Monday, July 09, 2007

Walshed Up

Call me David Walsh.

After all, last year, when the head of the politically well-connected National Institute on Media and the Family refused to appear at SIGGRAPH despite attempts by the nonprofit group to meet his pay-for-play terms, I was his last-minute substitute when they needed a voice to counter the general videogame boosterism of the panel. Now this relentless self-promoter is attempting to climb on the bandwagon at the AMA of those attempting to label the compulsion to play videogames as a clinically recognized "addiction." In an opinion piece this week in The Washington Post, Walsh claims that the videogame syndrome can be compared to the compulsion that also produces gambling dependency.

Of course, Walsh isn't the worst in the anti-media mediahound bunch. But parents looking for reviews would be better off going to Common Sense Media, which includes categories for harmful "commercialism" and allows kids to participate in the ratings process. Better still, if you are a parent, as I am, consider these basic principles and distrust ratings that encourage elders to opt out of real discussions and instead take the time to sit down and experience the content with your children. Some of the most valuable discussions come out of letting them see your reactions to inappropriate material.

Despite his progressive political posturing alongside Hillary Clinton in the past, I think Walsh's "When the Game is the Controller" is an insidiously irresponsible work of pseudo-science that trivializes real research about addiction and ultimately serves a reactionary agenda that confuses moralism with science. Given the work of people like Nora Volkow at the National Institute on Drug Abuse to get addiction to chemical substances treated as a pharmacological issue, an overly broad definition of "addiction" may cease to make the term a meaningful clinical category, which can also have political consequences for the disadvantaged. For example, pro-smoking interests might be glad to see a more hazy interpretation of addiction, since monetary judgments against tobacco companies have depended upon public outrage over corporate exploitation of the biological mechanisms of craving and withdrawal. No matter what political party Walsh picks for his photo-ops, watch out for those who label biological imperatives "lifestyle choices" and those who conversely make cultural practices a fact of nature.

As NIDA's Volkow recently pointed out, insurance companies are already resistant to providing coverage for appropriate treatment for addiction to drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes. Should dollars be spent on regulating media consumption that could be spent on the current methamphetimine epidemic? When poor women with children are on interminable waiting lists for beds in the tiny number of family-friendly in-patient facilities for addicts, so that mothers have to choose between getting treatment and keeping custody of their offspring, do we really want to talk about setting up videogame addiction public clinics like those in China or South Korea? In other words, are our moral priorities really the relatively minor social dysfunctions of the comparatively affluent?

At his institute, Walsh has also popularized findings from neuroscience about teenagers but distorted them with his infantilizing slogans about the "adolescent brain" that emphasize sociobiological determinism rather than dialogue and listening in responsible parenting. Certainly, Walsh is no scientist, since he neglects to mention that social scientists are also studying the possible educational benefits of digital media at places like the MacArthur Foundation.

Finally, I'm not sure the analogy with gambling works, which Volkow and others characterize as a compulsion rather than an addiction. Like an obsessive need to shop, gambling has real-world financial consequences for sufferers. In virtual words, by contrast, much of the risk-taking is -- of course -- virtual. It is this ability to acquire experiences by interacting with a simulation that is part of why literacy specialists like James Paul Gee and other MacArthur researchers are interested in videogames.

Recently, I overheard these two kids talking about being "addicted to books" in the back seat of my car. When we arrived at our destination, I turned the camera on them, so you can see the harmful effects of their media dependency and the fantasy world that keeps them from healthful exercise outside and social interaction with others.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

That gradual book rotation method just screams "eccentric genius".

7:17 AM  

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