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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.
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Pop Culture and Intelligence continued...

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.

For example, while Dallas, a popular 1980s nighttime soap opera chronicled the misadventures of one family, the show 24 actually tracks four families. And instead of fighting for control of the family business as they did on Dallas, the characters of 24 are trying to simultaneously save or destroy the president or the world.

Johnson has two boys, aged 2 and almost 4. "They like to watch DVDs -- all the Pixar movies, for instance, plus the classics such as Winnie The Pooh and Mary Poppins, but mostly they just want to play with their Thomas the Tank Engine train set," he says.

"In some ways, what they're doing now with the Thomas trains is what they'll be doing in a few years with their video games: mastering a complex system, learning all the different characters, building an environment, and exploring it together," he tells WebMD.

"Compared to the popular culture 30 years ago, you have to 'think' more to engage with today's entertainment: you have to make decisions, express your own ideas, analyze more complicated storylines," he says. "It's a kind of mental exercise, not unlike the mental exercise you get from, say, playing chess," Johnson says.

TV as a Learning Tool

"It is my contention that TV is, as it was intended to be, a learning tool," says Patricia A. Farrell, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., and a medical consultant for the N.J. Department of Disability. "The Apprentice is, in my view, a great training medium for entering the dog-eat-dog world of big business," she says. "It teaches interviewing skills, planning, group participation, and all those things we know work well in a corporate environment."

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