Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Reality Ain't What It Used To Be

I often wonder about the effects of videogames and films on the human mind. In particular, they seem to be changing the way we perceive reality and I wonder if they aren't making death seem less permanent?

It’s fairly obvious to me that films, television and videogames are distorting our perceptions of reality. The clearest example of this comes from what they’ve done to our expectations regarding human interaction. In films, characters always know the perfect things to say. Politicians always deliver the cleverest lines seemingly off the cuff. Lawyers always say the exact thing that triggers the needed response from the witness. Jokes are always well set up by their victims. And dates are unbelievably perfect. Indeed, characters in romantic films always say just the right thing to keep conversations moving in the right direction, to excite the other person, and to win the moment.

Unfortunately, people seem to be confusing this with reality. Indeed, I’ve heard many people bemoan the fact their dates didn’t come across like the ones they see on films. They never had the right word for the moment. Their conversation often stalled out. And worst of all, when they tried to hit the proverbial "verbal homerun," they just came across as creepy.

But here’s the thing: that’s how real life works. What these people don’t grasp is the difference between a conversation involving two independent human beings, whose reactions are largely unpredictable, engaging in an off-the-cuff conversation versus a manufactured situation where two characters exchange words that have been pre-written after a great deal of thought and editing and where each character is guaranteed to respond in precisely the perfect way, i.e. there is no chance of failure. The two situations just aren't comparable. Yet, many people now judge real life based on the false standards set up by films and they wrongly downgrade individuals who can’t live up to those impossible expectations.

The same is true in sports, where slow-motion instant replay has changed the perception of what athletes should achieve. Go to any sports bar and you'll hear a gaggle of idiots talking about how they would have “turned this way and grabbed the ball and then flipped over that way and etc. etc.” The reality is the action they are talking about occurred in less than a tenth of second, too fast for the human nervous system to respond, yet these idiot are demanding actions that would have taken 8-10 seconds. . . the length of the replay they are seeing. Again, their perception of reality is false yet they can't tell the difference.

So what about death? Nobody dies permanently in films or on television. If your main character dies in a science fiction story, you can be pretty sure they’ve been secretly cloned and will be back. If they die in a drama, they’ll be back in dreams. Everybody died at the end of your film? Don’t sweat it, just do a reboot or prequel or a sequel that pretends they didn’t die. Death just isn’t a permanent state of being in entertainment, not as long as audiences want the character to return. Heck, even villains need to be killed twice before they finally die.

Videogames are even worse -- death is never the end. In fact, death is nothing more than a chance to start over and try a different path, i.e. the one that didn’t get you killed. Went down the wrong alley? Ducked when you should have jumped? Tangled with the wrong Nausicaan? Don’t worry, you’ll be dead in a moment and you can try it differently.

Having played a lot of games in my time, I can tell you that if you play them long enough you will occasionally find yourself thinking in terms of “next time.” For example, “next time I’ll go to that college instead” or “next time I turn 40, I’ll skip the ‘Mount of Donuts Cake’ and have the ‘Sausage Platter Cake’ instead.” This is classic game thinking that your mind is expressing. . . planning for the next time. The only problem: there is no next time in life.

So what’s the point? The point is that I suspect our entertainment dramatically affects how we perceive the world. I don’t know if this ultimately changes our actions, but I'm pretty sure it influences our judgment to varying degrees. Maybe we should think about that the next time we go writing a film or videogame that promotes really bad thinking?


Patti said...

holy smokes! first time here and momma likey! you guys are just showing off now...

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Patti! I do like the place. Hopefully, it will eventually be as active as the main site -- just need to clone myself and lock me in a basement to turn out more articles.

Get to work me!! :-)

Ed said...

Interesting question Andrew. I've heard people compare real life to the films a lot too. I would say I don't know how serious they are, but it sounds like they really are pretty serious in the comparison. So I guess maybe the answer is that this is something we should think about? Maybe this is another really good reason to try to get conservative ideas and ways of thinking into films?

Tennessee Jed said...

I'm sure it does, Andrew. Special effects in film (or games if you will) definitely give a false impression of how high an actual human being can jump, etc.

Of course, I have always believed, that most of our thought and belief is based on what we personally experience. If you grew up in a stable, loving two parent home, it is easy for a person to relate to that. If one grows up in a dysfunctional family full of alcoholism and abuse, that is the way they tend to see the world.

I am concerned that the internet, film etc. is keeping people grom getting out more and actually experiencing the physical world and real live people.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, That is part of my thinking. For one thing, it makes it important to fight back on films that use implicit liberalism. But even beyond that, it calls into question things like treatment of violence, treatment of moral issues, application of logic, other messages like the importance of education, etc. All of that could be being undermined.

Tam said...

I can tell you one thing for an absolute fact...when hubby and I got tired of hearing the musical electronic beeping of the Super Mario Galaxy soundtrack and moved from an hour a day of games (I know...shame...) to one day a month, our boy's behavior also changed dramatically. He is infinitely better behaved and engaged in worthwhile tasks. He even noticed, saying "I was too busy to be bad."

BevfromNYC said...

There have been studies that video games change the wiring in the brain especially in small children.

I think you are correct that movies, television, and videogames alter our perceptions. They allow us to experience situations that we would not necessarily ever experience (especially in videogames) and I am not necessarily convinced that that is a good thing.

As for childrem, they are losing the ability to use their own imaginations to create. And all too passive.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Good points. I think the more solidly a human is raised, the less likely they are to be influenced by these kinds of influences. But unfortunately, a great many people aren't well grounded these days.

And you make an excellent point that the cure to unreality is to get out into the world and experience real life. Real life has a way of very quickly dispelling the false impressions created by films or games. For example, try throwing the football around and you'll see right away that it's not possible to do what the characters are doing on Madden NFL or even what you think the players should be able to do when you watch instant replay.

I agree with you about the internet. When we grew up, we were all over town doing real world things. Computers came along later. Today, people seem plugged into their computers first, second and third, and only venture out rarely.

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. Jed, I don't know if you know Cirque du Soleil? To me, the greatest act they do involves two people who look like statues and balance on each other. The strength they have is absolutely incredible. But a lot of people don't get it because they just see one person holding another person (often at right angles) -- something which is very easy to do on television or in ads or in videogames.

But when you explain to them what it takes and you tell them "ok, try holding a gallon of milk at arms reach for the length of their routine," (about five minutes) THEN they understand why this act is so incredible. So again, real life is the cure for the unreality created by the fantasy world of entertainment.

AndrewPrice said...

Tam, Having played far too much and too long on some games, I can completely sympathize. For one thing, games (like television) are largely a passive mental activity. And when the brain is engaged in passive activity, the smarter parts of the brain tend to shut down. They've actually done studies which showed than an hour of television will lower your IQ about 10 points for the next several hours.

Plus, I really think games and television make you a bit anti-social because the way problems are solved in those mediums tend to be force or violence. That's got to bleed through.

In fact, one thing I will always remember was going to dinner with a friend one night who had spent the weekend watching the first season of The Sopranos. He very seriously said, "you know, if you watch that show long enough, you really start seeing killing as a good way to solve problems. I should probably lay off the show for a while."

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, I've seen that too, about games changing the way kids' brains are wired. I think there is a lot that we don't know yet, but what we are finding out is not good.

The first thing to really make me wonder if there was a problem was the date thing. When I heard a group of people I worked with talking about how their dates just didn't live up to their desires and then they expressed their desires in highly unrealistic ways that mirrored films, I thought "hmm, that's bad." Then I noticed it in law where people really expected the kind of drama and perception you get in films. Then I realized that every once in a while, I would find myself doing the "next time" thinking.... and it all added up to a realization that film and games are indeed changing our expectations/perceptions of reality.

And now it amazes me how many times I see people who really have set their expectations according to what they see in film rather than what they've experienced in reality. It's actually kind of disturbing.

rlaWTX said...

not only are they perfectly scripted (even when the "misunderstanding" happens), RomComs only show the twitterpated stage of attraction. Studies are showing a deleterious affect on relationship satisfaction.

[did you see that NRO article about reading vs TV and Tocqueville?]

I also heard a while back that jurors expect "CSI" level forensics in addition to the word-perfect lawyers... I kinda think that CSI, etc (which I watch & enjoy) should have a little button that flashes whenever they do some test that doesn't actually exist. It wouldn't stop the viewer from appreciating the story line, but it would emphasize the "pretend" of it all...

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, True.

Even the misunderstandings in the rom-coms end up being romantic and bringing everyone together -- whereas, in reality, these can be very devastating to the relationship. I'm pretty sure this is a bad thing for people's expectations. I haven't seen all the studies, but I know that some studies have found that television tends to make people less happy with their regular lives.

I haven't seen the NRO article. Do you have a link to it?

Yeah, the CSI thing is true. I've spoken with several prosecutors who say that it's getting very hard to deal with juries (particularly younger jurors) because they expect this highly scientific appearing and also very cool looking forensic presentation, when the reality is that it's actually very basic, very nerdy, and very technical, and never as clear as CSI makes it out to be.

In fact, television makes a lot of court work that much harder because people have come to expect these dramatic moments and with flashy lawyers running around smarting off and doing the "gotcha" moments... which almost never happens. I've never seen anyone break down on the stand on confess, which seems to happen in every lawyer show.

What's even worse, an unscrupulous lawyer can play into those expectations and trick a jury into thinking something big has happened when really nothing has happened just by acting like the jury expects from television.

For the most part, juries are still quite good at what they do, but you can see more of these kinds of expectations turning the court room into more of a stage than a presentation of evidence.

rlaWTX said...

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks rlaWTX! Good article.

He's right about the difference between reading and watching. Brain scan studies have shown that reading is an "active" activity that takes information and processes it and re-presents it to the brain, whereas watching television is a "passive" activity that simply receives the information and stores it. This is why the idea that we can use television to teach kids is proving to be a pretty big disaster -- because it's the wrong kind of teaching... it doesn't actually engage the brain.

It's like the difference between handing you note cards and asking you to sort them versus just handing you a list of the same information to stick in your pocket.

Here's the link: NRO LINK

ScottDS said...

I can't speak much about videogames since I'm not a gamer (unless a Brooklyn plumber and his brother are involved!). What's ironic is that my folks never bought a game system for my brother and me till the Nintendo 64 came out. Cut to a year later and I wasn't playing that often... real life got in the way. So did the Internet.

Speaking of the Internet, what concerns me is the shortening of attention spans and, sadly, I'm forced to include myself in that. I'd be lying if I said I didn't notice that I had more trouble concentrating over the last few years. Hell, even online, I tend to "skim" instead of read. On the other hand, I'm still perfectly capable of reading books, watching movies, etc.

I used to say that I viewed life as a sitcom... not so much in terms of expectations but the overall dramatic framework: main character, supporting characters, setup and payoff, character arcs, etc. When I think about it, it kinda works. Sometimes. :-)

But I knew real life wasn't like TV from a very early age. Chalk that up to a good upbringing and the fact that bullies on sitcoms never bothered the main character ever again. As a 10-year-old, even I knew that was bulls---!

One more thing... they also say Internet porn is having a terrible effect on men and their expectations.

P.S. Per the article above, Americans are watching five hours of TV a day? Who the hell has time for that? I might leave something on in the background but not for five hours and it's just background noise anyway - I could just as easily use music.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Many points as usual....

First, I think there is a difference in how people watch television that these surveys don't get. A lot of the older people I know view television as something that you DO. In other words, they don't turn the television on until they are ready to watch and then they watch it to the exclusion of all else. My parents are like that.

The younger people I know, use television like white noise or like a stereo -- it's on in the background, they watch it whenever it catches their interest, but usually they are doing something else. Mine is on all the time, but I really don't "watch" it.

Second, internet porn. I don't doubt for a minute that internet porn has changed expectations, but I'm not sure what the precise changes would be. Here is my guess though. For one thing, its much more available than in pre-internet days and its highly available. So I would suspect that means more people are more likely to perceive porn what sex is really like. Secondly, it's highly varied, so I suspect that people are less likely to feel ashamed about viewing weird sh!t. Third, combined with the need for humans to keep upping the "high" to get the same feeling, this probably results in a decreased sensitivity and probably encourages more crazies to get even crazier. I wonder if sex crimes have increases as the internet as come along?

Third, the Mario Brothers! Good stuff -- solid gaming. I actually find that I prefer the older games because they spent more time on game elements compared to graphics. Too many modern games are little more than films with some fake game play in them. You can play some games with your yes closed because they're that automatic. There is a reason the simple games are the addictive games.

Fourth, I don't think this is about believing that television is real per se, so much as it involves a subtle change in our perceptions. In other words, it's not that we think a sitcom is real, it's that we start to expect real people to look, act and speak as effectively as people on sitcoms.

P.S. No mention of the Star Trek reference?

ScottDS said...

I didn't think I was obligated to point out the Trek reference! But I saw it.

And I can reign in my "many points" style if need be. I know I can sometimes go all over the place.

As for porn, I believe you're on the right track and that many males now think that's what sex is really like and that every woman is a freak in the bedroom.

I'm the same with TV - it's on a lot (I have Netflix playing in the next window!) but I still sit down to watch the shows that I consider appointment viewing - maybe 6-7 hours spread across the whole week.

BevfromNYC said...

Andrew - This is not new issue. I did a paper in college in the late '70s' called "The Thirty Minute Solution" base on my observation that my peer group was showing signs that they were unable to sustain relationships because they did not understand that all conflicts were not resolved in the same time frame and manner as a television show. We were beginning to expect all relationship issues and conflicts to be resolved in 30 minutes (for a comedy) and 1-2 hours (if a drama). And if they couldn't resolve it then the relationship obviously was never going to work.

I think it has only gotten worse from there. Now entire families are sucked into their own little virtual worlds and communicating with virtual friends while sitting next to flesh and blood human beings who are ignored.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I believe your contract calls for pointing out all Star Trek references! LOL!

I think that's probably right about porn.

No, go ahead with the multi-part questions, I'm up to the task of answering! :-)

I've tried to figure out what I consider "appointment viewing" and there is very little right now, maybe 1-2 hours a week tops. But my tv is on much, much more than that. What's funny is listening to my dad complaining that "the television is always on, but you're never paying attention to it." Yep. Welcome to the future.

I also watch (or listen) to a lot of stuff on Netflix. Whether I watch or listen depends on how long it's been since the last time I've seen it. I watched Assault on Precinct 13 (the original from John Carpenter) two days ago because I haven't seen that in a decade, and I listed to Lord of the Rings last night while I wrote the Gingrich article. Multitasking.... :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, Fascinating idea! And you may be onto something there. Television has definitely shortened attention spans. It makes a lot of sense that it would also shorten our expectations of time frames for things like resolving conflicts or how long we are willing to wait for gratification.

Very interesting!

Like Scott, I can tell that my attention span has been shortened over the years, especially for dealing with people face to face. Unfortunately, I suspect this trend won't end because the factors that cause it (things like commercials and the rate of cuts in films) are only going to keep getting shorter to try to grab the reduced attention span.

It's a vicious circle.

And if you want to get a sense of how bad your attention span really has become, try going 2 days without power. I did that a couple times a few years ago and it's amazing how difficult it is to lose all the stimuli we get all day from the net or television or the radio.

ScottDS said...

Scott, I believe your contract calls for pointing out all Star Trek references! LOL!

I looked in my contract and you're correct. It also says I get a pig every month and two comely lasses of virtue true.

(That was from The Simpsons for anyone wondering what the hell I'm talking about.)

On an unrelated note, I went out with a girl from my last improv class the other day and we talked about comedy. She thinks the guys who produce SNL's digital shorts and videos (like "Dick in a Box") are "deconstructionist" geniuses. I don't. While agreeing with me that comedy is subjective, she called me anti-intellectual! I have to say, I was quite taken aback.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I recognized that as a Simpsons reference. That's from the town charter, I believe -- what the Chief of Police is supposed to get?

On your date, congrats.... sort of. Since she thinks that anything/anyone connected with SNL is a genius, I suppose she's been institutionalized most of her life? just kidding.

Seriously though, "deconstructionist" means "pretentious." It's a word used by people to describe something with no value, which they want to believe has value because others aren't smart enough to get it.

ScottDS said...

That's correct. It's from the monorail episode (written by Conan O'Brien!).

And it wasn't a date... just a friendly get-together to talk shop. She gave a convincing argument but I lost her when I said, "Look, some of their stuff is funny but it still comes across as something three stoners thought up at 2:00 in the morning in between hits!" That was the end of that.

Getting back on topic, you're quite correct about the CSI Effect. There's even a Wikipedia article about it. And it isn't just forensics. To the best of my knowledge, forensic techs don't actually go out and solve cases all by themselves, do they?

I was watching an episode of CSI: Miami and there's an attempted terrorist attack on a power plant. Who's there to save the day? The Army? The Navy? The Miami PD? No, it's the head of the MPD forensics lab, all by himself. Very realistic. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Call it a professional dinner all you want, we know it was a date. You devil you! ;-)

I'll leave the criticism of SNL go for the moment, but I truly think they're the bottom of the comedy barrel -- and they are not highbrow or intellectual, they are so lowbrow that Neanderthals groan when they see SNL skits.

You are correct, forensic guys do not do what the CSI people do. Their job is to arrive at crime scenes after they've been secured by regular officers (see yellow tape). They collect samples and then run tests at the request of the detectives or prosecutors who are running the case. Then they write reports for those detectives and then come testify at trial. They don't handle arrests and they don't go snooping around. That's the job of the detectives (or regular officers in some cases).

Ah yes, the monorail. What's funny is that I stopped watching the Simpsons ten years ago and yet every Simpson quote I run across is from an episode I've seen. Clearly, the last 10 years ain't as good as the first whatever.

Kosh said...

I think that is why I like watching sports. The ending isn't scripted. I rarely watch anything on tv anymore, especially dramas or sitcoms. My wife and I have been enjoying The Killing and I think it is because they are taking a long time to develop the story. Still don't know who did it. Also like movies but I hate RomComs!

One nice thing about a video game for your kid is that it is an easy punishment to take away. Or at least was, my daughter hardly plays anymore and prefers to read. Sometimes I have to make her stop just to talk with me. She's seven for Chists sake! It is cool how much he gets into the stories though. Good girl.

Anonymous said...

You're certainly right about the shortened attention spans. I noticed back when MTV still showed videos that they started doing quick cuts. It drove me crazy then and still drives me crazy now - just when you start to focus on something, BOOM, they change the scene. GRRRRR!

My son and daughter try to get me interested in playing video games and I just can't do it. I was into pinball machines when I was a kid and it's just not the same.


AndrewPrice said...

Kosh, That's what I like about sports too -- that it isn't scripted and you don't know what's going to happen. Too much of what is scripted these days is so formulaic that I feel like I can almost tell you the the exact lines of dialog you're about the hear. Sports is different.

Interestingly, one of the reasons wardens give for wanting to keep things like weights in the exercise yard and good food is that it gives them something to take away when prisoners misbehave! Sounds like a similar principle! LOL!

In any event, it great that your daughter is reading. Kids who love reading typically go far in life.

AndrewPrice said...

TJ, I've played all kinds of games, but the ones that keep my attention are all older games The first videogames really captured the kinds of game-mechanics that made them fun to play. The ones today are little more than films with some fake game action in them. The films are certainly pretty, but the whole thing is dull and doesn't really pull you back like something like PacMan did.

And I agree completely with the quick edits. In fact, I've gotten to the point that I will turn off movies or television or whatever that uses too many quick edits. Not only does it give me a headache, but I just don't want it damage what's left of my attention span.

rlaWTX said...

I can't believe I didn't think of this yesterday!! Blipverts!!!!!!

Do you remember "Max Headroom"? I recently bought it (pre-netflix subscription). The first episode is about people exploding. Turns out that the advertisers knew that peoples' attention spans were so short that they needed shorter commercials - so they were now "blips" of compressed info - and people's brains couldn't handle them and they exploded...
fun, weird show. haven't gotten past the first epi yet... so much TV, so little time! (also watching "Firefly" and my appointment TV)

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, I do remember Max Headroom, though I don't recall that particular episode. We aren't at the point yet where they are doing "blips" but, sadly, it's coming. They have already started 15 second commercials and some internet commercials are little more than 1-2 second images just to entice you.

Unless things change, I get the feeling, the future is going to hate us.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

So what’s the point? The point is that I suspect our entertainment dramatically affects how we perceive the world. I don’t know if this ultimately changes our actions, but I'm pretty sure it influences our judgment to varying degrees. Maybe we should think about that the next time we go writing a film or videogame that promotes really bad thinking?"

I concur and great discussion!
I would add that the two greatest influences are parenting and indoctrination...I mean public education system.
Followed by peer pressure and entertainment/internet.

Of course, as for entertainment/internet, a lot of good can be had from those influences as well as bad.

What is amazing to me is that in spite of the bad influences and leftist indoctrination it ain't as influentual in the long run as one might expect.

I recall when the first violent video games were made many psych docs, social workers, pundits, etc., predicted a sharp increase in violent crimes, but that hasn't happened.

That doesn't mean that an unhealthy obsession to those games doesn't have a bad influence but apparently it hasn't been enough to cause widespread anarchy or an explosion of serial killers.

There is however an increase in psychological illnesses and it would be helpful to know how much of an influence games/movies/videos/music/internet, etc. (and bad education/parenting) plays into that, although it's difficult to imagine how a study could break all that down into reliable statistics.

I also think cell phones play a part too. Instant communication (except out here in the sticks).
Instant gratification. Less patience, decreased attention spans. Eye candy rules! Or does it?

Why do some folks outgrow it and others don't? Why do some people learn moderation is a good thing while others get addicted and obsessed with it?

Some folks learn to accept reality and deal with it while others sink into denial and perpetual fantasy, which is actually encouraged by public education, and many politicians, entertainers, game developers, etc..

Even the mental health field has been taken over by those who deny reality and objective truth and yet many of them call for a ban on what they essentially believe.
A pack of seeing irony dogs couldn't get them to see the irony in that. :^)

AndrewPrice said...

USS Ben, Good points. One of the reasons I hesitate to come down too firmly on the cause/effect position on this issue is that clearly violent videogame have not led to mass violence. So they clearly don't have that level of influence. But like you, I wonder what the less obvious influences are?

We have things right now like a massive obesity crisis. Is that the result of people just not going out much anymore or is it the result of an instant gratification culture that is constantly showing us people eating high calorie junk food 24/7? If you are constantly shown images of hamburgers, doesn't that make it more likely you will want one? That's what advertising theory relies upon.

We also have a culture that has become deeply cynical and highly self-centered. Is that a result of a loss of trust in institutions or is that also fed by things like movies and videogames that are full of ultra-cynical behavior? I'm not sure, but I suspect it's a combination.

I think there is a lot of evidence that videogames and television are changing our perceptions and the way we think, but I just don't know if we know yet HOW they are changing those things, i.e. what are the ultimate effects? But I think we might want to find out what the long term effects are.

Also, politically speaking, I think this is evidence that conservatives need to get more involved in entertainment. The left hasn't made the kind of strides you might have expected from a constant barrage of leftist ideas (probably because they aren't practical, i.e. they don't make sense in real life), but that doesn't mean they aren't making progress. The more people accept even little pieces of leftist thought, the easier it is for them to sustain their political house of cards. We need to fight that.

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