Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Toy Story 3's slight surprise: no tragedy of the common toys


What's the problem with toddler daycare room in Toy Story 3? The toddlers play too roughly with the toys.[1] Why's that? We're told that it's just because they're too young and don't know how to play with toys properly yet. I was slightly surprised not to hear another explanation explored: that the problem is that the toddlers don't own the toys. Rather, the toys are effectively every kid's property, so nobody's property in particular, and people/toddlers tend to trash (or use up as fast as possible) what they don't have the incentive to look after that private/personal control and ownership affords (or what they can't exclude anyone else from using).

TS3 does make it clear that the best outcome for a toy is to be with a specific (non-creepy kid) owner, but it doesn't push in the direction that (when watching for the first time) I thought that it was going to. Everyone's a jerk/creepy kid when it comes to public/non-excludable goods: the tragedy of the commons, and so on. I'd been primed to expect the appearance of such vaguely skeptical and 'right wing-y' notes in Pixar films by things such as The Incredibles,[2] and was surprised (I currently can't decide whether pleasantly or not) to see that dark note go untouched in TS3.

I know that Pixar tend to spend years refining, rewriting, and polishing their wonderful scripts (whereas many big Hollywood films barely seem to have a script!). It would be interesting to know whether they ever seriously entertained the 'tragedy of common toys' idea, whether it was around in some early drafts of TS3's script, and if so when exactly it got chopped. Anyone (a Pixar insider perhaps?) know anything about this?

Anyhow, TS3 is a great film, but I do wonder whether it might have been a little better still, and also a little more troubling (as The Incredibles definitely is for example) if they'd found some way to squeeze in the common toys problem.

Update: A reader has suggested that daycare-aged toddlers are in fact quite destructive of their own toys (hence that my point doesn't work). Maybe that's right, but the 2-3 years olds I actually know are pretty zealous about their toys. They occasionally break one, but they get upset when they do, try not to have that happen, and go absolutely ballistic if someone else accidentally breaks one of their precious items. So, while my reader has helped me a complexity that might indeed have given Pixar pause, I think my basic point survives.


[1] That basic point is slightly contradicted by the end of the movie where the toddlers' play area's problems are somehow alleviated by the toys cooperating with/treating each other better, or something. But it's not clear how that's supposed to work: Ken and Monkey getting the party started doesn't obviate being painted with, having heads and tails ripped off, having springs irreversibly deformed, and so on. We therefore set aside this final piece of Pixar, make 'em laugh prestidigitation for the sake of the argument here.

[2]The Incredibles was roasted by acidly bonkers feminists, and feted by completely mad conservatives. For some relatively sane and temperate dialogue about Pixar's alleged conservativeness, with The Incredibles as Exhibit A, go here and here.

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