mihaly_csikszentmihalyi's picture
Psychologist; Director, Quality of Life Research Center, Claremont Graduate University; Author, Flow
The Triumph Of The Virtual, And Its Consequences

I tried to rank order my fears in order of their severity, but soon I realized that I would not complete this initial task before the submission deadline, so I decided to use a random number generator to choose among the fears. It turned out not to be a bad choice. Basically, it refers to the fear that in one or two generations children will grow up to be adults who will not be able to tell reality from imagination. Of course humanity has always had a precarious hold on reality, but it looks like we are headed for a quantum leap into an abyss of insubstantiality.

I don't know if you have been following the launch of the new 3-D version of one of the major multi-player video games, replete with monsters, orcs, slavering beasts, and all sorts of unsavory characters brandishing lethal weapons. To survive in this milieu the player needs fast responses and a quick trigger finger. And now let's reflect on the results of what happens when children start playing such games before entering school, and continue to do so into their teens. A child learns about reality through experiences first, not through lectures and books. The incessant warfare he takes part in, is not virtual to the child—it is his reality. The events on the screen are more real than the War of Independence, or World War II. Of course at a superficial cognitive level they are aware the game is only a virtual reality; but at a deeper, emotional level, they know it is not—after all, it is happening to them.

It is true that some of the oldest and most popular games are based on forms of mayhem. (Chess, for instance, consists in eliminating and immobilizing the enemy forces consisting of infantry, cavalry, messengers, troops mounted on elephants, and the redoubtable queen (which was actually a misunderstanding: the Persian inventors of the game gave the most important warrior the title of "Vizier", after the designati8on for the commanders of the Persian army; the French Crusaders who learned the game as they wandered through the Near East thought the piece was called Vierge, after the Virgin Mary; upon their return to Europe the Virgin became the Queen). But chess, although it can become an obsession, can never be confused with the rest of reality by a sane person. The problem with the new gaming technology is that it has become so realistic that with enough time and with little competition from the child's environment—which tends to be safe, boring, and predictable—it tends to erase the distinction between virtual and real. It is then a short step for a young man on the brink of sanity to get a hold of one of the various attack weapons so conveniently available, and go on a shooting spree that is a mere continuation of what he has been doing, "virtually", for years before.

A few decades ago I started doing research and write about the impact of indiscriminate television watching, especially on children. Then, as the interactive video games began to appear on the market, it seemed that finally the electronic technology was becoming more child-friendly: instead of watching passively inane content, children would now have a chance to become engaged actively in stimulating activities. What I did not have the sense to imagine was that the engagement offered by the new technology would become a Pandora's box containing bait for the reptilian brain to feast on. What scares me now is that children experiencing such reality are going to create a really real world like the one Hieronymus Bosch envisioned—full of spidery creatures, melting objects, and bestial humans.