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

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain