Author Argues That Video Games and Reality TV Are Beneficial
• Author: Steven Johnson.• Publisher: Riverhead Books.• Pages: 238.• Price: $23.95.
By Julie Reed
Couch potatoes and video game junkies, rejoice! You have a new messiah in Steven Johnson, author of "Everything Bad Is Good for You."
It's Johnson's view that popular media such as reality TV and Xbox games are making us smarter -- a trend he calls the Sleeper Curve, named for the scene in Woody Allen's film "Sleeper" in which scientists in 2173 "are astounded that 20th-century society failed to grasp the nutritional merits of cream pies and hot fudge."
Johnson's main point is that "the most debased forms of mass diversion -- video games and violent television dramas and juvenile sitcoms -- turn out to be nutritional after all." He maintains that several forces are at work in pop culture: underlying changes in technology that enable new kinds of entertainment, new forms of online communications that cultivate audience commentary, changes in the economics of the culture industry that encourage repeat viewing and deep-seated appetites in the human brain that seek out reward and intellectual challenge.
This last example he applies to his defense of video games. A strong case can be made, he says, that the power of these games to captivate lies in their ability to tap into the brain's natural reward circuitry.
"In the game world, reward is everywhere. The universe is literally teeming with objects that deliver very clearly articulated rewards: more life, access to new levels, new equipment, new spells. . . . No other form of entertainment offers that cocktail of reward and exploration: we don't 'explore' movies or television or music in anything but the most figurative sense of the word."
Johnson admires the way people think when they play video games; the constant decision-making, choosing and prioritizing are all intellectual benefits that help the player learn how to think. He says the snap judgments and long-term strategy that complex video games require are integral components of the "collateral learning" that goes on during play.
He compares video games to word problems, saying that "both are good for the mind on some fundamental level: They teach abstract skills in probability, in pattern recognition, in understanding causal relationships that can be applied in countless situations, both personal and professional." Johnson praises the way in which the mind has to work during game play -- most especially how the games encourage "finding order and meaning in the world, and making decisions that help create that order."
Television shows with multiple plot lines (for example, "24") and those that require the viewer to supply information deliberately left out or made obscure ("Lost") also garner Johnson's praise for prodding the brain to function in a more complex manner. He provides graphs to illustrate the rising plot intricacies of TV shows, from "Hill Street Blues" (credited with beginning the multiple-thread trend in 1981) to "The Sopranos."
Johnson says that modern TV-watchers derive pleasure from filling in the details on shows such as "The West Wing," and he applauds the high level of technical dialogue on the likes of "ER." He discusses the "layering" of sitcoms ("Seinfeld" and "The Simpsons"), saying that their pop-culture references and crisscrossing plot lines enable these shows to "retain both a broad appeal and the edgy allure of cult classics."
He has positive things to say about reality TV, too. He likes how the genre explores social geography, saying that " 'The Apprentice' may not be the smartest show in the history of television, but it nonetheless forces you to think while you watch it, to work through the social logic of the universe it creates on the screen. . . . People didn't gather at the water cooler to second-guess the losing strategy on last night's 'Battle of the Network Stars,' but they'll spend weeks debating the tactical decisions and personality tics of 'Apprentice' contestants."
Johnson is at his best and most convincing in his discussions of TV and video games; he devotes shorter chapters to the Internet and to films. Part 2 of the book, in which he delves into IQ theory, reads like a dissertation, and his point that the dumbing-down of popular culture is a myth is drummed home repeatedly. If the public has indeed become smarter, shouldn't we have gotten the gist the first 10 times Johnson spelled it out?
But "Everything Bad is Good for You" is an engaging read and one that is sure to provoke lively debate among pop-culture mavens