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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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