Hillary Clinton vs. the PlayStation generation: Game over

July 29, 2005|By Steven Johnson

DEAR SEN. Hillary Rodham Clinton:

I'm writing to commend you for calling for a $90 million study on the effects of video games on children, and in particular the courageous stand you have taken in recent weeks against the notorious Grand Theft Auto series.

I'd like to draw your attention to another game whose nonstop violence and hostility has captured the attention of millions of kids - a game that instills aggressive thoughts in the minds of its players, some of whom have gone on to commit real-world acts of violence and sexual assault after playing.

I'm talking, of course, about high school football.

I know a congressional investigation into football won't play so well with those crucial swing voters, but it makes about as much sense as an investigation into the pressing issue that is PlayStation2 and Xbox.

Your current concern is over sex scenes in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Yet there's not much to investigate, is there? It should get rated appropriately, and that's that. But there's more to your proposed study: You want to examine how video games shape children's values and cognitive development.

Kids have always played games. A hundred years ago they were playing stickball and kick-the-can; now they're playing World of Warcraft, Halo 2 and Madden 2005. And parents have to drag their kids away from the games to get them to do their algebra homework, but parents have been dragging kids away from whatever the kids were into since the dawn of civilization.

So any sensible investigation into video games must ask the "compared to what" question. If the alternative to playing Halo 2 is reading The Portrait of a Lady, then of course The Portrait of a Lady is better for you. But it's not as though kids have been reading Henry James for 100 years and then suddenly dropped him for Pokemon.

The great secret of today's video games that has been lost in the moral panic over Grand Theft Auto is how difficult the games have become. That difficulty is not merely a question of hand-eye coordination; most of today's games force kids to learn complex rule systems, master challenging new interfaces, follow dozens of shifting variables in real time and prioritize between multiple objectives.

In short, precisely the sorts of skills that they're going to need in the digital workplace of tomorrow.

Consider this one fascinating trend among teenagers: They're spending less time watching professional sports and more time simulating those sports on Xbox or PlayStation2. Now, which activity challenges the mind more - sitting around rooting for the Green Bay Packers, or managing an entire football franchise through a season of Madden 2005: calling plays, setting lineups, trading players and negotiating contracts? Which challenges the mind more - zoning out to the lives of fictional characters on a televised soap opera, or actively managing the lives of dozens of virtual characters in a game such as The Sims?

On to the issue of aggression, and what causes it in kids, especially teenage boys. Congress should be interested in the facts: The last 10 years have seen the release of many popular violent games, including Quake and Grand Theft Auto; that period also has seen the most dramatic drop in violent crime in recent memory. According to Duke University's Child Well-Being Index, today's kids are less violent than kids have been at any time since the study began in 1975. Perhaps, Senator Clinton, your investigation should explore the theory that violent games function as a safety valve, letting children explore their natural aggression without acting it out in the real world.

Crime statistics are not the only sign that today's gaming generation is doing much better than the generation raised during the last cultural panic - over rock 'n' roll. Math SAT scores have never been higher; verbal scores have been climbing steadily for the last five years; nearly every indicator in the Department of Education study known as the Nation's Report Card is higher now than when the study was implemented in 1971.

By almost every measure, the kids are all right.

Of course, I admit that there's one charge against video games that is a slam dunk. Kids don't get physical exercise when they play a video game, and indeed, the rise in obesity among younger people is a serious issue. But, of course, you don't get exercise from doing homework, either.

Steven Johnson is the author of Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter. This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Columnists Trudy Rubin and Clarence Page are on vacation.

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