were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired.
Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would
think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading
an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with
electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life,
preprogramming your life's experiences?"
-The Experience Machine,
Nozick uses the
hypothetical scenario as an argument against the idea of pleasure as the only
intrinsic value. And he points out that the conflict over psychoactive drugs is
partially because those opposed to drugs see them as local experience machines,
as they believe the drugs disconnect the user from the world to give them
pleasure. (And the drug users might defend themselves by suggesting they are
seeing a deeper reality.)
What Nozick found most
disturbing about his experience machine was that it would live life for its
user - things would occur in a preprogrammed fashion. Modern industry has come
up with an alternative solution: Video games.
There are many genres
of video games. MMO's, or massively multiplayer online games
currently seem to be the top contender for potential experience machines.
The player might control an avatar in
a medieval Tolkien-like setting or
choose a game where their avatar exists in a world of warring space empires. In these games
they get to interact with others and if they avoid large mistakes they will be
rewarded within the game for the time they've spent playing. These games are
quite immersive and many people have to get help to
stop playing them.
Like all thought
experiments, this one only works if the reader agrees with the author. Many
people might choose to hook themselves up to an experience machine. In high
school, the majority of my peer group reacted positively to Huxley's dystopian
vision in a Brave New World.
The same mindset could easily lead to the complete embrace of more and more
immersive video games.
The immersiveness of
video games is being taken further by companies such as Oculus Rift, who are creating virtual reality
headsets that apparently work quite well. This
video of people’s reactions to a guillotine simulator displays how
powerful virtual reality can be. Other developers, such as Riot, are analyzing
the behavior of their millions of players in
order to figure out how to make their games even more addictive (and how to
generate more micropayments from the addicted players).
Meanwhile, video games
are rising in status and visibility. In the competitive game genre, the
third International Dota 2
tournament recently finished. The prize pool was over $2.8
million dollars. This is still a long way away from the purse sizes of other
competitions, but top professional gamers are making more money
than biathlon competitors and it is likely that
they will pass chess players soon. Their respectability is growing along with
the prize pool.
Today's children are growing up in a world where
computers are a normal part of their lives – most two year olds will know how
to play with an Ipad. They will have never known a world where there isn’t an
alternate digital escape, and that escape will seem normal. It might be possible to argue that
today’s children have it much worse than children in the past. Their time is
often excessively managed by their helicopter parents,
who are worried that without many scheduled extracurricular activities the
children will fall off of the path to the Ivy League and success. Society has also become overprotective of children –
many schools are so concerned with childhood safety that they ban games like tag and parents don’t let
kids wander off alone because they’ve watched too many episodes of Law &
Order. At the same time, the
people designing alternate worlds for these children have gotten very good at
generating simulations which create dopamine rewards for prolonged interactions
with the game. Digital escape gets more appealing for each generation.
In Japan there is
already a term for those who have given up interacting with society and who do
not leave their rooms for months on end, hikikomori. It's not always related to
video games, cultural expectations, low opportunities for employment and psychological
issues play a large role. But the availability of immersive video games and the
Internet certainly increases the opportunity cost of interacting with the real
It will be interesting to see how society reacts
to the increased immersion and addictiveness of
video games in the coming years. Right now games are seen as scary by the
professional worriers who worry that gamers will act out the more violent
scenarios from games. Merely making a bad joke about going crazy can put a kid in jail. But the real risk is
not that gamers will take the game into the real world – it’s that many of them
will decide that they don’t like being in the real world at all.
It’s interesting to compare television and
novels to video games. Both can be immersive technologies, but the immersion is
much higher for games. To show
this, try to talk to a person playing in the middle of reading a book, watching
TV, or playing a video game. The person reading a book can put the book down without
too much trouble. The person watching TV is a little farther away. The person
playing the game might not even realize you are talking to them. Another difference
between television watching and gaming is that games require mental exertion.
If a gamer spends 34 hours a week playing games, equivalent to the time the average American spends watching TV,
they may be too tired to do other intellectual activities.
The question of whether or not gaming or
television is more harmful has yet to be settled. Gaming provides more
intellectual stimulation - and yet outside of reality television watchers,
dedicated gamers are widely acknowledged to be lower status than television watchers. This probably has
more to do with the type of people who seek out the experience machine being
low status in society to begin than it does with social ostracization being
used as a tool to prevent people from choosing to disconnect from reality. The
latter reason is likely to become more important as the experience machines
become more appealing and more addictive.
And yet thanks to a
generation of gamers growing up, getting jobs and making money, gaming is
enjoying more social acceptance than ever. Perhaps the millennial generation is
proving that an interest and hobby of playing video games does not preclude
most of them from interacting with the world. But video games are getting
better, much better. We can't necessarily say the same thing for the
opportunities the children growing up today. Both youth unemployment and
student debt levels are near all time highs. The one positive that really
stands out is that they have option of plugging themselves into new and better
designed experience machines.
I’ll be going to PAX
at the end of this month… to investigate these trends more closely.