A most dangerous game

A recent Economist article queries the simultaneous increase in general happiness and increase in votes for populist parties. How can people who say they are happier, and who have better jobs and better lives, vote for parties that vow to destroy current systems and cause massive disruption? It seems counter-intuitive. Doesn’t history tell us that it’s the misery of people, it’s Germany in the 1920s, that leads to the rise of dictatorship and the undermining of rights? Why would anyone benefiting from a system vote to overthrow it?

I would like to suggest that the issue is virtuality, and the gaming mentality engendered by virtual activities.

In a world where you contact your friends in a virtual space more than in reality, where your car beeps because you are too close to another car, where Alexa reminds you of your appointment at 10, and where you can use an app to get your groceries delivered, the virtual nature of life has become immersive. It is not simply a matter of too much screen time. It’s the transition to perceiving the real world like it’s on a screen, with you holding the controls. The virtual has overcome the reality.

I live in California, land of automobiles. As cars became more electronic, I noticed drivers behaving more erratically and aggressively. I saw people driving as if they were in a video game, where the other cars were merely obstacles to their goal. When cell phones became a distraction, the self-centered driving behavior became even more marked. It wasn’t just more erratic and dangerous due to the distraction — with or without phone in hand, drivers took even less notice of what happened beyond their own vehicle. I’ve seen driving behaviors that demonstrate a disregard of the fragility of pedestrians in crosswalks, intolerance toward disabled drivers, frustration at people who don’t get out of the way quickly enough. In this state, where turning right on a red light is legal if conditions are safe, you’d better do at or you’ll get honked at whether conditions are safe or not.

These kinds of behaviors are what we see in games. When you know you are secure, you take more chances, and behave more aggressively. You stockpile your money and weapons in Assassin’s Creed, then you go on your hunt. As far back as The Oregon Trail, the idea was to get set up properly, then begin your dangerous journey, and take your chances. You are encouraged to think you’re living your own Odyssey. The other characters in the game are only there as foils to your individual character. They were created only to make your goal more difficult to obtain. Of course you honk at them.

As one sits at the computer interacting in virtual space, the people with whom one interacts also seem virtual and unreal. They aren’t really in our space. We can turn them off by turning off our computer or our phone, and go do something else. Politics comes to us in a 24-hour news cycle that tends not to distinguish between the significant and the irrelevant, and it often comes to us online, on a 2-dimensional screen. The party debates, for example, can seem like a TV show, sometimes interesting and other times worthy of the Off button. But they don’t seem like anything very important.

So now people are interviewed, and say they are happier and more employed. Yet they are voting for populist parties that channel anger and aggression against others. These aren’t opposites: they are normal gaming behavior.

It’s more fun and more dangerous to join angry groups on Facebook, especially those that provide a sense of belonging at the same time. And one can happily support populist parties because it feels like taking a chance, doing something risky — that means you earn more points. It’s similar to the increased disconnect between your car and the environment surrounding it. The perceived distance between the individual and government combines with the actual distance between oneself, sitting at a computer, and the reality of how that government affects your life. Politics is just a game you play in groups, the ultimate MMPG. It’s why it makes no difference whether the current government is fulfilling its promises or not — you support it if that’s the team you’re on.

We feel empowered sitting in our captain’s chair, the computer under our control. We can help our team. Click! I can post an outraged comment. Click! I can answer a poll. Click! I can make a small donation to a party that says they’ll give people like me an easier life. I don’t click because I’m unhappy, because I’m destitute. If I were really destitiute I wouldn’t have the time or ability to spend all this time in the virtual world. I click because it all feels like a game. What’s the harm — it’s just clicking things, posting words in cyberspace. That little frisson of excitement is because I know it is real, but as user7864 I don’t have to be individually responsible if I don’t want to be.

While there are articles on gamifying education, and on the effect of games on the human psyche, I’ve seen little on the gamification of social and political interaction engendered by our electronically connected world. And I realize my point of view could be seen as an argument against online voting, which would only seem to increase the disconnectedness and virtuality of political participation. Since we are already immersed, however, I don’t see the difference in voting virtually. Perhaps my click will make something better happen. At least I’ll get more points.

2 comments to A most dangerous game

  • jmm

    Wow. My goodness. I think you’re onto something really profound here.

    You know how sickened I am by the increasing virtualization of life–I thought Second Life was disturbing, as primitive and junky as it was, and I still find it absurd that people will shell out actual money for virtual things. Somehow it’s all tied together for me: Facebooking instead of having coffee, staging one’s life on Instagram, once-localized hysteria spreading virally instead of dying a quiet, natural death via mimeograph (“We Never Went To The Moon” etc.)

    Scrolling through comments in a Guardian story from 2014, I found “I’m sick of things being labeled REAL or NOT REAL. It doesn’t make any difference.” Um…yes, it does. There are meaningful differences between real and not real.

    It freaks me out, more than a little, that some people (maybe a lot of people) don’t care whether something is real or not, true or not, extant or not. The idea that life is a game (or the variant, life is a joke) has been around forever, but it’s never lead to meaningful existence.

    • Lisa M Lane

      So true, and I love the way you write. 🙂

      As for caring whether things are real or not, I’m thinking the trends toward X-everything is part of the fight against the disconnect. Extreme sports, for example, seem designed to make the real more real through more danger. I wonder whether that too is related to the virtual, but it sickens me to think that the separation between real and unreal must be rescued through that sort of extremism.