In Brave New World, soma is a pill that satiates the masses.

Aldous Huxley’s classic novel Brave New World is often best remembered for showing the dark side of genetic engineering. What seems to get less publicity is the novel’s study of rigid socialization and using pleasure to control the masses. The latter is what interests me as a gamer.

In the novel, the hallucinogenic drug soma is distrubeted to all citizens by the government. The drug takes users on a vacation without ever having to leave their rooms. If reality’s hard, they can take soma and enjoy a week at the nicest hotels in the sunniest locations, and still show up to work the next day. It’s more than a recreational drug; it’s a literal opiate of the masses.

Now, I’m not suggesting that video games will come to become a government tool to suppress dissidence and promote mindlessness. But I am suggesting that can become an eerily similar escape, one that people may turn to rather than take action or initiative. I’m also not the first to notice this connection. It’s one of the reasons video game company Soma chose it’s name.

Video games are constantly evolving. Graphics constantly improve and become more realistic. Story-telling is improving, unfortunately not as fast as the visuals, but enough to add another layer past the graphics to emerge you further. The scope of games is also much bigger; open-world games are more common than ever, and if the graphics and story are excellent you will find yourself emerged in a huge world full of possibilities, drama and rewards.

First, we need to establish that most video games are designed to be addictive (Yeah, it’s from Cracked. So?). They draw on the model of the Skinner box, making games that behaviorally condition gamers, getting them used tot he fact that certain conditions need to be met for their rewards. And people love these virtual rewards. It’s most readily seen in MMORPGs and psychologists have confirmed video game addiction is real.

Think about how addicting games are now, and how much escape they provide. Technology may soon evolve to the point where they provide virtual fantasies on the same level of Huxley’s soma. Again, I’m not suggesting games will be used for sinister, authoritarian purposes, but imagine video game addiction on a larger scale, as common as nicotine or alcohol addiction. More families torn apart and more dreams and lives ruined by video games. Fewer people taking the initiative to improve their lives and more people complacently going home and gaming.

As games become more advanced, they’ll become more absorbing. Open world games become new lands to explore; who needs to go outside? You can explore Red Dead Redemption‘s New Austin deserts even more closely, or every inch of the expansive Wasteland in the Fallout games.

I waste hours exploring these worlds. Story missions come second.

It happens already, to the extent it results in death. From Halo marathons in Britain to various Starcraft and other game-realted deaths in South Korea, addiction is real and deadly.

In fact, the death of one Korean after a 50 hour game session is eerily similar to the death of Linda in Brave New World. Linda was lost in New Mexico for about 20 years, living among “savages” and yearning to return to civilization. Upon her return, she went on a permanent “soma holiday,” ingesting enough grammes to kill her, dying in a state of hallucination.

Video games can already take over lives and make us ignore our own health and our loved one. The most extreme case, again from South Korea, involves a baby dying of neglect while her parents played video games.

Will parents everywhere suddenly ignore their children? No. But problems caused by video game addicted parents could be similar to those caused by gambling addicts or even alcoholics. Neglect, lack of time spent with children, wasted money, misplaced priorities, everything that tears a family apart could become the result of video games.

People may become more passive, willing to explore fantasy worlds rather than the world around them. Who needs a trip to the mountain when you can explore one as a heavily armed hero? Slacking off and procrastination may turn into giving up on one’s futures; people will just play games and satisfy themselves rather than putting in extra hours of hard work, or exercise, or a new hobby.

Click for image source

Lost for hours in a game.

More people will retreat to an unsettling realistic virtual world to escape problems, a common sign of video game addiction experienced by Mike Fahey, an Everquest addict. Soma is a retreat in Huxley’s dystopian future, much like video games can be.

I doubt, or at least hope, this problem would ever become too widespread. Video games will still be designed to be addictive and will become even more immersive down the road, but as long as people handle them as well now as they do today, serious cases should still be rare. But we may well end up with the passive masses seen in Brave New World, resigning themselves to pursue pleasure rather than justice or progress.

I like to think of dystopian futures, and this is just a series of thoughts. But as a gamer, I think I, and others, need to think about the consequences of what happens when the controller never leaves the hands.


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