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The Brain Workout

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The Brain Workout

June 2, 2006
Energy & EnvironmentTechnology / Infrastructure
Urban PolicyNYC

A few weeks ago, Sony and Nintendo both revealed their newest video-game systems to great fanfare, complete with slicker graphics and motion sensors. But not everyone was pleased. An increasingly noisy chorus of critics charge that the video-game industry—whose receipts now top the Hollywood box office—threatens to transform American kids into drooling zombies or out-and-out sociopaths. "We're trying to keep children away from R-rated violent movies that last 90 minutes," grumbles conservative media critic Brent Bozell, "but in too many basements and kids' bedrooms in America, children are role-playing murderers for hours on end, ad infinitum."

Raunchy, blood-soaked video games, unleashing "a silent epidemic of media desensitization," are "stealing the innocence of our children," agrees Hillary Clinton. That's why she and fellow senators Joe Lieberman and Evan Bayh have introduced legislation to regulate the video-game industry, codifying its voluntary rating system and making it a federal crime for retailers to sell or rent inappropriate games to minors. Even the latest edition of Dr. Spock's famous guide to childrearing deems gaming a "colossal waste of time" at best, anger-stoking at worst.

The hysteria isn't surprising. New media have always met with suspicion: As The Economist editorialized a while back, a "neophobic" tendency dates from antiquity, with Plato's argument in the "Phaedrus" that the relatively newfangled medium of writing corrupted the memory-building powers of oral culture. Of course sometimes the new is bad. Yet the critics of video games are not only conjuring up a threat where none exists; they're ignoring the positive moral lessons and cognitive benefits that many of today's sophisticated games offer.

Most video games aren't violent or racy. A recent survey from the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a free-market think tank, found that more than 80% of the top-selling titles for the past five years came with the video-game industry's "Everyone" or "Teen" ratings, meaning that parents can assume reasonably inoffensive game content. About 15% of 2005's games received "Mature" or "Adults Only" ratings—surprisingly few, given that 65% of gamers are 18- to 34-year-olds.

The industry's self-imposed rating system is informative, featuring not only the rating but also a description of what might be offensive in the game. A T-rated game for example, might warn: "Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language and Suggestive Themes." The content reports are accurate, at least in my experience as the father of two young video-playing boys. And with many titles selling for $50 or $60 a pop, how many children can get a hold of games without mom's or dad's consent in the first place?

But even if your 13-year-old is spending a lot of time offing enemies thrown at him by Tom Clancy's new Ghost Recon, there's no hard evidence that he'll want to try homicide in real life. The most comprehensive study yet on the social effects of such kill-or-be-killed games, conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois and the University of Michigan, found that prolonged playing of Asheron's Call 2--a gory online multiplayer fantasy—didn't make study participants more belligerent. Some observers speculate that playing violent video games may be cathartic, channeling pre-existing violent impulses into virtual reality, where they can do no harm. It's worth noting that the emergence of video games as a major youth enthusiasm has occurred at the same time as a striking drop in juvenile violence. Maybe Sen. Clinton should be encouraging more gaming instead of calling for a federal crackdown on it.

The truth is, critics are often ignorant of the moral universe of video games—violent games included. Yes, the wildly popular Grand Theft Auto series, in which the gamer plays a criminal on the make in the big city, is pretty amoral. But most violent games put the player in a familiar hero's role, notes Judge Richard Posner in a 2001 Seventh Circuit appeals-court decision overturning an Indianapolis anti-video-game ordinance. "Self-defense, protection of others, dread of the 'undead,' fighting against overwhelming odds—these are the age-old themes of literature, and ones particularly appealing to the young," Mr. Posner observes.

Nonviolent games like The Sims franchise, an open-ended computer simulation of suburban life likened by visionary creator Will Wright to a "digital dollhouse," teach players bourgeois virtues. Blogger Glenn Reynolds, who devotes a chapter to gaming in his recent book on technology and society, "An Army of Davids," overheard his young daughter chatting with a friend about The Sims (a favorite among female gamers). "You have to have a job to buy food and things, and if you don't go to work, you get fired," she said matter-of-factly. "And if you spend all your money buying stuff, you have to make more." Thanks to The Sims, Mr. Reynolds says, his daughter now knows how to budget and how to read an income statement. In SimWorld, he notes, "narcissism, hedonism and impulsiveness are punished" and "traditional middle-class virtues, like thrift and planning, generally pay off."

Video games can also exercise the brain in remarkable ways. I recently spent (too) many late-night hours working my way through X-Men: Legends II: The Rise of Apocalypse, a game I ostensibly bought for my kids. Figuring out how to deploy a particular grouping of heroes (each of whom has special powers and weaknesses); using trial and error and hunches to learn the game's rules and solve its puzzles; weighing short-term and long-term goals—the experience was mentally exhausting and, when my team finally beat the Apocalypse, exhilarating.

Technology writer Steven Johnson likens the intellectual process at work in video gaming to "the basic procedure of the scientific method." True, I might have better used my time reading Phillip Roth's new novel, but as mind-aerobics this exercise surely beat watching the tube. As for my kids navigating the game, wouldn't it be comparable with their playing chess for hours?

A growing number of innovators recognize the intellectual benefits of gaming and seek to use video games for educational or therapeutic ends. The Serious Games Initiative, USA Today recently reported, got its start in 2002, when the U.S. Army released America's Army, a free online game that allows players to "live" the Army. More than five million people have registered to play. Venture capital and philanthropic dollars are now pouring into Serious Games projects in health care, mathematics and government and corporate training. One encouraging early result is Free Dive, a game that distracts children suffering from chronic pain or undergoing painful operations in real life with a calming underwater virtual reality.

With the next generation of high-powered consoles on the market or soon to appear, gamers will have even richer, more complex virtual environments, many of them nonlinear, to explore. Working through these worlds alone, with friends or—in the ever more popular "massively multiplayer online role-playing games," or MMOs—with thousands of strangers is far from a "colossal waste of time." Video games are popular culture at its best. Critics would do better to drop the hysterical laments and pick up a joystick.