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Video Games and TV: Do They Make Kids Smarter?

An author makes a case that popular culture is beneficial for the mind.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

In Woody Allen's movie Sleeper, a nerdy storeowner (played by Allen) is cryogenically frozen and defrosted after 200 years only to find that smoking, cream pies, and hot fudge, among other things, are actually healthy for you. And it seems that such an alternative universe is one that Steven Johnson, author of the controversial new book Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, would be comfortable and revered in.

Johnson contends that video games, certain violent TV shows like 24, and reality TV shows such as Survivor and The Apprentice are actually making kids smarter and more savvy, not more violent, aggressive, or phobic as others have suggested. He even dubs this phenomenon "the sleeper curve" as a nod to Allen's 1973 flick because just as in the movie, some of the most criticized components of society may actually be beneficial.

While some are quick to call Johnson's ideas heresy, others tend to agree with at least some of what he has to say about the learning potential of video games and television games.

In his new book, Johnson says that video games such as Tetris and SimCity actually force players to make decisions, choose, and prioritize; shows like 24 prompt viewers to make sense of what they are seeing by filling in information that is withheld or deliberately vague. What's more, certain reality shows boost emotional intelligence and teach viewers valuable lessons about what is and isn't effective at work, at home, and at play.

Pop Culture and Intelligence

"There are a number of indications that pop culture is making us smarter," Johnson tells WebMD. "The most powerful of which is the long-term trend in all modern media societies towards rising intelligence quotients (IQs)."

Johnson says that a person with an above average IQ 50 years ago would be merely average today. "A number of scholars believe that part of that increase has to do with the increased complexity of the media environment we all inhabit," he says. "Think of the kind of problem-solving and pattern recognition you have to do to operate a modern computer, compared to, say, switching channels on a radio."

Johnson says "all the major simulation games [such as] SimCity, The Sims, Age of Empires, Railroad Tycoon, etc. -- where you're simultaneously tracking dozens and dozens of shifting variables, trying to manage an entire system -- are a great cognitive workout."

"On television," Johnson notes, "it's shows like Lost, Alias, The Simpsons, Arrested Development, The West Wing, and ER that have the most challenging narrative structures."

"There is a clear trend towards increased complexity in the popular culture [including] more narrative threads (plots) per episode in a television show, more complicated social networks, increasingly layered and multivariable problems in the games and more participatory media online," he says.

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