Pokemon Go, Father-son time, and B. F. Skinner

Seems everyone is posting about Pokémon Go at the moment, whether it be to bemoan its existence, or to celebrate it. So figured I would weigh in with the little experience I had with my son this morning.

I love Pokémon. I was 6 when it came out, so I am the perfect demographic to have grown up with the Gameboy game, the TV show, Nintendo 64 offerings, and now during the mobile era the advent of Pokémon Go.

But for me the best part of Pokémon Go is the opportunity to engage and interact with my son in an exciting new phenomenon. I love being able to experience the world though Harrison’s eyes, I think sometimes we old people get a bit jaded, or perhaps just immune to the fact that we are living in an awesome future. Spend some time with a kid however and you get to see things from a fresh perspective. We have augmented reality games, rockets that land on barges, feathered dinosaurs, electric supercars; the present is rad!

So today we made sure to leave home ten minutes early to ensure that our walk to school and work would include sufficient Pokémon catching time.

We had a good run, visited a few Pokestops, and captured the odd low-level Pokémon. The most interesting outcome from this father-son gaming experience however was the opportunity to pass on a bit of my fatherly wisdom in the form of some psychology related trivia.

Education is such an important part of life, you should always keep learning things, and I love being able to share the knowledge I have of the world with Harrison. Watching kids grow up you never know what they will actually take from the information you give them, and what will be forgotten. But I think every little bit helps, and slowly the concepts and ideas will crystallise in their minds. So this is why our attempts to catch virtual pocket monsters was able to include a brief discussion about a famous psychologist and his pigeons.

I noticed that as we were walking along Harry kept waving his hand past the iPod’s camera, and checking his notifications. I asked him why he was doing this and it turns out that his iPod was struggling to get a GPS signal, but he had noticed the signal return when he had happened to move his hand past the camera. Being the science nerd that I am, I then proceeded to explain to him the story of B.F. Skinner and his superstitious pigeons.

For those interested, B. F. Skinner was a psychologist who liked to experiment on pigeons in the hope that his findings could be used to extrapolate theories on human behaviour. One of his more famous experiments involved setting up pigeons in a cage with a food delivery system that would reward them with food pellets at random intervals. Pigeons can be taught to peck at a lever in order to receive food, but the aim here was to see how they would cope without any clear way to get their food.

So the pigeons would go about doing whatever it is pigeons do while they wait for food, and every so often a pellet would randomly appear. After a while the pigeons began to behave as if there was a causal relationship between whatever they were doing at the time (whether it be spinning in a circle, or looking over their shoulder), and the arrival of their food.

With this causal link supposedly discovered, the animals would then perform the same actions in the hope of receiving more food in the future.

Not really the worst conclusion to draw, but not the most rational either. Skinner labelled these behaviours as superstitious, and hypothesised that similar effects can be seen in humans. And here Harrison was, proving my point.

It’s great because the concept of the experiment is simple enough for a kid to understand, and extrapolate from. Harrison said “What if it was jumping!” and then imitated a pigeon frantically jumping over and over in the hope of a meal; so he clearly got the idea.

We spent the rest of the morning sporadically walking to school, with the occasional stop in our quest to Catch ‘em all, but for me the morning was a success because I had been able to spend some quality time with my son, contribute to his education, and add a few steps to my day.

So while there may be a horde of people out there complaining about people spending too much time focusing on the virtual, or not engaging in the real world, perhaps they should take note of the fact that the world is changing. There is more than one way to interact with it now, and with others; we have all this amazing technology providing us with opportunities to do things we never dreamed of before, and to look at it with a closed mind means you will miss out on all these possibilities.

But hey; maybe I am just trying to justify the fact that it feels great to actually catch a Pokémon in the wild.



Interesting related fact: B. F. Skinner attempted to create a pigeon-controlled guided bomb. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Pigeon


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