Thursday, 1 July 2010

Philip Zimbardo: Why Video Games Cause Teen Pregnancy

Last weekend, I went to a wedding. The bride was American, the groom was British, they had met in Japan and between them they had travelled all over the world, picking up various friends and relations along the way.

During dinner, I was sat at a table with people who hailed (in various senses of the word) from Holland, France and South Africa amongst other places. Conversation had been bouncing merrily around for about an hour when three people at the table who had never been in the same room before realised they had saved each other's lives on numerous occasions.

"Wait, you're not..."


"No way! I'm ElectricGerbil!"

"Oh, wow!"

"Hey, you guys.... I'm MoronicSonic!"

"No WAY!"

I have changed these people's made-up names to protect their made-up identities. Not that I really need to, they're all pretty badass.

Oh, before I get to the point, I would like to congratulate myself on my ability to get invited to the kind of wedding where about 70% of the guests have to restrain themselves from responding to the announcement "It's time to cut the cake!" by saying "The cake is a lie!".


In case you are confused, the three people in question had been playing Left 4 Dead, an online shooter which features four protagonists (above) who have been, erm, left for dead following a zombie apocalypse. They must work as a team if they are to escape the zombie horde and catch the last chopper out.

When one player is injured, the others must protect them as they apply bandages from their med kit. Sometimes one player must sacrifice him or herself for the good of the team if a wave of zombies arrives just as a helicopter is about to take off. I can't be alone in thinking that it's rather nice when people who have prised each other from the jaws of death on numerous occasions meet for the first time over a celebratory dinner. Just to complete the rosy picture, the fourth team member was the groom.

I could happily spend hours recounting heartwarming real-life video game stories. Couples have met on the plains of Azeroth - the fictional land in which World of Warcraft takes place - fallen in love over a boar carcass and subsequently met and married in "real life". And there's no bonding experience quite like hauling a downed buddy back up again in Gears of War.

 But of course there are those who disagree.

This is Professor Philip Zimbardo.

Regular readers will know that I have a slightly childish habit of trawling the darker recesses of the Internet for bits of sensationalist journalism and gleefully pulling them to bits.

Generally, I choose the kind of formulaic articles written for people who want something disposable to be mildly outraged about over their muesli. I only really pick on them because they are an amplified version of the general undercurrent of disdain for video games that trickles gently through everyday discourse.

However, I am becoming increasingly aware that criticising the likes of Cooper Lawrence and Anne Diamond isn't big and it isn't clever. No-one cares whether these people check their facts, no-one cares if they've actually played Resident Evil (though to Diamond's credit, she did). Disposable journalism has its place, and it's as entertaining for me to rail against as I suppose it is for others to read and agree with.

But every now and again, you come across something a bit more disturbing, like when a respected academic gives a lecture which somehow manages to link teenage pregnancy to video games. Here it is.

I would suggest playing a drinking game whereupon you have to take a shot whenever he uses some form of specious reasoning, but I don't want to be responsible for a wave of liver transplants. You might, however, wish to keep a tally. This might help.

Philip Zimbardo is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Stanford University. That's so incredibly eminent that I actually had to look it up to find out what it means. Zimbardo is a respected academic and psychologist (controversial Stanford prison experiment notwithstanding) and I find it frankly shocking that someone of this professional and academic standing sees fit to make up facts and draw nonsensical conclusions.

For those of you who cannot bear to click away from Well-Rendered for 10 minutes (a feeling I completely understand), Zimbardo's lecture "The Secret Powers of Time" starts fairly sensibly by expressing the difference between people who are "present-orientated" and people who are "future-orientated". He then explains that school is designed to turn children who are naturally "present-orientated" into upstanding citizens who are "future orientated". Alright so far.

I suppose.

Anyway, sirens predictably went off on my hair-triggered Outrage Alarm System (OAS) around the time Zimbardo mentioned a "disaster recipe" revealed by "a recent study [which] shows that by the time a boy is 21, he has spent at least 10,000 hours playing video games alone, probably more watching pornography alone".

Firstly, the mention of pornography is completely irrelevant and made up (clue is in the "probably"), it's only included to create a completely unsubstantiated link between video games and pornography.

Secondly, to have spent 10,000 hours playing video games and 10,000 hours watching pornography by age 21, "a boy" would have to spend eight hours of every weekday on one activity or another, every day, without a holiday, since the age of 11. Hmm.

(On an almost completely unrelated note, 10,000 hours is precisely the amount of time you need to spend on an activity in order to become truly successful at it according to Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers. Make of that what you will.)

Thirdly, Professor Zimbardo, knowing which "recent study" you're referring to would be really great. I've been out of the loop for a while now, but I've heard there's this new craze where all the kids are referencing academic sources these days. Maybe you'd like to jump on the bandwagon?

Anyway, Professor Zimbardo, what does this mean for the youth of today?

Apparently, it "means he hasn't learned social skills [or] emotional social intelligence". Well, I would imagine that anyone spending all of their free time alone engaged in any activity (reading, yoga, cooking, whatever)  would find it hard develop social skills and emotional intelligence. But do go on.

"I just heard the other day," says Zimbardo, "that these games companies are now going to develop 3-D games, so that the world will be all around you. Their brains are being digitally rewired, which means they will never fit into a traditional classroom, which is analogue."

Ok, whoah there, Skipper. Can we look at that in a bit more detail?

Firstly, I think Zimbardo is a bit confused about what three-dimensional gaming entails. I don't think improved graphics really have a bearing on how often games are played and how addictive or otherwise they are. Secondly, Zimbardo seems to be implying that three-dimensional graphics will turn your average game into something akin to the holodeck in Star Trek.

Anyway, "digitally rewired"? Eh? I'm going to leave you to decide for yourselves whether Zimbardo is attempting a robot metaphor so we can focus on the practical implications here.

I think what Zimbardo means (if I'm being generous) is that the outcome of a video game is determined by numbers, either in a binary sense (win or lose) or on a scale whereupon different actions correspond with different consequences, or activities are timed. The alternative is of course to assume that Zimbardo is implying that children are literally being "rewired", undergoing a dystopian transformation into actual robots who can only process digital information.

I'm not going to contradict him regarding the digital nature of video games. I would, however, point out that there are a number of other occupations which work on the same basis. Such as, oh, um, 90% of sports and 90% of board games and 100% of card games. As far as I know, people have been engaging in sports, board and card games since the dawn of civilization, and thus Zimbardo is hardly in a position to criticise one digital medium that has only emerged in the last half century.

And finally, Zimbardo states that game-playing children "will never fit into a traditional classroom, which is analogue". Basically, this means that playing video games is utterly incompatible with academic success. I'd truly love to see Zimbardo find a "study" (or even make one up) which proves this one.

I'm not even going to bother protesting it because it is so clearly, gobsmackingly, facepalmingly, wrong.

He then returns to slightly more solid ground by reminding us that "school is all about learning, delay of gratification" and that "all addictions are addictions of present hedonism". All well and good, but precisely what does that have to do with video games? I am at a complete loss to understand why he felt the need to mention them at all, unless (heaven forbid) they are just a catch-all term for all that is wrong with the youth of today.

Finally, Zimbardo informs us that teenage girls who get pregnant are "present orientated kids" who know that sex can get them pregnant and yet do it anyway. Is that the only reason teenage girls get pregnant? Honestly? Are there no socio-economic factors to take into account? Are you sure?

Well, yes, actually, Philip Zimbardo is sure. "I think," he says sagely, "we are underestimating the power of technology in rewiring young people's brains."

There's that word again.

That's Sean Young in Blade Runner, by the way. She plays Rachael, a replicant who thinks she is human. Although now I realise she has just played too many video games.

If Philip Zimbardo is to be understood, "video games" and "technology" are "rewiring" children's "brains" which results in them getting pregnant because their frazzled minds cannot take any long-term scenarios into account.

*     *     *

All that said (and I stand by it), Zimbardo makes a couple of valid points, difficult though they are to detect beneath the piles of nonsense. Firstly, that too much of anything is bad for you. And secondly, that we all need to keep a healthy balance between our focus on the past, the present and the future. 

I also understand that those two sentences wouldn't have made much of a lecture.

The thing is, Zimbardo has fallen into a common and dangerous trap that any writer, academic or commentator sets for themselves after a certain amount of success. The cheese is placed on the spring around the time that one's own idealism and nostalgia becomes indistinguishable from fact. You know it's happened to you when you hear yourself utter the words "but you see in my day..."

I'd never suggest that someone who doesn't see the appeal of video games force themselves to play them. Even I (grudgingly) accept that they aren't for everyone.

But there's nothing that makes me more angry than when someone who really should know better (and it's always the people who really should know better) sees fit to make sweeping judgements about an art form I know to be utterly magical.

Whether you're four guys shaking hands for the first time after escaping a horde of zombies or a seventeen-year old girl sniffling over the end of Ico, you can't be afraid to question those who see fit to criticise games.

Remember, there's no such thing as argument by authority.


  1. I often have conversations about parents about computer games, and their educational potential. Most come round to my way of thinking: cannot believe that Zimbardo says what he has said! Further to that, it is surprising how he has yet to be picked up for its farce! This needs to be more widely read...

  2. Hi Teacher Man,

    Sorry I took so long to reply.

    For someone just dropping in on the comments section (if you're curious, Teacher Man's blog about being a teacher/gamer is here), in what ways would you say games can be used in eduation?

    I wish this post had been more widely read. You won't be surprised to hear that I get most traffic from pictures of female characters in bikinis. If only Zimbardo had worn a bikini, this post might have gone viral.