Monday, May 30, 2005

Everything Bad is Good for you

I like video games, but I'm terrible at them. When I play SimCity, a game that lets use design a city and then try to manage and nurture it, my metropolises quickly evolve into eyesores that depend on money skimmed from crack houses (by the corrupt police force) for their tax revenue. Then they decline. Steven Johnson, in his book "Everything Bad is Good for You: How Popular Culture is Making Us Smarter," argues that I should try harder.

Johnson's book is easily the most optimistic I've read in years. He says today's television shows, films, video games, the Internet and even reality TV aren't in a race to the gutter, as people have been predicting. Instead, the increasing complexity of these diversions are giving our brains a workout.

The effect of this can be seen in the Flynn Effect, named after a researcher who discovered that IQs have been rising at an increasing rate since World War II. The trend wasn't noticed initially because the designers of IQ tests rejig them periodically to ensure that someone of average intelligence rates 100, inadvertantly making the test's more difficult over time. The boost can't be attributed solely to other factors, such as better nutrition or better schools. People have been getting smarter as average height (directly related to nutrition) and school test grades have stagnated or declined.

The few points a decade may not seem like much, but as Johnson points out, it adds up. Someone who scores in the upper 10 percent of the population in 1920, if put in a time machine and given the test again, would be in the bottom third today. Yesterday's geniuses are today's dunces, Johnson says.

On video games, Johnson doesn't argue that Grand Theft Auto or SimCity compare in literary quality to Charles Dickens. What video games offer is a mental challenge: it takes hours of probing, experimenting and juggling of multiple concepts to figure out how to get over that next mountain without getting killed by trolls, or get down a hallway that is blocked by an electrofied puddle of water, or even just to figure out the basic rules. And it isn't the violence that attracts gamers (average age: 29), but complexity. Indeed, the most popular games sound less than thrilling -- kids spend weeks holding down two virtual jobs so that they can support the family of six they've spawned in the Sims., Johnson says. And they enjoy it.

He tells of once spending 15 minutes explaining SimCity to a seven-year-old. The child noticed that the business district wasn't exactly thriving. "I think we need to lower our industrial tax rate," the boy says. How long do you think that child would have stayed awake during a lecture on city planning, Johnson asks?

Even the violent games (and Johnson doesn't deny that many popular games are violent) aren't what they seem to the parent who only glances over occasionally. Kids aren't idiots. They know this is fiction. What keeps them engrossed for the average 40 hours it requires to get through a video game is the puzzles, the mental challenge. They aren't just wasting bad guys, they're getting through the warehouse, to pick up the tools they need to crack the safe in the penthouse, to retrieve the code needed to defuse the bomb, etc. If violent games caused violence, why has overall rates of violent crime dwindled at the same time these games exploded in popularity, Johnson asks? And how does the violence in these games compare with Oedipus, a random chapter of the Old Testiment or Grimm's Fairy Tales?

There's an economic incentive, as well. Games have to be complex enough to keep an intelligent person occupied for weeks and challenging enough to support an ecosystem of Web sites and 200-page game guides. And the bar keeps rising. From Pong, through PacMan through Lord of the Rings. Games developed for millions fail every year because they're too easy.

In television, the trend is similar, but driven by different economic motivations. Successful TV shows make millions selling DVDs and endless serialization on endless channels. They're designed for repeatability, to reward people who put some effort into it, who want to watch it again to see what they missed. In previous decades, you watched an episode of Charlie's Angels or Happy Days once, then had to wait months for the network to rerun the episode during the summer, or years for the episode to appear again in syndication. The episodes had to be simple, three-act plays, with nothing mentally challenging about them.

That began to change with shows such as Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere. The dramas used multiple story lines in the same show -- as many as 10 -- and required viewers to do some of the thinking and keep track of dozens of social relationships, sometimes over years. Shows began to use avante garde methods -- an episode of Sienfied got 30 million viewers for one episode that ran the scenes backwards. The punch lines game after the setup. On first viewing, the show was incomprehensible. People had to tape and watch it again to make any sense of it. It remains one of the most popular episodes of Sienfield ever. Similarly, the average episode of the Simpsons, Johnson says, contains dozens of references to film plots, politics and popular culture that emerge over time. And you can watch the show on many levels -- the simple slapstick and then the inside jokes. The Simpsons reward repeated viewings.

In film, the trend has been less evident, partly because viewers must be able to digest it all in two hours. You don't have the luxury of time. But that said, films such as Adaptions and Being John Malkovich also use what avante garde directors would have considered experimental in the 1950s and 60s, Johnson says. Yet they get millions of viewers and sell well on DVD for years. They may not be blockbusters at the box office, but they will almost certainly make more money for their creators over time than many summer smashes. Some, such as Lord of the Rings have been extraordinarily successful with extremely complex plots. The three Rings movies run for over 10 hours in their DVD formats, which are still grossing hundreds of millions. In 2003, DVD sales outstripped box office receipts for the first time, Johnson says.

On the Internet, an explosion of diversions has turned millions into writers, communicators and participants in politics and the community. It's filled with what Johnson calls "lean forward" diversion -- requiring participation from the user -- as opposed to "lean back" technology such as television.

Johnson uses reality TV to show that even if you compare today's average fare with yesterday's average, the trend still holds. The Apprentice is similar to video games in that the rules aren't evident when the game starts -- they change over time, and require a great deal of emotional intelligence on the part of the viewer to keep track of the alliances, strategies and warring camps. Compare that with The Price is Right or Wheel of Fortune.

In the end, Johnson says the overlooked benefits of popular culture aren't enough to replace other, earlier forms of entertainment. He still advocates encouraging children to read, because books allow for an exploration of ideas in depth, something most Web pages don't have room for. But we should worry less when they also spend time instant messaging with their friends or focussed on the PlayStation. If you steer them toward the more demanding fare, you may be doing them a favor.

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