Friday, May 28, 2010

"The sky is not falling. In many ways, the weather has never been better. It just takes a new kind of barometer to tell the difference"

I've started re-reading my next book Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter by Steven Johnson.  I picked this as my next book because I figured I've read a couple fiction books and I should mix it up with a non-fiction one.  Originally I was going to re-read Kitchen Confidential but I've read that one a number of times and I've only read this one once before.  Don't worry, my next book will be completely new to me.  By the way, the title quote is from the intro, page xvi.

Steven describes the book as "an old-fashioned work of persuasion" (xv) to prove that today's pop culture is not a brain drain on the culture that every op-ed piece seems to suggest, but rather that there are actual cognitive benefits to TV and video games. 

His first section, and the section I've just finished reading, concerns video games, which is probably one of the most demonized forms of pop culture.  I will start this by saying I am not a gamer by any stretch of the imagination, though I did grow up with one in the form of my brother and thus have seen them in their natural habitat.  I can also say that my Brother the Gamer is far smarter than I am, so anecdotally I can see the brain drain is not affecting him.  I suppose this means I don't need to be persuaded but nonetheless, Johnson makes a compelling argument that video games have evolved from the days of Pong and PacMan to a system of complex tasks, learning through action or "probing" and delayed rewards.  He describes the "mental labor" it takes to complete the tasks "telescoping because of the way the objectives next inside one another like a collapsed telescope" and "part of this skill lies in focusing on immediate problems while still maintaining a long-distance view" (54) which Johnson argues is an important skill exercised by video games that is used in other aspects of life.  It's easy to judge video games by the same criteria books are judged by, but that misses the benefits video games do provide.  Video games won't replace Shakespeare, but then again neither will physics.

What are your general thoughts?  Are the majority of video games mindless wastes of time?  Or is there something more to them?

Johnson, Steven.  Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter.  Riverhead Books, New York.  2006.