Internet: The Decline of Movies and TV

Whatever Happened To The Internet Dream? (Part 3)

theaterlobby

In part 1, I complained how the internet has ruined culture, and in part 2 how it is ruining politics and religion.  Today I delve into an area that is a little more personal: movies and TV.

1999: The Year That Didn’t Change Movies

1999, is a year I consider the year movies peaked in my lifetime. The list of great movies that came out in 1999 is amazingly long. There was Fight Club, The Matrix, Office Space, Three Kings, Being John Malkovitch, Mumford, Galaxy Quest, Go, Run Lola Run, The Sixth Sense, Eyes Wide Shut, Dogma, The Iron Giant, Toy Story 2, South Park, edTV, Notting Hill, American Pie, Boys Don’t Cry, Cruel Intentions, The Limey, Forces of Nature, Mansfield Park, October Sky, Pushing Tin, Stir of Echoes, Entrapment, eXistenZ, The Thirteenth Floor, Magnolia, and The Blair Witch Project. Not all are great films, but they were at least creative and inventive. I haven’t even mentioned the biggest movie Star Wars The Phantom Menace, or the film that swept all the awards that year American Beauty. Entertainment Weekly even touted 1999 as the year that changed movies forever!

You can stop waiting for the future of movies. It’s already here. Someday, 1999 will be etched on a microchip as the first real year of 21st-century filmmaking. The year when all the old, boring rules about cinema started to crumble. The year when a new generation of directors—weaned on cyberspace and Cops, Pac-Man and Public Enemy—snatched the flickering torch from the aging rebels of the 1970s. The year when the whole concept of ”making a movie” got turned on its head.

Except that it didn’t. Instead it was apparently the year that studios dropped the ball and let the creative people take over, and today the studios have a new stranglehold on film making. Most movies I see today are good in concept, formulaic in delivery. The other thing that happened in 1999 is that the Internet started taking over entertainment and it forced a change on how Hollywood does everything.

It was around 1999 when movies went from making a small fraction of their over all box office on the opening weekend to eventually making more than half. It is easy to see that the internet is to blame.  It used to be a few people would go to a movie on opening weekend and then tell their friends, family, and co-workers about the movie they saw.  If the movie was good, often the second weekend would be better than the first weekend.

The internet changed the rules. Now a few people go see a movie on friday night, then post online their opinion so all their friends, family and co-workers see it by the next morning.  This helps Saturday’s box office take, instead of next weekend.  Buzz spreads shockingly fast now, and the marketing opportunities disappear after that first weekend.

This changed the priority of movie studios completely.  Throughout the decade of the 2000’s, the priority of movie studios in making movies is not whether a movie will be good or not, but whether a movie is marketable enough to generate enough buzz to get the big opening weekend.  Notice my list of films from 1999, the list has one sequel and one prequel, and one based off a TV show (there were others in 1999, but they are not worth mentioning).  The rest are fresh new titles, some of which spawned sequels of their own.  Today it is all sequels, remakes, ties to popular TV, comics, and books, all of which are much easier to market.  There are still good movies every year, but there are fewer in number than there used to be.

And TV?

Meanwhile, I believe TV has actually gotten better since the internet got big, at least from a certain perspective.  While priorities changed in the movies from “good” to “bankable”, TV has gone from “bankable” to “buzz worthy”.

The goal of TV in the internet age is to make TV that will stir a lot of discussion online.  Lots of discussion means lots of people tuning in each week.  The result are three trends in TV: 1. Every drama is a soap opera. Regardless of the type of show it is, there is always dramatic interplay between the regulars.  Think back to the ’80s: TV dramas that weren’t night time soaps, was there a lot of sleeping around?, or dramatic tension between the characters?  If there was, it was over by the end of the episode.  Today most shows have large ensemble casts, and while there are weekly plots, there are scenes between characters that make up larger arcs, over the season or even series.  2. Every sitcom pushes the limits of outrageous behavior.  The only successful comedies are “water cooler” worthy shows as the old standard, today it is blog worthy or tweetable.  Who had the most hits on Get Glue?  3. The ultimate in buzz worthy shows are of course the elimination style reality shows, which is why there are so damn many of them.  Advertisers love them, because people actually watch them live, which means networks love them.  If reality shows generated syndication deals and DVD sales, there would be nothing on TV but reality shows. Luckily, syndication and DVD sales matter, which is why they still make dramas and sitcoms.

Personally, I don’t watch reality TV, and very few sitcoms (outrageousness is not my kind of humor), but dramas suck me in all the time. I usually have between 8 to 10 going every year, and there are lots of good ones.  The TV Drama has been experiencing a “Golden Age” thanks to the internet.

I can probably pin point the first show that lived off the internet: Babylon 5.  Sure there were genre shows (X-Files) and space dramas (Star Trek) that preceded it, but the risky genius J. Michael Strazinsky actually had a planned out 5 year cycle for the show ahead of time. This made the show buzz worthy as the audience saw plots develop over many episodes, incidences in season 1 pay off in season 4.  No one in the history of TV had ever plotted out a whole series in advance before.  These days it happens all the time.  But the other history making advance that “JMS” did was to regularly get online and discuss the show with fans.  Fans appreciated it, and it increased the shows loyalty even more.

While Babylon 5 was never a huge success, it had a loyal fan base, and TV producers took notice.  Almost every “genre” show today, from Once Upon A Time to Game of Thrones follows a similar formula of long story arcs, and developing loyalty online.  Fringe probably lasted two more seasons than it should have thanks to a loyal online fan base.  Even though it means a lot more work, TV writers are loving the myriad of story telling opportunities they have.  It shows in better written TV over all.

The danger is that if TV imitates what was success too much, it gets formulaic. I believe that is already true of reality shows and sitcoms, which is why I don’t bother. It is also true of certain TV tropes like the “procedural” or the “legal drama” or the “medical drama”.  In these types of shows, I generally watch for the character interplay of the cast.  The episode plot or mystery rarely matters.  Luckily every season there are shows that do not follow these tropes, and those are the ones I usually enjoy the most.

If TV is getting better, how come the ratings keep falling?

How bad are TV ratings today?  Lets go back to 1999 again. The top scripted TV show that year was ER with an average 18.6 rating.  In 2012, the top scripted show was Modern Family with an average 5.8 rating.  Had Modern Family been released in 1999 with the same rating, it would have been ranked 82nd, and probably cancelled.

The internet provides a smorgasbord of viewing options to choose from. Families don’t sit down in front of the big screen and watch the big 4 networks anymore. Today the average viewer has 300 channels to choose from, plus Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube.

And that is if they watch TV. Video games, or just web surfing in general eats a big chunk of the TV audience away as well. How long will the erosion of ratings go on before TV networks no longer consider scripted shows to be cost effective?  The death of TV will be when TV stops producing dramas and comedies all together.  I doubt that will happen very soon, but the trend is pointing that way.

TV will never disappear, just as radio still continues to exist.  However radio, especially the AM dial, exists as nothing but talk shows: news talk, sports talk, political talk, religious talk, paid advertisers talking about their products — every station, all the time.  I see all of this on TV these days, especially during the daytime hours.  Scripted TV is becoming the exception to the rule.  TV is turning into AM radio with video.

Next Part 4: Internet and Society

Internet: The Death of Politics and Religion

Whatever Happened To The Internet Dream? (Part 2)

Speaker

Something I almost never do in this blog is talk about politics and religion, and I am only going to talk about it in the most generic terms here.  My thesis for today is that the wealth of information available through the internet is having unexpected consequences on what should be the most stalwart and unchangeable institutions of society.  The consequences on politics is very different than the consequences on religion, but ultimately just as potentially fatal.

The Death of Religion

Full disclosure, I’m and Atheist, and so seeing religious institutions in decline does not bother me much. But, I have not always been. I grew up in a religious community, and why I no longer share the beliefs of the community, I still care about the people as they are pretty much lifelong friends.  I don’t stand in the way of their practices, I congratulate them on their achievements in church, I just avoid all religious discussions with them, and they with me.  So I am not really anti-religion, because I understand religious institutions can fulfill social needs of its members.

That said, religious institutions are seeing declining conversions, and participation across the board these days.  The problem is the Internet.  Religions have thousands of years of practice in controlling what information its members have access to:  Embarrassing histories are expunged, scientific evidence is denied, and secret rites are kept secret.  With the internet that has all gone away.  Potential converts to your church can find all the dirt on your church in just a few clicks.  Worse already converted members can find this info too, and they can also find support groups for ex-members ready to help them unconvert.

The Internet presents a world view where science is as full of awe and wonder as inspiring as any sermon, a world view where people are moral because it is in their nature to be and do not need threats of punishments and rewards to make them so.  This world view is not really a threat to the true believers faith, but it seriously weakens the interest of the potential and wavering members.  It is no surprise that “non-affiliated” is the fastest growing religious category in the Western world, especially among the young.

While the internet is a major threat to “religion”, it is not necessarily a threat to “belief”.  In fact the internet is a source for a diversity of beliefs.  People will be worshiping deities for millenia to come no doubt, but do they need organized religion to do it?  I’m guessing, “no”.

The Death of Politics

While religious institutions struggle with their inability to keep secrets from the public, to the politicians its a long tradition of dealing with bad press via spin, denials, and  rhetoric. Therefore, the Internet’s threat to politics is very different from its threat to religion.  While religions shrivel up and blow away, political parties becomes stronger, more radicalized, and more stubborn.

What the Internet has done to politics is expose the backdoor deals, the necessary compromises needed to get things done.  It has soured the public’s view of politicians to the point where much of the public seems OK with things not getting done, until they find out how it affects their lives.

What we have today is what one author accurately describes as “Attention Deficit Democracy“, which has basically numbed us to outrage except when it comes to our special interest causes.  There in lies the thing that will kill politics: the cow towing to special interests, even when it is ultimately bad for the general public to pursue those interests.  Politics is being increasingly dominated by what I call “Meme Politics”.

Meme politics is good for fundraising:  1. Propose a radical, unconstitutional bill that threatens the lives and welfare of a minority group. 2. The internet gets a gander at your outrageous proposal, posts it all over the web like a meme.  3. Radical political extremists who feel threatened by said minority group send you lots of campaign contributions.

Meme politics is almost normal these days.  Politicians feel comfortable proposing stupid and outrageous legislation because it brings immediate fundraising results, and eventually the general public will forget about it come election time.

Why does America spend so much money on a shoddy health care system?  Special Interest groups. Why does America spend so much on military? Special interest groups. Why does America’s tax system punish the poor and help the rich? Special Interest Groups.  Why the war on drugs? Why are guns not better regulated? Why the overboard security at airports? Why do we still have pennys?  All can be faulted by the involvement of special interests with deep pockets.  Meanwhile, nothing is being done about global warming and peak oil, because there are concerted efforts by special interests to deny their existence.  Poverty is a major problem in this country, but unfortunately there are no special interest groups to advocate for them.

The internet has brought us the politics of the outrageous, where actually getting things done is counter productive.  From the politicians standpoint it is better to not do anything, and keep collecting money from those that want something done.  Because if you actually do what they want, they will stop contributing and stop voting.

Society won’t last long without good governance. Deadlocked politics is not good for anybody.  There are good substitutes to religion, there are no good substitutes to government.  Can politics reinvent itself for the information age and become a functioning democracy again?  Or are we destined to become a dictatorship?

Thanks to the internet, politics is becoming deadlocked, and religion is becoming irrelevant.  I’ll let others decide if this is a good or bad thing.

Next Part 3: The Internet affect on tv and movies.

Bored Of The Internet

Whatever Happened To The Internet Dream? (Part 1)

boredariane

As a long time internet addict, who has spent 20 years online, and 15 years working in the internet industry, I hate to say it, but it is true: I am bored of the Internet.

The thing is, I am quite certain I am not alone in this sentiment. Over the course of the 20 years I have been online, I have seen the Internet transform itself multiple times, so I am not saying it is over for the Internet, I am saying that in its current evolutionary state, the internet is boring as hell.

Not too very long ago, I used to visit up to a dozen portal sites like Digg, and Fark, and Reddit, and a bunch of others on my links page. It used to be that all of these sites would have a slew of cool and interesting things to see and read about, all of them different.  Slowly over time, something changed.  The same content started showing up on all of these filter sites more and more frequently.  It soon got to the point that there really isn’t any need to go to all of these sites, so I don’t. Digg is completely useless since it was sold, Fark is only worth reading for the occasional funny headlines readers come up with, Reddit is a haven for flame wars.  All you really need these days is one website to go to for the cool crap.

For me, I hate to admit it, but it has become Facebook.  I just “like” my favorite sources of info, and links get sent to me.  Too convenient.  Sure not everything worth seeing ends up in my feed, and there is still junk to sort through, but it is as good a filter as I can find, so I use it.

The War for Eyeballs

Still I am not getting as much cool stuff as I used to get when I surfed for it. The pre-meme cool stuff I used to find is still out there, it is just getting harder to find in the noise of pop culture gossip,  sponsored links, and pointless memes that make up the most visited websites today. Why? Because the pop culture gossip and the pointless memes sells the sponsored links.

The joke of making money online has been to follow this business model:
Make something cool
Give it away for free to get traffic
????
Profit!
The funny thing is, Google, Twitter, You Tube, Facebook, Pinterest, Linkdin, and a few others have actually followed this model to make billions.  After years of giving away their services for free, often at huge expenses, they managed to find ways to make money once they became famous.

The most important thing is to get that internet traffic, and it is much easier to get that traffic by catering to the masses rather than catering to special interests.  This is why the Internet, which once upon a time was a haven for special interest groups, has become a haven for mass media instead.

I know what you are thinking, it is still a haven for special interest groups.  I know because I am in a couple, but some how a large percentage of the discussion in these special interest groups end up being about mass media topics.

Think about it! Advertisers are finding it just as easy to get their message out online as on traditional media. They lose some control over the message, but still the message gets out. Money talks.

The Paradox of Choice

My thesis is this: The Internet, once dreamed as the ultimate rebellion against mass media and the control of knowledge, has somehow become mass media’s biggest promoter.  I believe it is a consequence of the Paradox of Choice, which I first mentioned in my first Happiness post.

Pretty much any info we want can be found online.  It gives us lots and lots of choices.  Psychological studies conclude that the availability of choices do not make us happier, instead they lead to feeling of loneliness and depression.  It is basic human nature to ignore the choices and find what we are comfortable with, or find a distraction from loneliness and depression we feel from all the choices we make online.

That explains all the cats.  Kinda sad to have this vast source of info, that I hardly use. I should take classes on ItunesU, or download and read classic literature from the Google Library, or read up on random topics on Wikipedia or TED. Somehow cat videos keep getting in the way.

20 years ago, Bruce Springsteen sung about “57 Channels and Nothing On”. Then it became 570 satellite channels and nothing to tivo, then 5700 DVDs and nothing to rent. Today its 57,000,000 videos and nothing to stream.

This is the first in a series on this paradox. Next up, how the Internet is destroying politics and religion.

The INTERNETZ is NOT destroying society

Telling the world that the internet is not destroying society is probably not going to get me a ton of hits, because who wants to read an article that is stating the obvious? So I thought I’d draw attention by misspelling internet.  If I really wanted to get hits, I’d lead with some bald face lie like “‘The Demise of Guys’: How video games and porn are ruining a generation” whose main thesis is that young men growing up with video games and easy access to porn is distracting them from normal social activities, or “We expect more from technology and less from each other” whose main thesis is that the growth of texting and social media is making us too social, and we are losing our ability to be alone.  I love it when sensationalist headlines contradict each other.

Then there are the rash of Facebook doom and gloom articles: Facebook is destroying Google, Facebook is destroying Twitter, Facebook is destroying Virtual Worlds.  How long before we see an article claiming that Facebook is a threat to the human race itself? It came out yesterday, actually.

Games and Porn destroying society?

So where to start?  Lets start with the new book The Demise of Guys:

The premise of the book is that a generation of boys addicted to video games and online porn is leading to the decline of the male half of the population. The CNN article cites a lot of anecdotal info without much actual scientific citations.

There is a lot of stuff to talk about here and it is worthy of a discussion.

The book seems to focus on video game and porn addiction in boys, and blames the usual suspects: parents. Then it apparently tries to discuss the problems this is causing to society, and DAMMIT WE SHOULD DO SOMETHING!

Lets be realistic here. Yes, virtually all boys, young men, and even older men are playing video games these days, they are also watching porn. A slightly lesser percentage of girls, young women and even older women are also playing video games and watching porn. This is no doubt having an affect on society, but lets put that to the side for now.

Now what percentage of the people playing video games and/or watching porn are actually addicted to it? Research shows the percentage is actually pretty small, like 3% tops and probably closer to 1%. This is of course varies depending on what you would call an addict, but I’d say the usual definition involves engage in an activity to such an extent that it threatens our health. I’d say that is a very small percentage. Because it is a small percentage, the affect of video game/porn addiction is likely negligible, and therefore it cannot be ruining a generation of guys.

So lets stop beating around the bush and get to the heart of the issue:

Is the prevalence of video games affecting our society, our culture, our relationships, and changing the psychology of young growing minds? Absolutely!

Is the easy availability of porn affecting our society, our culture, our relationships, and changing the psychology of young growing minds? Absolutely!

And now for the REAL debate question: Is this a bad thing?

Considering that every society where video games have become popular has seen a reduction in violent crime; Considering that every society in which internet porn is widespread has seen a reduction in sex crimes; Considering that video games have been designed to make players happy, and that positive psychologists have shown that artificially generated happiness is just as good as genuine happiness. I’d say, the answer is no.

But, but, but, video game playing has been demonstrated to reduce the ability to learn in traditional school settings. Then maybe it is about time to dump the traditional school definition of learning. Learning by playing games, works extremely well.

But, widespread porn is changing young people’s ability to have “healthy” relationships that lead to marriage and family and more children. Time to dump the old fashioned definitions of “healthy” relationships then. Kids today are smarter about sex and relationships than any previous generation. A lot more of them are choosing not to get married, and not have kids, and the ones that are are doing it later in life, and choosing smaller families. Young people are going to have relationships, because that is what young people do, but they have a lot more freedom today. There is no bad here.

Video games and the internet is changing society, that is a given. Some change will be good, and inevitably some change will be bad. But the only real threats are to those that do not want society to change. To hell with them!

(Note, the above was originally posted by me at SL Universe forums where it got over 250 responses do far.)

Texting and social media destroying society?

The second sensationalist headline comes from Professor Sherry Turkle who is someone who is very thorough with her research. Again, she is pushing a book: Alone Together

As I was watching her TED talk on the topic of texting and social media’s affect on society I was making some live notes:

“The illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship” … And this is bad because?

“We turn to technology to help us feel connected in ways we can comfortably control” … You say it like its a bad thing.

“Being alone feels like a problem that needs to be solved” … Actually no, I’m fine with alone. It is other people that need stuff that feels like a problem that needs to be solved.

“Constant connection is changing the way people think of themselves” … Yep that’s the way it has always been. I bet there was someone like her when the telephone was invented, and when the radio was invented, and when the TV was invented. The world is changing, and I am cool with it.

And then she ends the talk, talking about learning to be alone with ourselves. Hmm, as someone who rarely texts, never bring a cellphone anywhere, only talks to people at work because that is what I am paid to do, and does not even have a twitter account, I guess she wasn’t talking to me.

Ultimately this is the same issue with video games and porn above. Getting addicted can be very bad, but what percentage really are addicted?  Probably an even smaller percentage.  But let’s ask the second question: Is texting and social media a bad thing?

Oddly this is a far more complicated issue than video games and porn issues. Social media has sparked revolutions and organized protests that have succeeded in changing the world, so it can’t be all bad.

On the other hand, I remember being able to go to the break room at lunch and actually talked to my fellow co-workers.  Now everyone goes to the break room and jumps on their cell phone.  It is too noisy for a conversation, so I go outside to the smoking area.  Not because I smoke (I don’t), but people actually talk to each other out there.

So yes, social media is changing society.  Some change will be good, and inevitably some change will be bad.

Facebook destroying society?

Once again the author of the sensationalist article is selling a book: Digital Vertigo.

Once again, the author is saying change is bad.  I’ll say change is not all bad, etc.  No need to belabor the points for a third time.

The internet first went online in 1969.  The first author to predict that “information overload” would radically change our society was in 1970.  Toffler was right, society did change, and overall those changes have been positive.

Reality Is Broken: A Book Review

I have never actually done a book review before on this blog, but my previous two blogs I did them all the time.  After reading Reality is Broken, I felt compelled to write a full formal review, as its contents are perfect fodder for this blog.  In fact there is enough here to fill a good half a dozen blog posts, but then why would you need to read the book?  So for now here is a brief introduction to the themes and ideas contained.

Reality is Broken is a new book by first time author Jane McGonigal, a professional game designer.   She starts off quoting economist Edward Castronova, who said “We’re witnessing what amounts to no less than a mass exodus to virtual worlds and online game environments.”, then goes on to quote some amazing stats like, the total amount time spent in World of Warcraft by all players adds up to 5.8 million years, and 500 million people spend at least an hour a day in online games for a total of 3 billion hours a week, and the average child will spend over 10,000 hours playing video games before the age of 21, the same amount of time they spend in school from 5th grade to 12th grade.

While many people react negatively to such huge numbers, considering it a waste of time.  McGonigal insists that it is not enough, that we should have more people playing online gaming.  She believes the world is better off with more gamers.  Being a fan of ideas that defy conventional wisdom (as my last two essays demonstrate), I had to find out more.  I have a hard time figuring out if Reality is Broken is a book about games disguised as a book about social issues, or a book about social issues disguised as a book about games.  I guess if you are librarian trying to figure out where to put the book, this would matter, but for us average readers it does not.

There are basically three themes to this book.  The first is the one that resonates the most for me:  Games make us happy.

The emotional impact of games is something game designers are very interested in, and spend a lot of money researching, so it is no surprise that many modern video games are designed with making players happy.  Consider what I wrote about last week in regards to “finding a purpose” to our lives. The four types of purposes that bring us meaning and lasting happiness:

  • We crave “satisfying work” or being immersed in clearly defined, demanding activities that allow us to see the direct impact of our efforts.
  • We crave the “hope of success”, which is more powerful than the actual success.  We want to be optimistic about our chances for success in our endeavors, and even if we fail, we at least want to improve over time.
  • We crave social connections, share experiences and build bonds with others.  We most often accomplish this by doing things that matter together.
  • We crave meaning, or the chance to be part of something larger than ourselves.  We want to feel curious, awe, and wonder about things that unfold on epic scales.

Now consider these four categories of “purpose” in the context of playing video games.  Almost all games can hit 2 or 3 of those, and the MMORPG can hit all four categories.  From a positive psychologists stand point, gamers are some of the happiest people on the planet.

I know what some of you are thinking.  Is the happiness you get playing in virtual worlds just virtual happiness? frivolous, fleeting and temporary?  No, not according positive psychologists.  Dan Gilbert himself (see Happiness 101) says there is no discernible difference between synthesized happiness and real happiness.

Which leads to the second theme of the book: Gamers are escaping from a broken reality.  McGonigal list 14 ways that gaming worlds are superior to real worlds.  She is not talking specifically about online video games at this point, but many different kinds of games that help us deal with reality.  The majority of the book is about these 14 “Reality Fixes”, and as she goes through each one she discusses two or three different games or gaming systems that encourage these reality fixes.  She discusses dozens of different games, some I am familiar with, some I’d love to play, and some I do not.

Anyone looking into game design should read the book if nothing else than for the various ideas that are likely to come to mind while reading.  I came up with an idea myself while reading, and have gone as far as researching some special programming I would need to do to get it to work.  More on that later, maybe.

And finally the third theme: Games can save the world, and gamers are our best resource to do just that.

Games can, and have been designed to help us focus on real world issues.  McGonigal is a game designer who works primarily on a category of games know as Alternate Reality Games, or ARGs, which are designed to form communities and tackle problems, primarily problems created by the game authors, but they can also tackle real world problems like “peak oil” which I discussed 2 posts ago.   In 2007, McGonigal was part of a design team for an experimental ARG called World Without Oil.  The original 1,900 players from all walks of life did not find any solutions, but came away mostly optimistic that people can come together in a crisis and adjust their lifestyles to fit new realities.  Since then McGonigal has been part of other socially conscious ARGs, and is confident that games like this can one day change the world.  But in order to make these world changing games to work, we need gifted people to play them.  Enter the “gamers”.

She discusses the fact that more than half of the students today spend 10,000 hours playing games before they turn 21.  That by definition, that makes them “virtuosos” at gaming.  The biggest question is what are all these “virtuosos” capable of?  She breaks down 4 qualities that long time gamers possess: 1. Blissful productivity — the understanding that happiness comes from hard work and not from passive activities like watching TV.  2. Urgent optimism — the desire to tackle an obstacle combined with the belief that there is a reasonable hope of success, or desiring the “epic win”.  3. Social fabric — the ability to form tight communities built on trust, like guilds.   4. Epic meaning — the desire to be part of something bigger than themselves, even if that bigger thing may just be fictional.  Notice that these four qualities correspond to the four “categories of purpose” listed above.

McGongal’s goal is to find a way to focus the talents inherent in gamers to tackle the problems the world face today and “fix reality”.

If you are interested in these ideas, but not up to spending $14 on the e-book, you can get a 20 minute summary from her speech at ted.com, or there is also a website realityisbroken.org you can read, or sign up to find out about the latest world changing ARG games.

Is it true?

I have not decided how true the thesis is.   Being a gamer, an amateur game designer, and a participant in ARGs, I at least understand the thesis.  I want to believe the thesis is true, but understanding the worlds problems and finding solutions is unfortunately a fraction of the problem.  Experience is that all new ideas that diverge from the “business as usual” tends to face overwhelming political opposition no matter how good or true they are.  The corporate powers that be seem to think that video games are a form of soma to pacify the masses into complacency, and I am not sure that they are wrong.

At the very least I accept the first theme: Games do make us happy, and I mostly accept the second theme: Games are an escape from reality.  I constantly hear complaints from politicians that video games are too violent and inspire more violence.  The evidence is not there to back that up.  As games have gotten more popular, violent crime has gone down, not up.  Places where sex games are common, like Japan, have actually seen a reduction of sex related crimes.  Maybe sex games should be more popular everywhere.  In these respects games have already changed the world for the better.

But there is another way that games can change the world and it is outlined in my last three blog posts.  From The Energy Situation, I pointed out that we are quickly running out of resources needed to grow the economy.  From Happiness 102 I pointed out that materialism, the driving force behind the running out of resources, does not really bring us happiness anyways.  And finally with Reality is Broken we learn one activity, gaming, can be a real source of happiness.  While gaming is not always a carbon neutral activity, it can be.  Thus gaming is a way to reduce our need for diminishing resources while still making life livable. Oddly, I previously posted this idea before.

But it is important to keep all of this in balance.  McGonigal concludes her book:

Reality is too easy. Reality is depressing. It is unproductive, and hopeless. It is disconnected, and trivial. It’s hard to get into. It’s pointless, unrewarding, lonely, and isolating. It’s hard to swallow. It’s unsustainable. it’s disorganized and divided. It’s stuck in the present.

Reality is all of these things. But in  at least one crucially important way, reality is also better. Reality is our destiny. This is why our single most urgent mission in life is to engage with reality, as fully and as deeply as we can.

That does not mean we can’t play games. It simply means that we have to stop thinking of games as only escapist entertainment.

Good games can play an important role in improving our real quality of life. They support social cooperation and civic participation at very big scales. And they help us lead more sustainable lives and become a more resilient species.

Games don’t distract us from our real lives. they fill our real lives: with positive emotions, positive activity, positive experiences, and positive strengths.

Games aren’t leading us to the downfall of human civilization. They are leading us to its reinvention.

Happiness 102

Believe it or not, people actually expect to be happy in life, and they even expect this happiness to endure.  Who would ever think that?

🙂 🙂 🙂

Actually, real lasting happiness is achievable.  It is just a matter of learning where real happiness comes from, and pursuing it.  Conventional wisdom says it comes from money, and owning lots of stuff, and being a big shot at work, and the whole “American Dream” package.   Scientists and researchers in the field of Positive Psychology, will tell you that the conventional wisdom definition of happiness is in fact, full of crap.

About a year ago, I wrote an essay called Happiness 101, which you might want to read and watch the video links if you haven’t already.  I thought I’d follow up on that essay, delving deeper.

In the last essay on happiness, my focus was on what does not make us happy.  Freedom of choice is not a source of happiness, nor is outside acceptance.  Working hard towards achieving something you want will always fail if you don’t actually enjoy the hard work.  Because even if you succeed, it will feel like it wasn’t worth it.

Let me give you another happiness misnomer that I failed to mention last time.  There is no “Secret“, there is no “Law of Attraction“, and there is no “power in positive thinking“, except the power to depress you when you completely fail to “think and grow rich“.  My own attitude on this crap pretty much mirrors Barbara Ehrenreich’s attitude in this RSAnimate video.  All it is is wishful thinking, and most of the people that engage in it, are wishing for the “American Dream” package that is more likely to make them miserable if it happens by some miracle to work.  The secret about “The Secret” is that if it fails you will make yourself miserable, and if it succeeds you will make yourself miserable.

So lets step away from the myth, and take a look at the real science of happiness.

My goal with this essay is to focus on what does make us happy.  I want to start off here where I left off last time: Happiness and hard work.  There are three reasons why people enjoy their work:  1.) They do something fun, 2.) they work in a fun environment, or 3.) they have a miserable home life and work is a temporary escape.  OK, I’m being factitious with that last one, … or am I?

“Meaningful” hard work

Doing something fun for a living does not mean strictly “enjoyable”, it could instead be “meaningful”. In fact it is better if it does, according to researchers:

The relentless pursuit of happiness may be doing us more harm than good.

Some researchers say happiness as people usually think of it—the experience of pleasure or positive feelings—is far less important to physical health than the type of well-being that comes from engaging in meaningful activity. Researchers refer to this latter state as “eudaimonic well-being.”

Happiness research, a field known as “positive psychology,” is exploding. Some of the newest evidence suggests that people who focus on living with a sense of purpose as they age are more likely to remain cognitively intact, have better mental health and even live longer than people who focus on achieving feelings of happiness.

In fact, in some cases, too much focus on feeling happy can actually lead to feeling less happy, researchers say.  The pleasure that comes with, say, a good meal, an entertaining movie or an important win for one’s sports team—a feeling called “hedonic well-being”—tends to be short-term and fleeting.   Raising children, volunteering or going to medical school may be less pleasurable day to day.  But these pursuits give a sense of fulfillment, of being the best one can be, particularly in the long run.  (Is Happiness Overrated?, By Shirley S. Wang, Wall Street Journal March 15, 2011 Link).

Moments of pleasure are temporary, fleeting.  Our constant focus on these moments can actually make us miserable.

Symptoms of depression, paranoia and psychopathology have increased among generations of American college students from 1938 to 2007, according to a statistical review published in 2010 in Clinical Psychology Review. Researchers at San Diego State University who conducted the analysis pointed to increasing cultural emphasis in the U.S. on materialism and status, which emphasize hedonic happiness, and decreasing attention to community and meaning in life, as possible explanations. (ibid.)

Long term happiness, or as the article calls it eudaimonic well-being, requires a pursuit of purpose to focus our lives around something.  Isn’t this what the philosophers and religious figures say?  Losing yourself in the service of others, you will find yourselves.

But does it necessarily have to be service to others?  In order for that service to be of any value, others must accept it.  And yet, as we learned from Happiness 101, seeking the approval of others ultimately leads to misery.  Therefore, the meaningful activity we pursue must ultimately be meaningful to ourselves, whether we get appreciation for it or not.  So maybe the philosophers and religious figures had it backwards.  We cannot lose ourselves, until we find ourselves, until we find our purpose.

Yet, the most meaningful purposes do involve other people.  Humans are social creatures,  doing meaningful work with others who are doing the same meaningful work is the fastest and easiest way to get close to others.  It is not service to others that brings about happiness, it is service with others.

Finding a Purpose

We have been taught all our lives that happiness comes from external stimuli:  money, praise, status, material goods, etc.  The reality is that it does not.  We get temporary joy from obtaining “stuff” but it is always fleeting.  In the long run, we are harming our ability for long term happiness in the pursuit of all of these short term thrills.

What will make true long term happiness is the pursuit of “intrinsic rewards”, happiness that we create ourselves:

  • We crave “satisfying work” or being immersed in clearly defined, demanding activities that allow us to see the direct impact of our efforts.
  • We crave the “hope of success”, which is more powerful than the actual success.  We want to be optimistic about our chances for success in our endeavors, and even if we fail, we at least want to improve over time.
  • We crave social connections, share experiences and build bonds with others.  We most often accomplish this by doing things that matter together.
  • We crave meaning, or the chance to be part of something larger than ourselves.  We want to feel curious, awe, and wonder about things that unfold on epic scales.

The actual details will vary from person to person, but this is what we need to live a happy life, not external material rewards.

Motivating Hard Work

Going back to the reasons people enjoy their work. Lets move on to working in a fun environment.  Once again by “fun” I do not necessarily mean just “enjoyable”, I mean work where you really feel motivated to work.  There are many misgivings about motivation.  The common conception is that money is the driving factor, but as stated above, money is a temporary thrill, but does not make us happy.  In fact, if the work is meaningful in other ways, money does not even motivate us at all.  Let me just point to a video on this topic based on the work by Dan Pink:

The key point in the video is that there are three factors that lead to better performance and personal satisfaction: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. It is not “more money”, and in fact, contrary to the political right ideology, as long as people are making enough so they do not have to worry about money, monetary rewards do not help motivate at all.

Now we have another conflict between this essay on happiness and the last essay.  In the last essay the  idea of “freedom of choice” can actually have a negative affect on happiness, and yet in this essay we have “autonomy” as being necessary for personal satisfaction.  Aren’t “freedom” and “autonomy” one in the same thing?  Not if you understand how they relate to happiness.  Autonomy is the desire to be self directed, to pursue a goal creatively rather than by a mindless process.  Freedom disrupts our happiness either by not giving us goals to pursue, or giving us too many.

Mastery is our desire to get better at stuff, because it gives us a sense of accomplishment.

We have approached happiness from two different directions and and arrived at the same point.  The first lesson taught us that happiness comes from being comfortable with our place in life, the second lesson teaches us that happiness comes from pursuit of intrinsic rewards, giving ourselves a  purpose,  and pursuing this purpose our own way.

Are these two ideas contradictory?  From an abstract point of view, yes they are.  How can we be comfortable where we are if we have a purposes to pursue?  And yet from a practical point of view, it is very easy to imagine being comfortable with where we are while also pursuing meaningful goals: “comfort” is the foundation for happiness, “purpose” is the destination.

Any questions?  Yeah, you in the front row…

“Um, yeah, I got one, …(ahem)… um, your blog is about gaming and virtual worlds? …so, why all this positive psychology stuff?  What does it have to do with gaming?”

Actually, it has everything to do with gaming, but you will just have to wait for my next lecture to find out why.

The Energy Situation

I generally don’t like to talk much about the real world on this blog, but I have had an interest in the energy sector for almost as long as my interest in virtual worlds.  I wouldn’t bother, but between the nuclear crisis in Japan, the revolutions happening in oil exporting nations like Libya and Bahrain, and the recent sudden rise (again) of fuel prices, it seems like it is important to say something.

The energy crisis popularly known as “peak oil” has been talked about for decades, but only recently has the International Energy Administration (IEA) come right out and said it is already a reality.  “Crude oil” peaked in 2005, and all liquid fuels (85% of which is oil) will peak in 2012 if it hasn’t already done so in 2008.  Because liquid fuel is necessary for transportation, it means transportation is going to get harder and/or more expensive.

Many will dismiss “peak oil” by saying that there is still plenty of fuel available to go around, which is true.  The problem is not a function of “amount”, it is a problem of “growth”.  Every year there will be less and less fuel available for our economy to use, and because of this the economy is more likely to shrink (enter a recession or worse a new Great Depression) in the near future, and there is nothing anyone from any political party can do about it.

This is probably the most important story the mainstream media is completely failing to talk about.

My simple explanation is in the chart above.  This chart is unscientific (notice the lack of actual values on the x and y axis), it is merely an illustration of what I believe to be our current energy situation.

On the X axis we have cost, and on the Y we have energy production. It seems logical that the best source of energy is in the top left corner of the chart. This is energy of the “and then one day shooting at some food, and up from the ground comes a bubbling crude (oil that is, black gold, texas tea).  Once upon a time oil gushed from the ground, thus requiring no work to obtain it.

Well that oil is gone now, decades ago. So we start moving down, the cheap less productive stuff, and/or to the right, the more expensive but productive stuff, until that is exhausted.  The lighter and lighter colored semi-circles show the progression of our use of energy.  As time goes, we continue to move further and further down and to the right.

The thing is there are limits to how far down and how far to the right we can move.

The hardest limit is the red line at the bottom: EROEI = 1. If it takes more energy to produce the energy it is a waste of time. Lately some conservatives have been passing a stat that America has 10 times the oil that Saudi Arabia has in the form of shale oil. What they do not bother to mention is that to get a barrel of oil out of shale, it would require 2 or 3 barrels of oil worth of energy. That’s an EROEI of 0.3, way below minimum. Another popular “alternative” is Hydrogen. The problem there is that the primary source of hydrogen is water, and as every basic chemistry student knows, the energy needed to unlock hydrogen from water exceeds the amount you can get from the actual hydrogen.  We can create a car that runs on hydrogen, but it will always be more efficient to just get an electric car.

Other limits are it has to be profitable (green line). This line may change as energy prices vary. Sometimes when prices go up, once unprofitable energy sources suddenly become profitable. That is why solar and wind projects are suddenly picking up. They weren’t profitable enough in the cheap oil days.

Then there are capitalization costs (blue line) which represents the  limit lenders and investors are willing to spend on a project. This is the #1 problem with nuclear power. It is not the safety concerns, it is the fact that it takes 30 years to become profitable, when you consider both construction costs and takedown costs, and nuclear plants average around a 40 year life span. To find someone to invest 15 billion dollars with that little amount of profit is extremely difficult, which is why all nuclear plants are government subsidized.

Then there is the last line: costs exceed economic limits (purple line). People are mentioning the possibility of oil reaching $200 a barrel. Oil at that price is economically unsustainable. The share of energy costs in our economy is around 8%. When energy costs exceed that, it cuts into growth. Energy costs kill economic growth. Want proof? 3 out of the last 4 major recessions in the last 40 years were preceded by record energy costs. The exception to the rule was the dotcom bust of 2000.

The worrisome aspect is that our primary sources of new oil, like Canadian oil sand, and deep water drilling, require prices to be around $80 a gallon just to be profitable, which is pushing us over the 8% limit.  The airline industry, which is highly dependent on liquid fuel, loses money when the price goes above $85.

On the chart I point out all the popular answers to our current energy crisis and their approximate position on the production vs cost scale.  As you can see all of these new energy technologies push against at least one of these four limits. We have pretty much exhausted all of the cheap and productive sources of energy.

Our only choice now is renewables. One renewable source, hydroelectric, accounts for almost 20% of our electricity, but unfortunately all the hydroelectric dams that can be built, have already been built.   Geothermal is another renewable source, but it has not been fully exploited yet, accounting for only about 1% of our electricity.  It also runs into the same problem as hydroelectric in that there are limited places where a geothermal plant can succeed. The other renewables: Photovoltaic solar, solar thermal, wave power and wind power, amount to around 1% combined, but growing. We had better start investing quickly, or soon we will have to get by with only 22% of the energy we currently have.

Then there is the transportation problem, 95% of which is done with oil and oil products. Food production requires oil too, a lot of it. When oil prices go up so do food prices. We can find ways to cut back on travel, we can’t cut back on eating.  Transportation is going to have to go electric, and for long distance that means trains on electrified rails, in which the US has none, and which the GOP is opposed to building.  Planes cannot reliably  run on electricity, at least not big passenger jets, so until the solar powered blimp can be scaled up to hold 200 passengers, the airline travel era may soon end.

What I see happening is energy and energy costs driving the US and all other OECD countries into a new Great Depression, this one without any chance for recovery due to lack of resources. The US is the country least prepared to deal with this as we have put all our chips on oil for energy and cars for transport, and suburbs for housing so people have to drive to work.  The $100 a barrel oil will cause another major recession, not that we have even recovered from the last one.

Videos on Peak oil can be found here.   The best website for all energy topics (and the source for most of the above info) http://www.theoildrum.com/