A Counterpoint to “Stretching?” Below

While learning that the MPAA is going after BitTorrent sites with pointers to TV shows leads to a certain sense of overreaching (IMHO), this article from the current New Yorker gave me a new set of things to think about: Brain Candy [pdf] – a review of Everything Bad Is Good for You by Steven Johnson

In the wonderfully entertaining “Everything Bad Is Good for You” (Riverhead; $23.95), Steven Johnson proposes that what is making us smarter is precisely what we thought was making us dumber: popular culture.

[…] [T]elevision is very different now from what it was thirty years ago. It’s harder. A typical episode of “Starsky and Hutch,” in the nineteen-seventies, followed an essentially linear path: two characters, engaged in a single story line, moving toward a decisive conclusion. To watch an episode of “Dallas” today is to be stunned by its glacial pace–by the arduous attempts to establish social relationships, by the excruciating simplicity of the plotline, by how obvious it was. A single episode of “The Sopranos,” by contrast, might follow five narrative threads, involving a dozen characters who weave in and out of the plot. Modern television also requires the viewer to do a lot of what Johnson calls “filling in,” as in a “Seinfeld” episode that subtly parodies the Kennedy assassination conspiracists, or a typical “Simpsons” episode, which may contain numerous allusions to politics or cinema or pop culture. The extraordinary amount of money now being made in the television aftermarket–DVD sales and syndication–means that the creators of television shows now have an incentive to make programming that can sustain two or three or four viewings. […]

How can the greater cognitive demands that television makes on us now, he wonders, not matter?

Johnson develops the same argument about video games. […] The contemporary video game involves a fully realized imaginary world, dense with detail and levels of complexity.

Indeed, video games are not games in the sense of those pastimes–like Monopoly or gin rummy or chess–which most of us grew up with. They don’t have a set of unambiguous rules that have to be learned and then followed during the course of play. This is why many of us find modern video games baffling: we’re not used to being in a situation where we have to figure out what to do. We think we only have to learn how to press the buttons faster. But these games withhold critical information from the player. Players have to explore and sort through hypotheses in order to make sense of the game’s environment, which is why a modern video game can take forty hours to complete. Far from being engines of instant gratification, as they are often described, video games are actually, Johnson writes, “all about delayed gratification–sometimes so long delayed that you wonder if the gratification is ever going to show.”

See a debate with the author over at Slate