Tuesday, January 22, 2013

If games came first...

Steven Johnson, in his 2005 book "Everything Bad is Good for You," posits an alternate history where video games are popularized before books. In 2005 it may have required a fanciful situation like this to make his point, but if we follow current trends we are heading into his situation anyway. It doesn't matter which was invented first, what matters is what humans are exposed to first. It matters where the children get their value system from.

In this alternate history schools would be completely different. Age no longer matters, students reach their level of capability at each subject individually by playing individual and group video games.

The beauty of video games is that they put you on the edge of your capability all the time. The goal is to keep you in the flow, right at the peak of your capability. Constant leveling-up and positive feedback are used to keep you invested in the task. This keeps the player learning quickly and enjoying the time. 

There is a great hope in this style of learning. It is effective and granular, each students rises to his or her capability as fast as possible. What is the value system and set of skills that a video game taught child will have? I'll examine two that I think are important:

An expectation of instant gratification and constant feedback. 

What happens when this video game educated person reaches an analog problem that they don't have the capability to solve? Will they have the ability to struggle with an impossible problem without getting that gratification and feedback? Or will they just give up and look for digital pleasure?  I worry most about physical relationships. Dealing with a wife or husband or sibling or child is much different than a video game. The goals are uncertain and the rewards are inconsistent. I would be afraid that video game education would hurt our ability to have fulfilling family relationships. But, the solution would obviously be video games designed to teach family relationship situations!

Too many chiefs, not enough indians.

In Steve's hypothetical he points out that video games teach the players to be leaders. Do we want or need a population of leaders? Is that really a good thing? On one hand it could make an active participatory populace that would see politics as a game and work to improve their own situation. Honestly though, I have never been able to work in a group where everyone is a leader. Nothing gets done! Instead of completing the task we fight over who is leading and everything that is done is undone by someone else. Having few leaders and many followers is efficient. Some people are better at making decisions at thinking strategically, at problem solving. The video game population would have wonderful statistics(in their class score board) on how well they do at each of these categories. They would have data to show who the "best" leader is, but would people be willing to follow? Maybe all the concrete stats would be trusted to an extent that people would know and accept their position in life. The solution to this problem, more video games designed to teach group dynamics!

The pleasure in books is that they are not immersive. If the brain is being constantly challenged by someone else's stimulation when will it have time to create? If we are taught from a young age to be led into flow by a computer, will we be able to get there without it? Are we teaching our brain to be dependent on the computer for all pleasure?

In our rush to create fast pace immersive learning are we actually removing our ability to learn without the computer? Are we turning the computer into a "learning prosthesis" that we are helpless without?


  1. I have personally seen the effects that video games have on personal interactions. My younger cousins are addicted to video games. So much so, that they are unable to hold a conversation. At first I attributed this inability to an age gap. By now that they have reached an age of maturity, this should not be the case. Then I considered the lack of commonality. This conflict was resolved when we started the same university. Nonetheless, they still do not seem to have the ability to maintain in person conversation. While this is in no way scientific, this observation is very alarming to me. I am fearful what will happen to face to face conversation when people become increasingly dependent on technology for interaction.

  2. Interesting comment Nick, I have seen that as well! I wonder if your cousin has trouble speaking with his peers? Can you consider playing video games his form of communication, are you just speaking another language than your cousin?


  3. There is a theorist who has a book titled NARRATIVE AS VIRTUAL REALITY, which talks about how immersive books are.... I think it's a different kind of immersion (video games immerse you in a 3-D space, e.g.). Bt there is discussion of how immersive narrative is...

    Your point about too many chiefs is interesting. I think that worked back in the 20th century when the economy had opportunities for those with a high school (or even less!) education. Now, with globalization, things are quite a bit different, as Thomas Friedman documents in THE WORLD IS FLAT.