Digital Soma

You’ve heard it all before: Smartphones are bad. Technology is bad. We’ve lost the ability to think. And so on. 

Though I’m no Luddite, much of this is true to a degree. And it was on my mind during an interesting conversation with a really smart guy I had at a recent cookout. 

This gent is a little older than me, but similar in background, education and temperament, though he’s not a lawyer. But he’s into history, and he sees trends, so we talked about things like helicopter parenting and the time-sucking black hole of our endless entertainment options. 

It helps that, like me, the guy is both a historian by training and a reader of classical literature and 20th and 21st century fiction. “It’s Brave New World meets 1984,” he said at one point; a cliched observation, yes, but cliched because it’s true. 

“More Brave New World, I’d say,” I responded. “Everything is a different form of soma.”

Soma, for those of you who’ve never read the book, is an undefined, mass-distributed “pleasure drug” that’s kind of a cross between an opiate and a hallucinogen. It keeps the population happy and docile. 

What we’re drowning in now, rather than pills, is digital soma. 

Eventually, from smartphones and omnipresent media, the topic of our conversation soon turned towards video games. 

I know I’m stepping into it here, but I’m fine with any blowback. What’s the point of debate if we can’t be honest about where we stand?

I am not against video games. They do not turn people violent or into rapists. I played my fair share as a kid, and even into my late 20s. Marriage cut into my desire to do so , and then fatherhood pretty much killed it, but do have a soft spot for retro games, and even wrote a post all about old video game music

Anyway, what I notice the most about modern-era games, in addition to looking fantastic, is their time commitment and the addictive nature of the seemingly endless exploration/reward cycle.

I should know, because growing up I adored RPGs and adventure games. Many of these, your Final Fantasies, Dragon Quests, and Elder Scrolls, took one-hundred hours to fully complete. 

One does get one’s money’s worth, yes, but it’s a far cry from playing Mario or Contra for an hour and then heading outside to play basketball or whatever. 

It’s all about self-control, of course. Video games are like anything. People lose perspective with other hobbies and fandoms like sports and cars and music. 

But games are mesmerizing. The reason I enjoyed these RPGs so much is because of the imagination involved and required. I love sci-fi and fantasy and stories in general,and RPGs to me were just like stories you played. 

You could get lost in them. 

For hours. 

And I did. 

While as a youngster, during gaming’s more primitive days, I still had time for other things–teaching myself guitar, martial arts, drawing, exercising–because the games didn’t demand as much of my time and attention. But as time went on and responsibilities mounted, the games got better and better, the requirements steeper. 

When I moved out the house to the city for law school, living alone, games were basically my roommate. 

After schoolwork and band rehearsals, provided I wasn’t dating at the time, I’d fire up a game and play into the wee hours of the night. 

It was an escape, a release. I felt the same during my year-long post-lawschool bout of unemployment. 

But I think about what else could I have been doing with that time, and I realize that my father was, as usual, correct in his disapproval. I could have been writing . . . learning a language . . . meeting people . . . reading the classics . . . practicing an instrument . . . taking free classes online from places like Kahn Academy or MIT . . .

But why do that, when the psychological boost from the rewards in the games were way more fun?

This article from 1843 Magazine brought back a lot of these feelings. It’s almost too easy, especially with the awful, corrupt system we have, with its skewed incentive structure and lack of optimism, to get sucked in. 

Plenty of people enjoy games in a healthy, normal manner. I’d say the majority of gamers do. They are just people, men and women, boys and girls, who like to blow off steam. It’s no different than watching sports or playing board games or “binging” on a Netflix series or birdwatching. 

But I see how addictive video games are with my son. He plays Angry Birds or Candy Crush with his grandmothers occasionally, and even though this would only be for a half-hour every once in a while, for a long while he was always searching for the iPad. 

Maybe this makes me hypocritical. Maybe this makes me a helicopter parent too. But I’d like to keep my son away from gaming for as long as possible. There’s already enough soma out there as it is. 

Follow me on Twitter @DaytimeRenegade and @DaytimeRenegade

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3 thoughts on “Digital Soma

  1. rawlenyanzi says:

    While I’m not a gaming addict, I know what you mean by “digital soma” — like everyone else, I use my tablet/smartphone far more than I should.

    Liked by 1 person

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