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Media Addiction & The Slow Death of Enjoyment

Content Warning: This article touches upon the topics of addiction, death, and workplace abuse.

When Pleasure Becomes Pain

Video games of all kinds were a constant presence within my childhood, from before kindergarten all the way up until my freshman year of high school. I have many wonderful memories of rushing home to beat the next level of some of my favorite computer games, or of sitting in front of a television with a group of friends to play one of our game consoles together. Personally, I enjoyed the stories and the skill involved (e.g.: quick reaction, strategy, puzzles, etc.). Socially, it was a fun way to spend some time with the people that I love.

Eventually, I decided that the time that I spent on video games and most other media would serve me better if I spent it on study with the intention of enriching everyone's lives instead. I got rid of pretty much all of the video games that I had collected over the years, either giving them away to friends for them or their children to play with, or selling them off when money was tight. Every now and again I would play a little bit of the few that I had left to relax from my studies, or keep abreast of some gaming news by listening to others talk about it. Games are such a core component of society that they are always likely to be in the background somewhere in some form, whether or not one personally plays them.

As time went on, I could see certain trends start to arise. For example, many companies moved away from physical media (like cartridges and disks with full games on them) and more towards partially finished games, gradually adding features as downloadable content through subscription-based services. This made it so that things were never really "owned" by those who enjoyed them, and media preservation may have become a bit harder for lack of a complete hard copy being stored somewhere. I could understand the business aspects behind such a decision (e.g.: mitigating piracy, higher resale value for the company, etc.). And one could reason that there might even be some benefits to such a system (like reducing waste, facilitating a minimalist lifestyle, etc.). Movies have followed a similar trajectory with the leap from DVD and Blueray to streaming.

However, there are other decisions that are less justifiable. I remember being shocked in the early 2000s when I first heard of "Behavioral Game Design", designing games specifically to elicit specific behaviors from their audience beyond being a piece of art intended to entertain, inform, or inspire. Games literally started to be created, not to induce a sense of fun, but a sense of addiction. What exactly is the difference between something that is "fun" and that which is "addictive"? And what of the people who struggle with separating fantasy from reality, or who fixate on things that may be harmful?

All media has some degree of influence upon perception because one cannot focus in on a thing for an extended period of time without thinking about it on some level. If it also induces a strong emotion, then some people might become addicted to it, constantly repeating it or seeking out more things of a similar nature for the kinds of feelings that they evoke without thinking carefully about what it is that they actually contain, or the consequences that it has upon themselves and others (e.g.: some people become addicted to watching gory horror films, action movie pyrotechnics, or pornography for this same reason).

There can also be "propaganda" books, shows, movies, etc. that are designed to have a coercieve quality to them in order to further some particular agenda. But the difference between video games and some other immersive forms of multimedia is that they can be used to guide the player's choices in ways that are more directly manipulative due to their interactive nature. This is sometimes referred to as a "dark pattern". [Thanks to JustFluffingAround for this last link!]

This periodically comes back into public awareness through the most extreme cases, like news stories of people dying in various situations where video games might have been related to that death. It seems that some of these don't really have anything to do with the video games, or there could be many other contributing factors that one could argue are more important (e.g.: depression, trauma, sociopathy, etc.). But regardless of the personal circumstances or pre-existing health conditions of those involved, it is also hard to ignore the clear signs of addiction present within a few of them (such as feeling unable to remove oneself from the game to the point of neglecting one's body). How much is the design of the video game itself contributing to that? The ethically dubious psychological techniques that some people use to try to get players to sink incredibly large amounts of time and money into games are becoming more well-known. [If you are ok with some cursing, Jim Sterling's YouTube channel has an interesting video on how this relates to drug and gambling addiction. Thanks to TheFurnace for this last link!]

This is not a commentary on anyone's personal preferences in media, nor is it intended to be an exhaustive media study about the relationships between video games and addiction (or how this relates to the similarly addictive nature of social media, the manipulative approaches used in advertising, and the biases in how news is presented). Many games can still be a wonderful way to relax, socialize, philosophize, or learn, despite all of these issues. Media of all kinds can be life enriching. We just want to emphasize the fact that in order to break an addictive cycle that is destructive to oneself and others, one must first be aware of what is happening. If you feel stuck, realize that you have more power than you think. Destructive behaviors are changable no matter how ingrained they might seem, and there are many strategies out there that can help us to change our behavior for the better.

This image is from Social Work Tech, which also has a few other useful tools that are free to download.

Retreating From A Sick Environment

Many people feel such a strong sense of burnout nowadays that they can do little else when they come home from a long day of work or school but rest. They might consume some "junk" (whether that be food, drugs, or media) as a form of escapism, a way to cope with that stress.

For example, a lot of people who take part in making video games are not in a pleasant situation either. Joshua Fluke's YouTube channel covers a few glaring examples of this in a way that is easy to understand:

A Recording of 800 People Being Fired (Game Dev is a disaster)
Blizzard Workers SKIP MEALS To Pay Rent, CEO Gets 10 Million Dollar RAISE
190 workers FIRED and CEO gets $200 MILLION Bonus - What ACTUALLY happened
...and so on.

Of course, it is both unrealistic and unhelpful to simply tell people to drop out of school or quit their jobs and "do something else". Their immediate reaction might be "How will I survive?" or "How will I take care of my family?". They might be stuck within "wage slavery" or trying to gain credentials so that they can get a "decent job". Likewise, telling people to "just get along" doesn't necessarily stop bullying, whether it be from classmates or coworkers. While some of these things are misunderstandings that could be handled by careful communication, others are more foundational to the structure of the organization and to the personalities of the people within it. There are generally two approaches that people usually take in response...

Approach #1

Some find solutions by trying to change the system that they are in. They gain an understanding of "worker's rights" and how to handle issues in the workplace (like harassment, discrimination, etc.). They might also join or organize a "union" (i.e.: a group of workers who can "collectively bargin" with the business for more fair treatment towards everyone). Similar things can be done at school. To use the familar phrase, "There is power in numbers". If such a large number of customers and employees are suffering within the current system, who exactly is benefiting? "Corporate psychopaths" can cause a lot of damage to a business as a whole and should be held accountable for their behavior, or entirely screened out of attaining leadership roles as much as possible.

However, despite all of this, constructive changes may not be feasible within every situation. Some work very hard to maintain a status quo that seems to benefit them. People who were once allies can also become opportunists who will turn against their partners to gain an "advantage" within a workplace founded upon competition (e.g.: when union leadership or tactics become corrupt). It can be difficult to determine what is trustworthy when some make it their job to discourage workers from unionizing. And further, people both inside and outside of the company may resort to destructive means to achieve their ends (like lying, threats, or physical violence). It doesn't matter much whether those methods are considered "criminal" or not. Everyone loses.

Approach #2

Some find solutions by exiting the system and trying to create their own. Many people say things like, "If you don't like it, why don't you just leave and start your own business?". The implication is that it is "easy" to do so. But if you don't already have a few resources at your disposal, then it can be quite difficult to start one, and there is a high probability that it might fail if you don't know what to do. Do you stay within a job without security to try to save enough money before you are fired or leave out of frustration and exhaustion? Or, assuming that you have enough credit and a support network, do you take out a loan and borrow from family/friends to acquire the resources necessary to start a business? It is a gamble either way and one might lose everything, not just "property" but relationships as well. While it is simple to start an online business nowadays, and many people can freely access the Internet (e.g.: at a cafe or library), it takes an incredible amount of skill and effort to grow it and maintain it. It is unlikely to become a sole source of income, so many try to create "multiple revenue streams" that aren't that much different from being hired by another company anyway (e.g.: by also doing "freelance work" on platforms like Mechanical Turk, Upwork, Fiverr, Behance, FlexJobs, etc.).

The boundary between the time for "work" and "rest" starts to disappear. How can one's online shops and creative technical skills (e.g.: programming, web design, digital art, graphic design, musical composition and production, etc.) be promoted enough to begin generating a livable wage for oneself? One loses their identity when they commodify themselves to the point that their own name becomes a brand and all of their actions become motivated by the amount of attention that they get from others. And there is the very real danger of one "becoming the thing that they hate" in the process (i.e.: a "corporate psychopath"). It is a slippery slope when one keeps compromising their values in order to have a "successful" business. They might make their advertising manipulative or their products addictive to attract and retain customers, lie about their abilities to entice investors or employees into joining or staying, exploit and pollute the Natural environment to save money, accept donations without delivering on their promises, and so on. Is the greed of the small business owner any different from the large business owner in anything other than scale and the amount of influence?

In management, most industries are what are referred to as a "red ocean", meaning that they are so competitive that they are like a sea of hungry sharks tearing up the smaller and more vulnerable creatures within it. What starts off as a way to sustain oneself, one's family, and one's community, quickly becomes a sacrifice of all three to try to survive. Rather than straining to become "bigger"/"faster"/"stronger"/etc., many businesses attempt to create a "blue ocean" (i.e.: invent a whole new industry that is also high in demand). This allows them to "dominate the market" before other competitors or scammers that might have more resources than them can overtake them. "Innovate or die" becomes the mantra of both the multinational corporation and the small start-up. Creating a system of "mutual aid" between other small businesses by linking them together into a "cooperative" (i.e.: pooling resources and regularly helping each other in doing tasks) is an alternative. "Franchising" has nearly wiped out the "mom-and-pop shop", but this is a way to bring it back, at least on the neighborhood level. Again, we see "power in numbers".

There is an incredibly large amount of education that one can freely (and legally) obtain through the Internet, including financial advice. For example:

George S. Clason - The Richest Man in Babylon
James Jani - The Untold Truth About Money: How to Build Wealth From Nothing
Robert Kiyosaki - Your Guide to Wealth

Most financial advice, whether free or paid, will offer similar suggestions. It pretty much boils down to something like this:

If I were to summarize what I find most valuable throughout: "Delay gratification" (e.g.: don't waste resources pursing an extravagant lifestyle or trying to "get rich quick" by taking unnecessary risks). Reinvest all resources into something that will help build them up (e.g.: proper nutrition and the amount of rest needed to function, immediately usable trade skills and physical tools related to survival, etc.). If you keep an open mind, you will always have more options than what might be immediately obvious, translating seemingly "nothing" into "something". Learn from mistakes and plan ahead without getting stuck in regrets about the past or worries about the future.

Not all of this financial advice is wise though, nor is every method of gaining wealth just. Some of it leads to "ruinous compromises" that take us further and further away from things that are more important than money. [Thanks to ewwfs for this last link!] Sometimes people take the kindness and generosity that is shown to them for granted, whether it be from a "stranger" or a "friend". Desperation for the fulfillment of needs may slip into the fulfillment of wants through greed. Rather than a balanced two-way interchange, it becomes distorted by fear and selfishness until it is continually one-way. This doesn't only happen between individuals, but across entire groups as well. In fact, most of the financial system as it exists throughout the world right now revolves around people trying to free up their time by getting others to work for them, or by inserting themselves between people and a resource in order to charge money for it. At what point does the pursuit of one's personal pleasure become the suffering of another? How can this be justified when all lives are equal in value?

The tools that some have created with the intention of giving everyone freedom are often used by others to keep many dependent and in poverty. We can come together collectively to use technology (like computers, software, and robotics) to free everyone from toil and produce an abundance of food, clothes, and shelter, yet some are adamant on pushing it more and more towards total control of everyone and everything. But there is hope in understanding that the resources that we have can be redirected towards sustaining us in ways that respect the environment and each other. For example, buildings can be made "off-grid", deriving their power from sunlight, changes in temperature, and the movements of wind and water. The fewer utility bills, the more money that is freed up to make other necessities self-sustaining until money is no longer necessary to live. It becomes easier to help others and to share what we have in a way that empowers them when we aren't struggling to survive.

In Summary

It is imperative that we understand what aspects of the system itself are going against our human nature and allowing this type of disparity to appear in the first place. Why are so many workplaces and classrooms such toxic places to be? And perhaps most importantly, what is our personal part in all of this? What will we choose to do about it?

Some may become indifferent to it (e.g.: accepting it as "the way things are"). Going along with it does nothing to change it, or worse, actively supports its continuation. Others rebel against it violently out of exasperation (e.g.: rioting or resorting to acts of "terrorism"), but often end up achieving nothing except hurting the other people who are also stuck within it. But there is another option that is usually hidden from view: We can make constructive decisions on both an individual and collective level, to intentionally co-create a society that we enjoy being a part of rather than something that we want to escape from because we are being steadily destroyed by it. There are ways of structuring organizations and applying scientific knowledge so that everyone benefits (including everything within the Natural environment). Fulfilling our own needs does not have to come at the expense of anyone or anything else. We can meet them by helping each other.

Like addiction, it may take some time to change society for the better, but change is possible.
As always, we will continue to explore workable solutions. Thank you for reading! ♥