Journalist and writer Steven Johnson (Steven Berlin Johnson) has been riding a wave. His latest book Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter presents a defence of video games. Before he became the leading apologist for the video game industry, he wrote an emerging technology column in Discover and had written a few books on technology, communication and popular culture. His writing supports and justifies the role of new toys in popular culture. Sometimes a hint of mystical reverence for the power of change and progress creeps in.
Last Friday (July 29) the Winnipeg Free Press published Getting Too Serious about Play, credited to Johnson and the Los Angeles Times. I found this short opinion piece published by the LA Times on July 27 – Hillary vs. The XBox which made the basic points, although it seemed to be shorter than what I read in the Free Press. He also has a feature article in the July issue of Discover Magazine titled Your Brain on Video Games. He was interviewed by the Washington Post in June.
I have mentioned him before. I wrote a post in May which linked to an article he published in Wired magazine which suggested that playing video games contributes to higher intelligence test scores.
Discover Magazine doesn’t grant online access to the full article unless you are (paid?) subscriber. In the article, Johnson mentions and quotes cognitive psychologist – James Paul Gee – author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, who is an influential source for Johnson. Gee suggests video games present increasingly complex puzzles, but never beyond the skills of the average consumer. Johnson cites Gee’s view (see Gee’s article in Wired in April 2003 – High Score Education) that video game designers employ the principles of “regime of competence” (which is basically the concept known in less scientific terms as “Flow“). Gee described it this way, comparing video games to schools:
The secret of a videogame as a teaching machine isn’t its immersive 3-D graphics, but its underlying architecture. Each level dances around the outer limits of the player’s abilities, seeking at every point to be hard enough to be just doable. In cognitive science, this is referred to as the regime of competence principle, which results in a feeling of simultaneous pleasure and frustration – a sensation as familiar to gamers as sore thumbs. Cognitive scientist Andy diSessa has argued that the best instruction hovers at the boundary of a student’s competence. Most schools, however, seek to avoid invoking feelings of both pleasure and frustration, blind to the fact that these emotions can be extremely useful when it comes to teaching kids.
Also, good videogames incorporate the principle of expertise. They tend to encourage players to achieve total mastery of one level, only to challenge and undo that mastery in the next, forcing kids to adapt and evolve. This carefully choreographed dialectic has been identified by learning theorists as the best way to achieve expertise in any field. This doesn’t happen much in our routine-driven schools, where “good” students are often just good at “doing school.”
Johnson makes an interesting play, which goes beyond Gee’s own claims. He suggests that games actually make children smarter, at least in working with computer systems. He argues that people playing games solve puzzles involving the interpretation of symbols and the internal logic of the game. That’s a somewhat circular argument. The extrapolation from gaming success to real-world skill owes more to science fiction than to hard science. Whether the skills involved in beating a game are transferable to other situations or constitute human “intelligence” is debateable. The skill set involved in playing games is a form of personal excellence, providing the player with a sense of satisfaction.
His recent writing is focussed on the intelligence claims but he spends some time debating with the critics of video games.
The main claim against video games is the claim – a common claim about philosophy, literature, drama, religion since the execution of Socrates by the Athenian polis – it teaches impressionable children and young people the wrong things about culture, ethics, morality sexuality etc, and that it makes young people – mainly male – (more) rebellious and violent. These claims seem to come from several different groups in modern society. Social conservatives claim that bad influences in modern society are weakening society. Women – including liberal feminists – claim that children learn vulgar and risky behaviour (bad language, bullying, promiscuity, drugs) from bad influences outside the family. Many teachers, educational psychologists, clinical psychologists and assorted other groups agree with liberal feminists. The common wish, within all these different interest and ideologies, is to control how children grow and learn, for the sake of the children and society. They all believe that the values and role models in the stories children encounter affect their values and their choices in a significant way. Social conservatives want to restrict rebellious and anti-traditional messages. Women want to restrict messages that undermine the influence of women as mothers. Women and liberals want to restrict messages of self-assertiveness, power, and violence.
Johnson tends to argue that only a few games are violent. On occasion, he argues forcefully – perhaps not rigorously – that the critics of video games are stunningly indifferent to all the other bad messages that children get from so many other sources in society. Human beings have selfish and altruistic elements in their characters, and we employ whatever skills and strengths we have to manipulate the world – including the social world – to meet our real and perceived needs. The argument that video games are a bad influence is rather weak. They can form part of a complex web of influences that produce bad behaviour in some individuals. But those influences work on inherent tendencies. We cannot calibrate or control behaviour by trying to detect and intercept all potentially bad influences.
I haven’t been convinced that video games are good for anything, and I think society would still run well without them. They are just light entertainment. Some people spend way too much time with video games, and some of those people have addictions or psychological problems. I think people could be spending their money and time better.