Pushing the right buttons
A new book argues that popular culture is not dumbing down our youth; far from it. TV and video games are becoming more complex and more challenging. John Kelleher asks whether square eyes make for big brains
The teenager closeted away for hours playing on a computer or the toddler mesmerised by television are compelling images often evoked to illustrate the pernicious impact of pop culture. We live in an age when tabloid TV - "57 channels and nothing on", as Bruce Springsteen would say - and computer games have been fingered as culprits in a catastrophic dumbing-down of our contemporary culture.
Wasn't television better for us before reality shows and violent dramas such as The Sopranos? And wouldn't the screenagers locked in an obsessive relationship with their computers benefit more from reading a book?
The answer to both questions is no, says American academic and writer Steven Johnson in this provocative and persuasive book. Johnson, who teaches at New York University, argues that one of the most pervasive and wrong-minded modern myths is that popular culture is becoming dumber and making us more stupid.
The opposite is true, he says. Computer games, TV and the internet are key factors in producing a generation that is actually more intelligent and sophisticated than ever: "For decades we've worked under the assumption that mass culture follows a steadily declining path towards lowest-common-denominator standards, presumably because the 'masses' want simple pleasures and big media companies want to give the masses what they want. But in fact the opposite is happening. The culture is getting more intellectually demanding, not less."
Johnson argues that in the case of television, across the spectrum increasing complexity is now the norm. TV drama rejects linearity in favour of interwoven plotlines and a multi-levelled approach that would have bewildered earlier audiences. Dramas such as The West Wing and The Sopranos and such comedies as Seinfeld and The Simpsons reveal new levels of intelligence on repeated viewings and make ever greater demands. They demand engagement. The best reality programmes such as The Apprentice or The Dragon's Den are actually ingenious group psychology exercises that educate us about emotional intelligence and relationships in a way unprecedented in broadcasting. "The pleasure... comes from depositing other human beings in a complex, high-stakes environment where no established strategies exist and watching them find their bearings. The content is less interesting than the cognitive work that the show elicits from your mind."
And the toddler watching TV? That seemingly blank gaze is actually a sign of focus: "We know from neuroscience that the brain has dedicated systems that respond to - and seek out - new challenges and experiences. The toddler's brain is constantly scouring the world for novel stimuli, precisely because exploring and understanding new things and experiences is what learning is all about."
Johnson is right to challenge the panic that emerges when new cultural forms arrive. Didn't frightened commentators forecast the death of cinema when TV arrived, and the demise of radio earlier? Our culture seems able to accommodate intelligent new forms.
But the most controversial element of this book is his claim for the benefits of "games culture". The conventional wisdom about its pernicious impacts are encapsulated in the latest edition of Dr Spock's seminal child-raising book: "The best that can be said for them is that they may help promote eye-hand co-ordination in children. The worst that can be said is that they sanction and even promote aggression and violent responses to conflict. But what can be said with much greater certainty is this: most computer games are a colossal waste of time."
They certainly take time. Any adults sampling such titles as Grand Theft Auto, Civilization, Sim City or Myst soon realise that they are awesomely difficult, anything but mindless and that mastering their intricacies would require a commitment comparable to that required to really appreciate "high culture" such as Wagner or Proust.
But Johnson claims it's time well spent because games make young people smarter. How so? The first mistake critics make, he says, is looking primarily at content. It is not what we think about when we play games that matters, it is the way we think that counts. Games hone cognitive faculties. The author argues: "Far more than books, or movies or music, games force you to make decisions. Novels may activate our imaginations and music may conjure up powerful emotions, but games force you to decide, to choose, to prioritise.
"All the intellectual benefits of gaming derive from this fundamental virtue because learning how to think is ultimately about learning to make the right decisions: weighing evidence, analysing situations, consulting long-term goals and then deciding. No other pop cultural form so directly engages the brain's decision-making apparatus in the same way."
Games engage children in vivid, three-dimensional worlds. They navigate using complex muscular movements, and must learn to consider and manipulate a vast and evolving range of rules and to make complex decisions. Games often engage them in complex social relationships involving collaboration and co-operation with others. Most crucially, they develop cognitive abilities useful in personal and professional contexts throughout life.
What of the negative impacts of this new pop culture? Evidence seems to abound that the graphically violent elements of many games, and the upsurge of violence in TV shows, breeds anti-social and sometimes criminal behaviour. More myths, Johnson argues. The perennial bestsellers are more intellectually challenging games such as Sim City, Civilization or The Sims.
"I suspect that we seriously overestimate the extent to which our core values are transmitted to us via the media. Parents and peer groups are still vastly more influential where values are concerned than Tony Soprano or the carjackers of Grand Theft Auto. The truth is that shows and games and movies still gravitate towards traditional morality play structures in the end... the good guys still win out.
"When we see the popular culture exploring behaviour that many see as morally bankrupt we need to remind ourselves that deviating from an ethical norm is not just an old story. In a real sense it's where stories begin."