2007 Awards and reviews

Awards ceremonies for video games are growing in size and status, reflecting the acceptance of video

Video gaming has come a long way. It has been a difficult journey from humble origins, surviving derision, scandal and protest but, after a painful birth and turbulent adolescence, it may finally be attaining something approaching respect from its industrious peers.

Much in the same way that film, and later television, spent years defining themselves and proving their worth before they were critically accepted, video gaming has now become a viable institution that can no longer be ignored or instantly dismissed as a lesser form of entertainment.

Growing stature

Since 2003, BAFTA has acknowledged video games' growing stature, popularity and importance by holding a separate award ceremony for them - the first time another medium has been included since the British Film Academy joined with the Guild of Television Producers and Directors in 1958. Progress indeed - something which has been reiterated this year as, for the first time, video games have their own category at the Children's BAFTAs, 12 years after its inception.

What this signifies, and will no doubt help to propagate, is the changing perception of the gamer. Recognising their presence at the children's awards goes some way towards regarding video games as a positive and beneficial aspect of modern culture. This is opposed to the negative influence they were previously perceived to represent, with the controversy surrounding games such as Grand Theft Auto and the destructive influence it was argued they had on impressionable young minds.

This is thanks in no small part to Nintendo, whose family friendly, inclusive outlook on gaming has deliberately sought to appeal to a broader audience. With the huge success of its handheld DS, and more recent Wii console, Nintendo has redefined the video gaming landscape by offering titles which are both educative and entertaining while boasting innovative controls that make the experience truly intuitive. The Wii has become the fastest-selling console of all time, and accounts for why Wii Sports - its benchmark title - stole the spotlight at the gaming BAFTAs by receiving six awards; for most innovation, best gameplay and best multiplayer as well as being the best sports, casual and simulation title of the year.

Laissez-faire glamour

The awards were hosted by comedian Vic Reeves and were attended by a wide range of industry professionals, along with celebrities from the film, TV and music world. The whole event approached the glitz and glamour of BAFTA's more illustrious film awards, but with a slightly more laissez-faire attitude; a celebration of gaming's achievements to date and a recognition of key figures who have been invaluable in its development. The BAFTA Fellowship, the highest accolade the academy can bestow, was this year awarded to Will Wright, a pioneer of game development for over 20 years, with landmark critical and commercial successes such as Sim City and The Sims to his name. This marks the first instance that anyone within the industry of video gaming has been given the honour, and signifies yet another step forward for the medium.

Golden Joysticks

However, the BAFTAs were not the only video game award show to take place this year, as 2007 also marked the silver jubilee of the Golden Joystick awards. Differing from the BAFTAs in that the awards are voted on by gamers themselves, this year saw the highest-ever number of votes cast, with over three-quarters of a million people selecting their gaming highlights for 2007. Less of a mainstream televised event than the BAFTA ceremony, David Mitchell, star of Channel 4's Peep Show, hosted the proceedings in front of a crowd of industry professionals, keeping the tone light hearted, adult themed and brisk. Mitchell was quick to point out the Joysticks' importance in that they are voted on by "the people that really matter - the gamers themselves", yet the outcome of the awards reflected a similar general consensus to the BAFTAs.

Nintendo's Wii Sports picked up the award for Best Family Game, and Nintendo as a company won for Best Innovation with its Wii console, and took home the coveted Best Publisher award. Microsoft, too, picked up a significant reward with its in-house title Gears of War being voted the Ultimate Game of the Year. Less prosperous was Sony, whose technically superior Playstation 3 console failed to pick up awards for any of its releases, or hardware.

Underachievementby Sony

This underachievement by Sony was evident with the list of BAFTA winners too, with awards for Techical Achievement, Best Score and Artistic Achievement going to God of War 2 and Okami - two Playstation 2 titles - but no awards for the Playstation 3.

Considering the length of development and hype surrounding Sony's new console, relatively poor sales - and now lack of industry recognition - can only be seen as a slight embarrassment, and could further affect the struggling behemoth. Despite its market dominance since the release of the first Playstation in 1994, Sony now finds itself in the unfamiliar position of trailing in Nintendo's wake, with Microsoft also gaining significant ground since the release of the Xbox 360 in 2006.

In the run-up to Christmas, the Wii has sold out across the country and, while Sony and Microsoft may put this down to poor set-up with their suppliers, the unavailability will only increase demand for Nintendo's flagship console as its run-away success continues.

Spike TV awards

One awards show where Nintendo hasn't stolen the centre stage, though, is Spike TV's Video Game Awards. Marking its 5th anniversary, the awards once again took place in Las Vegas on 7 December, billing themselves as "the biggest event in videogames". Spike TV is a division of the MTV network (which might account for the hyperbole) and is available in 96.1 million homes worldwide. The awards are more of a commercial event than either the BAFTAs or the Golden Joysticks, with big name sponsors such as Mountain Dew, Burger King and Nikon among others. Since its inception, Spike TV has made a concerted effort to include programming on video games to create a brand identity in keeping with the similar core target audience of the MTV channels.

The two gaming highlights for this ceremony were Microsoft's Bioshock and Halo 3, with seven nominations apiece, including Game of the Year. Contrary to the results of the BAFTAs and the Golden Joysticks, Wii Sports only received one nomination, for Most Addictive Game.

From over 13 categories, this is incidentally the only award voted for by the public, the awards being determined by the VGA Advisory Council.

Mobile gaming

For this year's Spike TV awards there was also a special set of sub-categories for mobile games, that are exclusive to mobile voting.

The progress of mobile gaming has been a revelation over the past few years, with technology advancing leaps and bounds since Snake represented the pinnacle of mobile gaming only five years ago. Now mobile games have storylines, 3D graphics, downloadable levels and more. In a recent list of top-10 downloaded games on mobile phones, as monitored by Orange, Sonic the Hedgehog came out on top, the same game that was a best seller for Sega's Mega Drive back in 1991. It may have taken 16 years, but the ability to play the full title on your mobile phone as a moderately priced download is quite an achievement.

The possibilities for mobile gaming are potentially limitless because the future of distribution seems more and more likely to be based online. New devices, such as the Nokia N95, can easily connect to the internet and have aspirations to be multimedia centres in their own right, suggesting that there is no reason why movies, music and games cannot become as popular on our mobile phones as they are in our homes.

Consistent innovation

It is an exciting time to be a gamer, with every year bringing with it new technologies and surprises and, as these awards signify, critical and social acceptance as well. Whether Nintendo's latest consoles present an evolution or revolution in gaming, with Microsoft and Sony still providing strong competition, and with mobile gaming advancing at an alarming rate, no other industry currently provides such continual and consistent innovation - long may it last. As Will Wright stated in his acceptance of the BAFTA Fellowship "Year after year games are permeating our culture and I don't think they will be dying off any time soon." Let's hope not.

A full list of all the awards' nominees and winners can be found at:

www.bafta.org

www.goldenjoystick.com

www.spiketv.com

Gaming and me

I got into games when I was about eight, through my older brothers, they had an Amiga. As the technology got bigger I moved along from there.

When I was younger a game I loved to play was Syndicate. This was a group of genetically made agents and you had to track people and assassinate them in a Blade Runner-style world. At the moment I'm a fan of any kind of sports game.

What I want for Christmas...

In my stocking I would like to get Mass Effect. Contrary to my sports taste this is a game with role playing, and you travel the galaxy. It was made by the people who made the Star Wars games a few years ago, Bioware.

Myles Robey

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?

***

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.

***

 

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?

***

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