Power Dynamics

On the Wrong Track

A good way to dispel concern about an emerging trend is to set up a phoney debate pitting the views of social conservatives rejecting cultural change against progressive change enthusiasts, e.g. only paranoid Daily Mail readers could possibly oppose the growing encroachment of war-themed video games in mainstream life. Progress is by default associated with trendy young culture with little regard to its key disseminators, while negative reactionism refers to recalcitrant opposition to progress. We thus have a false dichotomy of progressives against reactionaries, simplified into a classic goodies against baddies fight. But who sets the parameters of debate and then defines woolly concepts like progressives and reactionaries in a given socio-political context? This is a classic technique deployed in change management, the art of persuading first key opinion leaders and decision-makers and then the general populace of the need for some far-reaching cultural change already agreed upon by the powers that be. The media often asks us to consider whether public opinion is ready for a given policy that the establishment considers progressive such as a smacking ban or adoption of identity cards. Public opinion has to be prepared first, which is why in a nominally consultative democratic system the persuasion industry, whether through the mediums of advertising, entertainment, awareness-raising or staged debates, plays such a key role. If large sections of public openly dissented from the implementation of policies essential to the stability of the ruling elite, they would either have to impose a more openly authoritarian regime or change policy. However, often a semblance of intense debate can be created by pitting die-hard traditionalists, often with religious associations, against enlightened progressives.

Consider the news this week that all girls in England (and Wales and Scotland will no doubt follow suit) will be given the new Gardasil vaccine to protect them against the carcinogenic human papillomavirus, which is usually sexually transmitted. The BBC's Have Your Say fully moderated forum had a handful of messages opposing the move and a deluge not only enthusiastically supporting it, but lambasting naysayers as religious nuts. Indeed religious nuts prove useful tools of the establishment, only last week I had a conversation with a born-again Christian recruited by some obscure US-based Church (Potter's House, I believe), absolutely convinced that Biblical creationism is more scientifically valid than evolutionism as well as describing abortion as worse than the Nazi Holocaust. Of course, I support his right to believe such nonsense, but suspect they are being set up fake dissidents, eager to recruit millions of vulnerable humble citizens who have rightly lost their faith in the neo-liberal intelligentsia. So basically if you oppose mass medication of all 12 year old females, you're equated with religious zealots who advocate chastity until marriage. Indeed even if you just voice concern about the safety of the new vaccines, you are still associated with those who oppose mass medication for religious reasons. Whether or not the purported benefits of the new vaccine outweighs its known side effects or indeed whether or not it will curb the incessant rise of cancer despite much lower smoking rates, unthinking conformists are just expected to channel their anger against extremists opposed to progress as defined by Glaxo Smith Kline and Merck. Yes, the very same companies that profit enormously from drugs like SSRIs and childhood amphetamines. The goodies side with the NHS, the government and big pharma, while the baddies condemn teenagers to abstinence and fear of contracting diseases from promiscuous partners when the time is right.

Last week the BBC also ran a report about the benefits, a key word in the art of neuro-linguistic conditioning, of first-person shooter games in developing business management skills. Only a few days later the Daily Mail reports on the findings of a study by Dundee's Abertay University into thebenefits of video games in stimulating concentration in school age children. The aforementioned BBC article correctly noted the pervasiveness of the pastime among teenagers and adults alike, but failed to present the dark side of this pursuit. Here we have a public service broadcaster trivialising the trivialisation of simulated mass murder and echoing the entertainment industry line that it's just harmless fun. Apparently not, otherwise big business would not be promoting it so enthusiastically. If addiction to these games changes the way we think, i.e. reprograms our minds to become more goal-oriented and be better team players, it soon becomes obvious who the main beneficiaries are, large corporations and potentially military organisations. In corporate jargon goal-oriented does not mean steadfastly pursuing a goal, but staying focussed on a goal that someone else higher up in the organisational hierarchy has set. In an increasingly high surveillance society, only complete idiots would unleash their violent dark side in public, but many would seek authorised outlets for their inner aggression, especially when presented as cool pursuits. Judging from conversations I hear at work, and as a contract programmer I regularly change workplace and come into a contact with a broad range of young adults, most avid gamers are down-and-out conformists. So what useful people management skills would they learn by spending hours navigating virtual mazes, often dark dungeons and inhospitable desert scenes reminiscent of the terrain soldiers might expect in Iraq, Iran or Sudan, and fragging their mates? Is this some kind of metaphor for beating the competition or betraying one's colleagues in pursuit of greater glory, pandering to the virtuous powers that be. Nobody can pretend that the psychology of electronic can be simplified as a dichotomy between good and evil, but these games appear to be empowering their makers more than their players.

Back in 1994 we learned that the infamous Radio Les Milles Collines had instigated a genocide by urging the Hutu majority to slaughter their Tutsi neighbours. This may be a highly biased and partial account of what really happened Rwanda ( see Revisiting the "Rwandan Genocide" - Resurrecting Ghosts, or Exorcising Demons? ), but if rudimentary audio media could incite a bloodbath when participants believe they have an official carte blanche to unleash generations of pent-up revenge, what potential does much more sophisticated interactive electronic media have to control the actions of millions of addicts? The question is seldom posed in these terms. Instead we witness a rather dull debate between trendy conformists and not-so-trendy conservatives about the immediate effects of playing these games. Indeed entertainment industry propagandists are probably correct in claiming violent video games have cathartic effects in some individuals, as anger that might otherwise be vented against the ruling elite in a coherent and rational way is channelled against fictitious enemies who often bear an uncanny semblance to our ruling elite's official enemies du jour. The real importance of video games to the establishment lies in their power of psychological conditioning. They need loyal conformist citizens with suitable outlets for their pent-up anger created by extreme competition.

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