Is Gaming Melting our Brains?

Susan Greenfield, Professor and BaronessIn a recent article, Baroness Professor Susan Greenfield (right) has voiced some pretty significant concerns about video games. With their explosive growth into mainstream culture, video games are taking up more and more of our collective brain cycles. What effect will this have on our species? Quite a profound one, she suggests. I agree – but I think her conclusions beyond that are bunk.

The Baroness Professor is pretty heavy duty. She’s the sort of person you listen to when she has something to say. Greenfield claims that the brains of today’s youth are headed for a drastic alteration:

Given the time young people spend gazing into screens, small and large – reckoned to be from six to nine hours daily – she believes the minds of the younger generation are developing differently from those of previous generations. “The brain,” she says, “has plasticity: it is exquisitely malleable, and a significant alteration in our environment and behaviour has consequences.”

I agree wholeheartedly. I spend the majority of my awake time staring into a screen. Given that you’re reading this, I’ll wager the same is true for you, too. There’s no way that this lifestyle is not affecting our minds.

So we agree that gaming and electronic culture in general is going to affect us all significantly. But what will those effects be? The Baroness Professor enumerates:

[Greenfield] sets out a catalogue of repercussions: the substitution of virtual experience for real encounters; the impact of spoon-fed menu options as opposed to free-ranging inquiry; a decline in linguistic and visual imagination; an atrophy of creativity; contracted, brutalised text-messaging, lacking the verbs and conditional structures essential for complex thinking.

OK, one at a time here:

1. The substitution of virtual experience for real encounters. The thing a lot of people seem to miss when they’re talking about games, and the internet in general, is that Information Technology is communication technology. It’s all about connecting people. Games are no exception. Games are interactive, unlike the other media that used to take up most of our time, books and video (cinema or TV). What’s more, most games throughout history have been multiplayer games, and video games are no different. Think about it – solitaire is a rare exception. People have always gotten together to play together. Why are World of Warcraft, Second Life and Habbo Hotel so popular? Because you connect with other people and do things together. The Wii’s phenomenal success is due to this. Look at their advertising:

What do you see here? People. Playing together. The technology is almost not in the picture.
The Wii is popular because it enables connections between people. Other games are similar connectors. I have frequently played Medieval Total War online with my brother, who lives in a different city – time spent together that we otherwise would never have. In a world where many people lead isolated, alienated lives, a technology that allows them to play together – even via avatars, at a distance – is extremely valuable. In fact, it’s worth cash money. That’s why Nintendo is winning the console wars. (UPDATE: since writing this post, recent sales figures have opened this assertion to debate, but networked and cooperative play with any console is a big reason people buy them. It’s just more fun to play with people.)

2. The impact of spoon-fed menu options as opposed to free-ranging inquiry. Greenfield clearly needs to play more video games. If she did, she’d know that games do not spoon-feed people anything. Games are all about learning by doing. What we call “fun” in games is actually the process of acquiring an intuitive understanding of how a given (game) system functions. (More on this here.) You try, you fail, you try something different, you fail, you try again – success! A little dopamine hit reinforces the behaviour you’ve just practiced, and you’re on to the next challenge. There’s nothing spoon-fed about the way people learn things in video games.

Let’s compare games (and the internet, for that matter) with book learning. When reading a book, you take in facts and ideas in exactly the order the author sets them out. What’s more, everyone else reading the same book gets the same message, in the same order. Interactive media like the net and games allow everyone to dig for their own intellectual gold, in their own way. Sounds like free-ranging inquiry to me.

3. A decline in linguistic and visual imagination; an atrophy of creativity. I submit exhibit ‘A’: this blog post. It took a bit of time and effort to put it together. I’d argue it took a little linguistic imagination and creativity, too. Millions of posts like this one are saturating the noosphere with a profusion of ideas unlike anything the world has ever seen.

I also present exhibit ‘B’:

This amusing clip is the fruit of someone’s creativity. It’s not great film or great art, but it’s someone’s interesting idea that we have now shared. There’s plenty more where it came from: ten hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. In the past, the opportunity for this kind of public expression was limited to those few with money and connections. Now, anyone can express themselves on a world stage – and millions are taking the opportunity to do so, every day – every minute. How, then, has imagination and creativity declined?

4. Contracted, brutalised text-messaging, lacking the verbs and conditional structures essential for complex thinking. Looks like there’s plenty of grammar and syntax around, thank you very much. There’s just a lot more writing out there. In the past, only educated types with access to copy editors and story editors would ever publish anything. Now, anyone with a keyboard writes to the whole world. Of course, people on average pay less attention to grammar – they’re too busy getting their message out. I’m not going to send a text message in iambic pentameter to tell my mate that I’m waiting in the car!

Little by little, electronic communication is changing the rules of all our languages. Just like writing must have changed the rules, back when it was introduced. Trouble is, we have no evidence of pre-writing grammar because . . . it wasn’t written down. Languages evolve. It’s a fact. But complex thinking isn’t going anywhere – it’s too much of a competitive evolutionary advantage, especially in our complex world.

What I find really amazing in Greenfield’s opinions is her idea of how young people are meant to attain unique and enriched identities:

Through focused conversation, nursery rhyme repetition, recitation and rote learning, of reading and writing interspersed with bouts of physical activity in the real world, where there are first-hand and unique adventures to provide a personal narrative, personalised neuronal connections. This is education as we have known it.

A focused conversation is exactly what this blog is. Reading and writing have exploded with the advent of the internet (see above). The physical activity is everyone’s responsibility – but repetition of nursery rhymes? Recitation and rote learning? I remember when I was eight years old, standing up in class, and reciting the multiplication table in unison with twenty-nine other high-pitched voices, all running into each other in a rhythmic singsong:

“Five times five, twenty five. Six times five, thirty. Seven times five, thirty-five. Eight times five . . .”

At the time, of course, it was normal. But looking back, this sort of behaviour is a most bizarre and artificial excercise in groupthink. It certainly bears scant ressemblance to anything we do in our day to day adult lives.

This is, indeed, education as we have known it. And it’s got plenty to recommend it. But let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that this sort of thing encourages children to “attain unique and enriched identities”!

On the other hand, first-hand and unique adventures providing a personal narrative could do this. The sort of adventures that are simply unavailable to kids from isolated, disenfranchised communities. But play out those adventures in rich, explorable virtual worlds, full of mysteries to discover and real people to interact with . . . and you can open kids up to worlds of possibilities. Plenty of personalized neuronal connections.

7 thoughts on “Is Gaming Melting our Brains?

  1. Hmm… we do need people making the points that she does – hopefully to keep things in perspective for people like Gmae developers, authors, and Tripp; the people who work on, promulgate and report on our rapidly developing digital age. The only real problem with the baroness’ position is that it represents a complete worst-case-scenario; there are a lot of potential positive effects of all this communication, ranging from adaptive teaching tools to prosthetics based on a neurological man-machine interface.

    Like every other human development, the digital era must be checked for flaws. Like every other it will usher in both new progress and new suffering… but in the end ssaying that staring into a screen will rot your brain is a lot like a priest from 1455 telling everyone not to bury their noses in books. After all, they’ll rot your moral fiber!

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