Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Religion: Video Games for the Stone Age?

Occasionally I remember that cracked.com exists and venture over there for a few hours of reading. Today, I came across an article about video games and Skinnerian psychology. The writer, David Wong, is quite right in his conclusion: video games provide people with the autonomy, complexity and sense of accomplishment that so many of us are missing in our daily lives. This is not an indictment of video games, as a gamer I can tell you this is true. There's nothing terribly fulfilling about being a legal secretary, but when I kill a corpser in Gears of War or level up in Dragon Age, that's accomplishment.

Then it struck me that there are probably other activities that fill the same need for people that don't like video games or don't have access to them. You know, like religion.

Stick with me here. One element of Skinnerian gaming is putting gamers in a virtual Skinner box. Teach them to perform an action for a reward and keep them doing it. Religion involves much the same dynamic. Keep doing the same thing over and over again, i.e., praying five times a day, attending services at certain times, rereading the same book ad nauseum, for a reward, be it heaven or the adulation of your peers.

Another element of gaming is based on the fact that your brain treats virtual rewards- cool! I got the sniper rifle!- as if they are real. Which goes a long way to explaining why the religious will do almost anything for potential rewards in heaven. Their brains treat those virtual rewards the same as if they were being handed actual diamonds.

Random reinforcement is a huge element of gaming, particularly in RPGs. Random reinforcement is the science behind slot machines, and we know how well it works. If you teach an animal to press a lever to get food, and every time it presses the lever it gets food, it stops pressing the lever unless it wants food. Set the lever so that food appears randomly, however, and that animal will do nothing but press the lever. (Think blue-haired ladies at the slot machine.)

How does this relate to religion? Prayer. Some prayers are "answered", some are not. You'd think that would convince people that prayer is a waste of time, but no, it just enforces praying more. Random reinforcement is a powerful force.

Now, the big difference between our Skinner box hamster and a real human is that
we humans can get our pellets elsewhere. If a game really was just nothing but
clicking a box for random rewards, we'd eventually drop it to play some other
game. Humans need a long-term goal to keep us going, and the world of addictive
gaming has got this down to a science.

So does religion. There is no goal greater than heaven, now is there? And there are lots of short term goals along the way, including converting the heathens, raising good religious children, raising money for this, that and the other, the list goes on.

Video games, tv shows, books, blogs, etc. fill a void in our lives. The void of accomplishment or acceptance or love. So do religions. Sure, you're miserably poor and suffering, but you're going to heaven when you die! Everyone at school hates you, but everyone at church loves you! Passing out tracts isn't an annoying waste of time, it's saving souls!

None of this is really a problem until it interferes with your life and/or the lives of those around you. My playing video games obsessively won't impact you, but legislating my religion all over you will. Otherwise, I'd really have no problem with it.


  1. Very good observation, PF. Can be applied to any kind of escapism, I guess?


    For the lulz, check out Call-Upon-Jesus's latest;


    I particularly like this bit;

    "A woman may have many debts, but as soon as she is married, her debts cease to be hers, all her debts become her husband's at once."


  2. "A woman may have many debts, but as soon as she is married, her debts cease to be hers, all her debts become her husband's at once."

    Hooray! I finally have a rationale for remaining steadfastly single!

    Although, to be fair, for a certain function of "debt" and "become her husband's," that is actually true. In America. But only if they co-finance a purchase or get a joint line of credit of some sort. If I have a FICA score of 800 and can qualify for the best possible terms on a loan, while my wife has a score of somewhere in the neighborhood of 450-500 and we're co-signers on a mortgage, her score will drag mine down and we'll get a worse deal together than I would alone and she'll get a better deal with me than she would alone.

    Of course where that breaks down is in the fact that it works exactly the same way if I have the 450 credit rating and she has the 800. And, of course, if she brings $20,000 of credit card debt in to the marriage, then we divorce 3 months later, her debt goes with her when we split.*

    *I believe. I mean, I suppose there's some possibility that I could end up having to take on her debt long-term, but I can't think of a scenario where that would actually happen, even without a pre-nup. Of course, I'm not a lawyer, so I could be wrong about that. But a person's credit history is their own and the only way one person's credit history can affect another's is if those two people co-sign on something as far as I know.

    So, no, no end derail! Ha!


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