On Second Skin

Someone saw the movie Second Skin and wrote me asking about game addiction. He said "You gave the example of the heavy set girl who has to take care of her mother so she can't leave, she plays mmorpgs to be someone else. The most powerful part of this example was, 'yes, I agree that there's a problem in that situation. But the problem is not with her, it's with us.' ... Why do people become so addicted to these games? Is it societies fault? What do we need to do to prevent people from feeling like they have no other options but to play these games? What are the challenges people face once they develop this so called 'Second Skin'? And how important is it to shed the second skin and come back to their true self?"

So I, growing sentimental, said,

Interesting story! Well - how can I help? Addiction, as a concept, is pretty loosely defined. The term gets applied too often. What's the difference between a chemical brain dependency - a medical problem - and an activity that is so enjoyable that you don't want to give it up? Some people like France. Is it ever proper to say "That guy is addicted to France?" Bottom line, I'm not sure that addiction is a helpful concept here.

Let's try a different concept and starting point - virtuous living.

What's a virtuous life, in your opinion? WHat does it look like? When you think of virtuous living, what sort of things does it involve? What sort of choices? Once you answer some of those questions, in the most neutral way possible (that is, without reference to your own life at the moment), you have a guide and standard for judging someone's behavior. Like, how do you know when someone is reading too much, or exercising too little? Once you have a standard of what a good life is, you can make those kind of judgments.

So, about video games. I think a good life has media in it, especially the best media being invented by the most creative minds. This means, great books, great films, great games. I'm more worried that my kid spends 30 minutes watching Dancing With the Stars than that he spends 4 hours playing Minecraft. One is a mental wasteland, the other is a sandbox of creativity.

A good life also has friends and spouses and kids in it. It has study in it. It has religion. It has a solid vocation and a commitment to doing good things. It has exercise and good eating and good sleeping. All of these things take time and dedication and work. A person has a problem when their life is not ordered to all these things. Whether it's spending too much time at the office, drinking at bars, or playing video games, people who don't put together a good life do face unhappiness and the risk of, well, living poorly.

We can ask why people have difficulty building good living for themselves. Certainly we can look to the culture around us as a source of problems. It's hard enough when the culture is good. When the culture is bad (as ours is), it's harder. Yet whatever the culture is saying, ultimately, each person has a responsibility to make that good life happen. We cannot expect that a change to media, or to government policy, will have any meaningful effect on the prospects of a virtuous life. It is up to each person to make the good life happen in their own little world.

That having been said, I believe that certain books, movies, and games can be helpful in that process of virtuous maturation. Choosing media is an essential part of building the good life. Which media to choose depends on where a person is. Someone who's doing quite well already should focus on the best of the best. Others may need to take baby steps. Our culture is so bad, I can easily see that for some people the best role models and the best indicators of what to do are in simple action games, not real life.

Take self-efficacy, for example. Our culture more or less makes people feel that their lives are meaningless. Their actions are all empty. Nothing they do really matters. They themselves don't really matter - a third of American people conceived since 1974 have been killed in the womb. People get the message of personal insignificance through broken families, residential isolation, lack of tradition, and absence of transcendent values in their schools, neighborhoods and families. Ironically, the message of personal insignificance is pounded home with ever greater vehemence as a person ages and becomes more educated, so that above all it is our society's cultural leaders that represent its most nihilistic views. From there, the message is perpetuated: In today's world, you are nothing.

Well, if that's your upbringing, if that's the world you live in, how can you get the gumption you need to build a virtuous life for yourself? I say, play a video game. Two things will happen. First, you'll immerse yourself in a world in which good and evil are real. Second, your choices will determine how good and evil fare in that world. Your self-efficacy will rise. It will help.

Your larger question, as to how to change society so that people are more virtuous...I don't know that there is a large answer. Every large-scale effort to make people better has had horrific consequences. The large policies should be molded to allow maximum scope for small actors to make their little lights shine. But whether or not those large policies are in place, any one person can always make the world around them better. You can make Earth very pleasant for your spouse and children and friends. We are all very, very powerful in that realm.

Comments on On Second Skin:

Edward Castronova says:

I also should stress that clearly the family is the main factor determining whether a person has the strength, ability, and resources to put together a good life.

Compared to family effects, the effects of policy and culture and schools are quite minimal. It's been funny to observe over the course of a lifetime how policy analysts, media scholars, pediatricians, politicians, and cultural critics, all these smart people in the different areas I've had the privilege of meddling, spend so much of their time and energy debating what to do, all while ignoring or, more often, shunting aside the family. The attitude seems to be "Yes, yes, yes, we know the family matters. But we can't do anything about the family. We CAN do something about Head Start. Or No Child Left Behind. Or whether there's violence in the movies or in games. Or whether our schools promote neo-liberal ideology [shudder]. So let's focus on all that." Meanwhile the family crumbles.

Shunting aside the family is both unwise and tragic. It's unwise because the family mediates all these other policies. There's no point in offering a new policy or a cultural criticism if you're not including family effects (and associated personality structures) as part of your analysis. And it is tragic because what we do can actually affect how strong families are. Our policy and culture since World War II, in the west, has been to weaken the family. We now reap the results. Yet we blame World of Warcraft for drawing in people, even though those people have been raised in a cultural and interpersonal wasteland.

Posted Feb 15, 2012 11:32:44 AM | link

anna says:

I'm not completely familiar with the movie Second Skin, but you brought up so many interesting points in your post! What drew me to continue reading was when you addressed the phrase of "being addicted" to something. I'm a college student, and I hear that phrase on a daily basis, but never really thought about the literal meaning. Enjoying something is not equivalent to an addiction, and I think people forget that from time to time. Furthermore, I completely agree with your comparison of video games and "Dancing with the Stars." Many times, people downplay video games, and see it as a waste of time, when in fact these games promote critical and higher order thinking. These skills are not encouraged while watching mindless televesion. I guess people don't always see the bigger picture.

Posted Feb 15, 2012 9:37:23 PM | link