Behaviorism and Monsters
So I read a completely fictional book a while ago called “John Dies at the End” and part of the hilarious, but nightmarish plot was an idea that monsters from an alternate dimension are currently training Earth children to become a fighting force numb to empathy and remorse. The way they did it was by introducing video games that were increasingly violent. That’s what started my mind turning.
A (not so) quick psychology lesson on behaviorism before I go into the thought that’s been festering in my mind all morning and has finally burst, spreading it’s pus of paranoia and hormonal imbalance and becoming this article.
These days we call behaviorism ABA, or Applied Behavior Analysis. You break each task you want to teach, or maybe learn, into small steps, and focus on each step as a goal until it’s achieved, then move on to the next step, reinforcing presenting behaviors as appropriate to your overall target. It’s really operant conditioning that I’m talking about, the proverbial “carrot and stick.” I’m also talking about shaping, one of the most powerful tools psychologists have.
With operant conditioning, you encourage each step with a reinforcer of some sort, prearranging that behavior. With shaping you look for naturally occurring behaviors that you want to reinforce to ensure they are the ones happening more often until maybe a competing behavior is gone completely.
The point is to change a behavior one very small step at a time. However, this approach is used in a social context, so it’s not just scientists screwing with rats and pigeons and whatnot. So we use it to teach kids with autism how to follow routines in school, though conditioning is truly a part of everything we do to teach anyone anything. How often do you tell someone who helped you that you appreciated it? Guess what, you just conditioned that person to help you again in the future. And you know what? The reason you said thanks is because you’re conditioned to praise behaviors you’d like repeated. Like I said, it’s everywhere.
Now onto what’s really on my mind: the brain-washing alternate dimension monster and the shooter games I so enjoy. I love shooter games, and believe that even people who don’t give a crap about video games can still rock a shooting game and ask for more. Why do I like shooting things in video games? Because I don’t get to go on out on the range anymore, and because I still like the fact that I can hit a target or because I’m instantly rewarded with points, and a rating, and maybe I’ll get more than the other players. This “liking” is a bit of dopamine and adrenaline my brain sends along like a favorite drug dealing uncle.
But let’s look back at the ABA lesson presented. So, old B.F. Skinner (who was criticized to hell and back for figuring out behaviorism and letting the general public in on it) got a pigeon to “read”, by giving him a bit of food every time he started to turn or, when needed, peck at the sign that instructed him to do one or the other. The pigeon had to do a little more each time to get to that bit of food, and a little more. Before you know it, the poor beast is not just reading, or dancing, he’s straight up bowling, and doing it well in a tiny pigeon-sized bowling alley.
Acclimating to change is also part of the learning process. As long as change is gradual, just about anything can insinuate itself into your life without your full awareness of it. By the time you’re finally aware, this new thing has become part of your every day reality and seems senseless to fight against. Ask any fat person.
So video games used to be pixels flying around the screen, then the pixels got something like faces, and stories that got more and more intense, and technology continued to improve, with the best games being hailed as such not just because of all the fun the player is having, but because the player is able to forget that he’s in his living room pressing buttons. Because he is in fact destroying zombies in a kill or be killed world of monsters. Those are my favorite games anyway.
And then there are war games, like “Call of Duty”, where you’re not killing monsters anymore. You’re killing people. Bad people, who are wearing the wrong kind of uniform and are trying to kill you. This is your perspective anyway, just like in a real war! And the better games have the bad guys seriously splatter all over the place too. Blood absolutely everywhere. Games also offer you the chance to be a bad guy, so you can explore that role too, and maybe shoot someone who is actually begging to live. That’s messed up! It’s so messed up it’s awesome!
I don’t actually play video games much, but I get to observe others play on almost daily basis. And I’m noticing that bad guys get pretty excellent facial expressions. They look scared and startled when their time comes. Which, since they were dicks in the first place, is pretty satisfying.
Games have progressed closer and closer to realism through the years. From pixels bumping other pixels, to pixels that get shapes and colors and names and stories. To murdering the shit out of other humans, who happened to be bad guys and often have the scrunched up eyebrows and evil laugh to prove it, to killing soldiers and seeing their blood make a mess on the floor, but moving on to the next objective or next enemy. Oh, and the controller in your hand will vibrate or buck. The idea is to engage as many of your senses as possible to fool your mind as much as possible. Again: awesome.
3-D is hardly a big deal now. Of your senses everything but your taste buds and olfactory are now in on the gaming experience (I rather not smell the killing fields, so hopefully we don’t get there). Sure, you know you’re not killing things in real life, but have you ever had an unreal thing happen to you? Like, actually see something fairly horrible or have something horrible happen to you? How quickly do you reject it as NOT REAL and fall back on some sort of automatic reaction, a pre-learned set of skills you stopped paying attention to a long time ago, and then get to work, surviving with as much of your mind and personality intact as possible? Hopefully, you have no idea what I’m talking about, but it happens pretty much instantly.
So this article got a bit darker than I meant it to. But don’t worry. Behaviorism mostly works because the brain fails to realize that a pattern is manipulated and therefore wrongly recognizes consequences as perfectly natural. Also, recognizing patterns where there are none is a sign of mental illness. So either my overcaffeinated brain is misinterpreting flashing thoughts as having patterns in its occasionally schizophrenic way, or maybe we’re unwittingly conditioning our young to kill remorselessly when the rift in dimensions opens up. It’s definitely one or the other.