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The 'Bad' Guy
Steven Johnson Thinks Video Games And Violent TV Are Good for the Brain

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 21, 2005

NEW YORK

There seem to be two Steven Johnsons. And at this particular moment, it's hard to believe they're the same guy.

There's Steven Johnson, Swell Dad, the one who sits across the table from you in his Brooklyn dining room and politely interrupts your conversation to commune with a way-cute toddler who's dashed in bearing bottled water and news from the outside world. "Hi, Rowan! Oh, thank you, that's very helpful. Was it hot outside, buddy?" he says.

Then there's Steven Johnson, Parents' Nightmare.

This is the guy who's been parading around calling video games like Grand Theft Auto and TV shows like "24" brain food for your kids. He's the provocateur who titled his most recent book "Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter" -- a deliberate "nana-nana-boo-boo" to the Books Are Better crowd.

"The most debased forms of mass diversion -- video games and violent television dramas and juvenile sitcoms -- turn out to be nutritional after all," Johnson writes. They offer an increasingly rigorous "cognitive workout." What's more, the mental skills they hone "are just as important as the ones exercised by reading books."

Well.

You're a parent of two teenagers who has spent years trying to reduce their exposure to the addictive, sexualized, violent and relentlessly commercial output of the Great American Pop Culture Machine. (They've turned out just fine, thank you, despite never owning GameCubes.) You've read "Everything Bad" and found it smart and stimulating but also utterly infuriating. Twelve pages from the end, you've hit a passage so annoying it made you want to schlep up to Brooklyn and fling Johnson's argument back in his handsome, smiling face.

Which would be a lot easier if he weren't such a likable guy -- and if that charming child of his didn't keep getting in the way.

'Almost Like a Life Form'

Johnson's championship of popular culture comes with a significant irony: If he'd been born just a couple of years earlier than 1968, he'd likely be teaching "Middlemarch" to undergraduates today.

He grew up in Glen Echo, the son of a lawyer and a health-care advocate. From the beginning he was a huge reader, the kind of kid who starts thinking at age 9 that he wants to be a writer. As an undergraduate at Brown, he majored in semiotics. As a grad student at Columbia, he studied English lit.

"I sat there reading 75 19th-century novels when I was 24," he says, laughing, "and it's a huge part of who I am."

But Johnson was something else as well. He was the kind of kid who'd sit in his room for hours playing baseball simulation games -- the pre-electronic variety, which featured sets of dice and sheaves of complex statistical data. He was the kind who, frustrated by the flaws he found in these simulations, went ahead and designed his own.

When the first electronic games appeared, he played them, too. Still, he was no obsessive -- until Myst and Sim City came along.

This was in the mid-'90s, during his grad school days. Exploring the vivid worlds of the new games "was, like, oh my God, I feel like I fast-forwarded 10 years." The second version of Sim City, in particular, gave him the feeling that the urban landscape he was shaping on his computer screen was "almost like a life form."

If a single game could come alive that way, what would a whole computer-connected world be like? It was the perfect question for a tech-loving guy who wanted to write.

Goodbye, "Middlemarch"; hello, Feed magazine.

Johnson never finished his dissertation. Instead, he helped start one of the first significant general interest publications online -- joining others in his tech-savvy generation who "saw opportunity where a lot of other people saw something confusing and scary," as Feed co-founder Stefanie Syman once explained.

The magazine had a classic new-economy roller-coaster ride. It was hand-to-mouth at first, Johnson says: "Oh, we raised $20,000! Oh, we can pay the rent!" A few years later, having added a couple of other Web ventures, his company was doing well enough to raise a few million dollars and hire a real CEO -- just in time for the market to crash.

Feed was history. But Johnson came out just fine. The magazine had helped establish him as a chronicler of the networked world. He had one book out and another poised for publication.

We're not talking thrillers here: Johnson has made a career of popularizing the complex.

In "Interface Culture" (1997), he explored the idea that because we're now sharing so many communal spaces online, interfaces and the folks who create them are hugely important. In "Emergence" (2001), he looked at self-organizing systems in everything from ant colonies to computer simulations. In last year's "Mind Wide Open," he offered a lively tour through the workings of the brain.

For years, meanwhile, he had been charting the "incredible growth in complexity and challenge" of those video games that non-gamers still thought of as moronic, immoral or both. Then he thought: Isn't television evolving the same way? Weren't shows like "The Sopranos," "The Simpsons," "Seinfeld" and "24" demanding more of their viewers at the same time the tube was under attack for producing sleazy, lowest-common-denominator fare?

"It occurred to me that there was a bigger argument to be made," Johnson says.

The author and his wife talked about steeling themselves for a negative reaction -- because if "Everything Bad" did its job, it was going to make some people mad.

Sure enough, there's a mad person sitting in their dining room right now.

'Exploring an Environment'

You want to start shouting at him right away.

What about the stuff "Everything Bad" ignores? What about all that sex and violence you don't want your kids exposed to in second grade? Or the highly addictive nature of video games? Or the toxic sea of commercialism in which all that televised complexity must float? What does Johnson really mean when he says these things are "good for you"?

But it would be best, perhaps, to start with some points of agreement.

Okay. It's true, as Johnson says, that video games can be intensely challenging and absorbing, and that book-loving snobs tend to be oblivious to this fact. It's true that "The Sopranos" is complicated and subtle as well as violent. And although you yourself don't watch "24," your smart colleagues talk endlessly about its intricate plotting.

What's more: You love how comfortable your kids are with new technology. You totally agree that "the ability to take in a complex system and learn its rules on the fly is a talent with great real-world applicability." Maybe they can support you in your old age!

In fact, if you ignore the absurdly sweeping assertion of Johnson's title -- and hey, he says, if you can't see that "Everything Bad Is Good for You" is winking at the reader, we've really got a failure to communicate -- his core argument seems reasonable enough.

To summarize briefly: He's talking trends, not absolutes, and over the past 30 years, the trend in both video games and television shows has been toward forms that are more cognitively demanding. (He doesn't dwell on the Internet, which he thinks needs little defense.)

Why the upward trends? When it comes to gaming, Johnson invokes some of the neuroscience he studied for his last book. Human brains are drawn to systems, he suggests, in which "rewards are both clearly defined and achieved by exploring an environment." The exploration part is key: Gamers have to figure out the rules as they go along, and "no other pop cultural form directly engages the brain's decision-making apparatus" the way video games do.

With television, Johnson's argument rests more on economics. Complex narratives that "force you to work to make sense of them" have been rewarded by a marketplace where profit now depends heavily on repeat performances, whether on DVD or in syndication. Making shows more challenging to decode makes perfect sense if you're assuming they'll be watched more than once.

Games aren't "Hamlet" or "The Great Gatsby," Johnson writes; they're more like mathematical logic problems. As such, "they are good for the mind on some fundamental level: They teach abstract skills in probability, in pattern recognition, in understanding causal relations that can be applied in countless situations, both personal and professional."

But, but, but . . .

Too many questions get played down -- or left out entirely -- as Johnson argues his case.

So you ask: What about all that sex and violence? It's not just the Parents Television Council that thinks the entertainment industry "has pushed the content envelope too far." Does Grand Theft Auto have to make people smarter by rewarding them for killing prostitutes?

Johnson doesn't quite answer this directly.

"I feel like the values questions, the violence questions, all those kind of content questions that I kind of put off to the side, I don't put off to the side because they're irrelevant," he says. Violence "is absolutely a legitimate thing to talk about." Take "24," for example. "I think it's a brilliant show on a whole host of levels, but the torture in it is really offensive."

Why not talk about it, then?

"Because we're only focusing on these other issues, and I think the cognitive stuff is as important. . . . What I'm trying to say is, let's put those questions aside and continue having that debate, but let me introduce you to this whole major story line that you haven't heard. And if you don't have that story line, then you can't make informed decisions about what your kids should be doing."

So how about the addiction thing?

"Everything Bad" sets out to explain why gamers willingly spend hours on tasks that seem, at least to a non-gamer, intensely boring. "The power of games to captivate involves their ability to tap into the brain's natural reward circuitry," Johnson writes. A bit later he acknowledges a small problem. "You might reasonably object that I have merely demonstrated that video games are the digital equivalent of crack cocaine."

Well, yeah, you bet, but when you do object, here comes that positive story line again.

Can't constantly gaming kids become addicted? "Absolutely. No question about it," Johnson agrees. But he says the brain's craving for rewards, like the Force in "Star Wars," can be used for good as well: "You can get them to do things much more challenging mentally than what I was doing when I was sitting around watching TV" as a kid.

Speaking of which: Some parents (you're one) object as much to television advertising as to the shows themselves. We don't want our kids constantly being told that buying stuff is the key to feeling good about themselves.

Johnson's solution to this? Well, it turns out he and his wife don't watch much regular TV. "We started watching all these TV shows on DVD," he says -- "Six Feet Under," "24," "The West Wing" -- "which is the most beautiful way to watch them, because you get to see the long format narrative at its best." Right now they're watching "Lost" with the aid of their TiVo machine, which also allows them to skip the commercials.

Give him credit for consistency: Johnson doesn't stop at saying these widely praised, long-form TV dramas are more challenging than they used to be. Even reality television, he maintains, is better for viewers than old-time game shows or "Mork & Mindy." Why? Because it enhances the viewers' emotional intelligence by getting them to "analyze and recall the full range of social relationships in a large group."

Oh, please! Wouldn't they learn faster by turning off the tube and interacting with actual human beings ?

"Yes. Right. Exactly right," he says calmly. But if you assume "people are going to spend some amount of their time in front of screens . . ."

Not assuming that, apparently, isn't an option.

Time to bring up the passage that so maddened you when you came across it, near the end of Johnson's hymn to pop culture. The one in the section beginning "Now for the bad news."

It's true, he finally admits, that "a specific, historically crucial kind of reading has grown less common in this society: sitting down with a three-hundred-page book and following its argument or narrative without a great deal of distraction." It's true that video games and TV do a poor job of "training our minds to follow a sustained textual argument or narrative" -- at least one that "doesn't involve genuine interactivity."

But not to worry: "We still have schools and parents to teach wisdom that the popular culture fails to impart."

When you first read this sentence, all you could think was: Thanks a lot, pal! No problem! We'll just drag 'em away from those Xboxes and whup 'em into shape!

You convey this reaction to the sentence's author. Just what does he think schools and parents are competing with, you ask.

He is unfazed.

After all, he has made his argument in a 200-page book.

"Middlemarch," too, will doubtless survive, he says.

'He Seems Really Into Books'

"Hey, little man," Johnson says. Here comes that cute toddler again, heading straight for Dad, paying not the slightest attention to the matching PowerBooks that sit on the counter nearby. He will soon enough, though. His brother already does.

Not quite 4 yet, the older boy "pops down in the morning, goes up on that chair, turns on that computer, pulls down his user account, types in his password, watches the Web browser, goes to Sesamestreet.org and starts playing these little interactive games," Johnson says. So before he has started to read and write, he's already got a life on the screen.

Does this worry his father? It does not.

"He seems really into books," Johnson says. "Being read books is a crucial part of his life." And never mind that they read him "mainly programming manuals."

Joke! That's a joke! The man is pulling your leg! The kid is a huge Curious George fan!

In truth, Johnson's life appears far more balanced than his book. Yes, there are two laptops on the counter, but right next to them hangs a Barnes & Noble tote bag with a portrait of Charles Dickens on it, and nearby sits a copy of Ian McEwan's "Saturday," which Johnson recently read (and loved).

Yes, there's a giant, flat Philips Widescreen mounted on the living room wall, but it's surrounded by shelves and shelves of books, among them "Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos," by Mitchell Waldrop, and "The Golden Bowl," by Henry James.

"Everything Bad Is Good for You" was deliberately written as a polemic, Johnson says, and he knows perfectly well it's one-sided. He could have written a longer, more balanced book that said, "Here's an overall assessment of the entire state of today's culture," he says, "but that's the kind of book that nobody listens to."

People have been listening to his, at least to judge from the continuing flow of media requests: He's been doing interviews for weeks, and as he speaks, in early June, he's about to go on "The Daily Show" and Jim Lehrer's "NewsHour." What's more -- despite his fears, and present company excepted -- he's been surprised at how positive the responses have been.

Ah, but you've got a theory of why that is.

Call it the Red Wine Syndrome. Take something that's known to be wildly destructive when taken in excess: something that can wreck your liver, destroy your family, create bloody mayhem on the highway and turn you into a pathetic, falling-down wretch. Then have some scientists announce that, taken in moderation , this thing can . . . prevent cancer!

If you're a drinker who's sick and tired of being scolded, you're going to be pretty excited about this news.

Johnson laughs. He's heard this kind of connection made before.

"A few desperate people," he says, "are, like: ' Please tell me that I can smoke again!' "

© 2005 The Washington Post Company