Is it possible that “stupid games,” as The New York Times’ Sam Anderson calls them — the monotonous, addictive games such as Tetris and Angry Birds — are actually making us smarter?
The core of Anderson’s April 4 piece is that these “hyperaddictive, stupid games” are just that — mindless cultural throwaways that seem to benefit a few clever game makers, but have otherwise become a deadweight on the American economy. However, that begins to sound a lot like just about every argument that we’ve heard about digital innovations, bringing Nicholas Carr’s 2008 Atlantic piece, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, to mind as well as the Times’ Bill Keller’s May 2011 piece “The Twitter Trap”and his associated tweet, “#TwitterMakesYouStupid.”
But what if we stepped back from the “stupid” argument and took a broader view. If we took an evolutionary biologist's perspective, for example, we would realize that nothing in our world ever appears, fully-formed and fully-baked. Evolution is a step-by-step process that takes many years, with small hints and feints, before worthwhile innovations fully emerge. These games, I believe, are working much the same way. On their face, they may seem “supid,” but they offer hints about the new and potentially beneficial ways the human brain is being rewired for a digital world.
It has been asserted, for example, that videogames are changing the cognition processes in our brains. At the heart of this assertion is a concept known as neuroplasticity, which refers to the ability of the brain to adapt to the type of information and experiences that it is processing. Even playing Tetris — considered to be among the first of the “stupid games” — has been found, according to a 2009 study, to increase the physical shape of teenage girls’ brains, expanding the size of the cortex responsible for spatial ability and planning.
What if, for example, these “stupid games” are engineered — leveraging the power of gamification — to make patients take their medicine on time, or remind children to exercise . Suddenly these games’ “opium-like power” has meaning. As MIT professor John Gabrieli, points out in an Oct. 2009 interview with the Boston Globe’s Emily Anthes, video games’ ability to adapt to users’ problem-solving ability is “stunningly powerful” when it comes to learning. Even the Office of Naval Research has been getting in on the action, in the hopes of improving the fluid intelligence of commanding officers in the field.
In light of these findings, it’s no wonder the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. has given these “stupid games” such a brilliant spotlight.
Dominic Basulto is a digital thinker at Bond Strategy and Influence (formerly called Electric Artists) in New York. Prior to Bond Strategy and Influence, he was the editor of Fortune’s Business Innovation Insider and a founding member of Corante.com, one of the Web's first blog media companies. He also shares his thoughts on innovation on the Big Think Endless Innovation blog and is working on a new book on innovation called "Endless Innovation, Most Beautifuland Most Wonderful."
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