Everything Bad is Good for You: How TV and games make us smarter

I've just finished my review copy of Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You. Steven also wrote such fantastic books as Emergence and Mind Wide Open, so I had high expectations for this one and I wasn't disappointed.

The thesis of Everything Bad is Good for You is this: people who deride popular culture do so because so much of popcult's subject matter is banal or offensive. But the beneficial elements of videogames and TV arise not from their subject matter, but from their format, which require that players and viewers winkle out complex storylines and puzzles, getting a "cognitive workout" that teaches the same kind of skills that math problems and chess games impart. As Johnson points out, no one evaluates the benefit of chess based on its storyline or monotonically militaristic subject matter.

Johnson's thesis emerges in a delightful and accessible blend of stats, anecdotes and argument. His chapter on television, which compares the plots of Dragnet, Hill Street Blues and the Sopranos, is a flat-out hoot, which made me re-think the way that I judge the value of TV. Likewise the stuff on video games, and the idea that the point of most games is to first figure out what the point of the game is, mirroring the real world, where the point is often to figure out what the point is.

The field I work in, science fiction novels, has been in decline now for decades, with readership, con attendance, magazine subscriptions and print-runs all way down. In large part, they're being displaced by games and TV and DVDs, which also make up the majority of square footage in your typical sf specialty bookstore. Understanding the appeal of these media — and in particular, the neuroscience of gaming and its relationship to brain-reward — makes me feel like I'm better prepared for the future.

At 52,000 words, Everything Bad is Good for You is about the same length as a walk-through for a PC game (something Johnson points out with great delight), but it's far more entertaining. Johnson's a sharp thinker and observer, and while he's not afraid to argue politically unpopular arguments like the one in this book, he's also no reflexive contrarian out to shock people with his naughtiness. This is a thoughtful, thought-provoking read, and one that I heartily recommend. I wish he'd arranged for a Creative Commons online edition, because there're so many well-argued passages that would be a natural for pastebombing into online discussions.