize and criticise your teammates in the hopes that you can either get them to improve or (more likely) get them excluded from your team.

Of course, this is not an appropriate choice. If failing in a game is so devastating to your self-esteem, it's better just to not play. After all, though you may hate to hear these words, it's just a game.

And to school gym teachers (and video game designers) take note: team-based games aren't all good. They can bring out some really vicious behavior among the players. Personally, I would like team-based games banned from school altogether, and replaced with individual fitness activities. You can have them as optional extra-curricular activities, but don't ever force a kid to play them. You can use the individual activities to build team-game skills, such as dribbling. Better yet, you could actually teach motor skills instead of just calling for more effort (we wouldn't accept any other subject being taught so poorly). And not only will these changes greatly reduce gym class bullying, but they'll improve lifelong fitness. After all, how often are adults able to rustle up a large enough group to do a team game? Individual fitness activities can be done much more easily in adult life.

Meanwhile, I'm left wondering if World of Warcraft is worth all the hassle. I love the storyline, I love the gameplay style, but the other players have gotten me so miserable that I'm thinking maybe I should stop playing. At least until the next patch comes out and I have more questing zones for my max-level characters.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Read the Label

A lot of people are critical of labeling individuals with disabilities, particularly those individuals who in previous times would've just been considered unusual. They say that labels limit people, that labels stereotype people, that labels make it sound like the label sums up everything about the person.

I can see the concern. But if there is any truth to the label, it also has a significant benefit.

When I'm volunteering with disabled kids, I always want to know what disability they've been diagnosed with. Let me use S for an example of why. S is obviously disabled - she says only short repetitive phrases with poor pronunciation, she has a noticeably odd gait, her mannerisms are very unusual, and she does unusual things (eg getting into your face and then exclaiming a noncommunitative 'go home', or walking into people and things as if she didn't see them). I could, of course, just leave it at that. Who needs to label S? She's just S, obviously unusual and very recognizable (chances are if you've met S, you know who I'm talking about).

Well, S has Rett Syndrome. And given my knowledge about Rett Syndrome, this label tells me something important that I may not otherwise have guessed - S has severe motor apraxia. This is a higher-level motor disorder that impacts the connection between movement and intention. She will often want to do a movement but be unable to start it. In addition, certain cues can make her do certain movements whether or not she wants to do them.

This means several things. Firstly, it means I don't need to invoke a cognitive explanation for something that could be a motor problem, such as her repetitive speech or her walking into things, which raises the possibility that she might be a lot smarter than anyone has guessed. Secondly, it means that when I try to communicate with her I have to do a guessing game - did she intend to do that or was it automatic? And thirdly, it means that I can help her do things she can't do independently, by giving her the right cues. If cued properly, she could partially dress herself, for example. I'd do half the movement for putting her clothes on, and then wait and see if she finished the job. And sometimes she did.

Does my use of labels mean not recognizing individuals? Certainly not. I have worked with many children with the label of autism. Each was distinct, each had their own way of relating to the world. The autism label helped to guide me, giving me hints about reasons for their behavior (probably not attention-seeking or manipulative, probably related to the sensory environment, dislike of change, or motor planning issues, etc) but each individual still has their own quirks. I briefly met another girl with Rett Syndrome, and she was very different from S (mainly a lot lower functioning, as she was in a wheelchair and had no speech or self-care skills).

But the individuality of these people does not negate the benefit of labeling them. All autistic kids are unique, but I have yet to see an autistic kid misbehave to get attention - something many Down Syndrome kids I've worked with have done. Most of the autistic kids I met would react adversely to a noisy environment, though I did meet a few who were fine with it. Many had problems if we changed their routine, although this ranged from aggression, self-injury and screaming at being in the wrong change room to simply seeming confused and less capable than usual in an environment where we did a different thing every day.

And with regards to myself, how I feel about my own label of autism? Well, before I knew about autism, I had many experiences that I lacked the framework to name, explain and acknowledge. I experienced sensory overload, but with no idea that it was sensory overload rather than just being picky and demanding. I felt that I was lazy because sometimes I could do things and other times I couldn't. I assumed (since my sex education classes assumed) that I would experience sexual desire, and mistook many non-sexual feelings for sexual during my early teens. I thought I was stupid, and when other kids failed to understand things that seemed obvious to me, I concluded that they were even dumber - completely failing to notice that I'd decided my entire class was stupid!

Finding out about autism has given me a framework to recognize those things about myself. It's also taught me that I can't just 'try harder' and expect to get results - I need to try differently. And most importantly, it's eased my loneliness. I now know how to find people who think like me, by looking for the label of autism. This was one big motivation in starting to work with autistic kids, because I feel less lonely when I spend time with a kid like me. And even if they're lower functioning than me, they'll have things in common with me that I don't have in common with NTs.

So read the label. It'll tell you something important about the person, even though it won't tell you everything.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

My Thoughts On Norn Torture

OK, first, a background. There is a series of games called Creatures. Currently, the series includes Creatures 1, 2 and 3, as well as a free game called Creatures Docking Station, and two children's games called Creatures Adventures and Creatures Playground, and soon there'll be a free-to-play online game Creatures 4. In each game, you raise these creatures called norns (though there are other species some players choose to raise instead, who differ only superficially from norns).

The really interesting thing is that this isn't just a pets game. It's a simulation of life. The norns have their own biochemistry, and their own neural network brains, with the features of both being controlled by individual genetic codes. If two norns have a child, the child will have the features of both parents, as well as a few unique mutations. Over time, you could end up with a population of norns substantially different from the ones you started out with.

It's also a very open-ended game. The manuals and such suggest raising and nurturing your norns, but there are many other things you could do. I prefer to run experiments on my norns. Some people code injectible objects for the game, or create new breeds of norns. Some ignore the norns to play with the ecosystem in the game. Some raise the other two species - grendels and ettins - that are present in most of the games. Some leave their norns to their own devices to watch natural selection in action. And some decide to torture their norns for fun.

This last point caused an outcry in the Creatures Community. A Creatures player named AntiNorn put up a website about torturing norns, including several agents that would help torture norns, and some norns that he'd tortured. Several other Creatures players proceeded to flame him viciously and try to get his site shut down. Debates erupted on Creatures chat forums about the ethics of norn torture and whether norns counted as alive enough for animal rights.

This was all before my time with Creatures. AntiNorn has left the Creatures community, other norn torturers are active but much less vocal, and the 'norn rights' people have mostly gone silent as well. It's interesting how certain things become topical at one time and less so at another time. But anyway, I'm weighing in on this issue now.

I consider norns alive. My definition of life requires that a creature have inherited variations between individuals, that they need to eat to live and that they can die. Individual varieties of norns don't meet those criteria, but norns as a group certainly do. However, I don't think norn torture is wrong.

Here's my reasoning. What makes torture wrong for other living creatures? The simple answer is that it causes suffering. But it's not just the immediate suffering at the moment of torture, it's the psychological trauma that results which causes the bulk of the suffering. If torture caused only immediate suffering and no long term suffering, it would be much less problematic.

Well, that's what it does with norns. There are several cognitive mechanisms required for psychological trauma to occur. One of the big ones that is present in almost all lifeforms is classical conditioning, also called Pavlovian conditioning.

There are two types of conditioning - classical and operant. Operant conditioning is when a behavior is either rewarded or punished. If the behavior is rewarded, it becomes more frequent, and if it is punished it becomes less frequent. So, for example, if a rat is given a treat for pushing a bar then bar-pushing will increase, whereas if the bar's presses cause the floor to electrify, the rat will avoid pressing the bar. Operant conditioning also takes into account the environment; if bar pressing provides food when the light is off and shocks when it's on, the rat will press the bar only when the light is off.

Classical conditioning, first described by Pavlov, is when a stimulus that automatically causes a certain response is paired with another stimulus, and the new stimulus comes to trigger the same response. For example, a dog salivates when food is put in his mouth; when a bell is always rung before the food is delivered, the dog starts to salivate at the bell. Classical conditioning can also involve conditioned emotional reactions, such as conditioned fear.

In real-life creatures, classical conditioning is more basic than operant conditioning. Most creatures have both, those that only have one always have classical conditioning without operant conditioning. Norns are the opposite - they are capable of simple operant conditioning (though not chaining), but they aren't capable of classical conditioning.

Which means that when a norn is tortured, they go through all the unpleasant emotions of the torture, but once it's over and they've calmed down, they're fine. They may have some weird learnt behaviors, but they experience no more emotional distress than a norn who has been raised kindly all his/her life. Unlike humans or even many real-life animals, they won't feel terror at stimuli similar to the torture setting.

Of course, there's more to trauma than classical conditioning. But most of the other parts of trauma require even more complex cognition. Learnt helplessness, for example, requires the ability to realize that you can't do anything to stop the situation, which means you have to have a running tally of what you've tried and a systematic trial-and-error process instead of just random behavior. Losing the 'just world' illusion is another important part of trauma, but that requires that you have a worldview, that you're capable of forming a general conception of the world you live in, which is a pretty high-level ability. Disrupted attachment can be a consequence of certain types of trauma, but only for creatures who care for their young. C3/DS norns can learn to like or dislike individuals, but don't need emotional attachment - prior generations of norns can't even do that much, only form concepts of norns/grendels/ettins as a group. They show no more interest in their young as in any other juvenile norns, and the offspring themselves have no need for parental affection.

So, though I think norns are alive, I think it's fine to torture them, because they can't be traumatized. Sure, they can experience immediate suffering, but they experience immediate suffering when they are punished, when they try something that was a bad idea (eg eating rotting stuff) or when they do not address their own needs (eg not eating when hungry). I see no problem with norns experiencing immediate suffering at times.

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