TV Features

How TV's "Good Cops" Promote Dangerous Narratives About Real-Life Police

Shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine make cops seem harmless, an illusion tainted with centuries of racism.

Two summers ago, during one of the darkest periods in my personal life, I found solace in Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a sitcom that stars Andy Samberg as Jake Peralta, an NYPD detective with an impressive track record of solved cases despite his goofy, unsophisticated demeanor. Since its premiere in 2013, the show has been commended for its representation of LGBTQ+ and BIPOC people; the recurring cast includes two very smart (and never overtly sexualized) Latina women, as well as two Black men in the precinct's top roles. In 2018, the show received a GLAAD Media Award for its depiction of queer characters. Throughout its seven seasons, Brooklyn Nine-Nine has addressed serious issues like workplace sexual harassment, reconciling with an absent parent, and coming out to disapproving family members, all while retaining a sharp, tasteful sense of silly humor. Rotten Tomatoes has given multiple seasons of Brooklyn Nine-Nine a perfect 100% rating, likening it to "comfort food."

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The Drug of Escapism: Why Gamers Can't Stop Watching Porn

Porn videos games and video game themed porn are suddenly on the rise.

One of the biggest things that sets Millenials and Gen Z apart from previous generations is their relationship with technology, a common critique being that video games have replaced real life for many young people, particularly young men.

It's true that many 20-and-30-somethings began playing video games when their brains were still malleable.This was before psychologists began raising concerns about the effect it may have on the brain, concerns that are now backed by a mountain of evidence. Frequent video game playing has been connected to a myriad of issues, including decreased life satisfaction, loneliness, decreased social competence, poorer academic achievement, increased impulsivity, increased aggression, and increased depression and anxiety.

These concerns have only been further highlighted in cultural conversation by the sheer number of people who play video games: 67% of Americans, to be exact, a number that has grown exponentially in recent years. Perhaps even more startling, according to Pew Research Center, 72% of men younger than 30 report playing games often. Scariest of all, Douglas Gentile, a psychologist who's been studying the effect of video games on the brain for decades, estimates that roughly 8.5% percent of young people who play video games in the United States are addicted — not including the number of people who are inevitably underreporting how much time they spend playing.

video game addicts

There's also plenty of evidence that video games can be a positive thing for brain development. According to Psychology Today, playing video games can help children develop "perception, attention, memory, and decision-making," as well as "logical, literary, executive, and even social skills."

But regardless of what side of the evidence you choose to believe, there's a new factor to consider in the conversation about video games' psychological effects: their relationship to porn. Most notably, according to a study by Laura Stockdale and Sarah M.Coyneif, playing an excessive amount of video games greatly raises your chances of becoming addicted to porn, and, likely, vice versa. This is because both sources of stimulus, primarily visual and aural, affect the same pleasure center in the brain, specifically the ventral striatum which helps elicit the good feelings you get when you do something good, can be done in the same environment (alone, in a technologically connected room), and are both sources of immediate satisfaction and escapism.

Prominent Stanford University psychologist, Phillip Zimbardo, conducted an in-depth study into 20,000 young men's relationships with video games and pornography. He said of the experiment: "Our focus is on young men who play video games to excess, and do it in social isolation - they are alone in their room. Now, with freely available pornography, which is unique in history, they are combining playing video games, and as a break, watching on average, two hours of pornography a week." He goes on to say, "It begins to change brain function. It begins to change the reward centre of the brain and produces a kind of excitement and addiction. Young men -- who play video games and use porn the most -- are being digitally rewired in a totally new way that demands constant stimulation. And those delicate, developing brains are being catered to by video games and porn-on-demand, with a click of the mouse, in endless variety."

As these commingled addictions develop, they soon (similarly to drug addictions) require greater and greater degrees of stimulation to get that same chemical release. But since these two addictions seem to affect similar demographics and often coincide with one another disproportionately, there's something that sets them apart from other forms of addiction. According to Zimbardo, porn and video game addictions are "arousal addictions," which differ from drug and gambling addictions in that the attraction is in "the novelty, the variety or the surprise factor of the content." So while drug addicts need increasing amounts of a substance to get high, they still crave the same substance over and over, while arousal addicts need an increasing intensity and variety of stimuli, as well as more and more.

This leads to a desire for increasingly intense stimuli, leading addicts to more violent and bizarre video games and porn in pursuit of novelty. Fascinatingly, and perhaps disturbingly, while these addictions are interwoven, they used to require separate stimuli to satiate — but even that's changing. In an inevitable progression, the two addictions have begun to seamlessly merge in the form of pornographic video games and video game-themed porn, allowing an addict to satiate both needs simultaneously, setting off a veritable fireworks display of dopamine responses — at least until the viewer becomes desensitized. For example, Fortnite-inspired porn is apparently so widely consumed that "Fortnite" was one of the top 20 most-searched terms on Pornhub in 2018, and in 2016, when Overwatch rose to popularity, searches for Overwatch porn jumped by 817% in a matter of months.

porn video games

Perhaps even more distressing is the advent of porn video games, where players take an active role in the plot of the explicit content they're viewing, perfectly intermingling the already connected addictions. While some of these games show consensual sexual intercourse, many do not. For example, RapeLay, produced in Japan, is a game where a player plays as a disembodied penis to simulate rape of a woman and her child daughters over and over again. There was a massive outcry against the game when it was released, ultimately causing Amazon to stop selling it — but not before millions and millions of people purchased the game.

As an article on the topic in Men's Health points out, this trend of combining two similar and symbiotic addictions is understandable as video games already often feature hyper-sexualized characters, porn is being watched more and more on video game consoles, and animated porn allows for a level of fantasy live-action porn can't reach. If your brain is lighting up in a similar way when you play video games and when you watch porn, of course you'll begin associating the two. Throw in the feeling of power that comes with having control over the results of the stimuli, as a player does in porn video games, and you have a perfect chemical spider web, one that ensnares young men in an endless and isolating cycle of escape.

There are legitimate physical issues that can result from addictions of this kind. There's evidence that it can lead to debilitating sexual dysfunction in young men, called porn-induced erectile dysfunction (PIED), a term coined by Dr. Abraham Morgentaler, an associate clinical professor of urology at Harvard Medical School — an affliction that can get worse as a video game addiction feeds off a porn addiction in a vicious cycle of dopamine release. Many doctors are reporting that more young men than ever before are coming to them with ED, and they think the cause is, at least in part, because of this rise in virtual escapism in young men. "I have absolutely seen a pretty drastic increase in ED rates among young men, especially in the last two, three years," says sex therapist Vanessa Marin. "My average client base is starting to get younger and younger."

man on phone during sex

Even more troublingly, Zimbardo concludes that the effects go even deeper, and that this toxic combination creates a "generation of risk-averse guys who are unable (and unwilling) to navigate the complexities and risks inherent to real-life relationships, school and employment." Of course, this estimation doesn't take into account countless other factors at play in the lives of young men, not to mention the risk that comes with shaming people for sexual exploration. As Dr. Marin goes on to say, "We're not having any conversations about what are healthy ways to engage in porn. So no one has a general sense of what's healthy and unhealthy when it comes to porn. And of course it's not black and white either, but I do see a lot of younger men engaging in porn in ways that aren't healthy, in ways that make it more difficult for them to connect with partners and make it more difficult to engage in their own healthy sexuality."

Perhaps the same can be said of video games, that are treated dismissively by parents, as a quirk of young men that should be, for the most part, discouraged until outgrown. Perhaps, the culturally polarized narrative surrounding video games and porn is part of the problem, and the conversation we need to be having is how young men can indulge in video games and explore their sexuality, without the shame that can often foster addiction — and without letting it consume their lives.


"Groundhog Day" and the Strange Phenomenon of Time Loop Movies

Since Bill Murray's 1993 classic, time loop narratives have somehow become a genre unto themselves.

Andy Samberg's record-breaking Sundance hit Palm Springs is the latest entry in the storied genre of time loop movies.

These now-familiar stories involve one or more characters becoming trapped by mysterious forces that cause them to relive the same stretch of time (usually a single day) over and over and over again. The phenomenon was made iconic by the 1993 film Groundhog Day, in which Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is a jaded TV weatherman who becomes trapped in the small town of Punxsatawney, Pennsylvania for an endless recurrence of the titular holiday.

Stephen Tobolowsky as Ned Ryerson Watch out for that first step. It's a doozy.

It's such a bizarre, nonsensical premise that it's hardly surprising it took until 1993 for someone to give it a feature film treatment. What's much weirder is the fact that the trope has since become such a mainstay of TV and movies. It has appeared in recent years in Before I Fall, Edge of Tomorrow (AKA Live Die Repeat), two Happy Death Day movies, the Netflix series Russian Doll, among countless lesser-known works.

Each new approach tends to add its own twist to the formula, with Palm Springs trapping two people (Andy Samberg's Nyles, and Cristin Miloti's Sarah) in the same time loop at their friend's wedding in Palm Springs, California. Beyond that, the characters are largely guaranteed to go through much of the same process we've seen in every other iteration of a Groundhog-style loop—trying to convince others of what's happening, learning from their mistakes, taking advantage of their knowledge to manipulate people and events. It can begin to feel like we're watching the same movie over and over and over…

And yet, Palm Springs just broke Sundance's sales record. So what is it about this premise that keeps drawing us in?

For a start, the formula is a good one. Groundhog Day is a classic movie, one of Bill Murray's best, and I could personally watch it every day for at least a decade or two without getting sick of it. Adding some variations and some new characters while treading the familiar, satisfying path that Harold Ramis established for us isn't so bad. But there's definitely more to it than that.

For a start, it exaggerates the absurd and empty repetition of modern life—in which the routine of each day, each week, each year tends to blur and blend into the next in a uniform mass of cyclic mundanity that slowly wears us down until we're too old and decrepit to be of value to our capitalist overlords. By magnifying the drudgery of carrying on, a time loop has the potential to become the sort of prison and punishment that the ancient Greeks loved to imagine for the afterlife. Every day, Ned Ryerson—Needlenose Ned, Ned the Head—is going to try to sell you insurance. Every day, the radio replays the same drivel. Every day, we are doomed to repeat the mundane tortures.

Drudgery Loop

And yet there is something about the time loop that is also freeing. You can say whatever you want and do whatever you want without consequence. One of the first things Bill Murray does when he realizes that he's trapped is to get wasted and get into a high-speed chase with the police, all with the assurance that he'll wake up in his bed with no hangover and no criminal record. The idea of speaking your mind and acting on impulse—of courting danger, excitement, and casual sex without risk of lasting consequences—is a potent fantasy.

But that still doesn't quite cover the explosive appeal of this new genre. It is tapping into a broader addition to media and culture: video games.

Multiple Marios

In the early 90s, the video game industry was in its adolescence. SEGA and Nintendo had brought it more fully to the mainstream, and facile attempts to convert that success into box office sales were already underway. But what movies like Super Mario Bros. overlooked was what people actually liked about video games. It wasn't so much about a character with a mustache fighting lizard people—or a drunken Bob Hoskins hiding his broken hand—people liked the experience of incremental improvement—of getting to try the same task over and over again, getting slightly better with each attempt, all in an environment in which the fear of failure was reduced to a transient concern. As the phenomenon of Let's Play videos has proven, people can even enjoy that experience vicariously, and that's what these time loop movies tap into.

The most obvious example of this is Edge of Tomorrow, which draws on many of the aesthetics and objectives of a sci-fi action game. Fight the aliens until you die. Figure out how to fight them better. Eventually make it to the boss alien and save the day with a climactic explosion. The centrality of the death-respawn mechanic is the most common alteration these stories make to Groundhog Day's original formula. While Phil Connors could live or die and still wake up to Sonny and Cher each morning for unexplained reasons, most of the newer versions—Russian Doll, Happy Death Day—have embraced a clearer narrative goal of not being killed. The loop resets each time the character dies, and they only need to survive/defeat their killer(s) in order to escape. Just like a video game.

Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow

There is a more frightening way in which video games have altered our culture, which these movies also point to: the gamification of life. While Groundhog Day doesn't specify how many times Phil Connors relives the same day, there's reason to believe his temporal captivity lasted multiple decades, if not much longer. That explains how Connors achieves a godlike knowledge of every person and event in the town—though not how he manages to maintain any semblance of sanity. He also becomes an accomplished pianist, a talented ice sculptor, a fluent French speaker, a practitioner of various life-saving skills, and really good at flicking playing cards into a hat.

The concept of having all the time in the world to develop those skills is alluring, but there are far too many influences telling us that this is how we need to spend the little bit of free time we have. Until you actually get stuck in a time loop, you are not a video game character, and you should not feel compelled to optimize every aspect of your life for some imagined future success. Just as you are never going to compete with a 19-year-old from South Korea who plays League of Legends professionally, you will probably never speak as many languages as Pete Buttigieg or learn as many household skills as Martha Stewart. And that's okay.

Whatever the message of Palm Springs or any of these other time loop stories, Groundhog Day makes its message clear: All those skills Phil picks up are not the key. It's not until Phil Connors engages authentically with his life and finds love that he is able to escape the prison of mundane repetition. Skill and success are both nice, but they cannot be goals themselves, because life is not a video game. All that work is empty without human connection. Love is the only real goal… Which is probably something Andy Samberg should have kept in mind before he decided to rip off the concept of his wife's fourth studio album.