Friday, July 29, 2005

Get a Half-Life 

Dept. of Gloom & Doom 3: Contrarian Steven Johnson, the author of Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, has written an open letter to Sen. Hillary Clinton, who recently called for an $80 million study into the effects of violent video games on children:
I'd like to draw your attention to another game whose nonstop violence and hostility has captured the attention of millions of kids -- a game that instills aggressive thoughts in the minds of its players, some of whom have gone on to commit real-world acts of violence and sexual assault after playing.

I'm talking, of course, about high school football.

I know a congressional investigation into football won't play so well with those crucial swing voters, but it makes about as much sense as an investigation into the pressing issue of Xbox and PlayStation 2 . . . .

[A]ny sensible investigation into video games must ask the "compared to what" question. If the alternative to playing "Halo 2" is reading The Portrait of a Lady, then of course The Portrait of a Lady is better for you. But it's not as though kids have been reading Henry James for 100 years and then suddenly dropped him for Pokemon.

Another key question: Of all the games that kids play, which ones require the most mental exertion? Parents can play this at home: Try a few rounds of Monopoly or Go Fish with your kids, and see who wins. I suspect most families will find that it's a relatively even match. Then sit down and try to play "Halo 2" with the kids. You'll be lucky if you survive 10 minutes.

The great secret of today's video games that has been lost in the moral panic over "Grand Theft Auto" is how difficult the games have become. That difficulty is not merely a question of hand-to-eye coordination; most of today's games force kids to learn complex rule systems, master challenging new interfaces, follow dozens of shifting variables in real time and prioritize between multiple objectives.

In short, precisely the sorts of skills that they're going to need in the digital workplace of tomorrow.

Consider this one fascinating trend among teenagers: They're spending less time watching professional sports and more time simulating those sports on Xbox or PlayStation. Now, which activity challenges the mind more -- sitting around rooting for the Green Bay Packers, or managing an entire football franchise through a season of "Madden 2005": calling plays, setting lineups, trading players and negotiating contracts? Which challenges the mind more -- zoning out to the lives of fictional characters on a televised soap opera, or actively managing the lives of dozens of virtual characters in a game such as "The Sims"?

On to the issue of aggression, and what causes it in kids, especially teenage boys. Congress should be interested in the facts: The last 10 years have seen the release of many popular violent games, including "Quake" and "Grand Theft Auto"; that period also has seen the most dramatic drop in violent crime in recent memory. According to Duke University's Child Well-Being Index, today's kids are less violent than kids have been at any time since the study began in 1975. Perhaps, Sen. Clinton, your investigation should explore the theory that violent games function as a safety valve, letting children explore their natural aggression without acting it out in the real world . . . .

Of course, I admit that one charge against video games is a slam dunk. Kids don't get physical exercise when they play a video game, and indeed the rise in obesity among younger people is a serious issue. But, of course, you don't get exercise from doing homework, either.

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