Monday, June 13, 2005

Those Rascally Computer Games

Choking over my morning coffee as I read (New Yorker, May 16th, Brain Candy by Malcolm Gladwell) that computer and video games are increasing rather than decreasing our national average IQ scores, I looked for the disclaimer.  Surely my continual drumbeat against pop culture and the dumbing down of our youth couldn’t be under serious attack. 


I am, after all, a writer.  We writers are continually foreverly reminded that reading is in decline and, notwithstanding Harry Potter, there are precious few upticks in any kind of reading, particularly newspapers, perhaps even the Books Section of the New Yorker.  The world is inexorably going to hell in a hand basket.


Not so says Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad Is Good for You . . . a book, no less, about how the linear boredom of the written word is getting its ass kicked by pop culture (the mother of all oxymorons). I believe it. It’s my lament.  But that we’re getting smarter as a result?  Give me a break!


But Johnson’s made too good a case and I’m dangerously close to becoming a believer.  Me, the guy who doesn’t even own a television, the personal lending-librarian to all my friends.  Answering the Harry Potter phenomenon, Johnson posits what an imagined cultural critic might say, had video games been invented hundreds of years ago and something called a book foisted off on our youth only recently:


  • Reading books chronically understimulates the senses. Unlike the longstanding tradition of gameplaying—which engages the child in a vivid, three dimensional world filled with moving images and musical soundscapes, navigated and controlled with complex muscular movements—books are simply a barren string of words on a page.

  • Books are also tragically isolating . . . forcing 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 . . . reading is not an active, participatory process; it’s a submissive one.

That’s an absolutely fascinating premise and it calls to my mind something my brother once said about radio; that he preferred it to television because the pictures were better.  My very feeling about reading; that those mental pictures are one better than radio.  Sequestered in a quiet space?  Egad, what a pleasure in a society where silence has become nonexistent.  If there were an audial equivalent to bottled water, containered silence would be a big seller---a six-pack of that please and do you deliver?.  Not to wander too far from the subject, but American Indian culture equates silence with man in a perfect state of balance.


The part of me that agrees wholeheartedly with Johnson is his claim that game players are required to manage a dizzying array of information and options, all the while working their way through to a correct or at least satisfying conclusion.  Contrast that with the bored, turned-off and disinterested kids in our classrooms and the eureka moment presents itself in modern education.  There is much wrong with our outdated 150-year-old educational formula and a good deal of it has to do with books.


Perhaps gaming the educational path might better prepare students for life and, at the same time, not so poison their reading experience as to make books the sequestered pleasure in a quiet space they are meant to be.