Playing With Ourselves: Chasing Personal Pleasure through Video Games and Modern Porn

 

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Today, if someone were to walk into a modern library and select from the shelves any volume claiming to pertain to the study of philosophical hedonism, they would almost undoubtedly encounter a disclaimer somewhere in the book’s introduction or first chapter that reads something like this: “Since its earliest days, hedonism has been in bad repute. Critics have dismissed it with scorn. They have presented a barrage of classic objections” (Feldman, 7). After announcing their awareness that such a philosophy has not proven to be most people’s proverbial cup of tea, authors of these books will then typically devote the rest of their text to defending the merits of a hedonic view of life, writing with the preconceived notion that their defense is going to be highly contested every inch along the way.

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Clearly, there is something about the idea that the simple and unadulterated pursuit of pleasure could be the primary motivation for our actions that just doesn’t sit well with people. Consequently, our society has trained us to look negatively upon actions that openly exhibit such an ambition. To be ‘indulgent’ or ‘self-serving’ are acts widely considered to hold unfavorable connotations ever since the rise of Christianity. However, despite whatever moral objections that might arise around the analysis of pleasure seeking, it is impossible to deny its prevalence in contemporary culture. This essay looks exclusively at two of today’s most popular industries: those of video games and digital pornography, and how the products they yield perpetuate hedonistic behavior in the modern world. While each of these genres of modern entertainment are enormous in scale and diversity of merchandise, it all shares one commonality: the enjoyment and pleasure of the consumer is the single most important criteria for production. By this standard, porn and video games are a horse of the same wonderfully tawdry color. One just happens to have enormous, oiled-up breasts while the other features enormous, oiled-up guns. Head shots seem to be pretty prevalent in both. 

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Before diving into the digital sex and gaming worlds, a quick note on what is meant here by hedonism. There has been an enormous amount of discussion conducted over what exactly the doctrine of hedony entails, but for the purposes of this blog, we are focusing on only one particular aspect and manifestation of the philosophy. Joseph Mendola, a professor at the University of Nebraska, describes it particularly well, explaining that “the pleasantness of physical pleasure is a kind of hedonic value, a single homogenous sensory property, differing merely in intensity as well as in extent and duration, which is yet a kind of goodness” (Mendola, 442). In other words, everything can be boiled down to its ‘hedonic value’ based off of how pleasurable it is, with things of highest pleasure being the best and thusly the most coveted and pursued. Mendola goes on to explain that pain and other negative repercussion operates on the same scale as a foil to the pleasure gained from something, and thus the pleasure of something must exceed the pain in order for it to be ‘good.’ It is on this scale that the employ of both video games and pornography ranks very highly, offering high quantities of pleasure in exchange for hardly any personal negative backlash. In comparison to other activities that provide a similar pleasurable thrill, such as using drugs that chemically force the release of endorphins, porn and gaming are pretty low-risk options. Therefore, as highly valuable resources for the achievement of hedonistic good, the enormous success of these two industries seems to expose the hedonism of our society as a whole, whether we want to acknowledge it or not. 

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By merely following the model outlined in the previous paragraph concerning the higher the net pleasure something has the better it is, all manner of activities, not just watching porn and playing video games, would contribute to the alleged hedonistic tendencies of consumers. Anything could fall under this banner, even acts of altruism so long as the pleasure taken away from the experience exceeds the ‘pain,’ or in this case the sense of loss felt from donating resources. This general application of the hedonic scale to all aspects of life is, in fact, an excellent example of one of the models for hedonism that J.C.B. Gosling outlines in his novel Pleasure and Desire, which could be classified as motivational hedonism. However, what I believe pornography and video games demonstrates is how this sliding scale of pleasure plays out in egoistic hedonism, which hinges around self-indulgence, and focuses on the individual’s happiness with less regard to the happiness of others. 

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Egoistic hedonism is not a new concept. It was first given definition in 1874 by the English philosopher Henry Sidgwick in his book The Methods of Ethics, but had been applied without name for centuries before that. Digital porn and video games are by no means the first or only activities to demonstrate this self-serving principal, but are rather perhaps the most relevant examples in the current era. Below are links to some remarkable stats about the porn and video game industries from 2006 and 2010 respectively. 

http://internet-filter-review.toptenreviews.com/internet-pornography-statistics.html

http://www.esrb.org/about/video-game-industry-statistics.jsp

The popularity and widespread use of these two forms of entertainment is remarkable, easily rivaling any other mode of entertainment. So why? Why are they so popular now? In part, that can be explained by suitability to the popular medium. The content, after all, has always been popular. From the very first sentence of our very first reading from this class, the lasting importance of games, or more generally the act of play, has been iterated upon, with Huizinga making the claim that, “Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always predisposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing” (Huizinga, 97). And as for sex, well, I think the mere fact that we are all here today stands as a pretty decent testament to its lasting appeal. Yes, the basic commodities that porn and video games are dealing in have always been proven sellers, it’s their current means of distribution that make them the powerhouses that they are today. 

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The rise of digital porn and video games have been remarkably similar, due largely in part to their suitability to the technology that has been steadily developing over the past forty years. While both erotic film and video game arcades enjoyed earlier successes, the full potential of neither was realized until developing technology allowed for them to be available in the privacy of the consumer’s own home. At this point the markets for both completely exploded, beginning with the Atari’s Home Pong in 1974, and the slightly later boom of the Video Cassette Recorder (VCR) in 1975. Journalist Damon Brown devotes the first part of his book, Porn & Pong, to this critical time in these two industries’ history, summarizing that:

Both video game and porn producers began to realize that home audiences, not the arcade or theater audiences, were now the ones to target. Creating an arcade game could be a heavily orchestrated event with art designers, programmers and manual laborers to put together the 8 foot tall, 200 pound machine, while a home video game cartridge was usually done by one guy who did all the programming, graphics and level design … A straight-to-video movie had a fraction of the production cost a traditional film carried, not to mention fewer distribution problems and less film crew. A hit porn could be made by two guys, a woman and a camcorder. It was no longer about translating products to the home, but making products specifically for the home. (Brown, 28 – 29)

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In his book, Brown focuses heavily upon the perks of cutting out the hassle and production costs of making erotic film and video games that would first be made for public presentation, which perhaps originally was one of the motivations for focusing exclusively upon the home market, but would eventually be one of the main reasons for their enormous success. This is perhaps best illustrated in looking specifically at pornography. In 1975, before entering the home market in any significant way, the total retail value of all American hardcore porn was only about five to ten million dollars (Amis, http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2001/mar/17/society.martinamis1). As seen in the earlier statistics though, in 2006 the American porn industry’s revenue exceeded thirteen billion dollars for that year alone. Something clearly happened in that time to make people more willing to buy pornography, and I think it had to do with the neighbors next door. Public opinion always has and will continue to hold an unknowably huge sway over how an individual conducts them self when they think that they are being observed, especially when it comes to those things that society holds to be taboo. In an article he wrote for the National Review, author Rob Long comments that, “The only real curb to unfettered free expression is the look on the face of the person you’re expressing yourself to. But on the internet, there is no face looking back. You can say anything, ask for anything, watch anything” (Long, 49). This is a very valid point, one that we as a class had touched on in our discussions of anonymity while gaming online, and that can be used to explain a great deal of the appeal of consuming media in private opposed to in public. In the case of pornography, it might at least in part be a case of people not wanting to be publicly identified as someone who watches and enjoys what polite society would label as ‘smut,’ or ‘filth.’ However, I believe that the stigma of being watched goes beyond just that extreme. Take the example of video games. By removing the public aspect of the game, the player is then free to conduct themselves as they wish around it, no longer restricted by the specter of public opinion. If a player wishes to play all day and all night, they can do so without fearing judgmental eyes upon them, and should they wish to yell and scream obscenities at the screen when Mrs. Pacman fails to elude the red ghost, no one need be around to hold witness to such an instance of broken self-control. 

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With the increase in privacy that gaming and watching pornography at home affords, there is also a rise in the degree to which these activities are purely self-serving. While a movie-goer or a gamer might not have had anyone else’s interest but their own in mind when they would go out to the sleazy movie theater or the video arcade, they were still providing others with the opportunity to observe them, a sort of relationship that still kept the public in mind. By eliminating the public element, the porn or game enthusiast is increasing their own level of pleasure along the hedonic scale (eliminating the uncomfortableness or ‘pain’ of being observed), but by doing so ensuring that this hedonistic action is purely egoistic, cutting out all consideration of the community outside. 

While perhaps not many would argue against the consumption of digital pornography being classified as an example of pleasuring only one’s own self, the act of playing video games should meet with a little bit more resistance before being similarly categorized as a purely egoistic form of hedonism. What about the case of online games, after all? Even though players of these games are surely participating in them for the pleasure that they gain from them, are they not at least in part contributing to the experience that other online players are receiving, whether that contribution be for the better or the worse? How about games like Foldit, which was one of the games demoed during class? In this example, players are, at least in theory, “solving puzzles for science,” as the game advertises in its very name. Is that not thinking beyond one’s own self? Maybe. It is impossible to know what every player’s motive for playing online / public games is, but I think it would be naive to assume that more than a very small minority of them are playing these games for any reason other than that they like them. That, after all, is one of the primary motivators as to why we play games. In a sociological study aimed at determining why children play video games, fun ranked as one of the major reasons middle school aged kids like to play games (Ferguson, 162). The same study also found that there was also a social motivation for engaging in video games (Ferguson, 162), which suggests that a consideration for other players did exist at least in some of the subjects polled. However, where wishing to enjoy an activity alone and away from the outside world is a purely self-serving gesture, the wish to play with others does not automatically imply that someone has the best interests of others in mind. Very often, in fact, we see quite the opposite happening, where players will play on public servers and ‘troll’ other players by making inflammatory / abusive comments to them, or even by singling a particular player out and repeatedly killing off their avatar. In Lisa Nakamura’s “Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game,” this phenomenon is taken even farther to incorporate real world discriminations into the online world, with some World of Warcraft players seeking out other players that they think may be “Chinese gold farmers,” and, as Nakamura puts it, targets them out “for ill-treatment or even virtual death” (Nakamura, 133). In these situations, players are not playing in the public domain with the intent of furthering others’ play experience, but are actually hindering others to assumedly further the enjoyment they receive from taking part in this virtually sadistic behavior. While not all online players are trolls, neither are they all saints, making online and multiplayer gaming hold the possibility for players to ascend beyond a purely egoistic form of hedonism in their play, but not guaranteeing such action either. 

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Egoistic or not, it is quite impossible to separate how our culture consumes video games and pornography from hedonism, when considering the pleasure we derive from them. Unlike the Chinese gold farmers that Nakamura discusses in her article, we do not rely on games and certainly not porn for anything other than our own enjoyment. While often different in content, video games and pornography represent two wildly successful ways in which modern technology appeals to our hedonistic tendencies, offering us indulgences most of us just cannot resist. To get biblical, what we are dealing with are two very sleek, persuasive, and computer-generated serpents, tempting us away from the Garden of Eden with seductive and gratifying apples. And honestly, who’s going to refuse? The garden’s gonna get pretty damn boring without porn and video games, and I bet the community’s not nearly as judgmental down in hell. 

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Works Cited

Amis, Martin. “A Rough Trade: Martin Amis reports from the high-risk, increasingly violent world of the pornography industry”. The Guardian, March 16, 2001. Accessed March 15, 2013. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2001/mar/17/society.martinamis1.

Brown, Damon. Porn & Pong: How Grand Theft Auto, Tomb Raider and Other Sexy Games Changed Our Culture. Port Townsend, WA: Feral House, 2008.

Feldman, Fred. Pleasure and the Good Life: Concerning the Nature, Varieties, and Plausibility of Hedonism. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004.

Ferguson, Christopher J. and Cheryl K. Olson. “Friends, Fun, Frustration and Fantasy: Child Motivations for Video Game Play.” Motiv Emot 37 (2013): 154-164. Accessed March 15, 2013. doi: 10.1007/s11031-012-9284-7.

Gosling, J.C.B. Pleasure and Desire: The Case for Hedonism Reviewed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969.

Huizinga, Johan. “Nature and Significance of Play as a Cultural Phenomenon.” In The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology, edited by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, 96-120. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2006.

Long, Rob. “Porn on Demand.” National Review 51 (1999): 48-49. Accessed March 17, 2013. http://web.ebscohost.com.

Mendola, Joseph. “Intuitive Hedonism.” Philosophical Studies 128 (2006): 441-477. Accessed February 5, 2013. doi: 10.1007/s11098-004-7810-5.

Nakamura, Lisa. “Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game: The Racialization of Labor in World of Warcraft.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 26 (2009): 128-144.

Sidgwick, Henry. The Methods of Ethics. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1874.

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