Alexander Macris, founder and publisher of The Escapist magazine, came to “Sex, Tech & Rock ‘N’ Roll” with a question: is America getting fat on intellectual junk food?
Macris, 37, graduated from Binghamton University summa cum laude in 1997 with a degree in history. He went on to Harvard Law School and graduated magna cum laude in 2000.
During his time as a student at Harvard, Macris started his first Internet company, WarCry, a gaming news website focused on massively multiplayer online games. In 2005, Macris founded “The Escapist,” another gaming website with a much wider scope, featuring news, reviews, opinion columns, forums and videos.
His interest in gaming goes beyond publication, having designed six social games, including the award-winning “Heroes Mini.”
Despite his interest in new media and video games, Macris focused on the intellectual value of various media, as well as its decline over time, during his talk Sunday at TEDx.
Macris opened by discussing the value of food, splitting it into taste and nutrition. According to Macris, the same theory applies to media.
“Never before has the content menu offered so many varied, excellent tastes … But content also has nutritional values,” Macris said. “Just as food feeds our bodies, content feeds our minds.”
According to Macris, the quality and nutritional value of media has dipped over time, with the sentence length, paragraph length and reading grades of books dropping over the last century. He also cited the rise of television and Internet, respectively, as key points in history where content has been noticeably “dumbed down.”
“Unhealthy content damages our concentration, it shortens our attention span, it weakens our problem-solving skills, and increases impulsivity,” Macris said. “And like simple sugars, it leaves you with an addiction, wanting more.”
Macris said that current media has not only been simplified, but people are consuming even less of it, with Americans aged 15 to 24 watching about 120 minutes of television per day, but only reading recreationally for about seven minutes.
“It’s accepted that the declining popularity of written media and the popular rise of screen media was a dietary shift,” Macris said. “It means that not only are Americans reading simpler books, flipping through simpler magazines and learning from simpler textbooks — it means we are doing less of all of that.”
While screen media was shown to negatively affect a person’s cognitive abilities, it also had advantages, with video games particularly enhancing hand-eye coordination and the Internet helping to increase transactive memory.
Macris made it clear that people can still enjoy less intellectual media, but, like with food, it’s important to have a balance.
“Instead of a balanced diet with great-tasting content and a nutritious fare, we instead feed our minds the equivalent of deep-fried doughnuts,” Macris said, pulling a doughnut out from under the podium. “Mm, doughnuts.”
Pipe Dream: How did your experiences as a history major and your experiences in law school help in creating The Escapist?
Alexander Macris: The liberal arts education helped me learn to think critically, and also it gave me a lot of understanding of culture and it put me in a place to understand that what was happening with video games was a huge change in our culture. And when I created The Escapist, at the time there were already lots of websites that covered video games from a consumer/buyers’ perspective. The idea behind The Escapist is that we wanted to cover it from the perspective of a lifestyle that was developing — a gamer’s lifestyle. And I think studying history enables us to see that video games were going to be as important to culture as music, as publishing through the printing press. At the time we started The Escapist, people weren’t really looking at it right, there was still a lot of derision — the idea that video games could be art. In terms of law, law is just a great degree to have for doing business because 50 percent of what you do in business comes down to contracts. And being able to know my way around the law, it was a benefit as an entrepreneur.
PD: Gaming is in a strange place right now where more people outside the original demographic are taking part in it, but at the same time it’s receiving a lot of criticism from the media as a cause of violence, with the most recent example being the Sandy Hooks shooting. How long will it take before video games lose the stigma they are currently associated with?
AM: I think it will take roughly another generation, because at that point the people who grew up before video games will have aged out of positions of power, and from top to bottom every generation from that point will have grown up with video games, and to the extent that they’re aware that they were not turned into bad people by video games. They will be able to address the notion that video games should be the scapegoat for whatever’s wrong with society at that moment. Right now, we have an anomaly where everyone roughly beneath the age of 40 knows video games, grew up with them, has played them, loves them, and everyone over the age of 40 thinks that they are not for them. We’re seeing that change a little bit with the rise of these social games that are played by older folks, but in their mind, those aren’t games like the games they criticize, so they’re not able to draw the connection between the spectrum or the genre.
PD: Your talk focuses on the dumbing down of media. What are the pros and cons of this?
AM: Well, what I say in my talk is that we need to separate what I call “taste” from “nutrition” in content, so you consume content in a way that you consume food. The food you eat is the diet of the body, the content you consume is the diet of your mind. And what I talk about in the talk is that we’ve seen an explosion in the variety and quality in the “taste” of our content. There has never been a better time to consume content in terms of having a whole bunch of options of what it’s going to taste like, but in the process, we’ve lost a lot of the “nutritional” value, in the same way that we’ve lost a lot of the nutritional value of our food when we switched to industrial farming, corn-fed beef, things like that. It’s not that I don’t think we shouldn’t enjoy great experiences, but that we should be aware that when we consume content, we’re feeding our mind, and just like we’re careful that we don’t eat a diet of only doughnuts, we should be careful we don’t do the same with our content.
PD: You’re saying that media had dumbed down over time, but what about new media such as video games that hasn’t existed as long?
AM: This is a topic I didn’t have a chance to explore much just because of the 18-minute length of TED talk. What we know about video games is they increase your visual-spatial intelligence, they increase your hand-eye coordination and they increase your divided-attention abilities, which is the ability to track multiple objects on a screen at once. But we’ve also seen some evidence that video games are linked to attention-deficiency problems that we’ve also seen from other screen media. In terms of screen media, video games are the most nutritious screen media, but I wouldn’t say that you can abandon reading and only play video games and have your mind still be in great shape, for example. In terms of recent video games getting simpler, there haven’t been any quantitative studies on that yet. There have been studies that have shown that the screen complexity has gotten greater, which would suggest that the benefits are going to aid divided attention abilities. Annecdotally, there is a lot of evidence that video games from the ’80s and ’90s were more difficult. You had fewer opportunities to save, they often didn’t provide as many flashing arrows for the player, you had to make your own maps, there weren’t any strategy guides, things like that. So some hardcore gamers have begun to complain that modern games are shorter and modern games are less difficult than they used to be. From the game companies’ point of view, this is a benefit. Games are more accessible to a larger audience, which is the same thing that led to the same trends in books, magazines, newspapers.
PD: How would you sell video games as a medium to people who don’t consider them legitimate?
AM: I think that people have a very limited view of what the medium consists of. For example, first-person shooters will get a lot of coverage and people will focus in on the violence, but you rarely see people show a video game like “Europa Universalis” or “Civilization IV” or “Spore.” You rarely see someone show the level of complexity involved in running a “World of Warcraft” raiding guild and the sheer logistical effort and leadership skills that are developed in that. So I think the answer is that more exposure to more types of games, rather than the continued media narrative we have showing first-person shooters, talking about violence, and ending the conversation there.