The New and Improved Experience Machines

 "Suppose there 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, Robert Nozick

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 world.  

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.