Video Games Aren’t Like Television

Hello Steven,

I’m glad I could add to your family’s stock of funny phrases—you’ve certainly enriched my lexicon with the terrific word “bogosity.” My claims about your argument’s bogosity were, as you say, based on a reading of a section of your book excerpted in the Times magazine. Now that I’ve read the whole thing, I find myself persuaded by much of what you say about video games, without retracting my prior objections to your thesis about television. In fact, I think this concession only strengthens my case, given the differences in the way these two media work.

The first part of your book strikes me as a smart and cogent apologia for the cultural legitimacy of gaming, which, as you point out, is often criticized in the media by people who have never picked up a joystick in their lives. You point out the common non-gamer’s mistake of tarring all interactive media with the same broad brush: For example, the conventional wisdom sees video games as violent, empty-headed shoot’em-ups responsible for the Columbine massacre, etc., when in fact many of the best-selling games, like SimCity, are virtually violence- and sex-free.

The most compelling part of your defense of video games is your assertion that they’re “fiendishly, sometimes maddeningly, hard“—that what they provide to gamers is the opposite of instant gratification. By tapping into the brain’s reward chemistry and our innate desire to explore unfamiliar environments, you convincingly argue, gaming can actually sharpen such skills as patience, focus, and problem-solving. But the section that follows—where you extrapolate that argument to television, asserting that “television is growing increasingly rigorous” and “improving our minds”—I find unconvincing for several reasons.

Primary among them is that, as you yourself say in the book, television is a “supremely passive medium.” Even during the most narratively complex episode of The Sopranos, the viewer doesn’t have to do anything to move the show forward. Gamers literally make worlds of their own; television watchers arrive in a world fully made. (We’ll get to the question of who’s making that world, and for what purpose, in a moment.) I’ll grant you that fictional TV narratives have become more complex over the last 20 years when you consider the sheer number of threads to follow per episode. (Here, I can’t resist reproducing once more your Starsky & Hutch plot graph vs. the Sopranos one.) And, as you note, more shows than ever before rely on season-spanning story arcs that require us to fill in information for ourselves. But does this truly mean that TV is “improving our minds”? How hard, really, is it to remember that Carmela has a crush on Furio, or that Johnny Sack is sensitive about his wife’s weight?

Sure, I agree that new media technologies like video games or the Internet may well demand more participation and attention from us. (Although, according to this study, excessive e-mailing at work causes more than twice the drop in IQ than smoking pot does.) But most television demands little from us other than presence and receptivity—what the online marketers call “eyeballs.” Watching TV reminds me of that George Carlin line: When asked what doing cocaine makes you feel like, he replied, “It makes you feel like doing more cocaine.” Television wants us to watch more television; most programming is essentially a delivery system for advertising. And, unlike the newer information technologies you praise, it doesn’t always demand a lot of engagement from us in return.

Let’s set aside, for a moment, the question of content and consider the mode of delivery. In your description of the experience of watching an hour-long episode of 24—which you cite as an example of the newfound complexity of TV—you never address the simple fact that a full third of that hour is made up of one-minute product pitches. Even if we assume that the cognitive demands those ads are placing on us are getting ever more sophisticated, too (and maybe they are; that would be a case for Slate’s ad critic, Seth Stevenson), the totality of the viewing experience still adds up to something quite odd. We’re asked to shift repeatedly back and forth between mental and emotional involvement with the never-ending bad hair day that is the life of Jack Bauer, and periodic reflections on the Zenlike merits of Pepsi One. This may be making us better at something, but it’s not thinking—at least not as I understand the word. It’s more like an ADD training camp. We may emerge better equipped to repeat the experience next week, but are we any smarter?

Quantitatively speaking, our brains may well be evolving so as to take in, sort, and make sense of more information than ever before in human history. But what is TV leading us to think about? Consider the complicated plotlines on a show like 24: Perhaps, as you argue, they require more of the viewer than Starsky & Hutch once did. But mostly, it seems to me, 24 trains us to tolerate ever-increasing levels of stimulation, distraction, and finally, a docile receptivity to increasingly implausible plotlines (not to mention some pretty dubious stereotypes). One man’s mental challenge can be another’s hamster wheel.

I was struck by a story you tell in the section on gaming about a man who was profiled in Wired who’s deeply involved in a simulation game called Ultima Online. Having undertaken the task of turning his “avatar,” or virtual persona, into an expert blacksmith, he was coming home from work every night to hours of repetitive mining labor in the sim world—essentially, working a second job at night. That you cheerily adduce this as evidence of the value of gaming strikes me as odd. To me, the irony of this guy’s double shift seemed more like a bleakly Marxist critique of the replacement of real by artificial experience, and the complete effacement of leisure time. The Man has him coming and going; his boss gets eight hours of work out of him by day, the makers of the game by night.

If you look at the average American’s TV-viewing habits, some of that same chain-gang logic applies. We’re putting in nearly a full workweek—about 30 hours—in front of the screen. So what if we’re all becoming geniuses at sussing out plot threads on ER? Unless we broaden our understanding of what these technologies are doing—not just to our IQ scores, but to our language, our social networks, our bodies, our imaginations—we run the risk of falling into a tautological feedback loop, in which technology has nothing to teach us except how to be better consumers of that same technology. And that would be really dumb.

All best,