Video games: environmental impact not virtual

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Interesting graphic regarding the ecological impact of video games. However it seems to imply that downloading has no environmental impact, and that is simply not true. It is likely that downloading has less impact, but cloud storage is pushing high energy consumption on server farms. If the current trend continues, the CO2 emissions of the Internet and cloud will double in ten years. Already it’s equal to the aviation industry.

There are other impacts that video game consoles have as well. They require rare earth minerals that are often extracted in environmentally stressed zones. I write a little about this in The Media Ecosystem (pp. 5-6):

… researchers found an important correlation between the Sony PlayStation 2 and the decline of the gorilla population in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2000 speculation on the price of tantalum, a key precious metal used in microelectronics such as cell phones and gaming devices, was driven by the impending release of the PlayStation 2. This led to a massive mining boom in the Congo’s Kahuzi-Biega national park, severely impacting the population of many animal species, including elephants, tortoises, birds, and small mammals. The park is home of the Grauer’s gorilla, which represents 86 percent of the planetary population of lowland gorillas. As a result of the tantalum rush, the Grauer’s gorilla population declined from seventeen thousand to three thousand. Fueled by consumer demand for gadgets and market speculation driven by internet trading, this tragedy reflects the problem of an economic paradigm that fails to account for living systems. The inability of media and gadget companies to incorporate an Earth system ethic into their design leads to a loss of biodiversity. Not only is it immoral to create systems that disregard life, such a loss has huge implications for the climate, for as we decrease biodiversity, regional ecosystems lose the ability to thrive and adjust under conditions of the extreme ecological disruptions that are increasingly commonplace.

H/T Ecomedia Studies

Thinking out loud: Grand Theft Auto pt. 2


Some follow-up thoughts from this post.

It’s true that the military has invested a lot of money into video game research, and also movie special effects. True enough, drone and robotic warfare are the wave of the future, and I wouldn’t be surprised if remote torture is on its way. But the military also invested in the Internet.

As McLuhan argued, media content is like meat for the guard dogs. It’s the medium we need to pay attention to. Rushkoff’s Screenagers does an excellent job of showing how gaming (along with skateboarding and other teen activities) are contributing to the breakdown of Cartesian thought. And that is a tremendous service to the world, and global ecology. If we want to talk about alien technology, then look at the alphabet. Writing has done more to disassociate consciousness from the body than any other human invention. After recently rereading Huxley’s Brave New World and this article by a neuroscientists (I think her conclusions are bit conservative, but there’s some good info there), I think the greatest danger to society is not video games or media, but pharmaceutical drugs. They are are not separate, given that TV is a great propaganda device for Big Pharma (I’m also reminded of graffiti I once saw in Santa Cruz that said,”First they said pot led to acid. Then they said it led to heroin. Now they know it leads to television”). But I believe the inoculation of the mind with mood altering drugs is a bigger societal threat to mindfulness then playing video games. Combine the two, then you have a different situation.

I’m also aware that there are studies that indicate that thoughts about something can be as powerful as their actuality– that brain waves look the same whether thinking about something or seeing it. So I’m being flip when I say fantasy is innocuous. But I think critics are wrong when they state that people don’t distinguish between “reality” and “mediated reality.” It’s the wrong argument. They coexist, especially if you consider McLuhan’s belief that media are extensions of our nerve system. When we drive the car’s tires are an extension of our body, but we also know that the car is a car. When we play games we enter the game’s magic circle and suspend disbelief, but we also navigate away from it. No doubt, there are those who cannot tell the difference. I think we call that schizophrenia.

I believe one of the greatest benefits of film and moving image technology is that they mimic how our brains suture reality. If we want to take it to metaphysical level, I think media are an externalization of our thoughts. We should embrace our nakedness and acknowledge, yes, we do think like this. It’s the opposite of repression. Some could argue, though, that the externalization of our thinking is also a way of not taking responsibility.

Maybe it’s disappointing that I did not make a clear argument for or against video games, but my point is that it’s complicated and not an either/or situation, but one that is more ecological in the sense that certain things thrive depending on their environment, thoughts in particular. GTA is a product of the “creeping cycle of desensitization,” which is the idea that as certain kinds of media become more normal, newer media have to be more “shocking” to distinguish themselves from the old. There are a couple of ways to look at this phenomena. One is to realize that we manage to become immune to media and learn to ignore them. The other is that we become so desensitized we are oblivious to our own conditioning by media. Again, not to be wishy-washy, but I think the reality is that this is a spectrum of experience, and not an either/or situation.

I believe the mind is a garden, not a computer, so if it is full of strong and healthy plants and rich soil, it can coexist with the weeds. Media certainly can facilitate parasitic thoughts, I have no doubt about it, but my feeling is not to take an industrial farming approach and simply throw weed killer at the media we don’t like, but take a permaculture approach and strengthen the mind’s ecosystem (meditation, art, music, education, nutrition, nature, love, community, etc.). According to the conventional belief concerning media’s effects, I should be a violent sociopath because of all the media I have consumed, and from the amount of war games I played as a kid. That is not the case. And it’s also the case of many media critics. If they consider themselves immune to the effects of media, what is every body else’s problem? Why aren’t they brainwashed?

You can view an edited video clip of controversial scenes from the game here.

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Grand theft childhood?


Finally some sanity in the video game debate. As noted in a previous post, there’s a lot of moanin’ about the new Grand Theft Auto, with lots of hot air, but little oxygin in the debate. Thankfully in Grand Theft Childhood? some *real* researchers have actually looked at the evidence to see what is really happening with gamers. For a sneak peak, Definitely check out the “myths” page.

Here’s a teaser from the Grand Theft Childhood? site:

Coming to the project with no agenda except to conduct sound, responsible research, their findings conform neither to the views of the alarmists nor of the video game industry. In Grand Theft Childhood, Kutner and Olson untangle the web of politics, marketing, advocacy and flawed or misconstrued studies that until now have shaped parents’ concerns.

What should we as parents, teachers and public policy makers be concerned about?

1. The real risks are subtle, and aren’t just about violence, gore or sex.

2. Video games don’t affect all children in the same way. Some children are at significantly greater risk. (You may be surprised to learn which ones!)

Modding the game


Speaking of Grand Theft Auto, a media educator shares an interesting story about transgressing boundaries of the so-called virtual world.

Global Kids’ Digital Media Initiative:

He had, however, developed an unusual method for being a cabbie. Rather than slowing down before picking up a fare, he would often run a person over, wait for him or her to get back up (as if nothing had happened) and climb into his cab, then drive away. I could just imagine how this might appear in a newspaper: “Teen Learns Violent Acts Have No Repercussions.”

“Would you ever get in a taxi that ran you over?” I asked. Without breaking contact with the game the boy responded, “The A.I. is dumb,” referring to the code controlling the behavior of his passengers.

I love this anecdote from Global Kids‘ Barry Joseph because it illustrates how kids have a way of navigating the perimeters of media to mod them beyond the limits of their intended uses. Here Joseph talks about a kid who found his own path in Grand Theft Auto (Remember folks, it’s only a game. Really). I also appreciate how Barry made a point of talking with the kid before judging his behavior. Disclaimer: Barry and I are both authors in the MacArther Foundation’s book series on digital learning in the 21st Century.

Bread and circuits

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It’s what we in the education biz call a teachable moment: an explosive artifact of the media world whacks the piñata of media fears and phobia. Enter the $100 million Grand Theft Auto IV.

A recent discussion at BoingBoing about the new Grand Theft Auto reminds us the obvious but often forgotten axiom that communications are messy (just ask your husband/wife/lover/friends/mother/father/daughter/etc.). Scale doesn’t matter. Not surprisingly the thread is an eclectic treatise on how hipster netizens view media ethics. The most interesting tension is between those making a feminist critique of the game’s misogynistic tendencies and those calling the game social satire. I think the truth lies somewhere between, but the discussion does demonstrate that in an age of postirony (irony with a faux critical pose lacking real substance), it’s hard to be critical without coming across as anti-fun. People are ridiculed if they use big words and theoretical tools to back up their ideas (some commentators derided the use of “patriarchy,” but hey, did the problem of patriarchy somehow magically disappear?), which begs the question, when did being educated become so uncool? Granted, academese can be a kind of inarticulation that obscures a lack of creative thinking or good ideas (and frankly quite boring), but we should be able to say things like patriarchy and militarism without seeming stuck-up.

GTA maneuvers social norms because postirony allows us take pleasure in the politically incorrect, permitting us to dismiss without consequences our own moral standards as frivolous relics of the ’60s. I’m for engaging fantasy, but mindfully, so perhaps we’re in need of a kind of post-postirony, which in the laws of logic, makes a kind of double negative, and hence we return full circle to irony as a rhetoric of social critique (i.e. Dada, Situationism, punk). In the mediated realm irony and humor are often the only way corporate media take on serious issues while maintaining some emotional distance. Recall how the court jester is the one person who can criticize the king without getting his or her head chopped off. Now think of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, both cultural phenoms on a network owned by one of the world’s biggest media companies, Viacom, and realize that their silly/serious media deconstructions have a bigger educational impact than Fox News (as a PEW study showed).

Navigating media requires traversing a realm of double binds such as real news being fake, and fake news being real. You can add to the list just about every advertising message which has as its subtext the belief that commodities have utopian properties that will transform our mundane lives into magical realms of possibility. To stay sane we require cognitive dissonance, which means holding contradictory beliefs as true (like buying new designer jeans that look old or freedom equals militarism). Mental tools like “truthiness” help us seek moral clarity in a world that has little, yet we sill suffer greatly when we see acts of cruelty played out in the media, video games being an easy target because we associate them with children. But beware of talk about media victimizing children, because kids often become ciphers for adult anxieties of being hijacked by technology. Most adult media critics claiming to represent children are probably masking their own fear of change.

Is it possible to accept the existence of video games as a kind of phenomena on their own terms? Unlike traditional media video games contain problem solving tools that often require people to work together. Moreover, video games have depth and challenges that encourage transgression. In one anecdote from a friend who teaches digital media, he found a clever kid using his taxi in GTA to run over and kill as many people as possible. His rationale? He was testing the stupidity of the game’s AI.

Can video games be used as tools to discover something important about how our minds operate, and where in the spectrum of moral critique our values come from? I don’t suggest making them into Roarshack tests, although that is what GTA has become for many. Nor I’m I calling for solipsism, because we do need a moral compass and social norms that respect people’s rights and integrity. I do feel in many respects that we are as much defined by community as we are by our own internal thought process. We need to go from the Western idea, “I think, therefore I am,” to a more indigenous concept like, “It all thinks, therefore I am.” As such, there should be a space for us to consider the intelligent aspects of video gaming, albeit with an eye towards critical engagement, and explore the potential holographic concepts contained within them.

(A recent book, Gamer Theory, takes a slightly different POV to argue that life in capitalist reality is in itself a gamespace, and that gaming reflects the ideological structure of our world.)

At one point media effects research changed the question from, What do media do to children?, to, What do children do with media? The latter question assumes a lot more agency on the user’s behalf. Media are not just ideological magic bullets that control our thoughts, but can also be a source of gratification. That in itself is not evil, despite what the religious fanatics want us to believe. Still, the rule of the playground stands: it’s always fun until someone gets hurt. But so far I can only vouch for tennis elbow.

I don’t think games like GTA pose a threat to society, but do enrich the complex and entangled debate concerning media effects. Yes, some people are prone to violence and can be pushed over the edge by certain heightened states of nerve stimulation, but I believe most people have a check against that. Still, we should also be able to criticize the game without being attacked as neo-Vicotrians. Play and fantasy should not be considered a threat to the social structure.

When I go to teach my mass media class at the university, my bus passes the Roman Colosseum, built by Emperor Vespasian in his “bread and circuses” campaign to entertain and feed the masses in order to stave off social unrest. It’s a reminder that in ancient times real people were killed for sport, and that was perfectly normal. Now virtual people are killed for entertainment (admittedly our method of aerial bombardment is a kind of “virtual” killing that is very real for its victims), but wouldn’t you agree that in the Old World when there was no mass media people actually killed more often for stupid reasons like honor and the sex lives of rich land owners? (“All wars are sex wars” — The Invisibles) This is a tough argument to make, because immediately WWI and WWII and Nagasaki come to mind, so in certain respects, war deaths have not decreased, they have just been industrialized. Still, again reflecting on the Colosseum, I have the strange, if not naive sensation, that in general the world is a more moral place to live (albeit less than perfect and full of blood thirsty lunatics supported by institutionalized violent pathology), and that it is in direct relationship to ideas about human rights disseminated and normalized by global media.

Truth is, after reading the Buddha’s sutas from over 2500 hundred years ago, I find that people have not changed much. Back then the mind was just as susceptible to greed, ignorance, delusion and confusion as it is today. The difference now is that the feedback system is far greater and involves more people. Frankly, it’s harder to get way with shit. In terms of cosmic cycles, you could say that we’re in a global phase of high metabolism. We amplify and burn more quickly. Trick is, at what point does the organism/system stabilize? Clearly a society that produces GTA for entertainment is in a highly volatile state. However, there are signs from the great GTA Debate that we are edging towards homeostasis. The fact that we have this instantaneous and massive societal debate is certainly an important indication that rather than being brainwashed, many of us still care deeply about the world… and we use the media to voice our opinions.

After Orson Well’s broadcast of War of the Worlds inadvertently produced a panic (recall that HG Well’s classic was recast as a news report), social scientists went back and surveyed listeners to find out what happened. What emerged from their media effects study is that educated people were the least susceptible to believing the broadcast was of a real invasion. Those with strong religious convictions were the most vulnerable. That caveat should remind us that more often than not it’s not the media itself but our own beliefs and education that produce the outcome, media being an element of a far more complex mental ecology than we would admit. If there is one sure thing to be gleaned from this whole exercise, it’s going to be a lot of free marketing for Rockstar, whose $100 million investment is sure to pale in relation to its profits.

PS Check Buzzfeed for the latest in the blogosphere.

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Second Skin

Looks like a very interesting doc on virtual worlds, Second Skin. I love the title. It reminds me that human cultures going back to ancient times have always donned “second skins,” literally those of animals, and more recently synthetics we call clothing. My only quibble with the trailer is that it claims that that these virtual worlds are worlds that don’t exist. I beg to differ. I think they are very real, they just occupy space differently.

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