Resolving your oedipal conflicts?

What is going on in our subconscious when we play games and what makes us play over and over again?

In the future, video games will help you lose weight and even diagnose your psychological problems.

In a study recently published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, researchers at the US National Institute of Mental Health found that clinical depression could be reliably diagnosed by the way some scenes from Duke Nukem - a popular video game - were played.

Previous research has established that the brains of those who sufferer from serious depression contain a shrunken area called the hippocampus, which is also the part of the brain we use to navigate around the world - in other words where spatial memory resides. In Duke Nukem, you have to find your way around a virtual town and depressives performed relatively poorly at this particular task.

Detecting brain changes

So video games hold out the potential to test with high specificity the very earliest changes in brain function, too subtle to emerge in a clinical interview. Perhaps the warning message will not in the future be just that you are running out of ammo, but that you should visit the doctor.

Fears that a couch potato generation has been spawned by video games replacing playground activity might be premature - already studies have been published showing that some active video dance games, where you have to make correctly sequenced steps on floor mats to score points, have significantly promoted weight loss.

Released in 1999, Dance Dance Revolution, from Konami, not only took off to the tune of 2.5 million units sold in the USA alone, but the latest version tells you how many calories you are burning per dance session, and comes with a 30-day trial membership to a 24-hour fitness gym franchise. US health insurance corporations are now promoting the use of the game among their insured, to reduce future health claims.

There is no doubt we are just at the threshold of what video games are capable of in terms of their impact and enmeshment in our lives.

Play alters your brain

"Play" is clearly a serious business. The size of the mammalian brain across species is directly correlated with how much time is spent at play during youth. Something important is being learned, and a key element in brain development occurs, during play. It follows that anything that interferes with play, or changes its nature, could have more profound implications than is currently realised by policy-makers.

The safe exhilaration of this form of play - no one ever fell off their virtual skateboard and hurt themselves playing Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 - is part of the reason that video games are now well on their way to becoming the only way we play.

The first theory that psychologists came up with from their research was that video games are a bit like "electronic friends". When asked, many adolescents indicated that they preferred playing on their computers to engaging with friends, plus they saw their machines as companions. Surveys confirmed that those who played a lot of video games did indeed boast fewer friends.

Freudians put the computer on the couch when they argued that adolescents love violent video games as their way of resolving "oedipal conflicts". What this means is that, at a time of heightened anxiety, as you face the prospect of abandoning childhood, instead of acting out your repressed fantasy of assaulting your father for possessing your mother and so depriving you of her, you turn to a "shoot-em-up" game to release that pent-up rage.

Reward and punishment

The "rats in a maze" behavourists countered instead that the gradual accretion of skill and mastery, interspersed with regular reward, is the key to a potent cocktail. Video games are a behavioural psychologists' paradise in terms of reward and punishment - any action or inaction has consequences and these are designed to shape the players' behaviour. The game gradually moulds you so that you become transformed into a creature who can ever-more fully engage with the game and gain yet more reward points from it.

However, computer scientists Pippin Barr, James Noble and Robert Biddle, at the Universities of Wellington and Carleton in New Zealand and Canada, have just published a provocative academic paper in the journal Interacting with Computers, which argues that it is only by understanding the values that games promote that we can fully grasp their attraction.

A value - contend Barr and colleagues - is a tendency to prefer one action over another (for example, killing an enemy over making peace with them) and video games are laden with implicit values. These computer scientists propose an intriguing methodology for exposing the value system, which otherwise remains covert, and this is to play the game but not to do what the computer expects or encourages you to.

Deviance is not tolerated

So, for example, in a war game shoot-'em-up, Barr and colleagues encourage us to try playing as an archetypal pacifist and see what happens. What happens is you get killed very rapidly. The game does not tolerate or reward any deviance from its implicit values.

The idea of attempting to be a rebellious player in order to discover what the game is really about clearly has a striking resemblance to rebellion in the real world - we often discover how non-benign seemingly benevolent governments are when they come up against opposition or non-conformity.

However, there is a new genre of games, launched with Grand Theft Auto III in 2001, where you are meant to stroll around a city mugging, killing and stealing cars. But if you mysteriously choose not to and instead, ignore the violent plot line and explore the rich never-ending virtual environment, this would not inevitably result in your virtual death. However, side-stepping the plot line does not produce the same intense interaction with other characters as attempting to kill them does. The only mental states that these games recognise and reward are narcissism, paranoia and aggression.

Many second-life, simulation and empire building games seem to permit simple curiosity and exploration, but this is still within very set boundaries, and a whole set of behaviours around rebellion and questioning have no place here. Without realising it, play in the sense of true adventure and exploration, is in grave danger of being hijacked by digital corporations.

Yearning for reward

Whatever our preferences in video games, they do teach us something about ourselves, if we are prepared for a bit of an unpleasant shock. They suggest that, deep down, we love rules, we adore structure, we yearn to be rewarded. Basically, we crave a pat on the back (even if it's an electronic one) for obediently changing in the way the game - or others want us to.

What is truly terrifying about video games is they reveal in full high-definition sensurround sound just how much we prefer to be given goals, rather than negotiate them for ourselves.

Dr Raj Persaud is Gresham Professor for Public Understanding of Psychiatry and Consultant Psychiatrist at The Bethlem Royal and Maudsley NHS Hospitals Trust

Dr Raj Persaud is Gresham Professor for Public Understanding of Psychiatry and Consultant Psychiatrist at The Maudsley Hospital in South London he is Editor of The Mind: A Users Guide published in collaboration with The Royal College of Psychiatrists

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

Picture: David Parkin
Show Hide image

The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496