Video games and the factory worker ethic

On Tuesday I had the good fortune of meeting an airline pilot by chance, who told me something that I had suspected but never confirmed: you can learn some of the skills involved in flying a plane with certain flight simulator games (he used Microsoft’s “Flight Simulator X” himself). These games are challenging and fun, and according to the pilot, mastery in such flight simulator video games is looked on favourably if you apply to be a trainee pilot. Play, in this case, is not just for its own sake but also for some kind of utility (i.e. learning how to fly a plane). This stands in stark, stark contrast to most video games out there on the market today, especially smartphone games (Flight Simulator X happens to run on non-mobile platforms).

Most mobile games nowadays have a learning curve that plateaus rapidly, usually within a few hours. Take any first-person shooter game for example — most games out there feature simplistic swipe-and-tap mechanisms that are miles away from the experience of firing a real gun. These games are usually “pay or grind to win”, requiring that a player either put in real-world currency (pay to win) or repeat certain actions/stages multiple times (grind to win) before they are allowed to advance. The use of “grind” exposes how this sometimes feels for players, with a game sometimes taking on a boring, tedious quality before bestowing on the player a reward that often requires more grinding to exploit fully.

The idea of grinding in games isn’t a new idea. I did it myself as a teenager when playing in multi-user dungeons (MUDs), but at least I had plenty of people to chat with in-game when grinding (the reason I type so quickly nowadays is that as a teenager I learnt how to type as quickly as possible to grind efficiently and chat online at the same time). What is new, I think, is the typical teenager’s view of these games.

Unlike 30-somethings today, most of our teenagers grew up in a world dominated by video games. When the phrase “childhood play” is mentioned, what do you think of? I think mostly of chasing people around in void decks and playgrounds, digging in the sand, and a very dangerous night of inadvertently creating a bomb with sparkler powder and a milo tin. Yes, it is mixed in with afternoons spent at the video game arcade (Alien vs Predator, woohoo!), but it is dominated by self-directed, physical play. Teenagers these days share some of my childhood experiences, but also will have experienced a whole host of computer-aided play — whether it be the old Pokémon games, Xbox games, or whatnot.

We need to interrogate what “play” means to us, especially because we have moved firmly into the smartphone age, and are moving into an age of augmented reality gaming (i.e. Pokémon Go). When thinking about mobile games that require grinding, I realise that I have almost completely stopped processing them as “play”. The gamer is forced into the mindset of a factory worker, logging the hours to “create” a product (with the sad irony that no product is created, other than an experience that the gaming company hopes will lead you into giving them money to avoid playing certain parts of the game).

That play should be fun is a point so obvious that it seems to need no discussion, but we have millions of people who work at mobile games that can feel like a factory shift, all the while thinking that they are indulging in play. In a strict sense they are participating in a game and are thus playing, but because so many of them are not actually having fun, I want to reframe this in-game grinding as factory work for the game companies. I have to admit the possibility that some gamers grind while entering into some kind of peaceful, focused, meditative space, and for them I would admit that this is play. (Meditative space is fun space!) Yet, I assert that this experience is rare because most people have no idea what this meditative space feels like in the first place.

Moreover, play in digital space is inferior to play in a physical space. Consider almost any kind of offline play, and you are bound to encounter something that will help people learn outside of the zone of play. If you play the guitar, if you play football, if you play with fire, if you play in the sand, if you play with your friends, you will pick up and refine your abilities in the musical, physical, visual, kinesthetic, social, and even intellectual realms. As children, many of us were introduced to the concept of fairness when deciding on the rules of the games we played together, after all. For most of us, it is innately rewarding to play these games and learn in these realms. It is just a vulgar accident in a vulgar society that learning in these realms helps us to get better grades and jobs. (Yes, I believe that society should be arranged in such a way that most of us get to act like rich people who do not need to work.)

Playing certain video games makes us more likely to want to get jobs, so that we can earn more money to pay for “luxuries” like in-game currency, so that we can unwind from the stressful jobs we work at. Playing in the offline world has the advantage of usually being cheap, requiring less money for us to have fun, while giving us the skills to earn more money in less time.

It is unfortunate that I keep on moving back to the necessity of making a living, but this is the world we live in, and we need to deal with it. I believe, however, that play can be our guide in deciding what to do with our lives. We need less of the factory worker ethic when playing, and more of a child’s wonder and excitement. Play should be fun — just like teaching can be fun. Are you having fun yet?

My student’s perspective on those parasitical smartphones

This is something a 13-year-old student wrote about smartphones and how his friends use them. The fact that smartphone addiction can feed on a person’s character and social life completely eluded me when I was writing my previous post. In his own words:

My friends spend their whole recess not by playing soccer, not by exercising, but by playing games on their phones. When I play soccer, I feel refreshed. Although a little smelly (probably very), I feel healthier after a good game. However, as for my friends who play with their phones the entire day, their brains are dulled and their character changes. They become more obsessed with their phones and spend less time with their friends. As a result, they lose friends, are less healthy, and they become less intelligent. The reason they lose friends is because instead of spending time with their buddies, they choose to let their phones consume their time. While people are bonding and having the time of their lives, they are addicted to their phones, and not socializing (omg). From my perspective, their phones are their jailers as they prevent them from interacting with others.


I should have realized this before, but of course people who spend too much time staring at screens end up with much less time to spend with other people. How sad.

Smartphones: mind-controlling parasites we love

For a few years, I’ve been affectionately referring to my smartphone as my mind-control device. Let’s all admit that almost all of us are firmly addicted to our smartphones because of the tiny spurts of dopamine (one of the “pleasure chemicals” in our brains) we get when we see our “likes” increasing, or when we read an entertaining article, or when we — once again! — match three of those colourful candies/fruits/jewels. This reward system that has been designed into our smartphones has a huge impact on our thoughts and desires, and has caused what I call a “crisis of attention” in too many of our children and a considerable number of adults as well. For some, smartphones have become parasites.

Parasites are creatures that live by feeding off their hosts, at the expense of these hosts. Our smartphones feed off our attention (and addiction), and some psychologists have pointed to our devices as the reason behind many of us becoming even more stupid than we already are, with some students now unable to focus and sustain attention at a level that can be quite shocking. Of course, there are people who have more of a symbiotic relationship with their smartphones, using them in ways that are beneficial to their own lives, even if they are no less attached to their devices. However, the way I see some of my students use their smartphones worries me — there are students who jump straight to their smartphones after lessons, to feed their faces with whatever video, game, or social media post that catches their fancy. I suspect that for most of them, the smartphone is more parasite than symbiotic helper.

I have this suspicion because I also am surgically attached to my smartphone.

For a period of time longer than I care to admit, I was a little bit too interested in social media and gaming on my phone. As a result, I was slowly but surely growing even more stupid than I already was. Reading still occupied a considerable amount of my time, but much less than it should have. It was a distressing experience realising that I was losing my ability to focus, knowing what to do about it (i.e. not letting social media and games ruin my brain any further), and being unable to actually stop myself. I found myself repeating this cycle over and over again: I would resolve to do something productive, stay on task for half an hour, get distracted by something on my smartphone, and two hours later, realise that I had wasted all that time on something completely trivial.

My solution to this problem was to fill my phone’s home screen with apps that served as reminders for me to make better choices: three dictionaries (Oxford Dictionaries, Cambridge Dictionaries Online, and The Free Dictionary), Pocket (an app to save articles for reading later), Overdrive (an eBook reader that allows me to borrow eBooks from the library), and so on. I still spend hours on my phone, but at least most of that time is spent away from trivial games and social media.

I experienced my own crisis of attention, and I am seeing some of my students struggle with theirs. It is simultaneously heartening and saddening when a student gets frustrated with himself because he wants to focus, but finds himself unable to actually do it. Beyond the fact that I can be very boring at times as a tutor, I think that some students are actually now unable to sustain attention because of the way the smartphone structures their experience. When we use our smartphones, our attention needs to be cut up into tiny pieces in order to keep track of the multiple elements that are crying out for our attention. (Click like! This article will amaze you! 5 facts to entertain and amuse you!) This ability to split attention is important especially in our digital age, but if we are not careful, this ability will come at the expense of our power to sustain attention.

The fact that games and social media can sometimes be helpful complicates things (hello, all you digital entrepreneurs), but for most of us, it would probably be healthy to take a good, hard look at what our smartphones are doing to us.

I now spend hours reading on my phone (the National Library Board’s Overdrive is the most wonderful thing), but it sometimes makes me forget that the sensuality of reading a physical book is just so much more enjoyable. My smartphone, perhaps, still controls my mind a little bit too much — but at least it serves me now. Be careful, people, be careful. Do not let your smartphones be your beloved mind-controlling parasites.

The case for depriving your child (or even yourself) of a smartphone

For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. (Mark 4:25)

Smartphone technology is a double-edged sword; it is neither completely evil nor completely beneficial. More and more, I see around me the evidence of a growing inequality — and not just in income.

Examining myself and the people around me, I have come to the conclusion that smartphones are only making the success-and-achievement gap larger. For people who can delay gratification (read about the psychological principle here and here), the smartphone is the path to greater knowledge and power. For people who are victim to their strongest urges, the smartphone is a drug that never fully satisfies. This results in the powerful becoming more powerful, and the weak becoming weaker.

Several successful people I know are heavy smartphone users. They use their devices to make cheap conference calls, to send fast email replies, and to challenge their minds via ebooks or online lectures. On the flip side, we are all too familiar with the potential pitfalls of technology, from the candy crush addict who spends thousands of dollars on the game, to the television zombie who exists almost solely for the rush of prepackaged entertainment — I am victim to the too-much-internet disease at times.

If you are considering buying a smartphone for your child, consider this: can s/he resist the temptations that smartphone technology offers? The smartphone offers the greatest novels ever written, and profoundly addictive gaming experiences — both for free. What will your child choose? Share with your child your concerns, especially if s/he is old enough to understand.

An article that can start a discussion about the dangers of owning a smartphone is this gem — Woman stole £1,000 from disabled mother to feed Candy Crush addiction (The Telegraph). Of course your child may tell you that this will never happen to good children; if your child is even more perceptive, s/he may tell you that the woman is newsworthy precisely because she is somewhat outside of “normal”.

It will be beneficial for all of us — adults or children — to consider what technology is doing to us. It is brilliant that most of us have access to palm-sized computers now. But do we really need all that entertainment at our fingertips?


 

Mr Seah is a private tutor who is consciously expanding his online identity to include his singer-songwriter persona “Kevin Ghosty”. Read more here.