Everything Bad Is Good For You Steven Johnson
The Elite Perspective • “Ours is an age besotted with graphic entertainments. And in an increasingly infantilized society, whose moral philosophy is reducible to a celebration of ‘choice,’ adults are decreasingly distinguishable from children in their absorption in entertainments and the kinds of entertainments they are absorbed in – video games, computer games, hand-held games, movies on their computers and so on. This is progress: more sophisticated delivery of stupidity.” (George Will)
The Sleeper Curve • What is the sleeper curve?
The Sleeper Curve • What is the sleeper curve? • Popular culture is becoming more intellectually demanding, not less.
The Sleeper Curve • What is the sleeper curve? • Popular culture is becoming more intellectually demanding, not less. • Emphasis on cognition over content: • “Today’s popular culture may not be showing us the righteous path. But it is making us smarter” (14).
Games • “The intellectual nourishment of reading books is so deeply ingrained in our assumptions that it’s hard to contemplate a different viewpoint. But as McLuhan famously observed, the problem with judging new cultural systems on their own terms is that the presence of the recent past inevitably colors your vision of the emerging form, highlighting the flaws and imperfections” (18). • What if games came first? (see page 19)
Games • Different media are “good at” different tasks, therefore we should view a particular medium as a specialized tool: • “The very fact that I am presenting this argument to you in the form of a book and not a television drama or a video game should make it clear that I believe the printed word remains the most powerful vehicle for conveying complicated information…” (23).
Games • Two arguments • “By almost all the standards we use to measure reading’s cognitive benefits – attention, memory, following threads, and so on – the nonliterary popular culture has been steadily growing more challenging over the past thirty years” (23).
Games • Two arguments • “Increasingly, the nonliterary popular culture is honing different mental skills that are just as important as the ones exercised by reading books” (23).
Games • Evidence: • The increasing difficulty level of videogames. Compare Pong or PacMan to Everquest or Ultima. • The emergence of “game guides.” • The SimCity 2000 example. • Why are children able to internalize sophisticated sets of rules while playing games, but seem to have more difficulty in the classroom?
Games • Neurological reward circuitry: • “The dopamine system is a kind of accountant: keeping track of expected rewards, and sending out an alert – in the form of lowered dopamine levels – when those rewards don’t arrive as promised” (34). • Seeking circuitry: “Where our brain wiring is concerned, the craving instinct triggers a desire to explore” (35).
Games • Neurological reward circuitry • The Tetris example. • “Just as Tetris streamlines the fuzzy world of visual reality to a core set of interacting shapes, most games offer a fictional world where rewards are larger, and more vivid, more clearly defined, than life” (36).
Games • Games harness and manipulate “seeking” behavior in players based upon the neurological reward circuitry! • “In the initial stages of play, you may be dazzled by the game’s graphics. But most of the time, when you’re hooked on a game, what draws you in is an elemental form of desire: the desire to see the next thing” (37).
Games • How do we seek (and make decisions) in games? • Probing • Telescoping • Probing describes the active learning that occurs when new knowledge is acquired based on real-time interaction with a system. In the past, this has been referred to as “tinkering.”
Games • Probing makes casual use of the scientific method: • James Paul Gee: 1. Probe, 2. Hypothesize, 3. Reprobe, 4. Rethink. • “Probing often takes the form of seeking out the limits of the simulation, the points at which the illusion of reality breaks down, and you can sense that’s all just a bunch of algorithms behind the curtain” (45).
Games ENEMIES MOVE IN PREDICTABLE PATTERNS
Games • Telescoping: The player’s ability to coordinate among immediate, intermediate, and long-term goals. • Telescoping IS NOT Multitasking.
Games • One of the most important things in understanding the intellectual benefits of gaming is to separate cognition from content. In some respects, videogame puzzles strongly resemble word problems that you might find on an SAT or GRE. • Games are about learning how to make decisions which create order out of chaos.
Television • The same thesis that applied to games – that content is not an indicator of cognitive complexity – can be applied to television. • Television programs have become vastly more complex since the advent of the medium. • “So if we’re going to start tracking swear words and wardrobe malfunctions, we ought to at least include another line on the graph: one that charts the cognitive demands that televised narratives place on their viewers. That line, too, is trending upward at a dramatic rate” (63).
Television • Television has grown in cognitive complexity in at least two areas: • Multiple threading. • Flashing arrows. • Social networks.
Television • Multiple threading • “Part of the cognitive work comes from following multiple threads, keeping often densely interwoven plotlines distinct in your head as you watch. But another part involves the viewer’s ‘filling in’: making sense of information that has been either deliberately withheld or deliberately left obscure” (63).
Television • Multiple threading • Dragnet (single thread) • Starsky and Hutch (elementary double thread) • Hill Street Blues (multiple threads + thematic complexity) • The Sopranos (multiple threads + thematic and structural complexity)
Television • Flashing arrows • Texture (total visual information in a scene) Vs. Substance (the information in the scene that you need to know in order to understand the narrative). • Flashing arrows are those cinematic devices (e.g., camera/editing techniques and conventions) that separate substance from texture.
Television • Flashing arrows “reduce the amount of analytic work you need to make sense of a story. All you have to do is follow the arrows” (74). • When flashing arrows are removed, audiences must concentrate in order to understand what’s happening. Think of West Wing, ER, 24.
Television • Another byproduct of the loss of flashing arrows is the requirement of a tolerance of ambiguity in the viewer. Much like in games, a viewer must be willing to temporarily deal with confusion and uncertainty. The viewer must also be adept at learning ‘on the fly’ and generating/testing hypotheses about outcomes.
Television • What about comedy? • The roles of intertextuality and “in-joking” • The need for multiple viewings (in market terms, this also anticipates syndication). • The Simpsons • Seinfeld • The Critic
Television • What about Reality Television? • A relationship between reality programming and gaming. If early TV took it’s cues from vaudeville and three-act stage plays, Reality TV takes its cues from the world of the game. • Partially defined rules and the need to cultivate tolerance of ambiguity, learn on the fly, and make/test hypotheses. • Navigating social environments.
Television • Social intelligence: The ability to read and interpret the emotions and motivations of others. The AQ score. • “Reality shows, in turn, challenge our emotional intelligence and our AQ. They are, in a sense, elaborately staged group psychology experiments…” (99).
Television • The importance of social intelligence: • “Thanks to our biological and cultural heritage, we live in large bands of interacting humans, and people whose minds are skilled at visualizing all the relationships in those bands are likely to thrive, while those whose minds have difficulty keeping track are invariably handicapped” (109).
Television • Reality TV and politics? Using AQ and social intelligence to evaluate candidates? • What would Postman say? (see pgs. 100-101) • What do you think about this argument?
Television • Social networks: • It isn’t only reality television that has the potential to improve social intelligence. Think of how the level of intricacy in the relationships among television characters has increased • From Dallas to 24.
Internet and Film • The Internet • Supporting material • Interface comprehension • From television to Google? • Is film ‘tapped out’ in terms of its ability to teach us?
Conclusion • The importance of collateral learning… • Form vs. Content • What does the form require of us cognitively?