Tuesday, June 21, 2005

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

Washington Post article

The Washington Post today has an article on Steven Johnson and his new book. I have been reading the book, and find it stimulating while short and easy to read. Johnson's main points seem to be
1. That video games are helping to develop analytic skills for the people who play them, and
2. That television programming is becoming more complicated as viewers are learning better how to "read" the programs and to demand more interesting complexity.

Johnson seems not to have mastered conventional (non-computer) games like chess, go, and sukoku, nor does he seem to have read the artificial intelligence literature on the programs written to play these games. He seems to miss the point that rules for games without computers must be simple and explicit, since the players must agree and must implement "the physics" of the games themselves; computer games have computers with the game software to do that. But I suspect that good chess players develop analytic skills for setting short, medium and long term goals similar to those of good video game players, and that the two classes of gamers use search strategies and heurists in similar fashions. Johnson does not seem to understand that good chess players (human or machine) use the same kinds of techniques (strategies, tactics) for exploring their game's virtual world that describes for video game players exploring the video game virtual worlds.

On the other hand, Johnson makes the important point that playing computer games gives the player the opportunity to develop techniques for internalizing tacit knowledge about the "rules of the game" -- a skill that might easily be transferred to social, political and economic settings in the real world.

I was taken by Johnson's point that game player's often can not articulate some of the things they have obviously learned about their games.
In my experience, most gamers will be more inclined to show rather than tell the probing they've done; they'll have internalized flaws or patterns in the simulation without being fully aware of what they are doing. Certain strategies just feel right.

I suggest that this kind of learning of tacit knowledge and understanding is very important in the real world as well as in games. A lot of development knowledge and understanding can not be readily articulated -- strategies and tactics "just feel right". For those who have developed the right "feel" through years of development experience, the feelings should be trusted. Learning how to learn from experience "the feel of development situations" more quickly and better would be very valuable.

Expanding on the point, years ago Steve Lansing wrote about the rice culture in Bali, pointing out that people playing many different roles in the management of the irrigation system carried out roles that together made for high yields sustained over long periods. No one could adequately explain the operation of the entire system, nor why the various fuctions fit together so well. When the traditional managers were supplanted by experts from Java, the yields could not be sustained. While the new managers had more explicit, and indeed more "modern" technological knowledge, the new institutions failed to have the same tacit knowledge that had been embedded in the traditional system. It is important to recognize that institutions can learn how to operate efficiently and effectively, even though no one within or outside the institution can articulate the knowledge gained (and required) for sustainable efficient and effective operation of the systems managed by the institutions. This is true of formal organizations, and of less formally-organized institutions such as the systems of water temples in Bali.

I was also struck by Johnson's exposition on the growth of complexity in television programming over the last half century. He notes that popular programs now have more complex plots, following many threads during the course of a program. They demand more knowledge and attentiveness from the viewer, and offer more enjoyment to those who can find and appreciate subtle references not only to previous shows, but to icons from the more general popular culture.

I suspect that this is an example of a kind of trend that is common in developing audiences for media products. I suspect that after the invention of the printing press, as the audience for books became larger and more experienced in reading, the demand for book content changed, and readers sought more challenging materials. Radio programming probably followed a trend during the first half of the 20th century analogous to that of television programming in the second half of the century, as audiences learned to appreciate and demand more from the medium. The same is probably true of movies. As formal education expanded in the United States and Europe during the 19th and early 20th century, popular culture probably became more complex in response to the expansion of the audience educated to appreciate and demand such complexity. (There is probably a typology of countervailing trends, as a medium is supplanted in popular estime by a still newer, hotter medium, and settles into serving niche markets.)

Poor countries not only have fewer opportunities for their peoples for formal education, they have much less exposure to new media. The kids in the United States are growing up as the audience for complex TV, using video games of great complexity, and surfing the World Wide Web with their home and laptop computers, as well as benefiting from an increasingly complex educational system. Kids in poor countries don't have the same experiences. Will the U.S. kids be learning skills, which are not readily apparent nor often articulated, that are very beneficial in the information society of the future?

It has been suggested that a very important benefit of the formal education system developed in the past was the preparation of the work force for factory based mass production. This preparation included not only reading, writing and 'rithmatic skills needed on the factory floor, but the social attitudes and skills to participate in a factory workforce. Will there be a similar effect, in which the gameplayers and websurfers learn the attitudes and skills necessary to participate in the post-industrial workforce?

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