24 May 2012

Porn and Video Games

The author of the legendary Stanford Prison Experiment, Philip Zimbardo, has a new book out with co-author Nikita Duncan about "The Demise of Guys." CNN blurbs it:
Is the overuse of video games and pervasiveness of online porn causing the demise of guys? Increasingly, researchers say yes, as young men become hooked on arousal, sacrificing their schoolwork and relationships in the pursuit of getting a tech-based buzz.
I'm a partisan in this fight, having grown up when both porn and video games were taking enormous strides forward, so my immediate gut reaction is to scoff.  But then I think of World of Warcraft.

Many games have been designed to be as addictive as possible, parceling out small rewards and trying to offer an endless game of full-quality repeats (most successfully done with puzzle games and shooting games), but World of Warcraft was a quantum leap forward. They took the model of MMORPGs that had been developed in games like Everquest, and dramatically improved on it to make a game that would make you want to pay for it every month.

A scaling system of micro-rewards was built into World of Warcraft, so that whether you spent a long time or a little time on the game, you'd be able to experience a steady and tantalizing series of illusory reward stimuli. While they still used the other mechanisms of enticement (exploration, socializing, competition, vicariousness), they relied most of all on the hamster-wheel cycle: small reward... small reward... small reward...all building to a visibly approaching BIG reward from one of the other mechanisms ("Now I can enter that dungeon!/Now I have this pretty hat!/Now I can kill that gnome!/Yay, I am a winner!") - but which was essentially just a numerical increase.  A sword that does more damage, a way to earn more money, a higher level: these are all just measurements of traits that are only relevant within the game itself.  In the extreme, you eventually arrive at Cowclicker - a game that did nothing but count your clicks.

I am not saying and I do not think that World of Warcraft is immoral, should be banned, or anything like that. Nor do I want to get into questions about redeeming value.  The game is simply the next and most logical step on the path of what I think "The Demise of Guys" is touching on: our increasingly virtual world is divorcing reward from real achievement. And that is something to which we and the next generations will have to adapt: we must be careful to base our self-worth on accomplishment, not rewards.

I have been thinking for a long time about ways in which our brains seem hard-wired to screw up. Technology has outpaced biology by such an exorbitant amount, it's not surprising. The most obvious example is our desire for sugar and fat, high-energy foods that have been historically rare, which are now so abundant that a majority of the population of the first world are becoming ill from their gorging. Similarly, humans aren't very good at judging probability and outcomes (test yourself), because a rough-and-ready snap judgment based on our biases has always been good enough for us.

The problem with these sorts of arguments we see in this book is their conclusions. I think it's short-sighted and just plain silly to try to deny that addictive video games and continually escalating sexual stimulus aren't having some negative effects - certain bizarre things are now considered erotic purely because of pornography ("facial" shots are one example). The problem is that the people who alert us to these problems often unimaginatively advocate for some form of control to hold back these cultural forces: limiting access to porn, tougher video game standards, etc. And while those things might work, I think history has taught us that there is no stopping an idea whose time has come.  You can shut down Napster, but file-sharing remains.  Technology advances.

Instead of trying to ban, we need to learn to employ one of our greatest skills as human beings, and intelligently adapt. "I have a level 85 warlock" has been, and must be, considered about the same as "I played checkers really well last night."  Activities that do not make us smarter and better (certain kinds of television, certain kinds of games, etc.) or that don't incorporate real achievement should be carefully considered in that light.

I know that these stimulus-barrage activities of porn and video games are never going to replace, say, intimate lovemaking, or chess.  But neither should partisans be as quick to scoff at the idea that they're having some effect.

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