Better Living Through Video Games

Video games have had a bad reputation for basically as long as they’ve been around. To begin with, they were portrayed as the purview of losers and fringe geek-types. Increasingly, they are blamed for any random act of violence that gains media attention. But when you’re talking about an industry that is larger than the movie industry and has been for some time now, it’s difficult to write it off as a mere niche activity. Moreover, not only is there no evidence that video games induce violent behavior, there are also good reasons to believe that video games can have positive cognitive and social effects on gamers.

One of the fears about modern technology that gets a lot of airtime is the notion that we risk destroying our ability to focus for prolonged periods on tasks that require all of our attention. Nicholas Carr has made himself the chief representative about this point of view. Drawing on neuroplasticity research, he argues that a great deal of tech services are set up in a way that rewires our brain to seek instant gratification for minimal attention, and in the long run makes it harder for us to get anything else.

Though the rise of casual gaming along the lines of Angry Birds certainly is a part of the trend that Carr describes, the biggest names in video gaming have always encouraged long term focus rather than discouraged it. Platformers, the genre of which Super Marios Bros. is a part, require gamers to devote all of their attention as they jump from place to place, for bad timing and failure to notice an obstacle inevitably result in death. MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft are famous for sucking gamers in for hours and hours over the course of months. This may be cause for concern for some reasons, but discouraging focus is surely not one of them. If Carr’s hypothesis holds, then games such as these should actually wire gamers’ brains in a way that makes it easier for them to focus on longer tasks in general.

One of the sources of satisfaction that modern cognitive scientists emphasize is finding opportunities to experience what is known as “flow“. Flow is the sensation of working right at the edge of one’s abilities. If you’ve ever had a bad streak where it felt as though you were performing worse than you were capable of but seemed unable to come out of it, you might say that that’s the opposite of flow—flow is the very best possible streak. It’s exhilarating while it lasts, and it feels fragile—like any small distraction could derail you.

Who knows this sensation better than a gamer? Take Super Meat Boy, the ultra-hard platformer highlighted in the documentary Indie Game: The Movie. Anyone who has devoted hours to playing this game knows what it is like to suddenly hit a streak in which a level that seemed impossible is suddenly overcome all at once. Flow is the cognitive payoff that gamers receive for devoting enormous amounts of time to focusing on trying to solve very specific problems.

Having a sense of place within a community is another important aspect of personal satisfaction, and here again gaming has much to recommend it. Far from its reputation of being isolating, gaming is and has always been an intrinsically social activity. To begin with, we got into gaming because our friends were into it, and we sought the games that we heard about through our friends. We shared our progress, as well as tips and tricks we learned about, with our friends. Gaming provided a common ground for connecting with new people or breaking the ice at a gathering. Even when we did not know one another personally, we were connected to each other through our common experience of playing the same games and reading the same magazines.

Today there is far more community among gamers than there ever has been. The chief cause is of course the Internet, both because access to forums and chat programs and social media allows communities to better connect in general, and because gaming increasingly harnesses connectivity directly. Xbox Live made real-time interaction among gamers playing the same game the gold standard of hardcore gaming. Games like World of Warcraft encourage seeking out new companions to accomplish in-game goals.

There is a school of thought with a long history—far predating modernity—which holds that the path to the good life is to devote oneself to a craft, of which the arts are considered a part. One need not take a position on the debate over whether video games are an art form in order to agree that the creating of video games is a craft. It requires animators, programmers, designers, composers, and increasingly writers as well. Obviously many indie games simply involve one or two people taking on all of these roles—but it’s clear that every one of these tasks is itself a craft, so it is no big leap to say that their combination is a craft as well.

Technological progress and new funding mechanisms such as Kickstarter are making it easier than ever for people to devote themselves to this craft. Moreover, the community aspects of gaming and the net in general are making it possible for gamers to increasingly participate in the process of creating games. Be it through criticism, through contributing to a Kickstarter campaign, or through promoting a favorite creator on social media, gaming is taking on all of the larger activities associated with any form of culture.

Critics of the ill effects of technology tend to think that video games are the biggest problem area of all. I hope I have offered some evidence that, in fact, gaming can be a countermeasure against some of modernity’s downsides. More than that, participation in the gamer community can be an uplifting and fulfilling activity.

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When Science Looks Like Religion

The battle for the claim to which tribe is truly “scientific” has again heated up. Fueled by a prickly exchange between Michael Shermer, assuming the liberals-are-anti-science corner in Scientific American, and Mother Jones‘ Chris Mooney, who literally wrote the book on how bad conservatives are at science, writers for different blogs and magazines  put forth their best pitches for their own team. This is hardly the first time this debate has occurred. After all, no intelligent person of any worldview wants to be told that they are actually the ones who have been wasting time admiring the shadows on the cave wall. However, as Stan wrote on Friday, most sides in political discussions have moral inclinations that align with scientific evidence at least part of the time. This means that there is a high likelihood that different political groups will be “right” on certain issues, although not for the right reasons. In rushing to claim the mantle of scientific backing, political groups merely seek and publicize scientific findings that reinforce their priors.

Humanity has a bad track record of selectively appealing to authority to justify our biases. For much of human history, public figures would defend their positions by demonstrating how they coincided with their god’s will or expectations. The respective gods’ wills and expectations of the world’s major religions have consistently changed according to the new needs and developments of their more modern adherents (save for a tiny minority of orthodox groups). This could either suggest that all of their gods happened to be hip, understandable deities that conveniently mellowed over time (humorous, but unlikely) or that the spiritual leadership of these religions simply lowered the moral standard that modern living was expected to meet. Like our modern tendency to cover our personal biases with the veneer of science, God’s will became less of an end and more of a means.

As this recent episode demonstrates, today, intellectual opinions and policy proposals are defended by appealing to a new higher authority: science. This is, of course, a significant improvement. The scientific method is the best approach that we have developed to remove human bias in empirical inquiry to date. It’s nice to live in a world where assertions are expected to be backed by evidence and weighed against alternative explanations, despite the fact that some people use it to reinforce, rather than challenge, their priors. However, the tendency for laypeople to blindly embrace whatever is described to them as “science” as a moral truth is no more comforting a standard than the one that preceded it. In replacing gods with the scientific method, might we run the risk of mistaking the scientific method for a god, free of error and human bias

Even practitioners of science from time to time fall prey to a religious preference for dogmatism over detached truth-seeking. During last week’s discussion on which political group is “better” at science, one of my friends posted an interview of psychologist Jonathan Haidt from last year. In it, evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson poses the question de rigueur, to which Haidt delivers an even-handed response: conservatives and liberals are both “bad” at the science that offends their moral sensibilities. In Europe, for instance, it is the left that is generally regarded as anti-science because much of the research conducted in those countries-on nuclear power and genetically-modified foods-tends to push the left’s buttons and invokes their public ire. In the US, it is the religious right who doles scorn and obstruction upon scientists who conduct taboo research on, say, biotechnology or climate change. So far, so good.

It is when Haidt draws comparisons between science and religion that he first draws the skepticism of his interviewer and things get interesting. Wilson acknowledges that scientists are not exempt from the biases that make us all human, but suggests that the mechanisms they have developed to minimize their influence-like peer review, empirical standards, and open discussion-largely squashes any scientist’s attempts to merely affirm his moral matrix by disguising it as science. Haidt agrees that it is possible for the scientific community to internally police their collective proclivities to search for the answers that they want to find rather than the answer that is most likely correct. However, Haidt suggests that these internal mechanisms will only properly function when a given body of  scientists is diverse enough to contain alternative points of view and detached enough to not allow emotional connections to cloud their better judgments towards their cherished subjects of inquiry.

The Norwegian documentary Hjernevask created by comedian Harald Eia provides one good example of how adherence to the standard social science model has taken a turn towards the canonical in the narrator’s home country. Throughout the seven part series, Eia first visits his old sociology professors that taught him everything he knew about gender, race, and class differences; namely, that they are almost completely culturally determined and it is unthinkable to suggest otherwise. Next, Eia travels to globe to consult big name international experts-luminaries like Steven Pinker, Simon Baron-Cohen, and David Buss-on their differing opinions on the matter. Needless to say, these gentleman found several problems with the hard cultural determinism of the Norwegian sociologists, particularly concerning the sociologists’ ambivalence towards twin study research that suggests that significant portions of our personality are biologically, not culturally, determined.

In formulaic fashion, during each episode Eia returns to the sociologists to which he originally spoke and shows them the videos of their ideological opponents across the pond. Rather than responding to these criticisms with research results that support their positions or cast doubt on their adversaries’, the sociologists that were interviewed simply waved away the critiques. The inconvenient studies were either “not interesting,” or “contrary to what [the sociologist] felt and experienced.” Ironically, many of these sociologists accused the other scientists of only looking for the biological explanation that they wanted to find, despite the fact that all of the British and American scientists readily conceded that culture does account for a small part of our personality outcomes. Because the Norwegian sociological community is not diverse enough and is too emotionally connected with its subject of inquiry, this academic body acts less like a scientific group and more like a religious sect.

The claim that science is like a religion is a bold one. It certainly caught David Sloan Wilson off guard when Haidt first suggested it. After Haidt pressed Wilson to consider his own (decidedly unpleasant) experience introducing the concept of multi-level selection to his peers and subsequently invoking their reflexive hostilities, the claim became less abstract and more convincing. Science is not religion, but if the proper safeguards to prevent groupthink and emotional attachment are not present within a discipline, it can sometimes function like one. Like our ancestor’s tendency to slap their preferences with the Word of God to make it a moral truth, some modern social scientists also continue to fall prey to the false allure of deifying their preferences under the guise of “science.”

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Filter Bubbles Versus Viral Memes: Why We Have More Common Ground than Ever Before

Since the dawn of the World Wide Web, some have wondered whether the medium might cause us to lose our common ground. There is conceivably enough material out there for every individual on the planet to enshroud himself in his own informational universe, almost entirely divorced from everyone else. But in fact, the opposite is occurring. More than ever, viral memes are piercing our carefully crafted filter bubbles, and it is only going to get worse.

Economists say a system exhibits network externalities when adding users increases the value for everyone. The name comes from obvious applications of this concept—telephones are only valuable to an individual to the extent that other individuals can be reached through the telephone network, for instance. Email has the same property, and so do social platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

In the context of blog traffic, Clay Shirky notes that if adding an additional reader to a blog will increase the probability that it will get yet another reader “by even a fractional amount”, the resulting distribution of traffic will be a power law. Network externalities create this effect because the additional users have increased the value for the remaining potential users. Networked industries are extremely skewed; the bigger the network, the greater the skew.

Network externalities turn out to apply more universally than is immediately obvious. How we value just about anything is highly influenced by the 5-15 people closest to us in our social circles. The set of 5-15 people closest to each of them probably overlaps but is not the same as our innermost circle. A series of interlinking circles expands outwards until it encompasses all of mankind. As Paul Adams shows in Grouped, we have been networked in this sense for all of human history.

When one person decides to, say, buy a particular brand of clothing, it increases the chances that one of the people closest to him will buy that brand, too. This increases the chances that one of the people closest to them will buy it, and so on, cascading outward ad infinitum. An increasing probability doesn’t mean a definite outcome, so not everything bought by anyone ends up being bought by everyone else. But every so often the spiral of increasing probabilities plays out in a process that, when it happens to online content, we call “going viral”.

The phenomenon of going viral makes a joke of the daily me and The Filter Bubble theories of Internet echo chambers. The bubble is all too easily penetrated, and the daily me bears far too great a resemblance to the daily everybody else.

Consider the social life of one individual as a set of concentric circles. Every so often, it seems like everyone in a particular circle is talking about the same thing. It happens most frequently with the innermost circle, which the individual is most engaged with. Sometimes a topic spreads to the next level, and occasionally it reaches the most remote circles. More often, content originating from the outer layers invades our inner circles.

All the Internet does, from this perspective, is bring the circles closer and closer together in informational space. Recent studies suggest that products like Facebook decrease the degrees of separation between people.

If you’re like me, you follow a wide variety of people on Twitter, but you can lump them into semi-coherent groupings. They each tend to follow their own dynamics, on any given day. Sometimes, one of them will blow up—during an Apple event, the techies basically dominate my whole feed. Sometimes, everyone blows up about the same thing. Rather than allowing me to segment myself into my little niche communities in my hidden informational universe, Twitter makes it harder for me to ignore the topic of the moment.

Contra Negroponte and Pariser, this is mostly a nuisance. I don’t care about most of the stories that go viral, and I would prefer to ignore them entirely. It used to be that random extreme events—unrepresentative of the larger reality—would dominate the news cycle. Now, they also dominate online conversations.

Although I take great pains to avoid the story of the moment, in the end there’s only so much I can do while choosing to remain online. And the benefits of using the Internet are worth the costs, even if I do have to tolerate a lot of pointless common ground.

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