When many adults think of video games, they envision bombs, bangs and blood. As a result, many parents try to restrict their children's gaming time. But according to new research, they might be missing some redeeming qualities.
"All these things that that have long been assumed to be rotting our brains, there might be this hidden benefit," said social critic Steven Johnson, author of the controversial new book, "Everything Bad Is Good for You."
Americans bought about 248 million games last year, enough for two in every household, according to a study by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
Johnson argues that video games -- violent or not -- are making children smarter.
"You have to manage multiple objectives at the same time," he said. "You have to manage all these different resources, and you have to make decisions every second of the game."
Video games typically require the player to complete a number of specific tasks to win.
"Well we have to get the Jeep, we have to ride up a hill, kill the snipers, drive past the mountainside, go into another giant palace and activate the remote," said one 10-year-old interviewed by ABC News while playing the Halo 2 video game, designed for the Microsoft Xbox gaming system.
Developing Problem Solving Skills
Children who play such video games exhibit what experts call "fluid intelligence," or problem solving.
"They have to discover the rules of the game and how to think strategically," said James Paul Gee, a University of Wisconsin-Madison curriculum and instruction professor. "Like any problem solving that is good for your head, it makes you smarter."
Intelligence test scores in the United States are rising faster than ever, experts say. One possible reason: Studies show video games make people more perceptive, training their brains to analyze things faster.
In a recent study by the University of Rochester, participants were asked to count the number of squares which were flashed on a screen for a 20th of a second. Gamers picked the right number 13 percent more often than non-gamers.
In the modern world of fast decision-making, e-mail and e-trade, games might be helping develop the kinds of skills kids need to succeed.
"They're out learning how to think in ways that will be absolutely useful to them when they go out in the world and do the same kind of thinking in an office," Johnson said.
Johnson says he would rather see kids playing non-violent games: and doesn't want his own young children playing violent ones. But even in the worst cases, he wants parents to recognize the potential benefits.
ABC News' John Berman filed this report for "World News Tonight."
Steven Johnson's extended essay, Everything Bad Is Good for You is nicely researched, elegantly argued and written – and is often personal. It persuasively rebuts the notion that popular culture is turning our brains into so much gray mush.
As someone who, at age 40, will confess to spending a fair amount of time playing PC and video games and occasionally writes about them for Wired News, I would like to say that I find Johnson's argument reassuring.
But I don't, because I began to feel about 10 pages into the tome that Johnson was setting up a straw man – the notion that video games and pop culture writ large are making us stupid. Having written but a few weeks ago that the new re-tread of Battlestar Galactica is the best sci-fi TV ever, in part because of its complex, threaded storylines, I didn't need to read a 200-page book to buy into the argument that pop culture is in a cognitive race to the top, not the bottom.
By focusing the book on setting up that straw man and knocking it down, Johnson largely misses the point of the more valid critique of today's pop culture.
Video games and TV – from The Sopranos to The Simpsons to Grand Theft Auto – may indeed be helping to make us smarter, and in surprising ways, just as Johnson argues. But the nagging and unanswered fear is that they may not be making us better people or helping us create a better society.
This is not to suggest that Everything Bad Is Good for You isn't worth reading. It's chock-full of interesting insights that are clearly the reflection of an agile and catholic intellect.
Johnson's broad proposition lies in what he calls the "Sleeper Curve." That's borrowed from a throwaway line in Woody Allen's Sleeper, in which scientists in the future bemoan our age for not having figured out that junk food is really good for us.
Johnson's Sleeper Curve refers to the hidden relationship between complex popular media and increasing IQ scores – particularly at the middle of the intelligence bell curve – that reflect a growing ability to handle and appreciate that complexity. (Although one will be left pondering which is cause and which is effect.)
The essay begins with a rumination on Johnson's own boyhood experiences exploring dice-based baseball simulations and Dungeons and Dragons games, and describes how he graduated from playing those simulations to building his own in search of a more realistic experience.
Writes Johnson, "... (my) solitary obsession with modeling complex simulations is now ordinary behavior for most consumers of digital-age entertainment. This kind of education is not happening in classrooms or museums; it's happening in living rooms and basements, on PCs and television screens. This is the Sleeper Curve: The most debased forms of mass diversion – video games and violent television dramas and juvenile sitcoms – turn out to be nutritional after all."
In Johnson's analysis, video games give us such a cognitive workout that it's a wonder we play them at all. It's particularly insightful when Johnson points out that what differentiates complex video games from traditional games like chess or Stratego with well-defined rules is that video games force you to figure the rules out yourself, which to the uninitiated can be supremely frustrating.
We do it, of course, because our brains like challenges, albeit ones packaged in particular ways (games as opposed to exercises in Euclidean geometry). This idea brings us back to Johnson's straw man. Yes, there is an aspect to the critique of today's pop culture that says games are making us dumber, and Johnson does a marvelous job of rebutting that notion.
It's all the more exasperating then that his thesis is framed entirely against that one dimension of the critique. Johnson either ignores or superficially touches upon the real darker dimensions of increasingly cognitively complex and addictive popular entertainment.
Like Johnson, I'll ground this in my own experience. I've recently migrated from video-game industry executive to working for a Silicon Valley startup involving technologies that could help people with severe chronic illness.
My company's future looks bright because our media-drenched society has wrought hordes of overweight couch potatoes who are on a collision course with diabetes and heart disease. (Note to Johnson: The Sleeper Curve unfortunately has not been proven to apply to junk food, which clearly also plays a role.)
An interesting but tragic counterpoint to Everything Bad Is Good for You is the recent book Diabesity, which chronicles the alarming rise in obesity rates and Type II diabetes, particularly in children. Author Frances Kaufman argues that today's video-game generation of children may be the first to have shorter life spans than their parents.
Beyond that, it's hard to read Johnson's argument that pop culture is good for us and contrast that with a society that collectively seems to be getting dumber. At least it's tuning into 24 and Lost and tuning out a growing quagmire in Iraq and not-inconsequential problems such as paying for Baby Boomers' retirement.
I'd like to see the correlation between the cognitive complexity and pervasiveness of popular culture and any measurements as to whether we're individually and collectively happier.
Which is to say, I'm grateful to Steven Johnson writing * Everything Bad Is Good for You *, but perhaps in ways he didn't expect. The next time I'm tempted to power up my PC for another skirmish round of Act of War: Direct Action, I'll leave my computer off and take a nice, long hike with my wife instead.