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Are Video Games Good For You?

I’m looking forward to reading Steven Johnson’s new book (“Everything Bad is Good For You”), because he’s a good writer and his earlier stuff is highly provocative. I have to admit, though, that the advance material that’s seeping out is bugging me. Every one of my intellectual and emotional impulses wants to scream: This can’t be right. Here’s the author, from his blog, quoting the book:

“Imagine an alternate world identical to ours save one techno-historical change: videogames were invented and popularized before books. In this parallel universe, kids have been playing games for centuries—and then these page-bound texts come along and suddenly they’re all the rage. What would the teachers, and the parents, and the cultural authorities have to say about this frenzy of reading? I suspect it would sound something like this:

Reading books chronically under-stimulates the senses. Unlike the longstanding tradition of gameplaying—which engages the child in a vivid, three-dimensional world filled with moving images and musical soundscapes, navigated and controlled with complex muscular movements—books are simply a barren string of words on the page. Only a small portion of the brain devoted to processing written language is activated during reading, while games engage the full range of the sensory and motor cortices.

Books are also tragically isolating. While games have for many years engaged the young in complex social relationships with their peers, building and exploring worlds together, books force the child to sequester him or herself in a quiet space, shut off from interaction with other children. These new ‘libraries’ that have arisen in recent years to facilitate reading activities are a frightening sight: dozens of young children, normally so vivacious and socially interactive, sitting alone in cubicles, reading silently, oblivious to their peers.

Many children enjoy reading books, of course, and no doubt some of the flights of fancy conveyed by reading have their escapist merits. But for a sizable percentage of the population, books are downright discriminatory. The reading craze of recent years cruelly taunts the 10 million Americans who suffer from dyslexia—a condition didn’t even exist as a condition until printed text came along to stigmatize its sufferers.

But perhaps the most dangerous property of these books is the fact that they follow a fixed linear path. You can’t control their narratives in any fashion—you simply sit back and have the story dictated to you. For those of us raised on interactive narratives, this property may seem astonishing. Why would anyone want to embark on an adventure utterly choreographed by another person? But today’s generation embarks on such adventures millions of times a day. This risks instilling a general passivity in our children, making them feel as though they’re powerless to change their circumstances. Reading is not an active, participatory process; it’s a submissive one. The book readers of the younger generation are learning to ‘follow the plot’ instead of learning to lead.”

This is a parody. I know that. So no one is putting down books. But the kernel of the argument is present nonetheless. My instinct is that this vastly underestimates the power of literature as what Jonathan Zittrain refers to — in a very different context — as a “generative” force. The question is whether pop culture — videogames, reality television, whatever — is equally or more useful in that “generative” sense. Can you take gaming tools and build your own imaginative universe — not just online, in the game environment, but offline, in your head, on the playground, in the dorm room, in the lecture hall? I don’t know, but I’m skeptical.

The argument also strikes me as vastly overvaluing the idea that neurological stimulation is itself a measure of value. So I suspect that the book looks at cultural forms at the “wrong” level. I’ll take one more step toward the precipice: The cultural value of books lies precisely in their social role. Focusing on the mechanism of reading (and the mechanisms of gaming), even metaphorically, misses the forest for the trees. I would much prefer that my teenage son obsess over Shakespeare than over Halo II, precisely because I see the social benefits of my teenage daughter doing the former, and the absence of social benefits from the latter. Sure, my son is handy at IM, but can he handle F2F?

UPDATE (5/5/05): If you’ve read this far, note I’ve posted more notes on the book here and here.

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