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June 6, 2006

Filed under: gaming»perspective

Everything Bad is Not Quite Good for You

The South Park Republicans, not content to make me ashamed for enjoying television, music, and dumb action movies, are now trumpeting the value of video games as brain-building mental exercise (link to Joystiq, not OpinionJournal).

No offense to the many whom I'm sure will leap to join the chorus defending this hobby, but that's terrible reasoning. I'm more in agreement with Roy Edroso:

For what sort of future does this training fit young minds? Perhaps the jobs of CEO and General; but, and I hate to break it to parents, very few of our children are going to get those jobs. In general, the training gleaned from gaming and watching TV shows prepares most of us for more gaming and more watching of TV shows. In this regard we may say our children are well-, perhaps over-educated.

Though I cannot speak to the aesthetics of Doom and Grand Theft Auto, I will say that, much as I love The Sopranos, complicated plotting is the least of its excellencies; and that, while the ability to follow multiple story lines may be admirable and perhaps useful, it would better suit a young person to learn how to tie various story threads into an analysis, a skill that far predates the digital video disc.

It has been my experience as a remedial English tutor that even the brightest students are undertrained in, and often unaware of, the simplest analytic tools -- including grammar, sentence structure, and outlining. These are not nearly so easy to absorb as the skills Gladwell values, but the fact that he can make himself clear in essay form shows that he has himself mastered them, which makes it rather disturbing to me that he seems not to care much that we make so little effort to wrench our kids away from their entertainment modules long enough to learn how to diagram a sentence or tie three supporting details to a main idea.

We are all futurists nowadays, and it is to be expected that the author of The Tipping Point would hope to find some bright, positive New Paradigm in the video obsessions of our young people. But it is a stubborn fact that some sorts of machinery, greasy and earth-bound as they may seem, are yet necessary to our progress, and that this goes for intellectual as well as physical realities. If we don't teach our young citizens to think rather than merely process information, all the video-savvy in the world isn't going to save their sorry asses. As seductive as the Information Age fantasy is, we will never be a nation of managers, magically summoning prosperity with our Blackberrys, without something to manage. Something has to be created first. And to create we need tools. Noun-verb agreement is to my mind a good start. You can do your part by collaring some young ruffian and making him or her learn it.

Play a lot of video games? Do I! Embarrassingly so! But Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You argument that somehow inventory management and basic logic puzzles are creating valuable life skills has gotten way out of hand. It is certainly possible for gaming to carry an educational mission, but I would doubt honestly that the vast majority of entertainment software is causing the next stage of human evolution--much less granting job skills that couldn't be just as easily learned in a different context, such as (and these are just my examples) joining a rock band or closely following professional sports management.

I try to look at gaming as a hobby that exists in a greater context; socially, politically, and culturally. Sometimes, I'll admit, the resulting posts are tedious and not well written--or even well-considered. But I like to think that it's possible to take such a wider view by using the same tools we might use to analyze a book, or a movie, or an action taken by a public figure. You won't learn how to critique a rhetorical message from a video game--and maybe you shouldn't. That's not a fault of the medium. It is instead an endorsement of complicated answers to our questions. Too often, especially in the tech community, we look for simple answers: OLPC, the ESRB, and now video games.

I also can't say for sure if the toolkit required for these complicated answers--logic, evaluation of credibility, and some grasp of metaphor--is being taught to the disobedient youth at our debauched modern day schools. Nor can I say whether they will stay off my lawn! My father, who teaches the anklebiters for a living, feels that there is a lack of critical thinking ability in the young today, but the school system hasn't had much time with them by the time they reach him.

In "A Canticle for Leibowitz" the polite term of post-nuke address is "simpleton," a backlash against the scientists who invented the bombs. It's a symptom of a wider anti-intellectual movement. Only in the presence of a similar anti-intellectual movement--and look no further than the Oval Office for its prime advocate--could we see video games as anything other than a neutral cultural artifact. It is one thing to be able to look at those games, and by extension the large part of our society's empty-headed entertainment product, and try to see what it says (or could say) about us as people. It is quite another to trumpet the games as a learning experience in and of themselves, which is what Opinion Journal (and ultimately Johnson or Gladwell) would have you do. Limiting ourselves that way is the mark of being a simpleton, and proud of it. I don't want any part of that.

Five posts in one day? Why yes, my Internet connection at home has been unreliable lately, how could you tell?

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