Video Games and TV: Do They Make Kids Smarter?
An author makes a case that popular culture is beneficial for the mind.
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
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
"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.