But In the End, There It Is
Let me tell you about the Implicit Assumption Test (IAT). It was 2015. I was in business school. Only less than half of the 25 or so students were native-born Americans, though three or four foreign-born students were American citizens. The rest of the class was from countries throughout Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and South America. To say it was a diverse group would be an understatement.
Being an MBA program in the modern era, we had to look at diversity and the issues surrounding it. To “better understand” the role race plays in the workforce, we had to understand our own implicit biases and whatnot, so we took the IAT.
The IAT, at least at the time, consisted of a picture of a man or woman with negative adjectives on one side and positive adjectives on the other. If I recall correctly, positive was on the left and negative was on the right. Below each adjective was a button you could click to make a selection as to whether the given face was “attractive” or “ugly,” or if the person was “decent” or “criminal,” “intelligent” or “stupid,” “trustworthy” or “shifty,” and so on. We were instructed to not think, just click.
The test began. A series of white faces, both men and women, were shown to us. Don’t think, click. The sound of mouse buttons being pressed filled the otherwise silent classroom. Click click click. For every single white face, the positive adjective was on the left side of the screen, and the negative adjective was on the right. I, and I later learned all of my classmates, clicked the positive adjectives on the left since there was no real way to know anything about the people behind the faces, and therefore we gave them the benefit of the doubt.
Thus concluded part one.
And then part two began. Again, we were told to just click without thinking. Snap decisions and all of that Malcolm Gladwell nonsense. The IAT resumed, this time with black faces. Once again, positive adjectives were on the left, and negative adjectives were on the right.
Click click clickety click.
Soon, however, the clicking noticeably slowed down, less a room full of overactive crickets and more a room full of inquisitive ones. Suddenly, the placements of the positive and negative adjectives were switching sides.
“You shouldn’t be thinking,” the professor said again. “Just click. Go with what’s first.”
Many of us complained that this wasn’t a fair test, including black students. Didn’t matter. Just click.
So we tried to anticipate which side the positive adjectives would be on, since again, none of us had any reason to assume someone was bad or stupid or whatever based on their race and their race alone. Of course, there was also the aspect that we’d be scored on our racism by a program derived at Harvard of all places! Nobody decent wants to be thought of as prejudiced because most people are decent.
You can see the angst caused by this test.
Regardless of the angst, we had discussions with our professor about how this test could not possibly be accurate given the mechanical nature and the fact that it did not provide a consistent format throughout. “It’s almost as if the test is set up to make people think that they’re biased in favor of white people against black people,” one of us said.
“The IAT is completely accurate and was designed by Harvard” was the reply from our professor.
As if that was supposed to settle it!
I don’t care where this test was designed. It’s bullshit. It would be one thing if you were told to speak your adjective-of-choice instead of clicking on it. To me, that’d be a far more accurate representation of someone’s implicit biases, if such things actually (a) exist and (b) can be measured with any degree of accuracy.
Think about it: we have these tests where people are being told that, thanks to science!, they think things that the person themselves might not actually think! How psychologically damaging is that?
I think that’s the point.
Enough about the IAT. Let’s talk about video games.
* * *
It’s no secret that I enjoy old video games. In particular, old PC games have a soft spot in my heart. Let me bring you back to the mid- to late-1980s and the heyday of Sierra Online.
Sierra, for those of you who don’t know, was one of the leaders in computer entertainment. Started by Ken Williams and his wife Roberta, the legendary game designer of Mystery House and a little series you might have heard of called King’s Quest that just so happened to revolutionize graphical games, push the boundaries of storytelling, drive the development of technological advances in computing such as graphics and sound, and is in general a titan in the world of computer gaming, Sierra quickly blossomed into a media conglomerate that put the games first, took care of its designers, and dominated the gaming landscape into the late 1990s when Ken Williams sold it to venture capitalists for a hefty sum . . . without knowing that the purchasers were liars, cheats, and thieves who had defrauded everyone around them, including Sierra.
You can read all about this in Williams’ excellent story of the rise and fall of Sierra, Not All Fairy Tales Have Happy Endings.
The Williams’ are people with big ideas, and they ran Sierra with that ethos. Roberta would envision things she wanted for games, and Sierra would make it happen. Ken would envision what he wanted Sierra to be, and by golly most of his ideas bore fruit. However, like all visionaries, sometimes Ken’s reach exceeded his grasp, and his ideas resulted in failure, such as The Sierra Network, which essentially invented online gaming and the broader community-based Internet, and even the technical aspects of how it may work; this idea was, alas, thwarted by the technology of the day.
But when Sierra was firing on all cylinders . . . man, were their games magical.
My uncle is a decade younger than my father, and my parents had my brother and me young, so while I was still a young lad of six or so, my uncle was only twenty-two or so, and had not yet moved out of my grandparents’ house. Whenever my brother and I, and later my sister, visited my grandparents, my uncle was there which was always fun. Among his interests were computes, an interest my grandfather always shared, so they had an at the time state-of-the-art Leading Edge PC complete with two floppy disk drives . . . and a color screen! Wow! We only had a monochromatic screen at home!
They also had computer games, among them King’s Quest III and later IV, Police Quest, Space Quest, and . . . uh . . . Leisure Suit Larry.
The less said about Leisure Suit Larry the better.
The point of all this is that my memories of these adventure games is inextricably tied to spending time with my brother, my grandfather, and my uncle figuring out how to arrest the Death Angel, or escape the evil wizard Mananan, or thwart the Sariens from using the Star Generator, or helping Larry Laffer to . . .
. . . on second thought, let’s keep this a family blog.
Due to this association, my love for Sierra games was carried into my teens and young adulthood. I especially enjoyed Lori and Corey Cole’s excellent adventure/RPG hybrid series, Quest for Glory.
Fast forward to the early 2010s when I discovered a pair of chornogaming blogs I still read to this day: The Adventure Gamer and The CRPG Addict. In the interests of full disclosure, let it be known that I have reviewed games for the former, and concurrently reviewed Quest for Glory III with the latter.
The Adventure Gamer was run by an Australian fellow who went by Trickster, and he’d play games, document his playthroughs, discuss his thoughts on game design, explore the history of adventure gaming, and finally provide a comprehensive rating. When Trickster stepped down from the blog, many of the regular commenters, including yours truly, offered to keep the blog going, where it continues to this day.
The CRPG Addict follows a similar format, but with an eye on role-playing games made for the computer. Hence the acronym. Run by the pseudonymous Chester Bolingbroke, his site takes deep, almost obsessive-compulsive dives, into these games. It’s great reading about well-known games and why they work, but it’s even better reading about obscure, scantly-documented games to discover whether they are hidden gems or best remain forgotten.
Chet, however, is a human being. And like all human beings, his biases and predilections come through in his writing. There is nothing wrong with this. That is on full display in my own writing as well. The interesting thing is that I’m such a fan of Chet’s even though the only things we have in common are that we are both male, both white, both straight, both married, and both in our forties, and both New Englanders. Otherwise, we’re polar opposites: I am a Christian, I have children, and I can best be described politically as “not leftist,” but I’m not a Republican or a conservative or a libertarian either. Chet is childless, atheist, and as far as I can tell, a doctrinaire liberal/Democrat, which I classify as “Agrees with whatever the current progressive zeitgeist says it’s time to agree with at the time.”
This is not meant as a personal insult, by the way. I like Chet. But you have to understand, this is a man who put an entire blog post in 2016 expressing his support of Hilary Clinton’s candidacy for president in a now-deleted post whose title was something like “No Racists Allowed.” Not “I’m with Her!” or “I Stand with Hilary!” The post basically told everyone who supported Donald Trump that they were racists and shouldn’t read or comment on his blog. How’s that for an implicit assumption!
Every once in a while, explicitly political topics come up, such as jokes about Glenn Beck and the Tea Party in the early days of his blog. There are also occasional references to LGBT issues or racial politics, but nothing super-intrusive.
His March 20 post, though . . . his March 20 post is interesting for two reasons. One, because of my own experiences with the IAT, and two, Chet’s reaction to a different point of view.
The March 20 post deals with depictions of Native Americans in computer games. It’s an interesting topic that Chet would be uniquely poised to shed light on, given his extensive knowledge of gaming history. He begins his post with a discussion of the IAT and his experiences with it—check it out for yourself. I’m not going to critically examine every word of Chet’s post, since the post itself is only the background for my point. It’s his response to a comment that’s important.
Chet’s comment section is always entertaining. A lot of knowledgeable people tend to opine about the games under discussion, as well as any other topics. It’s also interesting because Chet admits he deletes comments he politically disagrees with. As someone who believes that free speech is both utter nonsense and utterly unworkable, and understands that free speech was a progressive canard to disarm their opposition until they could destroy religion and tradition and then kick the free-speech ladder out from under them once they’ve achieved hegemony and power via ruthless application of the friend/enemy distinction, I had no problem with this.
I do take issue with someone claiming to be a rationalist atheist untainted by all of that religious mumbo-jumbo and supernatural woo to lack self-awareness to the degree that evidence counter to his stated belief can be utterly dismissed without even entertaining it.
Check out this exchange from the comments. I took a screenshot in the event it gets deleted:
“All I can say is that its [the IATs] results ring true for me and it has made me reflect numerous times on my own attitudes and behavior, so in that sense it has done its job.”
If Chet feels like his own “attitudes and behaviors” need to be reflected upon, great. But what the motivation for said self-reflection is based on something that is untrue? Doesn’t the objective truth matter? What if these flawed results are the things that planted the seed in Chet’s mind that he needs to reflect on his own “atittudes and behavior.” Doesn’t he, a seeker of truth, not resent such manipulation? Doesn’t whether the IAT is actually providing an accurate depiction of Chet’s attitudes or not make a difference? Chet is colorblind, a topic he discusses quite often on his blog. What if the test for colorblindness actually produced inaccurate results or an inaccurate diagnosis, and people telling him that the color he thinks is gray is actually blue are lying to him? Wouldn’t that be a big deal?
That example sounds ridiculous on its face, but use it as a metaphor for the IAT and it’ll make more sense.
Check out the article Mr. Quinn posted. It’s actually a good, comprehensive critique of the IAT, featuring some great information that anyone purporting to feel “racist” due to the IAT, or anyone who actually cares about the capital-T Truth, might be interested in, such as the little fact that:
The IAT, this research suggests, is a noisy, unreliable measure that correlates far too weakly with any real-world outcomes to be used to predict individuals’ behavior — even the test’s creators have now admitted as such. The history of the test suggests it was released to the public and excitedly publicized long before it had been fully validated in the rigorous, careful way normally demanded by the field of psychology. In fact, there’s a case to be made that Harvard shouldn’t be administering the test in its current form, in light of its shortcomings and its potential to mislead people about their own biases. There’s also a case to be made that the IAT went viral not for solid scientific reasons, but simply because it tells us such a simple, pat story about how racism works and can be fixed: that deep down, we’re all a little — or a lot — racist, and that if we measure and study this individual-level racism enough, progress toward equality will ensue.
If the IAT is supposed to be a guidepost that the movers-and-shakers of American society use to make decision that affect us regular peoples’ lives in matters of policy such as race-based preferences, affirmative action, hiring, and university admissions, this debate is very much worth getting into. If the IAT can create cognitive dissonance in the minds of decent people who don’t harbor bigoted views but will do anything to assuage themselves of this manufactured guilt, isn’t that a big deal?
The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.
Herein lies the issue I take with Chet’s response. He is approaching this issue with the dogmatism of a—gasp!—a religious person! After all, isn’t a common criticism of the religions (i.e., Christians) that they take things on faith based on what the feel as opposed to empirical evidence (despite two thousand years of providing empirical why Christians still persist in belief; whether or not one personally agrees with the proffered evidence is utterly irrelevant regarding whether the evidence exists).
How much do you want to bet that Chet would mock a flat-Earther who clings to the belief that the Earth is flat despite evidence to the contrary because flat Earth just “rings true” for them? Does this feeling negate the actuality of the Earth’s true shape? Feelings, I suppose, are no proxy for empirical evidence and should not be an excuse to ignore contrary information, until they are.
It is one thing to look at counter evidence, weigh it, and decide you are not persuaded. It’s another entirely to dismiss it because your current opinion feels correct.
* * *
This post isn’t about the IAT. It’s about truth and lies, about fact and fiction, about reality and manipulation. I personally resent very much things that are passed off as scientific and accurate but which are actually false and produce inaccurate results, especially when said results are used to browbeat me into feeling a certain way about something or other. The news media does this, the government does this, advertisers do this, the medical establishment does this, certain religions do this, cults do this, and the education establishment does this, among other things.
It should matter whether a thing you personally believe is actually true or not. At the very least, having the intellectual honesty to believe something despite the evidence to the contrary, is far more respectable than simply saying “I don’t care about this contrary evidence and I’m simply not even going to consider it for a second” (yes, I’m looking at you, maskers).
Our culture is largely governed by lies, what people are told is true, and what people wish was true. This seeps not only into governmental policy, but into our arts and culture, the stories we tell and how we tell them. Many things that are passed off as being good for us individually and collectively are about as healthy as ass cancer, and that which is good and virtuous is mocked as being damaging and deleterious to true human suffering.
Call it Clown World, Opposite World, Bizarro World, whatever. All that matters is that bad is being called good, lies are being called truth, ugliness is being called beauty, and vice versa. You can feel this in your core, and it either bothers you enough to seek out what is actually true, or it bothers you so much you block it out and console yourself with distractions and feel-good bromides so you don’t have to worry about it anymore. Do what you’re told. Trust the experts, especially if they’re from Harvard–they’d never lie, after all! Go along to get along.
There are numerous expert opinions and peer-reviewed articles on both sides of the debate, and as non-psychologist, I can’t parse them. Neither can most people who will read this, but they will naturally decide to support whatever side conforms with their existing biases.
Get the hell out of here, man! I’ve read enough of Chet’s blog to know that he’s a very smart individual. I’ve also read that piece from The Cut and can tell you that someone of Chet’s intellect can absolutely parse these opinions and peer-reviewed (as if being “peer-reviewed” means anything anymore) articles on either side. This is a dodge, and a pretty weak one at that. At least Chet has the honesty to admit that “people . . . will naturally decide to support whatever side conforms with their existing biases.”
I guess I’m “supporting” the side that conforms with my existing biases as well. And my bias is having enough smarts to know that the IAT, at least the version I took back in 2015, is so laughably flawed that the only people who believe it would have to be people who want to believe it.
And now we’re back where we started.