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Human, Pernille Fruensgaard Øe

Re-post: Why computer games make us smarter (Feb 2009)

While traveling a lot lately I have had the time to read some wonderful books, and will try to share some good thoughts and quotes here.

Took three very different books with me to London and all though the Paul Arden “God explained in a taxi ride” and Advertising Age’s “Madison and Vine” were some easy reads, I especially enjoyed the last (but also more demanding, so better for hotel room than for airplane) “Everything Bad is Good for You” by Steven Johnson.

While parents often tend to judge the unfamiliar habits of the next generation, this book challenge (among a lot of other interesting subjects) the tendency to dumb down the emerging gaming culture. While gaming is evolving from being perceived as a child activity to an emerging cross demographic activity, stealing time from TV, reading and other media consumption, this is an important discussion.

Johnson starts with the much used (but even more current than ever) McLuhan quote “The student of media soon comes to expect the new media of any period whatever to be classed as psedo by those who acquired the patterns of earlier media, whatever they may happen to be”

This clearly defines the ongoing discussions on the gaming culture, with the tendency to evaluate the gains from spending time on games with the gains from reading linear text.

I will recommend all with an interest in this, to read the book, but here’s the main conclusions.

Reading is teaching the child some elementary skills on imagination, interpretation and concentration based on the premises of following a plot. Gaming on the other hand is teaching the involved to lead a plot and make decisions.

This is just as important skills for the engaged participant.

Even though the decision making process for outsiders will seem as a basic pushing of buttons, the major key to making the way through most games, is based on the ability to figure out what the right thing to do is.

This decision making skill set is basically developed around two techniques; probing and telescoping. Probing is learning the concept of inductive reasoning with trial and error as driver for the progression in the storyline of the game. Telescoping is defined as the ability to act on complex task solving with the final goal embedded in an impressive amount of layers of tasks, each interdependent.

So even though killing the Dwarf in WoW or leading Marcus safely through GoW isn’t important to get through life, the skills of learning how to take decisions and lead a proces, must be recognized as some of the most important human skills.

Johnson compares the lack of this level in the discussion with the concept of teaching kids algebra. It is more likely than not, that the kids will never use this skill after graduating. The reason for teaching algebra (and a lot of other things) is to learn how to think. The same as when people playing computer games learn how to take decisions.

Instead of learning how to follow a narrative thread, the gamers learn to solve tasks and lead the plot.

This is just one of the insights on gaming. Johnson also discusses why games are so addictive, taking the much hyped  (these days too hyped) discussion on neuroscience into the discussion and challenges the common understanding of the next generations love of instant gratification to court, by pointing out the attraction in games exactly based on the opposite concept of delayed gratification, activating our basic reward system sending dopamine into the body when solving a challenging task.

So games do not dumb us down. The activates the brain in a new way, they teach us to take decisions and navigate through complex situations. And I’ll end this with a quote from John Dewey’s book “Experience and Education”.

“Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only that particular thing he is studying at the time. Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes, of likes and dislikes, may be and often is much more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history that is learned. For these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future.”



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