So, I made mention I was going to talk about some books, and I thought that with my last post, talking about how video games have been changing over the years, I’d go with an author who just recently jumped back into my mind.
I caught an appearance from Steven Johnson on The Colbert Report about 2 years ago when he was plugging his book, Everything Bad Is Good For You, a short, interesting piece talking about how new media, particularly television and video games, has been evolving since their inception. It’s wonderfully written and has what I find to be some solid reasoning and analysis to support his claims, although it is a little short on actual hard data, a lack of which is disappointing, as it would have made his arguments far more compelling. As it is, the book is more theory than actual hard data, sort of like a Malcolm Gladwell book without the use of studies done by psychologists, doctors, etc. I particularly liked the comparisons he did with shows from the 70s and the Sopranos, as well as his analysis of the early Zelda games with more recent one, but I’m getting ahead of myself here.
Johnson’s case is pretty much that the stuff that teachers, politicians and parents are worrying about ‘rotting’ the minds of the youth of today are actually doing the exact opposite, as television and video games are creating a kind of thinker that is different from ones that had existed before and is developing different thinking and learning skills. To go back to the Sopranos example, Johnson illustrates how abstract and sophisticated modern television has become, using the various plotlines, larger casts and (occasionally) abstract ideas and symbolism that is used when compared to the fairly linear television that existed in the 70s. From there, he goes on to show how modern media results in users who have to track numerous points of data and, essentially, multitask. What some people may qualify as ADD could in fact simply be an intensive form of time micro-management.
Johnson does the same thing with video games, talking about how games have become more and more multi-faceted since the early days of Pong. This is one of the reasons why I’m not convinced that games are becoming more and more ‘dumbed down’ as time goes on, as they are becoming far more intellectually intensive for folks, as there are far more things to track and take care of. I’m not going to resummarize all of his arguments, but his hypothetical argument that reverses the roles of books and video games was pretty funny, if not more than a little hyperbolic.
I should also point out that while Johnson provides examples of how things have changed, he is not trying to make blanket statements about pop culture and that folks are not instantly becoming smarter just because they watch The Apprentice over Wheel of Fortune, or that you are going to go from being a C+ student to an A student if you play a few more hours of World of Warcraft every week. Although Johnson doesn’t go into this, I’d like to think that people are like raw resources, and media and our interactions with said media, are a sort of refining of those raw resources. The issue is where those resources are used. To use a brain as oil analogy, imagine if your brain does the equivalent of a rocket ship going to colonize Mars, which is infinitely more valuable than, say, using the same resources to do doughnuts in the Wal-Mart parking lot.
I know I sound like one of those web 2.0 dipshits, a wide eyed snake oil optimist going on and on about how the sky is the limit with the World Wide Web, lawl, but I really do think that video games, television and other kinds of media are great at developing well rounded thinkers, it is simply up to educators and parents to tap into and utilize those thinking skills, along with the ones that are traditionally cultivated and developed, to ensure that students are realizing their full potential.
Anyway, enough rambling on about this particular book. I highly recommend picking it up and seeing what Johnson has to say. However, if reading about television or video games sounds like a dreary task for you, there are other works by Johnson that are equally interesting, one of which I’ve read.
The Ghost Map is an historical recount of the cholera epidemic that hit London in the mid 1800s and is a wonderfully researched affair. Johnson delves deep into the cause of the cholera epidemic, examining faulty infrastructure, popular opinion and environmental factors that led to a ‘perfect storm’ for cholera to thrive. He also looks into how medical minds of the time were able to figure out where the outbreak originated from and move away from the ‘miasma’ theory of disease, a revolutionary concept that helped to further our medical knowledge. Great stuff.
His most recent book, The Invention of Air, came out at the tail end of last year, and is another historical read, looking at Joseph Priestly, an exiled English scientist who fled to America, and the role he played in influencing the founding fathers. This is the book of his I have not yet read, but am quite keen on checking out. Based on his prior works, I should have nothing to worry about!
Unrelated, but a funny sidenote: My first rant about Dumb Decision Designs was centered around the silliness of fighting games forcing characters to unlock half the roster before they get all the characters. While my post was centered around Street Fighter IV, there are other games out there that were worse offenders, such as Marvel vs. Capcom 2, a game which has a total roster of 56 characters, but (I could be wrong here, my memory sucks) only had about half that available, forcing you to unlock new characters.
Well, Capcom announced on Monday that there’s going to be a port of MvC2 onto the PS3 and 360, but with the entire roster already unlocked. Woo hoo! See? Not all gaming companies hate you!