Oh, good. It's time once again to hear how videogames are destroying society. This time, it's Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist behind the controversial (putting it politely) Stanford Prison Experiment. Having driven the wheels off a much-debunked experiment, it appears Zimbardo's looking for a career renaissance of sorts, using an issue that is a bit more timely. And what could be timelier than being about the thousandth person to declare videogames the end of the world as we know it?
Speaking to the BBC, Zimbardo said his research has uncovered something in those boys who are online up to 15 hours a day.
He described boys' altered brain function like this: "When I'm in class, I'll wish I was playing World of Warcraft. When I'm with a girl, I'll wish I was watching pornography, because I'll never get rejected."
He says that such a mindset has been created because of the Web's existence and the proliferation of particular entertainment sources on it.
While Zimbardo's research would seem to be focused only on the extreme end of the human spectrum, he seems to think it applies to those who don't engage in these activities at public servant
levels of engagement.
Zimbardo defines excessive porning and video gaming as more than five hours a day.
And already the scale has shifted massively. (Also: "porning?") Now, it includes those who spend a quarter of the day engaged in some form of popular entertainment. He thinks it's killing off more than males' social drive. It's also killing their sex drive.
Kids might find online porn exciting psychologically, but physiologically they are actually becoming less excited. They suffer, he said, from PIED. Porn-Induced Erectile Dysfunction.
And here we are at another area of sketchy research, most often touted by those
with goods and services to sell. Unsurprisingly, Zimbardo has recently published a book
dealing with these very issues.
Presumably because the evidence doesn't match the assertions, Zimbardo's claims as to how many hours are too many
continues to shift, all within the space of a six-minute interview.
[H[e regards the addiction and the rewiring of the brain as being a factor of not merely the number of hours, but the obvious changes in mindset…
Now it's any
length of time, provided the "mindset" is "changed." Zimbardo's discussion of these males paints gamers/porn watchers as socially-stunted introverts whose hobbies are only making them more unable to deal with the outside world. And all it takes is (up to) 5 hours a day.
He does admit there's an upside to gaming/porn watching. Criminal activity is on the wane and the amount of men drinking/using illicit drugs continues to fall. But even this upside is a downside. In Zimbardo's mind, the world would be better served by an increase in drunken, drug-addled men looking to raise hell and get laid.
However, Zimbardo said: "They're not violent because they're alone in their room."
He added that young men are drinking Coke instead of alcohol and becoming "fat-asses." The chances of type-2 diabetes are increased, he said, which tends to decrease libido.
There are plenty of issues to be had with Zimbardo's skewed portrait of male gamers, starting with the "male" part. Keith Stuart's dismantling of Zimbardo's assertions at The Guardian
points out that males are only barely
Research by the Internet Advertising Bureau last year found that 52% of British gamers are women. This isn’t an isolated blip and it isn’t just down to “casual” phone games like Candy Crush Saga. In the US, research specialist Super Data found that just over 50% of PC gamers are women. Senior researcher Stephanie Llamas wrote about how her data challenged the cliche that women only play casual titles – her female subjects identified mostly as “mid-core” and hardcore players.
And his take on gaming is dated and -- dare I say it -- sexist. Zimbardo sees male gamers as translucent-skinned basement dwellers whose unblinking eyes are fixed on computer monitors and TV screens. It's as if he's never heard of social gaming. The games that routinely sell the most copies in any given year are heavily-focused on multiplayer interaction. Each iteration of the Call of Duty
series is fine-tuned for online play. The single-player "experience" is usually a 4-6 hour afterthought that many purchasers completely ignore. The Grand Theft Auto
series has made online multiplayer an option for the past couple of releases, and even included limited local multiplayer options back in the Playstation 2 days.
As for the porn claims, the verdict's still mostly out. While there are a number of psychologists who link porn-watching to erectile dysfunction, it's tenuous at best and purely correlative at worst. With porn easily available online, the number of people partaking has undoubtedly gone up. But have erectile dysfunction cases climbed at the same rate?
It's the same logic hole that trips up arguments that violent videogames result in violent crime. While there may be some negative effects in a few members of the population, one would expect the hundreds of millions of gamers who play violent videogames to have produced an appreciable spike in violent crime -- if we're to believe
violent videogames lead to violent acts. But that simply hasn't happened. Granted, numbers on reported erectile problems are far harder to come by (pun not not
intended but not totally intended) than crime stats and game sales figures, but if it were approaching the apparently epidemic level of porn intake, you'd think there would be a bit more credible reporting on the link between the two.
But perhaps more troubling than the male gamer cliches and the touting of questionable correlations is Zimbardo's other ideas -- ones that don't receive quite as much play in most of the coverage. Zimbardo seems to feel porn and games (and soda, I guess) are undercutting what it means to be male
and producing an inferior iteration -- at least as compared to the manlier men of the past.
[W]hile girls are increasingly succeeding in the real world, boys are retreating into cyberspace, seeking online the security and validation they can’t get anywhere else. They are bored at school, increasingly have no father figures to motivate them, don’t have the skills to form real romantic relationships, feel entitled to have things done for them (usually by their parents) and seek to avoid a looming adulthood of debt, unfulfilling work and other irksome responsibilities. As a result, they disappear into their bedrooms where, he argues, they risk becoming addicted to porn, video games and Ritalin.
Zimbardo proposes a set of "fixes" that rely heavily on turning men into men by interfacing with other men -- presumably all in a very heterosexual way. (Zimbardo's research apparently didn't cover those who don't fall under the "straight" umbrella…)
Zimbardo has lots of suggestions: more male teachers, more incentives for men to establish boys’ and men’s groups so that the former can get the masculine mentoring they otherwise lack, welfare reform to encourage fathers to remain in the family loop, crowdsourcing initiatives to fund video games that are less violent and require more co-operation, parents to talk to their sons about sex and relationships so they don’t take porn to represent real life.
The suggestions improve as the list goes on, but Zimbardo seems to fear a world of feminized, antisocial fat-asses (he refers to today's male role models as "man poodles" or "infantilized jerks") who aren't going to find the masculinity they apparently need with one hand on a controller and the other on manual override.
Then there's this:
Zimbardo contends that immersion in online technology means that boys never learn basic social communication skills, still less how to flirt, risk rejection or ask for a date. As a result, boys are hobbled by a new form of social shyness.
But wouldn't this online technology also facilitate
flirting, social communication and asking for dates? Social communication is changing, but Zimbardo still wants it to resemble the sort of thing he grew up with. And this perception of unsociable losers is mostly false, but it gets perpetuated every time some axe-grinding moral panicist or book-peddling psychologist takes an inadvertent shoulder from a teenager staring a cellphone, rather than where he or she is going.
If porn/videogames were really that destructive, the world would be a complete mess. Both are ubiquitous and enjoyed by millions of people around the world, by a wide range of ages. And yet, for the most part, life is still recognizable as life, even by those who've been around since the "better days" when people talked "face to face" and waited until the newspaper arrived in the morning to discover what had happened yesterday.