Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out

The importance of that to me is that it was a demonstration of the Baby Boom generation, of their numbers, of their strength, of their clout, of their power, which is in straight quantity—numbers. There were 76 million Americans born between the years ’46 and ’64. They were trained by Dr. Spock to be demand-fed. They were the first consumer species, they were the first electronic species—the fact that you were an American and young meant that you deserved the world.

Sounds like it was pretty sweet while it lasted, doesn’t it? Boomers: take drugs for 5 years while living on the beach and boning hippie chicks; get 20 hr-week 6-figure gig when they get bored. U: cower and scurry for rat-faced man; lie to the government that you’re not working overtime so that you don’t become eligible for health insurance and thus too expensive to your boss; wonder if you’ll make rent (no.) Anyway, however good Leary’s advice might have been for the most effortlessly prosperous generation ever, it’s the reverse of good advice today. You should turn off and tune out but still drop out—of vidya.

We’ve heard for years that we’ve reached full employment. But we also know lots of young people are bumming around—15% are NEETs, in fact—and that must mean that the official employment numbers are trash. Only 87% of men in their prime working years are working, mostly due to “voluntary departures from the workforce.” That’s roughly the same level out of work as during the Great Depression.

Why would someone voluntarily depart from the workforce? Even in a juggalo-haunted hellscape, there must be some work. At least you could move! So what are they doing instead? The answer is basically playing vidya games. That’s literally what people do now instead of having jobs.

Odds are that you’re hooked on vidya. “So what,” comes the reply. “You’re just old and boring!” I probably am, but that defensiveness is telling. Vidya, especially modern vidya, is a problem. Everyone knows it. No one knows how to say it, but it is. It’s like drugs. People while away their lives on vidya.

Guys who were really into vidya in the 1980s were complete losers (sad!) Their loserdom has been documented exhaustively.  (To be fair, the King of Kong himself has ratfaced effectively in the restaurant industry.) But back then, vidya hadn’t morphed into the sweet, perfect bitch that it’s become today. It was still a toy. Kids didn’t play vidya to the exclusion of other activities. Going to an arcade cost money, the games were designed to kick you off quickly, and it was a social activity that got you out of the house. Today, even arcade gaming is dominated by obsessives :

But home gaming is a whole new level of obsession. In fact, home gaming is a corporate product engineered (with wild success) to induce addiction. Don’t believe me? Here’s how the first really big-time MMORPG earned the nickname “Evercrack“:

The rewards cycle in EverQuest begins with instant gratifications. When you start a new character, everything you need to do is close by – finding the guildmaster; finding mobs to kill. The first few mobs you attack die in several swings and you make level 2 in about 5 kills. By the time you make level 3 half an hour later, you are more aware of the underlying skill points, the accumulation of money, and gain a desire to get better equipment. Gradually, it takes longer and longer to get to the next level… The one-click reward disappears, and is gradually replaced by rewards that take more and more clicks to get. And suddenly, some of us find ourselves clicking away for hours in front of a forge or jewellery kit.

This process of guiding an individual to perform more and more elaborate and complex tasks is known as shaping in Operant Conditioning. It is usually explained in textbooks in conjunction with Skinner Boxes…

There are several schedules of reinforcement that can be used in Operant Conditioning. The most basic is a fixed interval schedule, and the rat in the Skinner Box is rewarded every 5 minutes regardless of whether it presses the lever. Unsurprisingly, this method is not particularly effective. Another kind of reinforcement schedule is the fixed ratio schedule, and the rat is rewarded every time it presses the lever 5 times. This schedule is more effective than the fixed interval schedule. The most effective method is a random ratio schedule, and the rat is rewarded after it presses the lever a random number of times. Because the rat cannot predict precisely when it will be rewarded even though it knows it has to press the lever to get food, the rat presses the lever more consistently than in the other schedules.

A random ratio schedule is also the one that EverQuest uses…  Another frequently encountered figure in introductory psychology textbooks is Maslow, known for his proposed hierarchy of needs. Maslow sees human needs in a pyramid scheme. At the bottom are basic hunger and thirst needs. Then follows security. At the top of the pyramid are aesthetic needs and personal achievements, which would only be possible on a strong foundation of sated hunger and security needs. Thus, even though personal achievements are more rewarding than filling an empty stomach, these achievements are only possible once you’ve filled your stomach. But EverQuest makes it possible for Joes and Janes to become heroes. EverQuest makes it so that you can slay Vox in a guild raid on an empty stomach. What happens when people can feel achievement through continuous mouse-clicking?

This question was asked in 2001. Well, most of a generation later, it turns out that there’s an answer. What happens is that an awful lot of people stop pursuing real achievements in favor of virtual pellet collection.

For low-skilled men in their 20s, employment rates have fallen by about 10 percentage points over the last 15 years—from 82 percent in 2000 to only 72 percent in 2015. This decline is staggering. You might think it’s matched by a rise in school attendance for this age group. That is not the case.

The following may be the most shocking number I give you today: in 2015, 22 percent of lower-skilled men aged 21–30 had not worked at all during the prior 12 months. Think about that for a second. Every time I see it, that number blows my mind. In 2000, the fraction of young, lower-skilled men that didn’t work at all during the prior year was a little under 10 percent. Men in their 20s historically are a group with a strong attachment to the labor force. The decline in employment rates for low-skilled men in their 20s was larger than it was for all other sex, age, and skill groups during this same time period.

You may have a few questions in the back of your mind. If they are not working, where do these young, low-skilled men live? Our basements! According to recent data, 51 percent of lower-skilled men in their 20s live with a parent or close relative. That number was only 35 percent in 2000. In 2014, 70 percent of lower-skilled men in their 20s without a job lived with a parent or close relative.

If they are not working, how do these young men eat? We—the parents and relatives—feed them. When they are in our basements, they come up for food from time to time and raid our refrigerators. I have no information on whether or not they are showering.

Are these young, nonworking, lower-skilled men who are living in their parents’ basements married? You may be surprised to hear this: they are not. The age of marriage is increasing for this group. In summary, these younger, lower-skilled men are now less likely to work, less likely to marry, and more likely to live with parents or close relatives.

I like this guy’s style. If he gets tired of professoring, he can cum work for rat-faced man. But think about it: we develop a technology that is engineered to addict users. We make jobs extraordinarily shitty and unattractive. In a vacuum, considering the question dispassionately, we would conclude that users would prefer vidya to working a shitty job. So, when it actually happens, why are we blaming market forces, greedy capitalists and socialist regulation? Israel has more socialist regulation than anybody and they’re booming. Russia has greedier capitalists than anyone (it’s not 1967 anymore) and their unemployment rate is 5%. There’s no way around it—for a lot of guys it’s literally vidya.

If you’re vidya-addicted, and for young males that’s quite possibly the case, for God’s sake get off the stuff. There’s no future in it. Sell your account, give your stuff away, get busy with IRL activities. Lift, learn new skills, learn how to ratface. If you know how to calculate DPS but not NPV, toss the virtual skills for real ones.

Because at the end of the day, virtual skills are anti-knowledge. Someone who knows a lot about games not only is foregoing opportunities to learn about the real world, but actually learning things that may be false or dysfunctional in the real world. The “competent gamer” is a popular fantasy today, but I can think of exactly one prominent actually rich person who is also a leading gamer and I think his lightning is pretty hard to bottle. If you’re a big success, feel free to disregard, but if you’re not, consider learning from the rat-faced man: “If you can’t eat it, it’s not food.




8 thoughts on “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out

  1. Great post, great blog. I particularly like your emphasis on the fact that the issues facing the West going forward are much deeper than politics.

    That is to say: We had no economic competition, now we have economic competition. No amount of blaming (as you said) various forces or factions can change that cold hard reality.

    My parents are (very old) baby boomers and I drank the kool-aid. I thought, as they and many others did, that something had fundamentally changed about the world post-WWII and life would be easy going forward.

    Bottom line: life is hard. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. On the contrary: the modern West is a product of life being too easy for too long. I rest my case.

    Sorry to ramble, but your coldly realistic yet can-do attitude really resonates with me. Looking forward to many more of your posts.


  2. Counterpoint: Don’t think Russia or Israel imported tons of helots to do the grunt work that traditionally went to teenagers at anywhere near the extent that America did,( thus making their entry-level jobs extraordinarily shitty, unattractive.) Dominating a slave economy’s economic niches is, in fact, a time-honored method of rat-facing when your society has achieved a certain level of dysfunctionality.

    The Boxer Rebellion seems instructive: The Christians were aiming to ratface their way into the new economic niches via the use of converts as leverage:

    “”Christian converts flouted traditional Chinese ceremonies and family relations; and missionaries pressured local officials to side with Christian converts—who were often from the lower classes of Chinese society—in local lawsuits and property disputes. By late 1899 the Boxers were openly attacking Chinese Christians and Western missionaries.

    the Boxers apparently gamified their exercises:

    “The group practiced certain boxing and calisthenic rituals in the belief that this made them invulnerable.”

    and the end result was a gigantic bloody revolution that, while later crushed in an orgy of looting, eventually led to the independent China, and all of its attendant problems (the managing of which creates all sorts of jobs) we have today.

    Being anti-knowledge certainly didn’t stop the Boxers, and being pro-knowledge certainly didn’t save the missionaries or the long-run bets from overseas investors on opium and tame Christianity futures. The vidya types probably aren’t as high energy, but then, neither were the heroin addicts that inspired the Boxers.


  3. “I like this guy’s style. If he gets tired of professoring, he can cum work for rat-faced man.”

    What’s this, are you hiring? I have a pretty snappy style too fwiw. Thanl

    Also, a guy I knew in high school was an early adopter of the no-vidya lifestyle. He had spent the last couple years as a totally degenerate WoW-addict who did nothing else with his time, then he decided that he wanted to go to a good college and totally upended his life, sold his account online and superstudied all his classes, turned into a 4.0 student and copped 2300+ SAT and went to Williams. I’m not sure how he had that kind of clarity or self-direction at that age but I was really impressed.


  4. Rat face in progress here, I can say that luckily it’s not just the west. The whole Gulf and much of the Orient is hooked on the stuff to a greater extent…the sinking tide of Vidya..


  5. “If you’re vidya-addicted, and for young males that’s quite possibly the case, for God’s sake get off the stuff.”

    Since denial is common to addicts, here’s an objective litmus test: if you’re playing on anything harder than the very easiest difficulty setting available, you definitely have a problem. If you have stopped using cheat codes on that easiest level, you may already be a borderline case. Nothing so insignificant should be that difficult.


  6. Very timely post. I believe I have been addicted to civ4 for the last…7 years. Yesterday I deleted it from my account only to install civ5, which I find to be much less interesting and not addictive, but I fear this could change.

    My question to you is: how else should I unwind? I wake at 5 am, work until 330, drive home, take care of errands until 7 pm. I have no mental or physical energy left for the last two hours (plumbing is hard on both the body and the mind believe it or not) so what do you suggest as a good replacement for vidya?


  7. “[W]hat do you suggest as a good replacement for vidya?”

    There’s always reading. Start with something educational, or the great classics- use free time to expand your horizons, exercise your mind, or learn new valuable skills. If you’re too tired to focus on the printed word, there are audio books, lectures, & documentaries. The internet or your local library can supply all of these for free. Or use your spare time to practice a musical instrument- if there’s enough mental focus left for “Guitar Hero”, there’s enough left to actually learn guitar. (This may even create opportunities for earning side money- musicianship is utterly bankrupt as a primary career, but can sometimes pay off as a hobby). Like any addiction, the mind and body will find it difficult to adjust at first, and you may think you “don’t have the energy” to focus on anything that’s not a video game- but over time, the alternatives will grow easier as your atrophied attention span grows back.


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