How many of you enjoy video or computer games? How many of you have poured hours into leveling up your character on World of Warcraft or absorbing the the rich lore of the Elder Scrolls universe? How many of you have gotten a thrill when a twist in the story has completely changed what you thought was going on? Or how many times has a game brought you to the edge of tears or even over the edge? And how many times has a game shocked you or had you huddled under your blanket in a dark room, every noise sending spiders crawling up your spine (Silent Hill 2 anyone?)? Games, one of the newest forms of mass media, provide a unique element to telling stories that sucks the reader in through player participation. We get to feel like we’re the star of the show and that we have a real stake in how things play out. I’m not saying all video games are good or that they all evoke such responses but there are many games, enough I’d say, that do and that justify video games as an art form and a viable means of telling a story. I have just completed Max Payne 3 and I think it is not one of the best but the best video game I’ve ever played. But even more importantly, it was an incredibly satisfying, compelling, emotional noir story. I wasn’t just playing because it was fun, I was playing because I wanted to know what was going to happen to the titular character and where it was all leading. In short, games are a legitimate medium for intelligent, mature stories. Even the New York Times, the preferred news source of the “intellectual” class (refer to Chomsky for more on any and all media sources), now has a video game review section. However, not everyone is ready to accept video games and instead would like to play the fear card by trying to convince us that, what else, video games will bring down Western civilization as we know it.
Phillip Zimbardo, who some of you may be familiar with as the head of the Stanford Prison Experiment, has recently posted an article on CNN’s website detailing how video games are destroying masculinity. You can read the entire article here. Of course he also accuses online porn as being responsible for the reason we modern males apparently lack, “game.” Oh, if only all of life’s problems could be so easily explained away. It would take me another entire article to do a defense of pornography (yes, it is worth defending) so let me say this quickly on that matter. Some of the oldest cave art contains depictions of vaginas. I think that it’s safe to say that if pornography was as detrimental as Zimbardo claims, civilization would never have gotten off the ground in the first place since our love of sex beyond reproductive purposes is as old as we are. But now back to video games.
In the article Zimbardo claims that video gaming is an “arousal addiction” meaning that you get a little burst of dopamine then another little burst. This reinforces the behavior. And soon enough, you’re a junky I guess. He then uses several extreme and non-representative examples to demonstrate why we should burn our Xbox 360’s and PS3’s. (Also, just as a side note to point out how out of touch this article is, the picture at the top depicts two boys playing with N64 controllers. The people who put this article up do realize what year it is, right? But I digress.) He brings up Seungseob Lee, a South Korean man who reportedly went into cardiac arrest after an epic 50 hour straight jam session of Starcraft. Then he points out the case of Anders Behring Breivik who went on a shooting rampage and killed 77 human beings. According to Zimbardo, Breivik said he “prepared his mind and body by playing World of Warcraft for a year and then Call of duty for 16 hours a day.” Really, if you’re spending that much time playing video games, you are sure as hell not preparing your body. And preparing your mind? That sounds like saying you’re preparing to fight Cerberus by giving your dog a bop on the nose with a news paper if it piddles on the carpet. Here’s the thing, killing a fictional, digital representation of a human does not translate directly to preparing yourself in any way to killing a living, breathing, bleeding human being. As Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw says in his review for “Manhunt,” “pressing buttons to shoot guns… is about as far removed from the working of actual guns as my ass is from the dark side of Europa.” But here’s the thing, Yahtzee points out how such excessively violent games are really just pandering to immaturity. It’s no different from kids sneaking into a violent movie and tee-heeing at all the blood and boobies. It’s a phase kids go through until they realize blood and gore and excessive violence doesn’t make a game good, it just makes it garish. But now I’m going to go one further and say what I think people like Zimbardo don’t ever take into consideration.
There is this little thing called personal responsibility! Saying that games make people do violent things is on par with saying that the devil made me do it. Both claims takes responsibility from the person and put it on an external thing. Sure it’s easier than having to go back on thirty years worth of granola crunching, sunshine and rainbows humanist psychology that keeps cooing in a reassuring voice that we’re all alright and peachy and special snowflakes made of crystallized specialness of dreams, but it doesn’t acknowledge the fact that we are still the ones responsible for what we do. I’m not saying environment plays no role, that’s about as childish as claiming that we are totally at the whim of our surroundings, but I refuse to believe that we can just turn away from the importance of personal choice in this matter. Sometimes, people just suck. Why is it so difficult to accept the fact that sometimes, a person is just a bad egg? Cruel, hateful, and willing to harm innocent people around him. But a video game turning an otherwise sane, healthy person capable of empathy into a monster? Come on, video games can be magical but they sure as hell can’t work actual magic. I for one have played violent video games since I was a kid and I am still revolted by actual human cruelty. And I’ve known people who are not video gamers and who are some of the worst people I’ve ever had the displeasure of meeting. But it’s a choice. I choose to harm none while some others choose to ignore the consequences of their actions. It comes down to choice. But what about the next claim that games are making us totally apathetic to all choices?
Zimbardo finally comes to the part about video games destroying guys and he has some interesting things to say. Of course they make no sense but they are certainly interesting in how nonsensical they are. First of all, it seems video games erode our ability to communicate with others. It isolates us and turns us into stimulation junkies that under-perform in school and can’t properly woo the ladies. Essentially, we can’t get the kind of excitement from real life that we can get from our digital world. I think we need to think about this for a second. For one thing, Zimbardo points to how school is a traditionally passive and non-interactive. Well isn’t that a problem in itself? Why is Zimbardo lauding a style of teaching that is obviously not meeting the needs of students? I wonder if he is one of these psychologists who diagnoses a child with ADHD because he can’t stop fidgeting in class because he’s bored out of his mind! I think this brings up the fundamental problem with Zimbardo and his ilk’s argument. They are claiming we’re averse to making choices when I think we have actually chosen. Do we need to go into Fight Club territory? I think that’s where this is going to end up going. So let’s dive in then.
We’re living in an increasingly mechanized world in which all sense of peril and danger has been removed. What’s more is that people are feeling disenchanted with a world in which you show up day after day to a job you hate for a company or something that doesn’t give a damn about you. Even if you have a job you like, you’re still going to have to show up day after day. It gets repetitive. Most of the time though, it seems like the work force is just a vast sea of drudgery. Video games allow us to experience a challenge and the thrill of danger, vicariously of course. They serve as a way to break up the tedium of every day life and live on the edge in a way our modern society doesn’t allow for any more. Besides, in games, things are kept simple, defeat the final boss, defeat the problem. In the real world, our problems are so huge that no single one of us can hope to fix them. But in the game world, it’s an army of you, actively working towards a solution. And with each level, of course you get a buzz. You’ve achieved something. You’ve gotten a step closer to your solution. You’ve got a feeling of mastery you don’t often get while spinning your wheels in the real world because so often you’re bogged down that you can barely get a breath in, never mind tackle some huge problem. I think that sometimes we game to feel a sense of power we’ve been deprived of in the real world because we’ve been boxed into a system that doesn’t allow for personal validation. So in this way, we have made a choice, a choice to get what we need as human beings from another source.
Speaking of another source, I find it funny that Zimbardo totally ignored the large number of women who play video games. I expect nothing less but this is a large and growing demographic. Why aren’t we concerned about the effect of video games on women if they are so corrosive to all that is good and wholesome? If games are so destructive, then shouldn’t we expect the effects to extend to women? Shouldn’t we be worried that women are going to be gunning people down in the streets? Should we take this then to mean that video games are only destructive to males then? If the problem is the video games themselves then it should be having an effect on women too. But since this does not seem to be the case, then maybe there’s something about males in particular that we need to consider. Like maybe what I just suggested about our society.
Speaking of women and society, the claim that video games have made us all totally incompetent with talking with members of the opposite sex fails for two reasons. The first and the most obvious is that it is failing to answer the question of what came first: lack of social skills or video games. Maybe those who are less confident are drawn to video games and there is simply a correlation between the two and no causation. This is the kind of stuff you learn in Psychology 101. Again, Zimbardo is implicitly saying that there is something wrong with those who are maybe a bit more withdrawn and introverted. He obviously didn’t see the TED talk that showed how there is nothing wrong with being an introvert and that introverts contribute just as much as extroverts just in a different way. But this is another really amateur mistake in that it is assuming that there is some kind of normal behavioral pattern that people should fall within. Again, another thing you learn in Pysch 101 is that there is no “normal” just a spectrum of behaviors.
The second and less obvious problem with his assertion is that again, society has changed. Dating and relationships are much more complicated than they were in the past. We also can’t ignore the role of women in this issue. There is an element of caution that needs to be taken these days. Who can say if your flirtation in the work place will be construed as sexual harassment? That’s an extreme case but it does feel like the rule book is being re-written and we still haven’t gotten the completed copy yet. Not only that, men, as a group, are not well looked upon these days. Of course, I’m not blind to why that is. For how many years have men treated women like crap? “”For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,” holds true and this is a backlash from a new modern woman who increasingly finds she doesn’t need the complications of a man in her life. But because of that, approaching women has become that much more difficult. Our roles have thus shifted and males are struggling to understand their new place in society. This isn’t the result of games but of this and future generations of males receiving a wake up call from a female population that wants us to know they won’t be treated the way past generations have been. But this creates the problem of how we are to act. I grew up being taught to be chivalrous and treat women with respect. But now that has become something of a taboo and I should treat women pretty much the same exact way I would treat a man which doesn’t totally sit right with me. And it isn’t about weakness or treating women as delicate flowers (they are tougher than men in many respects and I’d like to see a man go through the rigors of pregnancy and birth), but of simple courtesy and decency. But again, with these rules increasingly looked down on, modern men don’t know how to act and until they do, they will continue to blunder. Though a bigger blunder is not taking the time to consider these heavy and complicated issues.
Psychology has enough problems being taken seriously as a science without this kind of fear mongering, pandering, media-play. Trust me, I got enough hands-on time with psychology when I wanted to go into that field to speak with some amount certainty. Psychology has been treated rather roughly by the “real” sciences such as biology and physics. This kind of poorly argued spectacle is not what psychology needs. In fact, I think that everyone should do the best they can to divorce the memory of this article from the concept of psychology since this is a great disservice to the field. This is the same kind of fear-mongering silliness that people have always spouted when the world is changing in ways they don’t understand or they encounter a technology that they feel pushes too far past their comfort zone. So as a closing comment, I’d say that it would be so nice and easy to load all our discomfort and uncertainty on a technology that has had its share of controversy but it will do us no good since we miss all the other facets of the problem. Like other forms of entertainment, there are good video games and there are disposable ones, ones that convey meaning and those designed just to provoke, some that reflect truths back at us and those that just obfuscate. But in the end, there are stories being told and instead of condemning, we should listen.