I remember going with friends to a bar sometime in the 1970s in which the game “Pong” became the centerpiece of activities. My friends and I competed to see who could get the highest score. I found the game fun, but I didn’t want to throw away all those quarters just to see if I could do better than my buddies. Some of those guys wasted a huge amount of money on an addictive activity, I thought.
As Sherry Turkle tells us, however, maybe my friends’ activity did not constitute addiction. Nor was it simply a form of hypnotic fascination. Rather, these people allowed themselves—or unconsciously found it attractive—to enter the unusual culture of the computer. In this culture, they appreciated a world in which physical boundaries (and the laws of nature in the real world) did not exist. Balls (or bullets, in more sophisticated games that emerged later) did not necessarily follow the rules that Galileo had deduced for mechanical bodies in motion. Nor did life itself (or its simulation on screen) have much meaning, since the machines gave the gamesters more than one life, should they fail to achieve a level of competency and get killed off.
Perhaps more important, computer gamers often find that the activity gives them a sense of control and security that they could not achieve in the real world. They have learned to “break” the computer code and understand the rules (liminal and subliminal) established by the games’ coders, and they obtain psychic pleasure from doing so. (They also obtain physiological pleasure, as their heart rates and blood pressures zoom upward.) Even when playing new games, they realize they have developed an insight into the way the games work, and they can do better than others in ways that yield an unusually profound sense of satisfaction. It’s a sense of satisfaction that differs from what traditional, mechanical games, such as pinball, can provide. And certainly, that control and success contrast markedly with what they experienced in their mundane, real-world lives.
Sometimes, as Turkle points out, the games’ power comes from the process by which the player gets involved in the games themselves. She or he eventually gets immersed in the experience of the game such that it takes over the person’s psyche. The process of immersing oneself in the game—entering a different world and state of mind—becomes much more important than the goal of achieving a specific endpoint (such as achieving a high score).
Can such an immersion occur outside of computer games? Yes, she says. In fact, Turkle compares this process of immersion to one in which a type of dieter seeks to lose a little more weight each week, even though she or he may have already reached the medically desirable goal. At some point, the dieter becomes more fixed on the game of dieting and gaining points (while losing kilograms) than in actually achieving a healthy weight. Perhaps this immersion helps explain a genre of psychologically based eating disorders.
All this brings me back to my original observation that, unlike so many of my contemporaries (e.g., old people) and our kids, I never became enamored by computer games. Why not? What’s wrong with me? Am I simply so well-adjusted that I didn’t feel a need to obtain control of my world by entering another one?
Maybe I am incredibly well adjusted (yeah, right!). Or maybe I simply feel comfortable enough in my real world that I don’t need to find other avenues for control, excitement, and satisfaction. Or maybe I just decided, early in the computer era, that I don’t want to spend any more time in front of a computer than I already do.
Of course, such a (condescending) explanation makes computer gamers seem like poorly adjusted and undisciplined souls. I sincerely doubt that conclusion, so maybe there’s something else that I’m missing about the value of computer games—something that maybe even Turkle hadn’t identified in her 1984 book, The Second Self.
Let’s talk some about some of these other psychological rewards derived from computers (which are clearly more than simple tools) on Thursday afternoon.