Monday, August 15, 2011

Everything bad is good for you

The intellectual nourishment of reading books vs. video games is so deeply ingrained into our assumptions that it's hard to contemplate a different point of view. But 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.

Video games have historically suffered from this syndrome, largely because they have been contrasted to the older conventions of reading books.

To get around these prejudices, try this thought experiment:

Imagine an alternate world identical to ours except for one techno-historical change: video games were invented and popularized before books. In this parallel universe, kids have been playing games for centuries - and then these page bound texts came along and suddenly they're all the rage. What would teachers, parents, and the cultural authorities have to say about this frenzy of reading? I suspect it would sound something like this:
"Reading books chronically under-stimulates the senses. Unlike the long-standing tradition of gameplaying - which engages the child in vivid, three-dimensional worlds filled with moving images and musical soundscapes, navigated and controlled with complex muscular movements - books are simply a barren string of words on a page. Only a small portion of the brain devoted to processing written language is activated during reading, while games engage the full range of sensory and motor cortices.
"Books are also tragically isolating. Whereas games have for many years engaged the young in complex social relationships and their peers, building and exploring worlds together, books force force the child to sequester him or herself in a quiet space, shut off from interaction with others children. These new "libraries" that  have arisen in recent years to facilitate reading activities are a frightening sight: dozens of young children (normally so vivacious and socially interactive) now sitting in cubicles, reading silently, oblivious to their peers. 
"Many children enjoy reading books, of course, and no doubt some of the flights of fancy conveyed by reading have their escapist merits. But for a sizable percentage of the population, books are downright discriminatory. The reading craze of recent years cruelly taunts the 10 million Americans who suffer from dyslexia - a condition that didn't even exist until printed text came along to stigmatize its sufferers. 
"But perhaps the most dangerous property of these books is the fact that you follow a fixed linear path. You can't control their narratives in any fashion - you simply sit back and have the story dictated to you. For those of us raised on interactive narratives, this property may seem astonishing. Why would anyone embark on an adventure utterly choreographed by another person? But today's generation embarks on such adventures millions of times a day. This risks instilling a general passivity in our children, making them feel as though they're powerless to change the circumstances. Reading is not an active, participatory process; it's a submissive one. The book readers of the younger generation are learning to "follow to plot" instead of learning to lead."
Sound absurd? So does the criticisms about video games.

Try flipping things around some time. You'll be surprised what you discover with an open mind.


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