Last month’s column described the cognitive systems that process our interactions with natural and electronic environments. Some recent provocative research rejects the conventional wisdom that extensive interactions with electronic media provoke culturally inappropriate behavior and reduce problem-solving abilities — dumb down society, as it were. This month’s column will thus focus on Steven Johnson’s analysis of this issue in his thoughtprovoking book Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making You Smarter (2005). He focuses principally of the effects of video games, TV, film, and the Internet.

Johnson suggests that the principal criticisms of these media focus on their content rather than on the cognitive demands they make on the players/viewers. Further, many of the critics have little first-hand knowledge about the current nature of the formats they criticize, and overestimate the amount of violent and sexual content.

Popular culture is not high culture, and so it shouldn’t be compared to it. Folks typically don’t play video games or watch popular TV programs to broaden their intellectual horizons. Those who golf, fish, solve crossword puzzles, or play cards similarly don’t do it to materially enhance their intellect. What all such activities have in common is that they increase knowledge and/or problem-solving abilities within specific parameters of interest to the players.

Last month’s column suggested that our brain’s defining property is to plan, regulate, and predict movement. Book reading, an activity that electronic media critics consider more intellectually stimulating than video games, is basically the passive observation of someone else’s thought processes. The reader tries to predict what will occur, but has no control over the narrative flow (and this is also the case with those who observe TV shows and films).

Video Games
Conversely, a person who is playing a complex contemporary video game must first determine the purpose and rules of the game (which typically aren’t provided), and then continually make decisions that can actually alter the course of the game—but always with the basic presumed goal of the game in mind. The content of a video game is thus secondary to the thought processes involved in planning and executing game movements, and in predicting the movements of the video game and one’s opponent. The same things would be true of a chess or tennis match, or even of fishing.

Most games (including video games) aren’t really pleasurable when complex challenges loom—third and long in football, the loss of a queen in chess. But such situations get the juices flowing in players who seek challenge within the game. Players must quickly and successfully draw on related previous strategies, or make creative risky decisions in order to stay in the game, and this enhances their problem solving abilities within that setting.

A game must thus have a strong emotional attraction that will maintain the effort the game requires. Last month’s column suggested that competition, violence, and sexuality are innately arousing emotionally, and so it’s not surprising that they’re explicit (or at least implicit) in many games and media narratives. Indeed, even revered childhood fairy tales contain violent and sexual themes. Hansel and Gretel worried about getting baked in an oven, and a princess kissed a frog in The Frog Prince. How kinky can a children’s fairy tale get?

Johnson argues that the challenge and complexity of the most popular newer video games are such that they don’t need a heavy dose of violence and sexuality to initiate and maintain interest. For example, the immensely popular SimCity challenges the player to design a complex metropolis, and the continually popular Tetris forces the player to quickly make decisions about the placement of geometric shapes.

Video games (and other games, such as hockey and football) that require aggressive responses to dangerous situations will obviously strengthen the neural circuitry that processes similar decisions. It’s problematic, though, whether this increased capability makes the player more aggressive generally in the real world. Current commentary on this issue is based more on opinion than solid research. It’s very difficult to do credible cause and effect research on this issue.

I suspect that many folks who decry the violence and sexuality that they believe is endemic in video games watch TV shows and sports that contain violent and sexual content—oblivious to the inconsistency between their beliefs and behavior.

TV and Films
Like readers, viewers of projected media don’t control or even affect the narrative flow. They will often guess the answers in TV quiz shows, critique the flow of reality shows and contests, call in to talk shows, and discuss the shows and films they’ve seen, but TV and films are much more passive than video games. We sit forward for video games and backwards for TV and films.

Johnson suggests that we should differentiate between intelligent TV shows/films and those that force us to be intelligent. Intelligent productions go beyond clich’s and provide stimulating plots and witty dialogue. The basic intelligence portrayed thus exists within the people on the screen and not within the viewers.

Conversely, the plots and sub-plots of many contemporary TV shows and films are complex and convoluted, omit plot information the viewer must insert, don’t clearly differentiate between foreground and background, and require knowledge of law/medicine/etc that goes beyond the conventional. Such programs make real intellectual demands on viewers, and that enhances their appeal. Seinfeld was a TV show about nothing significant that drew a large audience who were stimulated by the show’s intellectual demands. For example, it would set up a joke in one episode and provide the punch line several episodes later without repeating the setup.

Johnson suggests that this trend towards intellectual complexity has also emerged in TV shows and films that appeal to young people.

The Internet
The networking that permeates the Internet makes it potentially the most intellectually challenging of the new media forms, and probably also the most dangerous. Consider what email, websites, and search engines could do five years ago and what they can do now. Blogs didn’t even exist. Project ahead five years, and it’s obvious that many new interactive forms will emerge that will force sophisticated thought.

Print media are expensive and so publishers typically check sources to insure credibility. A student who cites a print source in a course paper is thus more certain of its credibility than a student who clips information off a website. The Internet is a free for all, and so sexual predators, con artists, and folks who want to spread misinformation can do it as easily as those who act responsibly. It takes intelligence to stay one step ahead of Internet schlock and treachery.

Pac-Man and Donkey Kong almost defined the videogame genre a half-generation ago, and other forms of electronic media have similarly exploded within our culture. We won’t return to what was. The challenge for parents and educators is to prepare the next generation for the natural and electronic environments in which they will live. Steve Johnson’s thoughtprovoking contribution has been to suggest that the challenge isn’t as hopeless as it seems, that the electronic media developments many consider to be culturally negative may actually be intellectually positive.