Making virtual consumers of us all

Our games are becoming polluted with advertising and the values inherent in them are preaching consu

In his keynote speech at the Virtual Worlds Forum, held in London this October, Lord Puttnam expressed concern at the values espoused by many online virtual worlds aimed at young people, asking: "...are we absolutely sure that this is the very best we can offer young people? ... Do we really want them to think of themselves as not much more than consumers?"

Puttnam's concern stemmed from the number of toy and entertainment firms entering the rapidly-growing market of virtual worlds, with products such as Mattel's BarbieGirls, or Disney's recently-acquired Club Penguin.

Virtual destinations

Puttnam's concern doesn't just apply to the young. Virtual worlds and online games, be they services aimed at young people like Habbo Hotel, virtual worlds such as Second Life or games like World of Warcraft, are becoming more and more popular destinations in which people spend their spare time. It's important to remember that they are "destinations" - the concept of being "in-world" is very different to "being online" for players and users of such services. We are bombarded with enough advertising, online and off every day; why should our leisure spaces be equally polluted? And yet that is the trend that seems to be emerging.

Virtual businesses

Still, Lord Puttnam's fears may not be entirely justified. Young people are surprisingly good at knowing when they are being sold to. There is little to be done if they are happy with being sold to but it's hardly games and virtual worlds that set that ball rolling. And, it's worth remembering that all virtual worlds - however uncontroversial - are businesses: they cost money to make and more money to run. They can recoup that cost through subscriptions, through virtual trade, or by writing it off as an advertising expense, but somewhere, they are going to encourage money to change hands. Online, little is truly free.

Values implicit in games

Doug Thomas, of the University of Southern California, recently expressed similar sentiments to Lord Puttnam in a panel discussion. But while Lord Puttnam's concerns were about virtual worlds being used as marketing tools, Thomas seemed more concerned about the actual content of the games themselves, and the "conflation between consumption and consumerism and citizenship" within them, saying that "...our kids are being taught that to be a good citizen of this world you have got to buy the right stuff."

The point Thomas makes raises an interesting angle: what values are taught by - or are inherent in - the mechanics of these virtual worlds?

World of Warcraft, for instance, tells us that to improve our status, we must "grind" our way up through repetitive tasks. It also tells us that the rewards for such labours are treasure, better equipment, and more beautiful armour. The consumerist culture is at the core of World of Warcraft. There are even sweatshops in China where underpaid workers "farm" in game currency, which is sold for real money over the internet. The exchange rate is currently about eight cents to the virtual gold piece.

And consider Second Life, the poster-child of virtual worlds. It's not a game, but a space that can be whatever the inhabitants want it to be. It gives its inhabitants the abilities to create buildings and objects, and to program those objects with new behaviours. Second Life is a space that encourages creativity first and foremost, and so its economy began as an arts-and-crafts culture: inhabitants buying items each other had made for reasonably low real-world prices.

Lucrative real estate

That culture quickly became trumped by the far more lucrative real-estate market, in which inhabitants bought up areas of land, developed them with impressive buildings and furnishings, and sold them on for profit. A year ago, Second Life's first property millionaire made the cover of Business Week.

The Second Life economy has moved on from real estate, into advertising and marketing. No one quite knows what to do with it but they want to be there; hence firms like American Apparel have established virtual stores to sell virtual t-shirts. As Second Life has become more mainstream, just like the web, television, and radio before it, it has become ever more swamped by advertising and marketing. The slide towards consumerism seems to be one that is hard to escape.

The arguments put forward by Puttnam and Thomas may seem critical, but we should heed them. After all, both are very aware of the many positive aspects of virtual worlds. What they are calling for is greater media literacy about the places we play online. That seems to be a reasonable request, given that the values of any society stem as much from its inhabitants as its rulers.

With greater understanding of the medium, inhabitants will be able to better interpret and shape the values of their online communities. That can only be a good thing.

This game could save your life

Medics are learning to treat blast victims by using video games.

TruSim, the serious games branch of leading game developer Blitz Games has linked with learning solutions design experts VEGA Group plc and several UK universities to devise Triage Trainer, a game which simulates the effects of a city-centre explosion, to help doctors decide how best to treat casualties.

Different casualties are randomly generated each time the game is played; their condition deteriorates during the game in real time with accurate displays of respiration, circulation, skin colour and behaviours, demonstrating the potential of games technology in healthcare training.

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 age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood