Getting a return for your creativity

Gerri Peev interviews Margaret Hodge about tax breaks for gaming companies and being a good shot

If talk of imminent war in the government is true, internal enemies of Margaret Hodge, Minister for Culture, Media and Sport should beware.

The minister is at her best when behind a weapon of mass destruction. Her first attempt at Destroyer Command is testimony to that.

"First shot I killed the chap," she says with ill-disguised pride. "I played tennis on Wii and I missed the ball although I am a good tennis player."

She is more puzzled about that one - indeed she is equally puzzled about the lack of games aimed at women in the market. This is a missed opportunity for the industry, she says, but Hodge acknowledges the product will evolve to reflect wider society.

Indeed the pace of change is so fast that, in between organising the interview and publication, two key industry players have merged to form the biggest games company in the world: Activision Blizzard. Meanwhile, Microsoft has unveiled a film download service for Xbox users, turning the console into a multi-entertainment platform.

UK slipping behind

Amid all this market hype and development, the UK, which is the leading consumer of games, is slipping behind on the production side. The Canadians have been propelled ahead of Britain thanks to tax breaks offered by their government.

So just what is Westminster going to do in the face of such aggressive competition? Hodge is careful not to make big promises: "What government needs to do is provide the conditions in which the creativity and the ideas can flourish. That's our job. I think that goes far, far wider than tax credits. We are all really concerned about what the Canadians are doing and we are looking at whether it's legal under the World Trade Organisation convention."

She gives her strongest indication yet to the New Statesman that tax breaks are not on the menu for the games industry here, despite a clamour from some industry voices. "You will get into a terrible ping pong on that is my view. Canadians put a bit more, we put a bit more.

"We will want to respond to that but I have always thought that having a competition between nations on who can give the biggest tax relief is a real short-term palliative, not a long-term solution.

"If we can tackle all the other issues that are important to the games industry, we will create a much more sustainable set of conditions through which the industry can flourish."

One of Hodge's solutions is to wrest away some of the £380m offered almost exclusively to the science and technology industries, such as pharmaceuticals, through the technology strategy board.

"There is a technology strategy board that spends almost £400m a year on innovation. It will spend zillions on pharmaceuticals research and development of nanotechnology. It doesn't spend anything on the creative area that leads to copyright.

"If you are launching a new game.it is a new product that needs development, research and innovation and it can lead to fantastic growth.

Technology strategy fund

"On the technology strategy fund, we want them to fund innovation in the creative sector and that is very much in games."

Hodge also knows the industry's fears over intellectual property (IP) and how the small developers are being outpaced by massive competition from abroad.

"We are looking at this in two ways: how can you protect copyright? ...That will be really important for the games world. The second is that you find new ways of getting a return for your creativity, a monetarised value for your creativity."

She cites Radiohead's recent decision to allow fans to download their music for a fee of their choice rather than dictating the price. While it was initially a loss leader, it allowed the band to promote their brand and concerts.

Green paper

A government green paper on the creative industries economy, due to be released in January, will now become a firmer strategy document, with harder resolutions.

Hodge confides that one of its offerings will be an attempt to coax students into maths and science subjects by setting out a clear link to a future in games development. This will be a welcome move by the industry, which is crying out for skilled workers.

And what are ministers planning to do about the covert state aid the French are trying to inject into their softening games sector? The French government is trying to argue the case for tax breaks for games that promote French culture.

"They are trying but they have not got it yet," she says. "They are doing what we did for films. We introduced the cultural test for films. They are trying to do it for games. They have lost their entire games industry to Montreal; it's all gone. But we shall wait and see and we shall know before Christmas whether Europeans will see that as non-state aid, and we are very sceptical."

Watch this space: if the French are successful, maybe the British government could fund games producers to promote that elusive sense of "Britishness" that Gordon Brown is so desperate to channel.

Battling bad headlines

Aside from killer competition from abroad, the industry is battling bad headlines. In recent weeks alone, computer and video games have been blamed for everything from British school children slipping down the OECD league table for reading, to making youngsters so bad at football that England failed to qualify for the Euro championships.

The government has already announced the Byron Review into video games, led by the BBC's child psychologist Tanya Byron, which is due to report back in March.

This is a subject close to Hodge's heart, as a former children's minister. She makes it clear that responsibility for children's use of games should not be entirely in the hands of the industry; parents need to make sure consoles and computers are not always tucked away in children's bedrooms but played openly in family areas.

"Of course we want to ensure our children are protected from inappropriate material, of course that's important - although making the link between criminality and inappropriate material, that's never been a proven link.

"I think the answer is three things: you have to work with the manufacturers to make sure you have mechanisms that you can filter out all the harmful stuff. Two, you do really need much, much better education with kids in school, so they also become aware of the sort of material that they should avoid. Three, parents have a role to play. One of the most dangerous things we have in our society, if you want my view, is that the kids all have this in the bedroom unsupervised."

Streamlined classification

She favours streamlining the classification system. At present, the UK is subjected to two: one by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), which also classifies films, and another, Pan European Game Information (PEGI), an EU-wide system. Hodge expresses a preference for the BBFC as it carries some legal weight.

Where does she stand on censorship? She mentions Manhunt 2, which has failed to get classification for the second time, meaning it is effectively banned from Britain. "A lot of people get very sensitive about it. It is very, very violent. I have not seen it so I don't know what the content is but I imagine it was the right thing not to let it have classification," she says.

Of course, she still has a soft spot for other action-packed games such as Destroyer Command. Subsidy junkies such as Canada and France had better watch out for Hodge complaining to the World Trade Organisation and Europe respectively. She is a good shot.

Gerri Peev is political correspondent for the Scotsman

Video gamers make faster and better surgeons

Surgeons who regularly play video games are faster and make few errors, according to a study published by the Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City.

The study, led by Dr James Rosser, tested 303 surgeons on their performance at the "cobra rope" drill, a laparoscopic training exercise, described as "trying to tie your shoe laces with three-foot-long chopsticks while watching on a TV screen".

Surgeons who did a 20-minute video-game warm-up before the training exercise surgery were found to be 11 seconds faster, and to make fewer errors, than surgeons who did not.

The study also found that young surgeons who spent at least three hours a week playing video games in the past made 37 per cent fewer errors, were 27 per cent faster, and scored 42 per cent better overall than surgeons who had never played a video game at all.

Of those taking part, 42 per cent had never played a video game but 30 per cent had played almost every day at one time. Those in the top third of video-gaming skill made 47 per cent fewer errors, performed 39 per cent faster and scored 41 per cent better overall than those in the bottom third.

The findings have led the authors to suggest that video games may be a practical teaching tool to help train surgeons.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2007

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge