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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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times