Friday, December 18, 2009

better than rumored to be

For a couple of years, I have taken a paperback book with me on trips in case the Kindle malfunctions.  It hasn't so I have not gotten into the book, which is "Everything Bad Is Good for You" which is not about binge drinking or cigarettes.  It is written by Steven Johnson, a respected science writer.  It is mostly about how video games are making people, kids as well as adults, smarter despite the usual bemoaning that our society is deteriorating.  Well, I got into the book in the last few days and it is worth knowing about.

When I was about 5 years old, my mother asked me to print my name.  When she saw I could do it, she took me to the main Enoch Pratt library and I got a library card.

She made a big deal of how smart I was and how lucky I was to have a library card.  From then on, libraries were much better than candy for me.  I had that card and I made it pay.

But over the years, I came to see that many other people aren't that crazy about books.  They know about them, they can read and they have for school but for many, most, in fact, I know and have checked, they don't see books as gold, as the big source of knowledge, thrills, perspective, guidance.

As I grew older, I watched many movies that touched my heart or scared me deeply or made me feel wonderful.  At the end of them, I watched the credits roll by.  I realized that in addition to the actors and the director and the producers and the writers, many other people contributed to the making of the movie.  I found that many books owe as much to the editor and the publisher as to the writer but few books have such a large group of people behind them as many movies do.  So, books are ok but they are not candy for everyone.  Not the way dating or sports or parenting or grandparenting or baking or hiking or woodworking or knitting are for some.

I have found that as far back as the ancient Egyptians and the ancient Greeks, oldsters have bemoaned the deterioration of the youth: their manners, their knowledge, their morals, etc.  That discovery has made me cautious about concluding similar things myself unless I have very good evidence to back up my opinions.

Now, along come video games.  With modern computers and image software as well as the experiences of hundreds, probably thousands of adults and youngsters all over the world, the games are steadily getting better and better.

Steven Johnson cautions about applying old measures to new phenomena.  Yes, he says, judged by the standard of a morality play, the video games are not that much.  But that has been true for the last 500 years!  Literature, all thought, has become less moralistic, less certain, more aware of ambiguity and complexity, contradiction and contrast in life, in nature, in humans.  But, he says, judging the new games against a morality play is like asking how good a football player or a boxer Michael Jordan is.  Ok, but that is not where his world class talent lies. 

Had video games been invented prior to books, he postulates the bemoaning of kids being lost in the new-fangled, utterly passive, totally isolating medium of print and losing the speed, memory and awareness that video games produced in the earlier generations.  Several universities have created new departments of gaming since video games involve so many disciplines: computer science, psychology, English or other language, visual and audio arts.

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