It's a scenario I've been in countless times. I'm in the mood to take a break from the rigors of my day -- after all, sitting in front of the TV under the guise of research can be very tiring. So to relax I Isit in front of the TV and play one of my latest Playstation 2 video games. But I'm not relaxing. One minute I turn a corner into a room only to have the door behind irrevocably close. I'm locked in with no discernible exit. Or I pass down a hallway certain that I've come this way ten times before. I'm lost and have no idea where to go next. Or I'm faced with a mind-bending puzzle with no directions on how to solve it, but I must do so if I am to progress to the next task. Or I'm entrenched in a boss battle where my enemy keeps kicking my behind and forcing me to start the whole level all over again.
In frustration, I scream at the TV. I throw the controller. This relaxing thing is going very well.
And yet that is the commen (mis)conception about video games -- that they are mindless entertainment, relaxing fun. Anyone who has played video games seriously knows they are anything but relaxing. They can be endlessly frustrating and challenging. And yet I keep playing.
Why? Because eventually I find the hidden doorway that lets me out of the locked room or I turn down a different hallway and come into new territory. Eventually I crack the puzzle or discern the trick to taking out the big boss. And, oh, what a glorious moment that is. Of course, half the time I have to call in backup - my seven year old son who plays the game for a couple of minutes and invariably sees something that was right in front but I missed all along. But still, a glorious moment. I have triumphed over the forces allied against me.
Steven Johnson has written one of the most intriguing and thought-provoking books on popular culture that I have come across. It's titled: Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter
(I've posted a link to it on the right). His thesis is that popular culture is progressively growing more intelligent and mentally challenging. Now this seems odd to so many who see popular culture as a vast wasteland of immorality and stupidity. We have assumed that with each passing year, pop culture lowers the bar for morality. Maybe so, but that is a different discussion. Johnson brackets the whole morality discussion. His interest is not in the morality or immorality of pop culture but simply its ability to challenge us intellectually. And with that, he is right on that it is doing so with rapidly increasing force.
One of his initial discussions revolves around video games and how these games force us to think and act and actively participate in the creation of the narrative. We are helping to create the story as we play the game. Today's video games require players to adapt, to create and test theories in order to progress. They present puzzles and riddles, complex codes that must be cracked. They are mental exercise. I watch my son play and I can see the wheels turning in his brain as he gets stuck and must explore all options and learn to look at the problem from different perspectives in order to find his way out.
I'm only partway through Johnson's book and I intend to offer more reflections on it as I go along. But it offers us an important reminder: before we write off video games and television and such as mindless entertainment, we should try looking at the evidence first.
Personally, I could use a good mental workout. Perhaps I'll play a little Prince of Persia