Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Everything Bad is Good for You by Steven Johnson

Well, I'm always telling my daughters how they shouldn't waste their time watching TV or playing video games and that they should be reading instead and then along comes a book (brought to my attention by my teenager) that tells us that playing video games is actually good for us. After I got over the shock, I delved more into what the author and social critic, Steven Johnson, was saying and I have to admit *gasp* that I actually agree with quite a big chunk of his argument that pop culture could be brain candy to a certain extent.

Here's an extract from a review of his book in "The NewYorker" written by Malcolm Gladwell of "Blink" and Tipping Point" fame:

As Johnson points out, television is very different now from what it was thirty years ago. It’s harder. A typical episode of “Starsky and Hutch,” in the nineteen-seventies, followed an essentially linear path: two characters, engaged in a single story line, moving toward a decisive conclusion. To watch an episode of “Dallas” today is to be stunned by its glacial pace—by the arduous attempts to establish social relationships, by the excruciating simplicity of the plotline, by how obvious it was. A single episode of “The Sopranos,” by contrast, might follow five narrative threads, involving a dozen characters who weave in and out of the plot. Modern television also requires the viewer to do a lot of what Johnson calls “filling in,” as in a “Seinfeld” episode that subtly parodies the Kennedy assassination conspiracists, or a typical “Simpsons” episode, which may contain numerous allusions to politics or cinema or pop culture. The extraordinary amount of money now being made in the television aftermarket—DVD sales and syndication—means that the creators of television shows now have an incentive to make programming that can sustain two or three or four viewings. Even reality shows like “Survivor,” Johnson argues, engage the viewer in a way that television rarely has in the past:

Johnson develops the same argument about video games. Most of the people who denounce video games, he says, haven’t actually played them—at least, not recently. Twenty years ago, games like Tetris or Pac-Man were simple exercises in motor coördination and pattern recognition. Today’s games belong to another realm. Johnson points out that one of the “walk-throughs” for “Grand Theft Auto III”—that is, the informal guides that break down the games and help players navigate their complexities—is fifty-three thousand words long, about the length of his book. The contemporary video game involves a fully realized imaginary world, dense with detail and levels of complexity.

What I didn't like however was what he had to say about books. He denounced books as being a solitary, isolated pastime where kids didn't have a chance to interact with their peers through the process. No? How about book groups? Or school competitions like "Battle of the Books"? I think those are f ine ways for children to discuss books together, don't you?

In the author's words:

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. . . .
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. . . . 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.

Bah, I say!

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