In a near-future world, a select group of teenagers are chosen to beta-test revolutionary video games full time, living in a lavish dormitory that provides everything they could ask for and enjoying celebrity exceeding that of today's most famous athletes. But what makes this group so special, and what does the corporation behind it all truly have to gain from the teens' skills? In "A.D.D.: Adolescent Demo Division," noted media theorist Douglas Rushkoff turns his attention to the world of video games and the potential for good and ill contained within something as simple as play. Rushkoff, whose previous comic book work includes the "open-source Bible" series "Testament," is joined by artist Goran Sudžuka. The book is in stores now from DC/Vertigo.
Comic Book Resources and Rushkoff had a candid discussion of "A.D.D." and the ideas behind the book.
"Most simply, 'A.D.D.' asks, 'what if Attention Deficit Disorder were not a bug but a feature?' What if the things that we're seeing emerge from our very media-connected kids, what if these weren't illnesses or pathologies but rather adaptations? What if the abilities gained by the Newtype children of manga and anime, what if some of the things we're considering disorders are actually adaptations or reactions to the media environment in which kids are living?" Rushkoff told CBR. "We sort of asked the question, and then the story grew out of that. Ok, if ADD is a feature and not a bug, it means that someone made it happen, someone put it there. Who would do that, and why? I built a world around that 'what if' and wanted to get to the place of asking, 'what would constitute resistance in a world where corporations are trying to program us into submission?"
Rushkoff, who has published several books on media culture including the recent "Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commandments for a Digital Age," told CBR that in "A.D.D.," he wanted to examine such ideas in "a very human way," expressing his views in comic book form rather than a non-fiction treatise. The choice of artist, then, also became important, and Goran Sudžuka provided what both Rushkoff and the Vertigo editors were looking for. "Jonathan [Vankin], who was the original editor on this book, decided -- and I agreed -- that we wanted a simple, accessible style, focused on the acting rather than the environmental style," Rushkoff said. "At this point, it seemed less important to depict another version of the external media circus panoply of marketing imagery and all that -- which would be the obvious place to go -- and instead look at these kids in their starkest, most human reality you could, so you identify with the kids and their struggle. Goran's really good at the acting, at making their faces and body language exude what they're actually going through. We wanted to make these kids as human as possible so they're not just little game pieces."
Video games provide a useful context to explore Rushkoff's vision of modern society due both to the elements of play and because games are a constructed world -- much like our own, in Rushkoff's view. "A lot of these ideas occurred to me while I was in South Korea doing a television documentary that was largely about the pro gamers of South Korea. Spending time with them and seeing their world, it was so bizarre. It was such a bizarre existence that they had. On one hand, it was the idealized existence for any 14-year-old gamer, but on the other it was sort of this self-contained nightmare," the writer said, describing what is clearly a real-world analogue for the live-in game testing facility of "A.D.D." "Also, I've always been interested in gaming from the perspective of the playability of the world we're living in. Most people don't seem to recognize that we're living in a constructed world, that a whole lot of the things we take for granted as the given circumstances of nature are actually very specific creations of people, of man. And they're playable. The economy can be played with, the media can be played with. These are not laws of nature written in stone. These are very virtual worlds. We're living on top of operating systems, however much they try to hide that from us. You know, central currency is an operating system. It was developed in the 1200-1300s by specific people with specific goals. Now, we go around thinking this economy is some natural thing, this economy is the way all economies work, and it's not. Even this idea of free market -- we don't live in a free market. The extent to which this market is free is the extent to which we agree to play by the rules that were set in place by the people who invented the market that we're living in right now. Gamers, it seemed to me, especially good gamers, are people who have the ability to see beneath the rules to the actual 'who wrote this game' and 'what do they want this game to actually do.' How is this game rigged, and who rigged it, and why?"
While the gamers of "A.D.D." are all teenagers, there are, of course, no no small number of adults playing video games. We asked Rushkoff how these older players fit into his view of games in society (or games as society), to which he responded, "I do think that there's a developmental period. There's something going on between 12 and 21, that isn't when they're older. What's happening when you're young is, you're kind of a native of that environment. Your neuroplasticity is at its height, the degree to which you are shaped and formed by the world that you're in is really heightened," Rushkoff said. "Whatever TV you're listening to between 12 and 20, whatever music you're listening to, whatever clothes you're wearing, whatever technology is around, those kind of come naturalized.
"I think it was Alan Kay who said, 'technology is whatever was invented after you were born.' But there's that sense that, to a kid 12-20, the newest thing that might be in a game is just the way things are. Whereas to us, it's sort of this newish thing," Rushkoff continued. "You and I might look at 'Farmville' or 'Mafia Wars' as, 'oh, those are the little social games that were built on top of Facebook,' always from outside in. But to a nine-year-old who plays 'Farmville,' it's part of their formative experience of this space. I think they think of that as a classic! They think of that the way we think of 'Asteroids' and 'Space Invaders,' as these sort of archetypal experiences. People who were in their 30s and 40s when 'Space Invaders' and 'Asteroids' came out probably looked at it as some weird, new-fangled thing."
Of all the teen gamers of "A.D.D.," there is only one female at the testing site -- and there is a very specific story reason for this, as readers learn. With the ongoing discussion of women in comics and video games -- particularly, the scarcity thereof -- CBR asked Rushkoff for his thoughts on the causes and effects of women being sidelined in some popular media. "I think to some extent it's harder for the forces that be to hypnotize women the same way they hypnotize men," Rushkoff said. "Women were just as susceptible to the marketing of objects. In the 1950s, when they started marketing to women in America after World War II and trying to increase consumption, that's when kleptomania was first diagnosed -- and it was a women's disease, because they were so marketed to that they would go in and steal stuff from the department store. I'm not saying women are not programmable and susceptible, they are. But it tended to be more for 'the real.' I'm finding, at least, that boys and men are more susceptible to the attraction and hypnosis of 'the virtual,' whether it's pornography or video games or ideas. They seem to be more susceptible to these abstract forms of manipulation. Maybe men are more visual and less tactile; there's probably some old evolutionary biology reasoning for it. Men were hunting, so they had to stay at a distance; women were gathering, so they had to feel the berries in their hands. Who knows what it is, but it doesn't seem, for the most part, that these worlds are quite as compelling in the same way to women as they are for men. They are compelling -- now, the numbers are changing, and I think the number of women involved in social media is greater than the number of men. As the applications change, certainly the gender biases change as well. But this ADD video phenomenon thing does seem to be more boy than girl."
As technology has expanded what is possible in the real world -- events like the Arab Spring and Occupy movement would likely be impossible without the democratization of media made possible by smart phones, social media, and the like -- Rushkoff cautions in "A.D.D." that the very tools we perceive as liberating can also be dangerously limiting. "I wrote this 'Program or Be Programmed' book to give people commands through which they can orchestrate their media and digital experience, rather than just having them orchestrated for them. But the big one that I've been thinking about lately is not to mistake choice for liberty, or choice for freedom," he said. "A choice is not a choice if you're obligated to choose. If you're obligated to choose, it might as well be 'Sophie's Choice' or forced choice. You know, which of these detergent strategies do you want to use to clean your linen? Well, I don't want to use any of those, I want to use nuts or something -- which apparently you can use, some kind of nut shells that you stick in the wash. It's the sense of being bombarded by choice and then equating all of this increased choice with autonomy. It's just not. Every time you have to choose, you are submitting to the obligation to choose. And you're breaking your flow, you're breaking your concentration, you're breaking whatever it is you're doing to make that choice. 'Do I take this call waiting, or not?' You don't have to choose. That's a choice -- 'none of the above' really is a choice. And it goes beyond Coke or Pepsi, McDonald's or Burger King, to the fabric of reality, which is not this leaping from choice to choice but the existence that happens between the choices."
"A.D.D.: Adolescent Demo Division" by Douglas Rushkoff and Goran Sudžuka is available now.