[Paleopsych] WP: The 'Bad' Guy
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Tue Jul 26 19:45:26 UTC 2005
The 'Bad' Guy
Steven Johnson Thinks Video Games And Violent TV Are Good for the Brain
By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 21, 2005; C01
There seem to be two Steven Johnsons. And at this particular moment,
it's hard to believe they're the same guy.
There's Steven Johnson, Swell Dad, the one who sits across the table
from you in his Brooklyn dining room and politely interrupts your
conversation to commune with a way-cute toddler who's dashed in
bearing bottled water and news from the outside world. "Hi, Rowan! Oh,
thank you, that's very helpful. Was it hot outside, buddy?" he says.
Then there's Steven Johnson, Parents' Nightmare.
This is the guy who's been parading around calling video games like
Grand Theft Auto and TV shows like "24" brain food for your kids. He's
the provocateur who titled his most recent book "Everything Bad Is
Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us
Smarter" -- a deliberate "nana-nana-boo-boo" to the Books Are Better
"The most debased forms of mass diversion -- video games and violent
television dramas and juvenile sitcoms -- turn out to be nutritional
after all," Johnson writes. They offer an increasingly rigorous
"cognitive workout." What's more, the mental skills they hone "are
just as important as the ones exercised by reading books."
You're a parent of two teenagers who has spent years trying to reduce
their exposure to the addictive, sexualized, violent and relentlessly
commercial output of the Great American Pop Culture Machine. (They've
turned out just fine, thank you, despite never owning GameCubes.)
You've read "Everything Bad" and found it smart and stimulating but
also utterly infuriating. Twelve pages from the end, you've hit a
passage so annoying it made you want to schlep up to Brooklyn and
fling Johnson's argument back in his handsome, smiling face.
Which would be a lot easier if he weren't such a likable guy -- and if
that charming child of his didn't keep getting in the way.
'Almost Like a Life Form'
Johnson's championship of popular culture comes with a significant
irony: If he'd been born just a couple of years earlier than 1968,
he'd likely be teaching "Middlemarch" to undergraduates today.
He grew up in Glen Echo, the son of a lawyer and a health-care
advocate. From the beginning he was a huge reader, the kind of kid who
starts thinking at age 9 that he wants to be a writer. As an
undergraduate at Brown, he majored in semiotics. As a grad student at
Columbia, he studied English lit.
"I sat there reading 75 19th-century novels when I was 24," he says,
laughing, "and it's a huge part of who I am."
But Johnson was something else as well. He was the kind of kid who'd
sit in his room for hours playing baseball simulation games -- the
pre-electronic variety, which featured sets of dice and sheaves of
complex statistical data. He was the kind who, frustrated by the flaws
he found in these simulations, went ahead and designed his own.
When the first electronic games appeared, he played them, too. Still,
he was no obsessive -- until Myst and Sim City came along.
This was in the mid-'90s, during his grad school days. Exploring the
vivid worlds of the new games "was, like, oh my God, I feel like I
fast-forwarded 10 years." The second version of Sim City, in
particular, gave him the feeling that the urban landscape he was
shaping on his computer screen was "almost like a life form."
If a single game could come alive that way, what would a whole
computer-connected world be like? It was the perfect question for a
tech-loving guy who wanted to write.
Goodbye, "Middlemarch"; hello, Feed magazine.
Johnson never finished his dissertation. Instead, he helped start one
of the first significant general interest publications online --
joining others in his tech-savvy generation who "saw opportunity where
a lot of other people saw something confusing and scary," as Feed
co-founder Stefanie Syman once explained.
The magazine had a classic new-economy roller-coaster ride. It was
hand-to-mouth at first, Johnson says: "Oh, we raised $20,000! Oh, we
can pay the rent!" A few years later, having added a couple of other
Web ventures, his company was doing well enough to raise a few million
dollars and hire a real CEO -- just in time for the market to crash.
Feed was history. But Johnson came out just fine. The magazine had
helped establish him as a chronicler of the networked world. He had
one book out and another poised for publication.
We're not talking thrillers here: Johnson has made a career of
popularizing the complex.
In "Interface Culture" (1997), he explored the idea that because we're
now sharing so many communal spaces online, interfaces and the folks
who create them are hugely important. In "Emergence" (2001), he looked
at self-organizing systems in everything from ant colonies to computer
simulations. In last year's "Mind Wide Open," he offered a lively tour
through the workings of the brain.
For years, meanwhile, he had been charting the "incredible growth in
complexity and challenge" of those video games that non-gamers still
thought of as moronic, immoral or both. Then he thought: Isn't
television evolving the same way? Weren't shows like "The Sopranos,"
"The Simpsons," "Seinfeld" and "24" demanding more of their viewers at
the same time the tube was under attack for producing sleazy,
"It occurred to me that there was a bigger argument to be made,"
The author and his wife talked about steeling themselves for a
negative reaction -- because if "Everything Bad" did its job, it was
going to make some people mad.
Sure enough, there's a mad person sitting in their dining room right
'Exploring an Environment'
You want to start shouting at him right away.
What about the stuff "Everything Bad" ignores? What about all that sex
and violence you don't want your kids exposed to in second grade? Or
the highly addictive nature of video games? Or the toxic sea of
commercialism in which all that televised complexity must float? What
does Johnson really mean when he says these things are "good for you"?
But it would be best, perhaps, to start with some points of agreement.
Okay. It's true, as Johnson says, that video games can be intensely
challenging and absorbing, and that book-loving snobs tend to be
oblivious to this fact. It's true that "The Sopranos" is complicated
and subtle as well as violent. And although you yourself don't watch
"24," your smart colleagues talk endlessly about its intricate
What's more: You love how comfortable your kids are with new
technology. You totally agree that "the ability to take in a complex
system and learn its rules on the fly is a talent with great
real-world applicability." Maybe they can support you in your old age!
In fact, if you ignore the absurdly sweeping assertion of Johnson's
title -- and hey, he says, if you can't see that "Everything Bad Is
Good for You" is winking at the reader, we've really got a failure to
communicate -- his core argument seems reasonable enough.
To summarize briefly: He's talking trends, not absolutes, and over the
past 30 years, the trend in both video games and television shows has
been toward forms that are more cognitively demanding. (He doesn't
dwell on the Internet, which he thinks needs little defense.)
Why the upward trends? When it comes to gaming, Johnson invokes some
of the neuroscience he studied for his last book. Human brains are
drawn to systems, he suggests, in which "rewards are both clearly
defined and achieved by exploring an environment." The exploration
part is key: Gamers have to figure out the rules as they go along, and
"no other pop cultural form directly engages the brain's
decision-making apparatus" the way video games do.
With television, Johnson's argument rests more on economics. Complex
narratives that "force you to work to make sense of them" have been
rewarded by a marketplace where profit now depends heavily on repeat
performances, whether on DVD or in syndication. Making shows more
challenging to decode makes perfect sense if you're assuming they'll
be watched more than once.
Games aren't "Hamlet" or "The Great Gatsby," Johnson writes; they're
more like mathematical logic problems. As such, "they are good for the
mind on some fundamental level: They teach abstract skills in
probability, in pattern recognition, in understanding causal relations
that can be applied in countless situations, both personal and
But, but, but . . .
Too many questions get played down -- or left out entirely -- as
Johnson argues his case.
So you ask: What about all that sex and violence? It's not just the
Parents Television Council that thinks the entertainment industry "has
pushed the content envelope too far." Does Grand Theft Auto have to
make people smarter by rewarding them for killing prostitutes?
Johnson doesn't quite answer this directly.
"I feel like the values questions, the violence questions, all those
kind of content questions that I kind of put off to the side, I don't
put off to the side because they're irrelevant," he says. Violence "is
absolutely a legitimate thing to talk about." Take "24," for example.
"I think it's a brilliant show on a whole host of levels, but the
torture in it is really offensive."
Why not talk about it, then?
"Because we're only focusing on these other issues, and I think the
cognitive stuff is as important. . . . What I'm trying to say is,
let's put those questions aside and continue having that debate, but
let me introduce you to this whole major story line that you haven't
heard. And if you don't have that story line, then you can't make
informed decisions about what your kids should be doing."
So how about the addiction thing?
"Everything Bad" sets out to explain why gamers willingly spend hours
on tasks that seem, at least to a non-gamer, intensely boring. "The
power of games to captivate involves their ability to tap into the
brain's natural reward circuitry," Johnson writes. A bit later he
acknowledges a small problem. "You might reasonably object that I have
merely demonstrated that video games are the digital equivalent of
Well, yeah, you bet, but when you do object, here comes that positive
story line again.
Can't constantly gaming kids become addicted? "Absolutely. No question
about it," Johnson agrees. But he says the brain's craving for
rewards, like the Force in "Star Wars," can be used for good as well:
"You can get them to do things much more challenging mentally than
what I was doing when I was sitting around watching TV" as a kid.
Speaking of which: Some parents (you're one) object as much to
television advertising as to the shows themselves. We don't want our
kids constantly being told that buying stuff is the key to feeling
good about themselves.
Johnson's solution to this? Well, it turns out he and his wife don't
watch much regular TV. "We started watching all these TV shows on
DVD," he says -- "Six Feet Under," "24," "The West Wing" -- "which is
the most beautiful way to watch them, because you get to see the long
format narrative at its best." Right now they're watching "Lost" with
the aid of their TiVo machine, which also allows them to skip the
Give him credit for consistency: Johnson doesn't stop at saying these
widely praised, long-form TV dramas are more challenging than they
used to be. Even reality television, he maintains, is better for
viewers than old-time game shows or "Mork & Mindy." Why? Because it
enhances the viewers' emotional intelligence by getting them to
"analyze and recall the full range of social relationships in a large
Oh, please! Wouldn't they learn faster by turning off the tube and
interacting with actual human beings ?
"Yes. Right. Exactly right," he says calmly. But if you assume "people
are going to spend some amount of their time in front of screens . .
Not assuming that, apparently, isn't an option.
Time to bring up the passage that so maddened you when you came across
it, near the end of Johnson's hymn to pop culture. The one in the
section beginning "Now for the bad news."
It's true, he finally admits, that "a specific, historically crucial
kind of reading has grown less common in this society: sitting down
with a three-hundred-page book and following its argument or narrative
without a great deal of distraction." It's true that video games and
TV do a poor job of "training our minds to follow a sustained textual
argument or narrative" -- at least one that "doesn't involve genuine
But not to worry: "We still have schools and parents to teach wisdom
that the popular culture fails to impart."
When you first read this sentence, all you could think was: Thanks a
lot, pal! No problem! We'll just drag 'em away from those Xboxes and
whup 'em into shape!
You convey this reaction to the sentence's author. Just what does he
think schools and parents are competing with, you ask.
He is unfazed.
After all, he has made his argument in a 200-page book.
"Middlemarch," too, will doubtless survive, he says.
'He Seems Really Into Books'
"Hey, little man," Johnson says. Here comes that cute toddler again,
heading straight for Dad, paying not the slightest attention to the
matching PowerBooks that sit on the counter nearby. He will soon
enough, though. His brother already does.
Not quite 4 yet, the older boy "pops down in the morning, goes up on
that chair, turns on that computer, pulls down his user account, types
in his password, watches the Web browser, goes to Sesamestreet.org and
starts playing these little interactive games," Johnson says. So
before he has started to read and write, he's already got a life on
Does this worry his father? It does not.
"He seems really into books," Johnson says. "Being read books is a
crucial part of his life." And never mind that they read him "mainly
Joke! That's a joke! The man is pulling your leg! The kid is a huge
Curious George fan!
In truth, Johnson's life appears far more balanced than his book. Yes,
there are two laptops on the counter, but right next to them hangs a
Barnes & Noble tote bag with a portrait of Charles Dickens on it, and
nearby sits a copy of Ian McEwan's "Saturday," which Johnson recently
read (and loved).
Yes, there's a giant, flat Philips Widescreen mounted on the living
room wall, but it's surrounded by shelves and shelves of books, among
them "Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and
Chaos," by Mitchell Waldrop, and "The Golden Bowl," by Henry James.
"Everything Bad Is Good for You" was deliberately written as a
polemic, Johnson says, and he knows perfectly well it's one-sided. He
could have written a longer, more balanced book that said, "Here's an
overall assessment of the entire state of today's culture," he says,
"but that's the kind of book that nobody listens to."
People have been listening to his, at least to judge from the
continuing flow of media requests: He's been doing interviews for
weeks, and as he speaks, in early June, he's about to go on "The Daily
Show" and Jim Lehrer's "NewsHour." What's more -- despite his fears,
and present company excepted -- he's been surprised at how positive
the responses have been.
Ah, but you've got a theory of why that is.
Call it the Red Wine Syndrome. Take something that's known to be
wildly destructive when taken in excess: something that can wreck your
liver, destroy your family, create bloody mayhem on the highway and
turn you into a pathetic, falling-down wretch. Then have some
scientists announce that, taken in moderation , this thing can . . .
If you're a drinker who's sick and tired of being scolded, you're
going to be pretty excited about this news.
Johnson laughs. He's heard this kind of connection made before.
"A few desperate people," he says, "are, like: ' Please tell me that I
can smoke again!' "
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