books notes

Everything Bad is Good for You (2006), Steven Johnson


Unlike media-created perception, Computer Games are complicated, and exhibit delayed gratification. So why would anyone want to play them?

  • Because they have a reward system (either clear, or intrinsic), and we are wired to seek reward.
  • They force you to make decisions, as you have to do in real life.
  • They force you to learn how to probe the game, so you understand how it works, in order to win. Isn’t this just another way of describing the scientific method? Create a hypothesis, test, feedback.
  • They force you to telescope – plan your tasks, and sequence them logically so you can correctly progress through the game.

The value of games is not their content (often childish, banal, or morally suspect), but their cognitive skill development.

Television has become more complex over time, demanding greater cognitive ability from its audience:

  • In dramas – multi-threaded plots, not talking down to the user, and not hiding the complexity of reality (life, professional jargon), and withholding information (planned ambiguity).
  • In comedies, increasingly self-referential (with punch lines set up many episodes ago), and to other cultural events.
  • In reality TV, watching contestants probe and navigate the complex high stakes environments, with an ever-changing rule book, and where success is most often predicated by social and emotional intelligence. Experiencing the thrill of seeing real, naked emotion.
  • Even talk shows do this, exercising the social muscle.

All this flows into real life, through coffee and water cooler talk, and through the explosion of online forums discussing these shows. Like games, the content may be lowbrow, but it is the collateral learning which matters.

The Internet is creating participatory, new interfaces, and new channels for social interaction.

Films follow the increasing complexity of TV. To fairly compare the TV and movies of yesteryear with today’s, means comparing like with like – i.e. comparing crap with crap. For example, Fear Factor and The Love Boat – make no mistake, there will always be crap, but today’s crap is magnitudes better than yesteryear’s.

Key lesson – don’t worry too much about the changing social and entertainment fabric of today’s information age – we are becoming smarter, and our cognitive abilities are increasing. Much of this is due to the increasing cognitive demands from the environment we are now in, and the collateral learning which is a consequence of this.

2 replies on “Everything Bad is Good for You (2006), Steven Johnson”

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