Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The guypocalypse is nigh

Will Xboxes and X-rated videos really bring about the end of humanity?

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The North American male has been in a state of almost perpetual decline since the species -- Dudas americanis -- was brought forth upon the land, and immediately refused to come out of his room.

 

Lamentations over the fall of man reached a crescendo recently with the publication of a celebrated Stanford University psychologist's e-book, which suggests guys may be doomed by their addiction to Xbox video games and X-rated video dames. Among author Philip Zimbardo's more startling conclusions in The Demise of Guys, co-authored by Nikita Duncan: "Video games and online pornography could kill you."

As Zimbardo, 79, warns of the possible annihilation of the species -- apparently all because certain people can't be bothered to make their beds -- he is clad in black from head to toe. In the townhouse Zimbardo has lived in for 40 years just off San Francisco's Crookedest Street, he and his 25-year-old co-author zigzag through their case for the coming guypocalypse. "The demise of guys is a disaster in the making," Zimbardo says.

Of course, people have been predicting the demise of guys all the way back to the Old Testament. It's always something.

In the 1957 Broadway hit The Music Man, salesman Harold Hill notes the disastrous effect of a pool table on the boys he's trying to turn into a band in Ya Got Trouble. Yet somehow, boys muddled through long enough to bring us to the current crisis.

"Every generation thinks kids are going to hell in a handbasket," says Elaine Brady, a certified sex addiction therapist in San Jose, Calif. "The big difference here is these kids' brains are being rewired. These compulsive behaviours and poor impulse control do lifelong damage that is not easily going to be repaired."

For all the hand-wringing by parents and social scientists, there is little research linking the consumption of online sex and violent video games with the national crime rate, which has been going down as those two seemingly corrosive forms of entertainment have become more readily available. Certainly, there is more hard-core pornography available to any guy with access to a smartphone or computer than ever before, but if virtual sex is preventing males from forming lasting relationships with real women, the evidence at this point is more anecdotal than conclusive.

But Zimbardo is convinced the damage is already being done. He refers to the same "rewiring," and points to research connecting the dots between a 40-year low in boys' SAT scores, a National Center for Education Statistics study that reported boys are four to five times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder and 30 per cent more likely to drop out of high school and college.

"Guys are now spending a huge percentage of every day in a digital world," Zimbardo says. "Playing video games, watching porn, doing YouTube, texting, watching sports -- most of it alone."

"There's no doubt that males in our society -- whether out of sheer boredom or lack of coping skills in how to deal with stress -- are numbing down in these ways," counters Donna Lera, a California family therapist. "But is it inhibiting them from entering college? I don't know. These are brazen statements to me."

Zimbardo's 2011 TED talk has been viewed more than one million times at TED.com, the progressive think-and-talk incubator, but his argument video games and porn are the cause of a generation of zombiefied male misfits has been met with something far short of unanimity.

"Watching sports and porn is causing the 'demise' of guys? Sounds like pretty standard guy behaviour to me," says Luke Plunkett, associate editor of the video game website Kotaku, via email from Australia. "Strip away the graphics, and games like Call of Duty or StarCraft are just fancier versions of Monopoly, Solitaire, or any other type of traditional game. It sounds like he's throwing a whole lot of things together he just doesn't like and trying to make an argument out of it."

Until he tapered off to just an hour or two a day at his video console, San Jose's Omar Medic, 20, was the kind of young man whose gaming habits Zimbardo worries about. "I used to play games pretty much all day, eat, play again, and not really go outside that much," says Medic, after visiting a GameStop in San Jose.

Demise co-author Duncan says guys hanging around with other guys to play fast-twitch shooter games isn't helping them with women. She recently tried to make a connection with a man who sent her his phone number on Match.com. She suggested they talk that night. "And he's like, 'I don't call. I don't talk on the phone. I only text. If you don't text, it's a deal-breaker,'" Duncan recalls. "And I'm looking at this message, going, 'This is how you want a relationship to start?'"

It's the sort of not-so-wiseguy anecdote Zimbardo sprinkles liberally through the book. "They're growing up without the need to be a social animal," he says fretfully, "and they're certainly not having contact with girls."

The easy availability of hard-core sex online is sending boys to their rooms in ever greater numbers, says Leonard Sax, whose 2007 book Boys Adrift anticipated the current wave of boy-on-the-brink books, such as Why Boys Fail, by Richard Whitmire; The Trouble With Boys, by Peg Tyre, and Swagger, by Lisa Bloom. "The outcome of this is the decline of the United States as a global leader," Sax says.

Like Zimbardo, who says the isolation required for games and porn causes loneliness -- and that lonely people die earlier -- Sax insists the evidence of decline is all around us. "Anyone who would say American boys were as dysfunctional 40 years ago as they are today, I think is wrong on the facts.," Sax says. "Very few boys 30 years ago would boast about having a large collection of pornography and no boy would boast of preferring pornography over actual sex with actual women."

Outside a GameStop in Santa Clara, Salvador Chacon had only video games on his mind as he took his 12-year-old brother, Miguel, shopping. Salvador tries to restrict his brother's gaming to an hour or two a day because he thinks more than that is unhealthful. "I don't want him to be inside all the time," Salvador says, "and I don't want him to get addicted to it."

But when he is "too lazy to go out," he confides, he plays video games, too. Inside the world of the game, there is no one to tell him what he can or can't do. It's just him and the avatars he's trying to kill.

-- San Jose Mercury News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 21, 2012 J16

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