Life Coach

Dr Peter L Nelson

The Great Attention Robbery

The stealing of our children's attention by digital games.
Many of us grew up hearing a voice often ringing in our ears demanding that we, “Pay attention!”

Sometimes that insistent call forced us back on task, but at other times we rebelled and deployed our attention to whatever in our environment drew our focus. For the most part those who attempted to get us focused by one means or another, usually didn’t understand the secret of how to capture attention and hold it. The primary technique used in the past was demand to attend followed by a threat of some sort of discomfort that might be inflicted if we did not obey. Most times we complied, but sometimes not—for my generation it was a hit-and-miss affair, so to speak.

Years later, along came a new force in the battle for our minds—the attention robbers. They pulled off the great heist that every teacher and parent wished they could do. These robbers had found the secret of generating self-rewarding dopamine surges in the brain, in real-time, through a simple psychomotor engagement.

They discovered that the key to unlocking this vault of potential attention could be employed most effectively through digital games. By providing an engaging activity incorporating ever-repeating small successes (“wins”) that cause the reward system of the brain to internally inject a regular micro-fix of rewarding dopamine to the games-player, attention could be held (captured) indefinitely. In this setup, the eyes of the player remain firmly focused on the digital scene unfolding on the screen as fingers remain poised on a ‘button’ capable of releasing the next successful hit with its attendant neurotransmitter ‘fix’.

Typically, in these ‘games’ the screen shows an unfolding scene in which there is a constant ‘forward’ motion with an expectation that something is about to happen—a character or scene suddenly will appear. The player’s task is to respond to the sudden occurrence, succeed in what has to be done (shoot, blowup, dodge, etc.) and, after success, to be carried forth by the continuing forward momentum of the screen’s generated sense of motion. Success at each encounter, followed by forward motion causes the release of a ‘squirt’ of the brain neurotransmitter, dopamine, that tells the brain ‘success’, and thus provides a rewarding experience. The continuing forward motion further promises that another possibility of a ‘win’ is soon to come—the player just has to keep engaged for a short interval and another opportunity for the pleasure of success will arrive.

No longer does the player require an external urging voice to remind him to keep his attention on the task—it’s self-sustaining because of the promise of reward, the short duration required before the next one arrives, the sense of forward motion and the inevitability that the next opportunity for reward will arrive soon.

The player’s awareness is now hijacked and any external demand to deploy attention elsewhere will be ignored, unless the pressure applied is sufficiently intense: “If you don’t put that iPad down, I’m going to confiscate it for a week,” repeated many times. The hijacked attention only can be claimed by another person with difficulty and the response from the player is usually irritability and anger. It’s no different than removing the nipple from the mouth of a suckling infant before he is sated. However, with digital games, there is no internal sensors to signal that enough-is-enough, so there is no natural ending point.

Throughout my academic writings on consciousness I have claimed that consciousness itself and what we take to be reality, as given to us through conscious awareness, is driven by how and to what our attention is deployed (an example of my thinking on this subject is to be found here).

Our total capacity for thinking, feeling, problem-solving, creating, and registering other living beings depends on the quality of our attention and how it is focused. As the home page of this website says, “Our worlds are created by how we use our attention…change how you deploy your attention to change your world.”

Britain’s foremost expert in existential psychotherapy, Ernesto Spinelli, calls this ‘Worlding’. I, too, have spent a lifetime studying and exploring how attention drives our knowing and the creation of our experiential worlds. My view is that the most successful, aware and creative people develop what I call a fluid point-of-view (POV). Most of us learn to create a fixed POV early on in our development that tends to keep us trapped in an epistemic box—in an experiential world of diminished awareness, knowing and possibility. These are attentional styles and skills demanded of us by our families and education that are utilitarian in the context of our cultures and beliefs. They are required in order to participate in our social worlds. However, digital gaming emphasizes an even narrower, more fixed attention that entraps us through its innate reward system.

It’s not that digital games are only bad or useless, rather, it is that they accentuate a rigid mindset and create a POV that is overly fixed and diminished in scope. On the positive side, the kind of focus and task constancy that people learn playing digital games could be useful, but with all that training for constantly recurring reward, I’m not sure that any useful ability is developed in any task other than those that provide immediate positive feedback reward at every small success. Many of these games are, however, good training grounds for anyone wanting to become a serial shooter in changing terrain, like soldiers and other kinds of mass killers.

When parents are confronted over the issue of letting their children play games constantly, the adults always complain about how difficult it is to get their children separated from their screens. What they often seem to be saying is that the tension and fight caused by that struggle further stresses families that are already under stress. On the other hand, this digital engagement of their children reduces the difficulty of parenting by providing a digital babysitter. If their children are engaged in shooting and blowing up digital monsters and enemies, then they know where they are and don’t have to worry about them being involved with something dangerous in the external real-world of bodies and machines.

Yes, safe from physical harm, but deeply engaged in an activity that diminishes that which is most importantly human: awareness, imagination, empathy, compassion and self-initiated control of one’s own attentional resources.