Video Games Are Good for You, Except When They're Just Bad

Everything Bad is Good for You by Steven Johnson

Everyone's talking about Everything Bad is Good for You, a book on the subject of popular culture by Steven Johnson. In the book, the author posits that mass entertainment isn't as dumb as its detractors tend to think it is, that in fact, consuming mass culture has become a more demanding pursuit, not an easier one. Games and TV expand our minds, he says.

In the book, Johnson proposes an interesting thought experiment:

"Imagine an alternate world identical to ours save one techno-historical change: videogames were invented and popularized before books. In this parallel universe, kids have been playing games for centuries—and then these page-bound texts come along and suddenly they're all the rage. What would the teachers, and the parents, and the cultural authorities have to say about this frenzy of reading?"

He goes on to answer his own question, and the answer is hi-frickin-larious. An excerpt of the answer:

Reading books chronically under-stimulates 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 the page. Only a small portion of the brain devoted to processing written language is activated during reading, while games engage the full range of the sensory and motor cortices.

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. These new ?libraries? that have arisen in recent years to facilitate reading activities are a frightening sight: dozens of young children, normally so vivacious and socially interactive, sitting alone in cubicles, reading silently, oblivious to their peers.

Though Johnson deals with many forms of popular culture, video games in particular get a ton of play. Here are some quotes from the book on the subject of games, thanks to Amazon?s amazing ?search inside this book? feature:

  • ?The most debased forms of mass diversion?video games and violent television dramas and juvenile sitcoms?turn out to be nutritional after all.?

  • ?There may be more ?negative messages? in the mediasphere today, as the Parents Television Council believes. But that?s not the only way to evaluate whether our television shows or video games are having a positive impact. Just as important ? is the kind of thinking you have to do to make sense of a cultural experience.?

  • To ?get around these prejudices, try this thought experiment. Imagine an alternate world identical to ours save one techno-historical change: video games were invented and popularized before books. In this parallel universe, kids have been playing games for centuries-and then these [books]? come along.?

  • It ?should be said about the experience of playing today?s video games, the thing you almost never hear in the mainstream coverage, is that games are fiendishly, sometimes maddeningly, hard.?

  • ?Over the past few years, you may have noticed the appearance of a certain type of story about gaming culture in mainstream newspapers and periodicals. The message of that story ultimately reduces down to: Playing video games may not actually be a complete waste of time. .... but the virtues of gaming run far deeper than hand-eye coordination. .... these ostensibly positive accounts of video games ? strike me as the equivalent of writing a story about the merits of the great novels and focusing on how reading them can improve your spelling.?

  • ?what Tetris does to our visual circuitry, most video games do to the reward circuitry of the brain?

We could go on, but we?ll let you buy the book, preferably for someone that underappreciates the medium we love so much. And while they?re reading it, you?ll finally have some breathing space to go back to gangbangin? in GTA:SA.

Don?t take our word for it. Here are some reviews: Wired, Boing Boing, Kottke, Slate, The Boston Globe, Salon, The Times, The New York Times.