Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Twelve Steppers and Teetotallers

Allow me
, an authority on absolutely nothing whatsoever, to get the word out:

Video games are not addictive.

It can be difficult to change from thinking "things are addictive" to "people exhibit self-destructive feedback loops in reaction to different stimuli."

It's much easier to endow objects with a mystifying quality than to take on more responsibility for our actions than we may desire.

We blame the games, like we blame the drugs, like we blame everything but ourselves.

[Note: The following website, MAVAV, is a confirmed hoax, as pointed out by Allen Varney. I'm leaving the paragraphs they way they originally appeared, even though I was duped. A clever hoax has sturdy legs -- just ask HL Mencken.]

Just look at Mothers Against Videogame Addiction and Violence, filled with unverified claims, black-or-white thinking and sensationalism. For example, their definition of an MMORPG:

"Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG) is a digital escape from the real world for emotionally unhealthy and mentally unstable people. It is a place for computer enthusiasts and social outcasts to gather un-bothered and un-harassed by the realities of real life."

Notice the demeaning tone and the core assumption that MMORPGs are a harmful activity. Seems a pretty strong claim considering that MMOs capture an ever-growing world market that is at the least in the tens of millions. I would say that being an ignorant demagogue is a delusional escape from actual logic for emotionally manipulative and mentally questionable people.

You could also take a look at The Daedalus Project, which strives to collect data from actual players. Taking a look at their model of player motivations shows an issue more complex than the alarmists would allow.

Our brains are addicting machines. They create connections, compulsions, responses, tendencies, habits, and patterns, all of which are reflected in our behavior. Combine the chemicals that sort conceptual data with those that trigger somatic responses and complex behaviors emerge.

Specific interactions may react more forcefully inside certain people, fulfilling mental/chemical needs with such efficacy that attempts to interrupt or cease the behavior results in physical/mental distress.

Chemicals don't decide our fates anymore than those experiences which trigger those chemicals. The tricky part is that there could be no discernible difference between physical and mental addiction, other than the type and magnitude of chemicals involved.

Can it be difficult to break a cycle of dependency? It can be grueling.

There is a rat. When this rat presses a button it triggers a release of endorphins in its brain. There is a surge as the neurotransmitter floods all available receptors, then a lessening of the effect as it is drawn back into the cycle. The stimulation of the receptors may lead to an increase in the number of those receptors. The next time the button is pressed more of the neurotransmitter may be required. Why does the rat push the button over and over until he starves?

There is a girl. When she presses a button, images flash and she watches the screen react to her input. Dopamine floods her receptors. This is a pleasurable experience. So she continues to push the button, neglecting friends and family. She craves that dopamine rush.

There is an NPC. This NPC has been programmed to open a door. The door is locked. The NPC has no key. The NPC tries to open the door. The door is locked. The NPC tries to open the door. Until an instruction arrives to supersede that instruction, the NPC will continue to try to open the door.

Do we blame the chemicals? Do we blame the activity which triggered them? Should we?

Maybe it's just poor programming.

All those sad sacks in AA, are they all alcoholics? What about the ones that have been sober for 10 years?

The first step is to admit that you were powerless. The admission you must make from that moment forward is that you are an addict. You must never say you were an addict. By always framing yourself as an addict, you attempt to prevent the insidious little thought: "But all that bad stuff was in the past. What's one little drink?"

This is how magic works. Or you could call it Will to Power. Or adjusting your self-image. Or empowerment.

I would discuss metaprogramming, but Leary, Lilly and others have done the job wonderfully.

The governments of the world can pass all kinds of legislation designed to (ostensibly) protect citizens from their own desire-run-amok, but that won't stop addiction.

If you have to, if you absolutely must, keep pressing the buttons, even as the hours or days slip away and you stop eating, even as your friends leave and your family frets and you dig that hole deeper, ever deeper, until you've guaranteed that escape would be nearly impossible, then your problem can't be solved by laws or social outcry or demagogues.

Eventually, if you've recognized your problem and are willing to seek help, then there's only one button left to press.

The power button.

We have done an outstanding job with our myriad cultural inventions to fulfill the manifestations of our hidden chemical needs. And when those needs run away from us we do an even better job of shifting the blame.

A videogame can't make you a killer; You first have to be willing to kill.

A videogame can't make you cry; You first have to be willing to cry.

A videogame can't make you play.

Supplemental Anecdote

In twelfth grade I gave a report in my Anatomy and Physiology class. The name of the study I was discussing is now lost to time, but I clearly remember the subject and the resulting confusion it created.

The topic was the Alcoholism gene and its implications.

Of course, hands were raised and the question that came out again and again: "So if you have this gene you're going to be an alcoholic?"

"No, no, no." I'd shake my head and try to explain. "You see. If you have this gene it is possible that with the correct circumstances that the ingestion of alcohol could set off certain cascade reactions that would lead to a feedback loop encouraging the continued ingestion of alcohol. Addiction would include not just repetition of the behavior but intense withdrawal symptom following any attempts to stop the behavior."

This was not exactly an easy-to-float concept, even in that class. "So this gene makes you an alcoholic?"

Sigh. "No. Consuming alcohol to an extent where it begins to negatively impact your life and subverts your patterns of behavior that allow you to function -- where the consumption is near-impossible to moderate -- that makes you an alcoholic. The behavior goes hand in hand with different cycles of chemical dependence."

"So, like, no matter what, if you have this gene you're an alcoholic?"

"Oh god, how do I explain this. If you have this gene and drink alcohol, there's a significant chance that you may develop behavioral patterns consistent with addiction -- at least compared to samples of persons that lack this gene. If you never drink, you'll never become an alcoholic. Ever. And actually, you could have this gene and drink alcohol and never fall into a pattern of alcoholic behavior. It just depends on a lot of other factors."

Blank looks.

I'm still trying to get a handle on the subject myself.


Chris said...

You cite Leary and Lilly but not Bandler for metaprogramming? Just a small point... it struck me as strange.

While I agree that legislation does not prevent addiction by itself, it can seriously affect the frequency of incidence and other factors which are pertinent at a social level. Look at the difference in drug usage patterns in the US versus the Netherlands, two countries with radically different drug laws.

My view is that video games are going to be legislated - we cannot prevent this happening. Every other media is legislated - even fine art. It just takes time. Therefore we should have an eye on what form of legislation is acceptible, and what forms of legislation are intolerable and should be fought with tooth and claw.

I enjoyed your piece - a nice bookend to this round table.

Johnny Pi said...

Gah, thanks for the oversight. I'm pretty sure I'd plum forgotten about Bandler. I know I have one of his NLP tomes somewhere in the towers of boxes that sit in my apartment, longing to be unpacked, but he never quite springs to mind. I just have a fondness, I suppose, for doctors that took LSD. And I also kind of hated NLP -- never really seemed to give any solid foundation concerning why a person would get results, only that if you change how you talk, you change the world (gross oversimplification, I know, but that's how it felt). Suppose I should have mentioned Liber Null & Psychonaut by Peter J. Carroll.

That's why we have this group mind, so I can be reminded of things like that.


Allen Varney said...

You didn't know MAVAV is a hoax? An old one at that:


Johnny Pi said...

Damn, they got me. Ah well, they shouldn't structure their parody in such a way that it conforms so fully to the way actual alarmists speak.

It's getting so bad that almost every website I go to seems to be a hoax.

Even mine.

Thanks for the tipoff.