This week we’re pleased to host a guest opinion piece from Burr Salem, AKA Seth McNitt. Although he and I live in the same city, we haven’t met yet, because school is crazy and get off my back. Anyway, enjoy his piece. -Duke
Last week a promotional article for a newly published book was posted on CNN.com entitled ‘The Demise of Guys’: how video games and porn are ruining a generation. Yowza! That’s an attention getter. Ruining a generation? Games and porn? Games and… porn?
I refer to the article as promotional in nature because it turns out to have been penned by the book’s very authors, Dr. Philip G. Zimbardo (famous for his Stanford Prisoner Experiment in the early 70′s) and Nikita Duncan, in promotion of the less sensationally titled The Demise of Guys: Why Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It. Having sufficiently piqued the reader’s interest, they go on to expand on their basic premise: “The excessive use of video games and online porn in pursuit of the next thing is creating a generation of risk-averse guys who are unable (and unwilling) to navigate the complexities and risks inherent to real-life relationships, school and employment.” Double yowza! Turns out video games and porn (as opposed to board games and rock & roll for example, or peanut butter and jelly for how closely they tie them) create “arousal addictions” in the young male’s mind, “where the attraction is in the novelty, the variety or the surprise factor of the content.” Okay. Following so far.
To further their point though, Zimbardo and Duncan go on to cherry-pick some of the most tragic and/or pathetic headlines in recent history and parade them as indicative of a deeper trend. “Stories about this degeneration are rampant,” they write, citing the South Korean man who went into cardiac arrest in 2005 after playing 50 straight hours of StarCraft, a man featured on MTV’s “True Life” whose wife kicked him out of the house for his constant pornography viewing and lastly, (and seemingly without a hint of shame) the recent deaths of 77 people in Norway at the hands of crazed gunman Anders Behring Breivik, who they say “prepared his mind and body for his marksman-focused shooting… by playing ‘World of Warcraft’ for a year and then ‘Call of Duty’ for 16 hours a day.” I couldn’t make this stuff up.
Drawing these sorts of direct causal relationships between video games and the actions of these men is flatly absurd and somewhat akin to claiming that the madman who scales the walls of and drops himself into the polar bear cage with the intent of riding one is somehow indicative of all polar bear enthusiasts, the general zoo going public or even the safety of zoos themselves. Never mind that Breivik advised in his own 1,500 page manifesto (one might wonder where someone playing Call of Duty “16 hours a day” found the time) that to avoid “suspicion from relatives, neighbours and friends” others like him must tell them “that you have started to play World of Warcraft or any other online MMO game and that you wish to focus on this for the next months/year” to, as he says, “justify isolation.” It is a certain kind of irony when someone so thoroughly deranged can so easily have the media dancing the same old video game jig to the same old video game tune when his own words describe so clearly the usage of those very misconceptions as a smoke screen for his other very real and nefarious activities.
I speak with not a hint of hyperbole when I say that I find this kind of blatant demagoguery that attributes – even in part – the actions of a mass-murderer to a video game to be nothing short of sickening. And all the more so coming from someone of Dr. Zimbardo’s stature and credentials. Generally if a doctor misrepresents something so recklessly, they find themselves charged with malpractice. I can only hope that Dr. Zimbardo and Ms. Duncan suffer a shared confusion as to how deeply flawed it is to draw parallels between general psychological trends such as those they purport and the actions of a deranged murderer. If not, this is nothing more than shameless promotion and sensationalism. The proverbial snake oil salesmen preying on seeded misconception and fabricated cause and effect to peddle their wares.
Allow me to take a step back though, from this slander of an entire creative industry. (Whether it be calculated or haphazard.) The truth is, their basic claims may in fact hold some validity. The premise itself rings true enough at least; we may indeed be producing a string of generations in which cross-sections of young men are increasingly isolated and compelled to unendingly stimulate their senses to the detriment of other healthy aspects of their lives. The idea isn’t an especially new one. There is undoubtedly a segment of young men who retreat from society’s norms in favor of fantasy and isolation. Wouldn’t YouTube, Facebook, Pinterest or fantasy football logically be just as addictive though? Wouldn’t young women be increasingly at risk as well? Aren’t the increases in highly publicized tragedies due to – as much as anything – a tripling of the world’s population since 1950 and increasing technologies to easily capture these events and dispense them to the masses? With the meteoric rise of online multiplayer in recent years, wouldn’t the increasing prevalence of anonymity and its attendant behavioral issues be potentially as important an issue as this supposed epidemic of isolation? Didn’t young men isolate themselves in books or music or Dungeons & Dragons long before Call of Duty had ever been conceived of?
Demise just released last week so few can yet speak to the actual breadth and articulation of their research or their conclusions. I am certainly not among them. Perhaps they address these other forms of media. Perhaps they buck my pre-suppositions and wield a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of gaming and its various cultures. (The stock photo at the heading of the article featuring two N64 controllers leaves this squarely in doubt.) Perhaps they address the issue of anonymity as a prevailing one in online social behavior in contrast to isolation, or perhaps they categorize the former as a subset of the latter.
Again, I can’t as yet speak to their findings or how thoroughly they address the reality of the modern gamer, but I can speak to the calculated manner in which they are pitching it to the public. Game and porn. Games. And Porn. The old PB&J of young men the world over apparently. Let me make this crystal clear: Video games cannot reasonably be tied to pornography in any manner any more than music, literature or film. Like all of those industries, gaming is a creative one, it is largely market-driven and it provides consumers with all manner and degree of quality and content. Not to mention all of the highly skilled and well paid jobs it provides.
I generally avoid the rather nauseating debate of whether games are in fact art, but for those who feel the need for official definition, the Supreme Court cleared that up for everyone not that long ago. (Although by their estimation EA and Activision are people, so…) Much of this, as is often pointed out, is generational. In the not all too distant future we in the U.S. will elect a president who grew up playing Mario Bros and had an original PlayStation in his college dorm room. For now though, gaming remains the old stand-by for any politician looking to stir up a little misguided righteous fury. The proverbial whipping boy a little while longer.
As gamers and as people we have a basic responsibility to, at the very least, entertain credible notions we might be uncomfortable with if they’re based in good and real science and have the potential to better our understanding as a society. By the very same token we have a responsibility to decry irresponsible sensationalism as the counterproductive drivel that it is. That kind of rhetoric doesn’t truly do anyone any good. No matter which “side” you’re on (or if you have a side at all) dishonesty and misrepresentation don’t benefit the well intentioned.
And honestly, Dr. Zimbardo is more than likely just that: well intentioned. It’s my hope that he hears some of the feedback he’s receiving from the gaming community and alters, at the very least, the most strained and harmful connections he draws. The world is changing all around us every day and these new realities are ripe for analysis and discussion. In the end we must increasingly find ways in which to have rational and productive dialogues and we’re never going to accomplish that by yelling past each other through the din, hands held over our ears, huddled in our respective fox holes.