If video games were invented before books…

February 3, 2011

If video games were invented before books, this would be an article some concerned writer might publish:

Reading books chronically under stimulates the senses. Unlike the longstanding tradition of gameplaying – which engages the child in a vivid, three-dimensional world filled with moving images and musical soundscapes, navigated and controlled with complex muscular movements – books are simply a barren string of words on the page. Only a small portion of the brain devoted to processing written language is activated during reading, while games engage the full range of the sensory and motor cortices.
Books are also tragically isolating. While games have for many years engaged the young in complex social relationships with their peers, building and exploring worlds together, books force the child to sequester him or herself in a quiet space, shut off from interaction with other 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 sitting alone 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. Bur 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 as a condition until the printed word came along to stigmatize sufferers.
But perhaps the most dangerous property of books is the fact that they 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 want to 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 their circumstances. Reading is not an active participatory process; it’s a submissive one. The book readers of the younger generation are learning to “follow the plot” instead of learning to lead.

This is an excerpt from “Everything Bad is Good for You” by Steven Johnson. His point is that often people react to something new by noticing all the worst aspects of the new technology. Johnson makes that case that video games, TV, internet and movies are complex stories that force people to use their brains to explore and evaluate the increasingly complex media landscape in ways that have never been seen before.

His central premise , that the “book only crowd” might not be right, was argued quite convincingly. He provides lots of data and many examples. Those who feel a little guilty because their kids play too many video games will feel a bit better after reading this book.

But there was a piece of his conclusion that I disagreed with.

He argued that content and story didn’t matter. He believed that because complexity is what makes our brains get stronger and quicker, that parents should focus on the complexity of story telling rather than violence, sex, or language in games, shows, and movies.  This is where I strongly disagree. This shows a lack of understanding on Johnson’s part of the power of story. As Christians, we should appreciate the life-changing nature of stories we read and see. God didn’t give us a rulebook….he gave us a book of stories about Kings, warriors, fishermen, angels, demons, death, danger, and salvation. Stories matter very much. They change the world.

Johnson’s point was that all stories stimulate the brain. That is true. But how they stimulate it and what sort of story we fit our own lives into as a result should be of central importance to Christian parents. Don’t take Johnson’s advice here….please. Before letting your child watch a movie or TV show. Understand the story. Is the hero a disrespectful jerk to his parents? Your child will build that picture of a hero into their own story. Is the hero selfless and righteous? Hopefully, this will be the picture you child builds of what a hero is. Stories are how we build identity.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and thought it added a much needed voice to the discussion on media in this country.

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