As the Playstation 5 hits the stores this week get ready for a frenzy of hype and hoopla. But journalist Najm Al-Din warns that screen-based entertainment is the new opium of the masses, endangering our health and distracting us from the most important things in life.
Like millions of school-aged children, I was giddy with excitement at the launch of the original PlayStation. At the time, owning a fifth generation console, with its 32-bit microprocessor and 3D polygon graphics was a technological rite of passage.
Far from a recreational pastime, this was epoch-making, marking the catalyst for gaming’s ascension to popular culture and we were proud owners of the revolutionary hardware.
With the PS5 scheduled for release in the UK later this week, the gaming community is abuzz with excitement.
Although it’s been a generation since its initial launch, there is simply no stopping the gravitational pull of an all-conquering entertainment juggernaut, whose revenue and growth continues to surpass the music, film and TV streaming industries.
Gaming defined a significant part of my childhood. Although the novelty wore off at college for reasons which I am today grateful for, over the years, I’ve watched the culture undergo a remarkable evolution.
Today, gaming is no longer restricted to a high-definition experience in the living room and is far more than a participant activity. With the exponential rise of e-sports inside sprawling entertainment venues and over the internet, the practice has now developed into a highly competitive and professional spectator sport with paid sponsorships and million dollar prize pools.
The emergence of hybrid products like The Nintendo Switch has also magnified its appeal, offering a versatility and functionality tailored specifically for the millennial portable gamer. With mobile and tablet gaming becoming more accessible to the average consumer and online game subscription models available across various platforms, the diversification of gaming culture is testament to its astonishing appeal.
But while gaming aficionados celebrate how each next generation console welcomes a creative era of technological capabilities, the conclusions drawn by a consensus of public health experts and academics suggest that the tectonic shifts in the industry and its integration into our lives is a double-edged sword.
Recently, in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases, the World Health Organisation recognised gaming disorder as a behavioural addiction, with detrimental effects on physical health, psychological wellbeing and social functioning.
A Pew survey in the same year revealed that a significant portion of American teenage boys felt they spent too much time playing video games and a majority of adults believed video games were a contributing factor to gun violence.
In the UK, children suffering from gaming addiction can be referred to the NHS for treatment. Furthermore, in the eye-opening expose Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids, Ivy-League educated psychologist Dr. Nicholas Kardaras draws on clinical studies and brain imaging research to show the correlation between excessive screen time and mental health disorders.
Of course, gaming is a harmless indulgence for many and scapegoating it as a social problem is unfair. However, it’s impossible to comprehensively address its deleterious effects without unpacking the cultural obsession with entertainment in the modern age.
According to an annual study conducted by UK media regulator Ofcom, adults are spending 40 per cent of their waking hours in front of a screen.
PQ Media, a world leading market research company notes that global digital content subscriptions are multiplying at an unprecedented rate while the entertainment macro-trends observed in a recent PwC projection forecast a huge increase in the compound annual growth over the next five years in specific sub-sectors like virtual reality, over-the-top services and video gaming.
Amusing ourselves to death
It would appear that there is little in our life that isn’t dominated by the insatiable appetite for entertainment. Given the monotony of the modern rat race, it keeps many at functioning capacity by fulfilling a psychological need for escapism.
But left unchecked, escapism can devolve into an all-consuming and addictive obsession before that regrettable habit of the human condition kicks in and we can hardly pass a moment without blurring the lines between reality and fantasy.
This endless world of distraction – exemplified by current consumer trends – was the subject of a prescient polemic titled Amusing Ourselves to Death by social critic Neil Postman.
Postman argued that the trivialisation of American culture took root when the medium of television replaced the printed word as the carrier of important cultural conversations, increasing the people’s capacity for heedlessness and short-circuiting their ability to reason.
As much as television brought joy, it was also the means by which much of our politics was filtered, thoughts were processed and culture was defined. Instead of the content of ideas, we settled for sound bites, hot takes, sensationalism and the artifice of display, leaving our discourse shallow and fragmented.
The ubiquity of television and the degree of absorption with this image-oriented medium ushered a toxic change to our cultural values, epistemological tradition and means of communication, resulting in what he described as the nation’s vast descent into triviality.
Postman rightly opined that unlike Orwell’s prophecy of doom, where we would become a captive culture in the belly of a totalitarian beast, it was Huxley’s premonition of humans being imprisoned through exposure to hedonistic diversions and too placated to notice the chains binding them that would stand vindicated.
His depressingly accurate insight into our craving for fun and games reads as a damning indictment of modern entertainment’s corrosive effects and the memeification of public discourse in our electronic and image-based internet age.
Bread and circuses
An honest interrogation of our lifestyle will likely expose the depths to which we are wired for distraction and primed for preoccupation with optics instead of substance. Given this proclivity for diversion and enslavement to the entertainment industry, I often wonder if we are reliving the chapter of Roman history dominated by the bread and circuses.
In the past, the chariot races and gladiatorial duels in ancient Rome kept the populace tractable and in a trance. Today, the opiate of the masses is technology and we’re self-medicating with things we find easily digestible, such as video games, Netflix and those sordid guilty pleasures whose convenience and accessibility is made possible through the various screen-based maladies at our disposal.
While the means of releasing endorphins proliferate, so do their dehumanising consequences. In fact, there’s not much to distinguish today’s entertainment junkie from the Skinnerian lab rat, seeing how we fail to function adequately without constantly activating our reward and pleasure centres and are operantly conditioned to seek the next dopamine shot.
Such is the psychological dependence on entertainment that it often denies us a coherent and meaningful engagement with reality, disconnecting us from hard truths. The endless supply of instant-gratification has made us pliant, desensitised to issues at the core of our humanity and blissfully unaware of systemic injustices, much like the subjects of ancient Rome.
Who said we had to morph into an Orwellian dystopia to resemble the socially engineered and docile citizens of the Capitol in Hunger Games?
But now that we have entered an enduring cycle of lockdowns, we have a unique opportunity to detox from the tech-frazzled world and unearth the power of isolation through self-introspection, a pursuit which is often obstructed by the virtual world.
But the emerging technologies we are enamoured by will frantically compete for our soul, waiting to hold us hostage in a toxic cycle of stimulation and pleasurable servitude.