Sociology of the docile body


Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (Penguin Social Sciences): Michel Foucault, Alan Sheridan: 8601404245756: Books

Embedded radio-frequency identification, sensor technologies, biomedical devices and a new breed of nanotechnologies are now being commercialized within a variety of contexts and use cases. As these technologies gather momentum in the marketplace, consumers will need to navigate the changing cybernetic landscape. The trichotomy facing consumers are: (1) to adopt RFID implants as a means of self-expression or to resolve a technological challenge; (2) to adopt RFID implants for diagnostic or prosthetic purposes to aid in restorative health; as well as considerations (3) for enforced adoption stemming from institutional or organizational top-down control that has no direct benefit to the end-user. This paper uses the penal metaphor to explore the potential negative impact of enforced microchipping. The paper concludes with a discussion on the importance of protecting human rights and freedoms and the right to opt-out of sub-dermal devices.

Section I. Introduction

Radiofrequency identification (RFID) implant technology, sensor technology, biomedical devices, and nanotechnology continue to find increasing application in a variety of vertical markets. Significant factors leading to continued innovation include: convergence in devices, miniaturisation, storage capacity, and materials. The most common implantable devices are used in the medical domain, for example, heart pacemakers and implantable cardioverter defibrillators (ICDs). In non-medical applications, implantable devices are used for identification, [close-range] location and condition monitoring, care and convenience use cases [1].

RFID implants can be passive or active, and predominantly have a function to broadcast a unique ID when triggered by a reader within a specific read range. Sensors onboard an RFID device can, for instance, provide additional data such as an individual's temperature reading, pulse rate and heart rate. Biomedical devices usually have a specific function, like the provision of an artificial knee or hip, and can contain RFID and other specific sensors. An example cited in Ratner & Ratner that demonstrates the potential for nanotechnology to bring together RFID, sensors, and the biomedical realms is to inject nanobots into a soldier's bloodstream. “The sensors would circulate through the bloodstream and could be monitored at a place where blood vessels are closest to the surface, such as the eye… While quite invasive, so-called in vivo sensors could also have other uses in continually monitoring the health of a soldier” [2], p. 42f.

The next step in the miniaturization path for RFID microchips is nanotechnology, which allows for working at the nanoscale, that is the molecular level [3] p. 90. Humancentric implants are discussed [4], pp. 198-214, in the context of nanotechnology ethical and social implications. Regardless of the breakthroughs to come in these humancentric embedded surveillance devices (ESDs), we will soon be moving the discussion beyond, merely how the technologies are aiding humanity, regardless of whether such technologies are mobilized to aid human health or impair it. The fundamental concerns will rest within human willingness to adopt the technology, and not in what the technology claims to eradicate in and of itself. In order to later contextualize the issues surrounding human rights of refusal, this paper will now present a material view of implantable technologies in their nascent stage. A clear distinction will be made between nanotechnologies that can be used as a mechanism of control versus, for example, bio-medical technologies that are freely chosen and designed for the sole purpose of improving human health with no benefit extending beyond the aid of the individual.

Section II. Previous Work

Although cybernetic technologies have boundless potential to surface under an array of interchangeable names, for the purpose of this paper, RFID implants will be investigated given the degree of global attention they have experienced [5]–[6][7][8]. In Western civilization, RFID is being used for tracking merchandise and similar devices are used in our family pets to locate them should they roam astray [9]. Now the RFID is being considered for 24-7 human location monitoring. In order to offer a pragmatic perspective, which does not deviate from one source of research to the other, Hervé Aubert's 2011 article entitled, “RFID technology for human implant devices” [10] is utilized as the primary source of data given its seminal contribution to the field.

A. Experimental Stages of Cybernetic Innovations

Aubert investigates one type of RFID known as the VeriChip™; which is a device presently engineered to provide a data-bank of important records on the individual [5], in particular on the application of a personal health record for high-risk patients (PHR) [11], [12]. In addition, this implantable RFID that is known for its remote identification of persons or animals is being considered for the purpose of protective human surveillance [13]. RFID devices are not only being considered for identifying and locating humans, but for its potential to “remotely control human biological functions” [10], [14], p. 676. According to Aubert, this nano-technology is not conducive as a ‘spychip’ with current-day technologies, as it cannot successfully be connected to a Global Positioning System (which offers real-time tracking), as the GPS would require an implant that far surpasses the size capacity of what could be realistically embedded in the human body, and would therefore defeat the notion of a submicron global surveillance system for monitoring human activity. However, there is nothing to say that off-body data receivers, powered by wireless supplies, cannot be stationed short-range to monitor passive responders, such as subdermal RFID's [15]–[16][17]. Currently the anticipated range is dependent on the inductive coupling measured in MHz [5].

Aubert concludes his findings by arguing that RFID are not suitable for real-time tracking of humans as its capability to transmit the location of the body is too limited in range, permitting receivers to only read passive implanted devices within a free space range of 10 cm or less. This limitation makes communication with GPS satellites in an attempt to locate bodies impossible. Once again, this is not to refute the claim that interrogators, stationed territorially, can transmit its data to a centralized global positioning system inversely. Regardless, researchers are arguing nanotechnologies “[w]ill not exclusively revolve around the idea of centralization of surveillance and concentration of power, […but its greatest potential for negative impact will be centred around] constant observation at decentralized levels” [18], p. 283. In addition, depending on the context, monitoring does not have to be continuous but discrete to provide particular types of evidence. It may well be enough to read an RFID at a given access node point (either on entry or exit), or to know that a given unique ID is inside a building, or even headed in a given direction [19]. Two or more points of reading also can provide intricate details about distance, speed, and time, as equipment readers have their own GPS and IP location [20], [21]. It will be simple enough to tether an implant to a mobile phone or any other device with an onboard GPS chipset. Nokia, for instance, had an RFID reader in one of its units 2004 handsets [22].

Although such technologies are far from perfected, at least to the degree of synoptic centralization, with the exception of concerns surrounding information privacy, subdermal implants that are being designed for surveillance of humans is being identified as a central ethical challenge [23]. In particular, this is an ethical challenge because subdermal chips may be either injected or external tags worn on the body such as a PayBand [24] or FitBit. This in itself is not what is creating the most obvious challenge but rather that such devices have the potential to be implemented with or without the individual's consent and, therefore, provoking discussion around the need to legislate to keep pace with technological advances [25]. Although the chip is being suggested for use in a number of ways, bioethicists suggest that prior to these new applications of nanotechnologies becoming a present day reality, “[w]e need to examine carefully the very real dangers that RFID implants could pose to our privacy and our freedom” [5], p. 27. Despite this concern, skin-embedded devices are being employed in a multiplicity of ways, more recently by the biohacking communities who are increasingly commercialising their ideas and prototypes [26].

Aubert lists various possible health benefits of embedded RFID chips, such as the following: “[t]o transmit measurements of chemical or biological data inside the body”, as well as “[m]onitor biological activity” while modifying physiological functions and offer various therapeutic means, such as patient monitoring, such as for glucose concentrations of patients with diabetes [10], p. 676. Another possible health benefit is the potential for monitoring brain activity through “[t]ransponders embedded within the skull”, [10], p. 681. Increasingly implants are being used in techniques such as deep brain stimulation (DBS) and vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) to treat a variety of illnesses [27]. As outlined in Aubert's 2011 article, these transponders communicate with implanted probes, enabling the transmittal of localized microstimulation to be administered in response to neuron signals sent.

At this point, it becomes necessary to distinguish that which is engineered to monitor human organs and is freely adopted as a mechanism to improve one's health to that which is in effect through a top-down implementation, in which the individual is given no choice pertaining to adoption. These two scenarios have been demonstrated in a TEDx talk delivered by Katina Michael in 2012 within the “convenience/care” versus “control” contexts [28].

B. Human Versus Machine

Docile Bodies | Vestoj A Chain Gang in South Carolina, c. 1929 - 1931. Doris Umann.

There is a needful distinction between human and machine. Deciphering between biomedical technology designed for example, to improve human health, or as a means of self-expression (all of which are freely chosen by the individual), versus those designed for a benefit external to the individual and has the ability to be used as a mechanism of control over the citizen. For example, a heart monitor, created to sustain a human, is designed only with the intention to benefit the patient in a life sustaining way; such a device has no apparatus external from this cause that could be used to invoke power over the individual and therefore it is designed with no additional mandate other than improving or maintaining the individual's health [29]. Generally, the decision for adopting such a biomedical implant device is determined by the patient and in most developed nations using a process of consent. Because such a device currently has no mechanism for top-down control, stakeholders (i.e., hospitals, medical device purchasers, inbound logistics managers or buyers) do not have a hidden agenda for adoption. This type of bio-medical device currently possesses no ability to monitor any type of human activity that could contribute to an imbalance of power for the consumer over the user (in this instance the patient).

More recently, one of the largest suppliers of biomedical devices, Medtronics, has begun to blur the line between devices for care and devices for control. Apart from the hard line that most manufacturers of implants hold on who owns the data emanating from the device [30], companies specialising in biomedical devices are now beginning to engage with other secondary uses of their implants [31]. Just like wearable devices, such as the FitBit, are now being used for evidentiary purposes, it will not be long before biomedical devices originally introduced for prosthetic or diagnostic purposes will be used to set individualised health insurance premiums, and more. As noted by [29], even in care-related implant applications, there is an underlying dimension of control that may propel function creep or scope creep. These are the types of issues that bring science and the arts together. George Grant wrote [32], p. 17:

The thinker who has most deeply pondered our technological destiny has stated that the new copenetrated arts and sciences are now proceeding to the apogee of their determining power around the science of cybernetics; […] the mobilization of the objective arts and sciences at their apogee comes more and more to be unified around the planning and control of human activity.

Section III. Research Approach

Hence, while it is important to understand the trichotomy of skin-embedded technologies-deciphering between technology adoption which can be seen as a post-modern indicator of the autonomous self-exercising human rights [33], to that of acceptable bio-Western technologies with its sole function to improve one's existing health conditions (that is also freely chosen of the individual), versus technology which have potential to be used as mechanisms of organizational control-implanted through imposed order [34]. When disambiguating the way in which technology can be used, it is most essential to understand that this differentiation requires no thorough understanding of the purpose of the biotechnology or its utility as the plumb line rests alone, not on the trichotomy of the technology's utility but within the individual's moral freedom and human rights to accept or refuse. Therefore, the plumb line remains, not concerning the device's distinct utility, but rather with freedom of choice.

Currently, the question is being posed as to whether legislation will keep pace, which suggests that either a higher articulation of our former constitution is required or that new legislation be erected that will explicitly defend the rights of the individual to choose for oneself [35].

The ways in which sub-dermal technology may aid correctional facilities' endeavors will be more thoroughly expounded on in the next section. A historical look at a specific top-down and bottom-up institution will be examined, not as a raw set of material facts but, in order to create an inference between the way in which the incremental process of correctional ideologies are the prevailing influence of today and are promoting the individual's outward gaze to self-censorship [36]. Some researchers are arguing it is highly improbable that laws will be erected to enforce subdermal devices, with the exception of use in criminals [37]. Therefore, this next section is being devoted to an investigation of the penal system.

Section IV. The Penal Metaphor

Because the prisoner is being noted as the central focus as a possible industry enroot to legalizing the implementation of sub-dermal RFID's, it becomes imperative to investigate the penal system from an ideological perspective in order to assess its susceptibility [38], pp. 157-249; [39], p. 35. This paper will conclude that there needs to be a distinction between spatial autonomy and moral autonomy as moral freedom is of the higher good and rights to obtain unto this good supersedes loses that could be incurred as a result of the state invoking disciplinary measures [32].

Generation after generation civilization oscillates over freedom of choice, blurring the distinction between freely adopting governing rules of belief, following an individualized interrogation of the ethical underpinnings, versus conforming to systematic ruling government without understanding its fundamental doctrine. Often such systems strive to maintain order through imposing indoctrinations, in which its people accept the ideologies of the dominant class through a constant infiltration of information not conducive to independent thinking of the autonomous self; it is argued that when this knowledge becomes singular it is a form of soft-despotism [40]. Through various mechanisms of social control, such as through a prevailing slant being propagated through the media, it has led an onslaught of persons embodied in space to a place where the individual is losing ability to see the distinction and whereby choose for oneself. The specific slant contained within the dominant message is directing Western society to a place imbued with an external message with its constancy softly-coercing the viewer or listener in one specific direction [32].

A. A Look at the System as an Apparatus of Control

As the high-tech industry evolves, the media continues to endorse such change and those adopting a consumerist mentality continue to commoditize their own body as a source of consumer capitalism [41] through the latest technological upgrade. It will only stand to logic that human adaptation to body modifying devices will become more and more acceptable as a means to live within society, function in commerce and progress in self-actualization [42]. The authors of this paper argue that when any such movement coerces the people in one specific direction it is a form of soft-despotism whether invoked intentionally or otherwise [40].

It is within this investigation of the governing forces over the masses that the focus is taken away from the history of the penal institution in itself to the state's reliance on cumulative rationale. Theorists argue that it is this over reliance on human rationale that is propelling history in one specific direction and thus becomes the force that is evoking a certain type of social order and governance [43].

In order to elucidate Ann Light's notion of how biotechnology can turn us from outside within, she first turns our attention to the penal system [36]. Theorists argue that the open persecution of punishment found within the penal process has radically shifted to become less detectable and more hidden [44]. This is a far cry from the open persecution experienced by, let us say, Joan of Arc [45], as now, largely due to humanitarianism, the public spectacle of the executioner who leads the persecuted to the stake appears an equivalent act of savagery to the public who witnessos, as is the crime itself [44]. Hence the mechanism becomes more hidden and in this sense is argued to be less pervasive [44]. But is it?

Theorists view the apparatus of the persecutor as moving from control over the body to a much more sophisticated apparatus, which slackens the hold on the tangible physical body in exchange for a far more intricate part of the self. This shifts the focus from the external body to the human mind, which is considered as the seat of the soul and the final battleground [46]. Theorists go on to state that these more sophisticated systems of control will only be confirmed to actually exist as history unfolds [36].

The panoptic, for example is a model that can be deemed as a control mechanism which is less pervasive as it moves away from physical punishment to psychological punishment [44]. Specifically the sanctioned individual who believes the monitoring of one's behavior to be constant, whereby shifting the focus of what is believed to be periodic surveillance to a continual presence. The constancy found in this form of surveillance is argued to imprint permanence on the human cognition [36]. It is what M.G. Michael has termed uberveillance—a type of big brother on the inside looking out [47]. In order that the reader may have a clearer understanding of the Panopticon, below is a description of Bentham's institution:

“The hollow interior of the circular Panopticon has an incongruous resemblance to a dovecote with all the doves behind bars. The prisoners' cells are in the circumference, but are open at all times to inspection from the observation tower in the center of the building. The theory of the Panopticon relies on the fiction that each prisoner, alone in his cell, believes that he is under constant observation: yet it is patently impossible that the contractor and his small staff within the central tower could watch 3, 000 prisoners at once. So that the prisoners may not know whom he is watching, or whether he is present at all, the contractor must at all times be invisible; and Bentham thought much about deceptive lighting systems to preserve the illusion of the contractor's permanent presence, a “dark spot” at the center of the Panopticon. Observation of a single prisoner for several hours, followed by punishment for any misdemeanors, would convince all the rest of this constant vigilance. Although the contraptions such as Venetian blinds, pinholes and speaking tubes which delighted Bentham have lost some technological credibility, the general principle is readily applicable to modern methods of surveillance” [48], pp.4-5.

Upon reviewing the detailed description of the institution designed by Bentham, it is easy to see how the panoptic system supports the shift from the body to the mind, which then turns the imprisoned body's gaze inward [36]. Out of fear of punishnent, the embodied experience is to begin to self-monitor.

Although some argue Bentham's Panopticon never came to fruition, Michael Ignatieff views it as a “[s]ymbolic caricature of the characteristic features of disciplinary thinking [of] his age” [48], p. 5. Crowther argues:

[According to] Bentham, the Panopticon was not an enclosed relationship between the prisoner and the state, removed from the outside world, but a prison constantly open to public scrutiny. The contractor in his watchtower could be joined at any minute not only by magistrates, but by the prisoners' relatives, the curious, or the concerned, “The great open committee of the tribunal of the world.

This invokes two types of control of the incarcerated; according to sociology theorists, a top down approach to surveillance is referred to organizational surveillance, whereas a bottom-up approach in which the common citizen becomes the watch-guard is referred to as inverse [49]. Bentham became aware of the possible negative impact that constant surveillance of the state and the public could produce on the prisoners' sensibilities, and therefore suggested that the prisoner wear a disguise. The mask would conceal the individual's identity while each unique disguise, would represent the crime that was committed. Hence, Bentham did make a frail attempt to resolve the way in which the apparatus' constancy could impair one's well-being [48].

The Panopticon illustrated here is merely representational, as the physical apparatus of control is being reflected upon as a means of the reader relating to the modem-day ideological shift within organizational control that is designed to turn the gaze of the end-user, the prisoner, and such, to self-monitoring. Western civilization that once employed an external gaze that had previously sought a voice in politics, for instance, is being turned from outside within. According to Ann Light [36], digital technology is promoting this shift.

Section V. Discussion

A. The Impact of Bio-Tech Constancy on the Human Psyche

Whether this surveillance transpires every moment of every day [50], or just in the sanctioned individual's mind is of little importance as it is the unknown or fear of what is “ever-lurking” that has the greatest potential to negatively impact the human psyche. When the interrogator is no longer human but the receptor is a machine there is something even more demoralizing that transpires as the removing of human contact can be likened to placing the prisoner in a type of mechanical quarantine [36], [51].

Embedded surveillance devices (although currently only engineered to accommodate short-range, such as within a correctional facility), can be considered as the all-seeing pervasive eye, the interrogator. However, the individual being tracked may lack knowledge about what is on the other side; which is the receptor. This can create a greater monster than real-life as it adds insurmountable pressure due to the unknown and the inability to understand the boundaries and limitations of the surveillance technology. This becomes that much more of an infringement when the device is placed under the individual's skin. Illustratively speaking, rather than seeing it as it is, such as, a mark of servitude, a passive information bank, a personal identifier, or a location monitor, the inductive coupling device has potential to be mistakenly deemed as the predator. In support of this notion, modern-day scholars are referring to the reader as the interrogator.

As earlier stated, in this instance, the external public gaze of the community and the state will shift from the external all-seeing eye, to that which is internalized—regardless of whether the device is passive or active. Over and above Foucault's notion of self-policing, this process could be further accentuated due to the person's inability to comprehend the full purpose or limitations of the surveillance ID system in which they are under. This internalization has potential to create a feeling of “the beast within” rather than the threat being from without. The writers of this paper argue that this form of internalization of the gaze within the body will heighten the negative impact on one's psyche—ultimately negatively impacting one's state of consciousness [52].

In this sense Bentham's panoptic vision was never really defeated but now merely considered at a higher level of sophistication or barbarianism—depending on which way it is looked upon. Rather than institutions embracing practices designed to rehabilitate the prisoner, and bring the individual to an eventual state of freedom, bio-tech adoption could impair in the recovery process—its constancy heightening psychological fears—making it near impossible to ever be disabled within the mind of the end-user. Hence, as Bentham's notion of a free-enterprise is accepted on a much more hidden level, and the self turns to policing one's own actions, this utter enclosure can be argued to lead the human body to a state of utter docility. This is a subject of debate for psychologists, bioethicists and social scientists alike, and in support of the phenomenologist must also include the insider's perspective as well.

Section VI. Conclusion

Imprisonment is transpiring on many levels, and can be argued as being the system that has led Western civilization incrementally to the place it is today, where moral relativism is ruling the people, causing the moral voice of conviction designed for political and public engagement, to be displaced for a turning inward to oneself as a forms of self-expression [34]. This may be seen as the result of top-down governing institutes esteeming systematic rationale over the individuals' voice—inadvertently marginalizing the embodied-self over other forces such as the economy. As the ruling system continues to over extend its control, it ever-so-gently coerces society in one direction only, massaging the spirit of Epicureanism which endorses human passion to have it full reign over one's own body, as the final self-embodied means of conveying a message. Whereas the governing institutions can easily rule over a docile society. In this sense bio-tech with its constancy may be seen as just one more apparatus designed to control the mind—although hidden, it most certainly is invasive. With current considerations for adoption it brings Orwell's claim to the forefront when he wrote in 1984: “Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimetres inside your skull” [53], p. 27.


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Keywords: Radio-frequency identification, Implants, Biomedical monitoring, Global Positioning System, Surveillance, Context, social sciences, cybernetics, prosthetics, radiofrequency identification, docile body sociology, penal metaphor, institutional top-down control, organizational top-down control, restorative health, diagnostic purpose, prosthetic purpose, RFID implants, cybernetic landscape, nanotechnology, biomedical device, sensor technology, human rights, freedom of choice, opt-out, penal control, constancy

Citation: S.B. Munn, Katina Michael, M.G. Michael, "Sociology of the docile body", 2016 IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society (ISTAS16), 20-22 Oct. 2016, Kerala, India, DOI: 10.1109/ISTAS.2016.7764047

The Dark Side of Video Games

Are you addicted?


What is it with us today? We are giving over control to the machine and losing touch with the physical world around us [1]. We are witnessing the decay of our meaningful relationships— sucked into electronic vectors of nothingness—right before our very eyes [2]. Sometimes we are at a loss to describe this phenomenon, reflecting on how members of our own family have been duped by the promise of a Second Life.

It is true that some people are predisposed to different types of addictions—e.g., drugs, alcohol, and gambling—all of which act to curb an underlying condition, usually obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and/or anxiety. However, we are now confident that a compulsion toward excessive playing of video games will be added to that suite of newly defined behavioral addictions that need our urgent attention.

This article is dedicated to video game addiction, given its widespread reach, but we would be the first to admit that this is simply one of a dozen types of computer applications that can trigger deep-seated dependencies [3]. Although video game addiction was not included in U.S. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) for 2012, there was an appendix on further research into Internet use disorder [4]. In contrast, the Chinese have already defined the disorder, and some studies have claimed that as many as one-third of mentally ill patients who stay at home are addicted to the Internet [5], [52].

Nintendo Game & Watch: Donkey Kong Jr. [Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Francis Bijl (Frenkieb).]

We can point to the increasing number of video game and online Internet detoxification clinics around the world that have been in existence since at least 2005, especially in China [6], [54], South Korea, and Taiwan [7]. From PSs and DSs to Wiis and Zappers, from iPods and iPads to Xboxes, our high tech gaming toys are enslaving children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces, partners, friends, parents, and teachers [8].

Are you addicted to video games?

If you do not wish to admit to the possibility that there is such a thing as video game addiction, then you can just log into one of your avatars in your favorite massively multiplayer online game (MMOG), and, while your terminal is booting, ask yourself a few of the following questions.

▼ How long do you spend on your favorite MMOG each day? [9]

▼ Are you preoccupied by your favorite video game when you are not playing? Is it all you can think about, even at the expense of your closest relationships?

▼ Over the last 12 months, have you put on weight as a result of your gaming habits?

▼ Do you have any friends outside those connected to your online avatar(s)?

▼ Are your grades at school slipping, or is your employment suffering as a result of playing games day and night? Are you suffering from sleep deprivation as a result?

▼ When you are on the computer engrossed in a session of play, do you lose track of time and forget about basic needs like eating, sleeping, or going to the restroom?

Moths are positively phototactic. Cockroaches are negatively phototactic, which means they search for dark spots and crevices. Humans are like moths—they are drawn to the light. But video games can change that. Many gamers who are addicted don't know the difference between light and dark, save for the light emitting from their screen. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Accassidy.)

We visited the Xbox homepage and were confronted with the following message: “A new generation has begun.” Yes, indeed it has. It is the generation drawn to the screen culture, like the moth is drawn to the light. But as soon as the moth touches the artificial light, it is no more. We can say that humans are also prone to the “moth effect.” Like moths, humans are naturally drawn to the light during the day, as opposed to cockroaches, which scurry into dark corners and crevices to avoid detection. We investigate what transforms the gamer—analogously from light to dark phototaxis—and what the ensuing social implications are for him or her and his or her close relationships [10]. How is it, you ask, that the screen emits bright light but the gamer is enveloped in visual and persistent perceptive darkness? Curtains drawn and lights out, the gamer retreats to his or her bedroom to play, and, if engaged in a first-person shooter MMOG, he or she continues to hide in the crevices to avoid being shot. There is a significant body of literature that needs to be studied in relation to target fixation [11] and video gaming. What is it that draws gamers to the console when they know that what they are attracted to has no real tangible benefit?

Just to set the record straight, this generation is not really “new,” as Xbox would have us believe, but about 40 years in the making. It is little wonder that the average gamer is a 35-year-old male [12].

In the beginning was Pong, then came MMOG

Pong interface—the instructions were simple: "Avoid missing the ball for a high score." Pong was akin to a game of ping-pong, but play was electronic in style and versus a computer.

We started off with Atari’s launch of Pong in 1972. The graphics could not be simpler, and, on first viewing, Pong is an innocuous game compared to today’s standards. The instructions were simple: “Avoid missing the ball for a high score” [13]. But what was it about Pong that brought millions of players to the TV screen? Psychologists point to the feedback loop, the anticipation of the response from the terminal, a sense of achievement at gaining high scores, a mastery of sorts over the game, the chance to fill the void with some fun, and a momentary escape from the realities and responsibilities of life.

Then, arcade games for just a nickel a game came into prominence at the same time that video-based poker machines surfaced to draw gamblers [14]. It used to be that Space Invaders (1978), Pac-Man (1980), Donkey Kong (1981), and Mario Bros. (1983) ruled—you used a laser canon to ward off the aliens, you got to eat the pellets and fight off the ghosts and monsters, you gathered ammunition to defend yourself against anthropomorphic enemies, and, as Mario, you got to exterminate the pests threatening to rise from the sewers below New York. But something happened to the nature of the gaming industry after personal computers were introduced into homes. Space Invaders gave way to DOOM (1993), Pac-Man to Grand Theft Auto (1997), and Mario Bros. to Manhunt (2003). Unsurprisingly, the promise of flight- and car-simulator games gave way to war and debauchery. The impact of the rise of the Internet was no different to that which followed the printing press for the production of propaganda and pornography [15].

Sergeant Shane Perry of the 401st Military Police Company displays his new Call of Duty: Ghosts game during the midnight release at the Clear Creek Post Exchange GameStop. (Photo courtesy of Sergeant Cody Barber, 11th Public Affairs Detachment.)

The defining point in the history of video gaming, however, came in 2003 with the introduction of Call of Duty, when a cinematic experience was introduced, tending away from traditional robotic-like behavior by personas. Call of Duty also provided the illusion of a more organic and dynamic game made possible by some clever programming, despite the fact that it still relied on linear scripting. It was much less formulaic than what gamers had experienced with previous first-person shooters. In the same year, massively multiplayer online gaming was touted as having well and truly arrived, as Financial Times measured the per-capita gross domestic product in the EverQuest game to be equatable to that of the 77th-wealthiest nation in the world. This was followed by a large number of subscriptions in the millions with Happy Farm and hundreds of millions with World of Warcraft and, more recently, Minecraft.

On the dark side of the…

The video gaming scene really came of age when the social networking elements of instant messaging, chat, video conferencing features, and presence information were added to the real-world-like online environment. All of a sudden, gaming became a fusion of unified communications that, if misused, could easily appeal to the darker side of the human instinct. Again, we contend that this medium is no different than other entertainment—such as movies with dark themes, music with dark lyrics, or even books with dark messages [16]. But there is something about MMOGs that differs from books, music, and movies [17]. The latter have a beginning and an end, whereas MMOGs seemingly go on forever—a little like the continuous pieces of music on each side of Pink Floyd’s famous album The Dark Side of the Moon (1973). Is there something in this distinction? The flesh is mortal, yet MMOGs carry with them a seeming infinity. You can die a million times over and spawn back to life in a game like UberStrike (2010), but on Earth you only have one life.

We contend that killing people in a game, no matter whether the characters are just animations, cannot be good for the human spirit, that is, the spiritual and mental part of our humanity. Spending a great deal of time, many hours per day, transfixed by high-impact violence (gross and unrelenting), high levels of gore (decapitations, dismemberments, and excessive blood-letting), offensive depictions of cruelty, and prostitution and heavy sexual themes means that we cannot break free from the endless loop. The same argument can be made for any video game that begins to impede our ability to be productive or that affects our ability to take care of fundamental personal hygiene needs [18]. We should be focusing our time toward positive and constructive play with long-term benefits as opposed to spending copious time building a world that does not exist when the power goes off.

We know what some of you are thinking: Not all video games are bad for you. Support your positions with real evidence and scientific studies [53]. Just because I maim and kill online, virtually, it doesn’t mean I’ll do it in the real world, and, if I have virtual sex every so often or even rape a prostitute in a game, it’s not like committing a real physical act. It’s all just make-believe… Who are you fooling? We are building games today in our society that are not only distasteful but are extolling what are generally labeled in the legal domain as cyber crimes against the person [19]. The worrying part is that these violent depictions of everyday life are becoming more callous and entering the mainstream. Are you going to tell us that when you perform these vile acts online that you are actually feeling true love, peace, and joy? Whatever happened to extolling morals and values in our society and to ethical codes of conduct in the game-development industry? It is not even a question of traditional ethics anymore but of plain old common sense.

Yes, yes, having an online affair has naught to do with the real world and has no real-world repercussions. Poof! Smokescreen! What is your heart telling you? What is your body saying to you? Are these acts just our imagination, or are they real, with real-world repercussions? When I spend more time online than with the person with whom I share a bed in the physical world, isn’t there something wrong? [20] When your first thought when you awake is to make contact with your favorite gaming community so that you can go out on another mission and pick off a few more fraggers, you need to reassess your behavior [21]. Things and people around you will start to suffer—how can they not if you are spending 10–15 h glued behind the screen playing? [22] Something must give [23].

Consider the Korean couple who, in 2010, let their threemonth-old baby girl die from starvation as they spent hours devoted to raising a virtual character of a young girl named Anima in the game Prius Online [24]. Think about the case of a young Korean man who collapsed at an Internet café in 2005 and went into cardiac arrest after playing Starcraft (1998) for 50 h straight, of a young Chinese man in 2007 who suffered a heart attack after spending almost seven straight days behind a computer screen (save for restroom breaks) [25], and of two Taiwanese men in separate incidents in 2012 who also collapsed in Internet cafés playing Diablo (1996) and League of Legends (2008) without a break for 40 and 23 h, respectively [26]. Consider the number of wives and husbands who have divorced their spouses over their gaming behaviors [27], especially for infidelity in Second Life and World of Warcraft [28]. And ponder the number of people who have lost their jobs because they cannot work and play video games simultaneously, later moving in with friends and relatives as a result of losing their income [29], [30].

Yes, we know what you’re thinking yet again—that these are just one-off tragic stories, and they’ll never happen to you or your kids [31]. To respond to this, we ask, “really?” It is not difficult to come to the same conclusions we hold. Do your own field observations on your way to work or the next time you are at a coffee shop or on a school campus. How many people, young and old, are absorbed by their mobile phone— immersed in the screen [32]? Parents, it’s time to admit it— there’s a problem with how technology has taken over your family, your workplace, and your headspace. What are you going to do about it? Will you keep believing that resistance is futile? Do you think that you cannot change because you fear that little Johnny will make life hell for you if he doesn’t get his 8 or 9 h online?

Don’t we realize as a technology-reliant community that we are keeping these gaming companies alive by logging in for our kids on 17+ games when they are barely ten years old? What are we willingly exposing them to? We shudder in horror when African dictators enlist ten-year-olds to fight in wars, but we turn around and buy our ten-year-olds the experience of killing far more virtual people than any real war would ever make possible.

When we give in to the demands of our children for yet another video game, we are feeding the darkness in their imaginations and sullying their spirits [33]. What happens when we get so entangled and lost in this virtual world that we do not even see what is happening to our household?

Ask the difficult questions

Stop and ask yourself: Where are your kids? What activity are they engaged in? Are they outside or inside, sleeping or awake? Chances are that every single one of them is behind a console of one form or another, for one reason or another. Now go and do a physical reconnaissance—how many of them are playing games? That has to say something about what we’ve become, and what we hope to become is a question for an entirely different article.

Games like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City promote a host of vices that are contrary to positive societal values

There’s an epidemic of parents failing to care for their kids, to feed them when they are hungry, to change their diapers, make sure they’ve brushed their teeth and gotten enough sleep for the day ahead. There’s also an epidemic of people failing to take care of themselves because they are addicted to electronic gaming or, more precisely, addicted to Wi-Fi. Why is everyone so bent on walking around and deceiving themselves that technology has not pervaded their life with a whole lot of ugly negatives? [34] Why are we all so scared to admit that what we are potentially creating is a road to nowhere? [35] For some, gaming has become a pathological addiction, and they cannot break free from the screen. Is the problem that we, too, are so engrossed by the screen that we cannot lend a hand?

We each know people who treat Facebook (or Instagram, Twitter, or Tumblr) as if they were online games. What’s the difference? Instead of shooting a character in a videogame, we can just like or Tweet some news. It is all “button pushing” and “screen scrolling,” reactionary, and stimulating to the prefrontal cortex, is it not [51]?

Enter locked-in syndrome, a medical term used to describe “a condition in which a patient is aware and awake but cannot move or communicate verbally due to complete paralysis of nearly all voluntary muscles in the body except for the eyes” [36]. Similarly, being in a persistent vegetative state is defined as “a wakeful unconscious state that lasts longer than a few weeks” [37]. We borrow the terms here to question whether society at large is presently undergoing some kind of locked-in technology scenario. In our analysis, addicted gamers go into a comatose state of affairs, where their heart is pumping blood, they are clinically alive, but they are barely conscious. Only their fingers around the console are moving spasmodically, showing us, the bystanders, signs of life in the form of a reflex action. Some even ceremoniously prepare with food and beverage beside them before choosing the addictive stance within which to use the social media elements of gaming.

Have you noticed when you try to talk to an addicted gamer that his or her gaze does not leave the screen, remaining transfixed? If he or she happens to make a mistake while you are trying to talk to him or her, you get blamed for the error in the most extreme way [38]. In the end, that is what the creators of these games want from us: a mind-numbing sense that what they are feeding us is good for our spirit [39]. Many of us, however, would not wish to believe that the primary driver of the gamedevelopment companies is to get us addicted from the start because it means more revenue for them [40]. These games have a spirit behind them, but it’s not one that lifts our souls or causes us to reach for greater things. It is the spirit of the times, that pervasive, uneasy feeling that things are not going so well toward the goodness and natural inclination of life.

This spirit of anarchy or nihilism is leading gamers of violent virtual realities to see and to dream of hells in the games they play as opposed to goodness, to be influenced by the images they see in strange visitations called nightmares, and to ponder demonic thoughts. We do not need to provide you with our evidence, which would only act to pollute your minds. Most players of these abhorrent games will not go out and conduct a massacre in the physical space [41], but surely there are other ways to spend one’s time—outside playing games with the children, admiring natural beauty with a sense of awe, going for a surf or a hike? Why do we choose a psychological prison, trapped not only inside but within ourselves? Those versed in the writings of Carl Jung can take much from here in the context of the “shadow aspect” of our personalities.

The next time you walk past your child’s door (whether he or she is a teenager or an adult living in your home), why don’t you spend ten full minutes together looking at how he or she is interacting with the virtual world through the computer device. In addition, ask about the music your child listens to and the movies he or she gets a buzz from. It is all one and the same: lyrics (auditory), multimedia (visual), consoles (touch and feel) enveloping the faculties of the human body. Immersing oneself in a whole lot of bad stuff is like immersing oneself in a cesspool. The problem with our life today is that we are swimming in the cesspool, surrounded by soft e-waste, and cannot see it for what it is. It is enveloping us on all sides and suffocating our freedom. We can only see things more clearly if we decide to get out of it, wash afresh, and then look with open eyes at what is before us. Yes, this does mean limiting our screen time.

Enacting change

When was the last time you embraced your children or told them you love them in the real world, not just over SMS or e-mail? There’s your challenge—get up off your chair right now, let go of that iDevice, and go searching in the physical space to reach out to that family member right now who is absorbed by their favorite high-tech gadget. It won’t be easy to get him or her to stop and to make eye contact with you, but that’s just the first step [41]. Be patient. It may take several weeks, or even months, but try detoxing the whole family from the dreaded technology that has bound them hand, foot, and mouth [42]. At first, try taking the family away to a location that is a complete dead zone—without even mobile connectivity [43]. Go away for at least a week. When you return, tell yourself you will not go back to your old ways and will hold your ground [44].

The screen is coming closer and closer, and it now seeks entry into the subdermal. Consider it this way: in the last 60 years, we have seen the advent of television, the computer, the Internet, the mobile phone, and now the wearable device that can distort and augment reality itself. What will come next? Will it be a translucent contact lens that completely replaces our actual field of view with another in a pervasive gaming environment? When we cannot make the distinction between fantasy and reality, are we really living? [45]

We must do better [56]. There is still a chance to resist. We can recapture our human rights and our dignity, reaffirm the rights of our children to have undistracted parents, and get back to a time when our children looked us in the eye clearly and brightly when we spoke to them [47]. We still have time to reaffirm the value of reality. We can change. We can do better. We have to remain in charge of the “screen” so that we can not only enjoy the great innovations of our times but also put them to good use.


There are people out there who are not slaves to technology and who are able to play games casually without any ill effect to their health. We are not asking people to live the life of an Amish community [48] but to consider how technology is impacting their home life and start drawing some lines. Children are especially vulnerable [49], but parents are struggling with the same addiction and the same detachment from the real world, staring into a screen instead of sharing real hugs, real smiles, real conversations, real activities, and reality itself with their kids. And it’s not just video games. Answering e-mails, talking on the mobile, texting, Facebook, web surfing, YouTube, all can be equally draining if misused [50].

We would be remiss not to point out the downsides that everyone around us is experiencing. It’s the elephant in the room, the emperor parading naked down the street, the skeleton in nearly every family’s closet. We are calling for people to wake up and admit that, collectively, we have a very big problem on our hands and to begin a thoughtful discussion of how we want to handle it. And lest you think we speak from some lofty, technology-free form of purity, we assure you that, one way or another, we have been down the ugly road we are describing. If we were not challenged by these matters ourselves, we would not be able to speak of them with such passion.


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This article was adapted from “The Dark Side of Online Gaming,” written by Katherine Albrecht, Katina Michael, and M.G. Michael for the International Conference on Cyber Behavior, 18–20 June 2014, Taipei, Taiwan; it was awarded best paper at the conference.

Citation: Katherine Albrecht, Katina Michael, M. G. Michael, "The Dark Side of Video Games: Are you addicted?", IEEE Consumer Electronics Magazine, 2016, Vol. 5, No. 1, pp. 107 - 113.