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Steven Johnson: Grand Theft Auto Is Good for You

Jul 20, 2005 (Fresh Air)

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Steven Johnson is the author of the new book Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter. In it, he argues that rather than turning our brains to mush, entertainment options like video games are now so complex that our brains rise to the challenge.

Johnson writes the Emerging Technology column for Discover magazine and writes for Wired, Slate and The New York Times Magazine.

An Excerpt from Everything Bad Is Good For You

Introduction: The Sleeper Curve

Every childhood has its talismans, the sacred objects that look innocuous enough to the outside world, but that trigger an onslaught of vivid memories when the grown child confronts them. For me, it's a sheaf of xeroxed numbers that my father brought home from his law firm when I was nine. These pages didn't seem, at first glance, like the sort of thing that would send a grade-schooler into rapture. From a distance you might have guessed that they were payroll reports, until you got close enough to notice that the names were familiar ones, even famous: Catfish Hunter, Pete Rose, Vida Blue. Baseball names, stranded in a sea of random numbers.

Those pages my dad brought home were part of a game, though it was a game unlike any I had ever played. It was a baseball simulation called APBA, short for American Professional Baseball Association. APBA was a game of dice and data. A company in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, had analyzed the preceding season's statistics and created a collection of cards, one for each player who had played more than a dozen games that year. The cards contained a cryptic grid of digits that captured numerically each player's aptitudes on the baseball diamond: the sluggers and the strikeout prone, the control artists and the speed demons. In the simplest sense, APBA was a way of playing baseball with cards, or at least pretending to be a baseball manager: you'd pick out a lineup, decide on your starting pitchers, choose when to bunt and when to steal.

APBA sounds entertaining enough at that level of generality — what kid wouldn't want to manage a sports team? — but actually playing the game was a more complicated affair. On the simplest level, the game followed this basic sequence: you picked your players, decided on a strategy, rolled a few dice, and then consulted a "lookup chart" to figure out what happened-a strikeout, or a home run, a grounder to third.

But it was never quite that simple with APBA. You could play against a human opponent, or manage both teams yourself, and the decisions made for the opposing team transformed the variables in subtle but crucial ways. At the beginning of each game — and anytime you made a substitution — you had to add up all the fielding ratings for each player in your lineup. Certain performance results would change if your team was unusually adept with the glove, while teams that were less talented defensively would generate more errors. There were completely different charts depending on the number of runners on base: if you had a man on third, you consulted the "Runner on Third" chart. Certain performance numbers came with different results, depending on the quality of the pitcher: if you were facing a "grade A" pitcher, according to the data on his card, you'd get a strikeout, while a "grade C" pitcher would generate a single to right field. And that was just scratching the surface of the game's complexity. Here's the full entry for "Pitching" on the main "Bases Empty" chart:

The hitting numbers under which lines appear may be altered according to the grade of the pitcher against whom the team is batting. Always observe the grade of the pitcher and look for possible changes of those numbers which are underlined. "No Change" always refers back to the D, or left, column and always means a base hit. Against Grade D pitchers there is never any change — the left hand column only is used. When a pitcher is withdrawn from the game make a note of the grade of the pitcher who relieves him. If his grade is different, a different column must be referred to when the underlined numbers come up. Certain players may have the numbers 7, 8, and/or 11 in the second columns of their cards. When any of these numbers is found in the second column of a player card, it is not subject to normal grade changes. Always use the left (Grade D) column in these cases, no matter what the pitcher's grade is. Occasionally, pitchers may have A & C or A & B ratings. Always consider these pitchers as Grade A pitchers unless the A column happens to be a base hit. Then use the C or B column, as the case may be, for the final play result.

Got that? They might as well be the tax form instructions you'd happily pay an accountant to decipher. Reading these words now, I have to slow myself down just to follow the syntax, but my ten-year-old self had so thoroughly internalized this arcana that I played hundreds of APBA games without having to consult the fine print. An 11 in the second column on the batter's card? Obviously, obviously that means ignore the normal grade changes for the pitcher. It'd be crazy not to!

The creators of APBA devised such an elaborate system for understandable reasons: they were pushing the limits of the dice-and-cards genre to accommodate the statistical complexity of baseball. This mathematical intricacy was not limited to baseball simulations, of course. Comparable games existed for most popular sports: basketball sims that let you call a zone defense or toss a last-minute three-point Hail Mary before the clock ran out; boxing games that let you replay Ali/Foreman without the rope-a-dope strategy. British football fans played games like Soccerboss and Wembley that let you manage entire franchises, trading players and maintaining the financial health of the virtual organization. A host of dice-based military simulations re-created historical battles or entire world wars with painstaking fidelity.

Perhaps most famously, players of Dungeons & Dragons and its many imitators built elaborate fantasy narratives-all by rolling twenty-sided dice and consulting bewildering charts that accounted for a staggering number of variables. The three primary manuals for playing the game were more than five hundred pages long, with hundreds of lookup charts that players consulted as though they were reading from scripture. (By comparison, consulting the APBA charts was like reading the back of a cereal box.) Here's the Player's Handbook describing the process by which a sample character is created:

Monte wants to create a new character. He rolls four six-sided dice (4d6) and gets 5, 4, 4, and 1. Ignoring the lowest die, he records the result on scratch paper, 13. He does this five more times and gets these six scores: 13, 10, 15, 12, 8, and 14. Monte decides to play a strong, tough Dwarven fighter. Now he assigns his rolls to abilities. Strength gets the highest score, 15. His character has a +2 Strength bonus that will serve him well in combat. Constitution gets the next highest score, 14. The Dwarf's +2 Constitution racial ability adjustment [see Table 2-1: Racial Ability Adjustments, pg. 12] improves his Constitution score to 16, for a +3 bonus. . . . Monte has two bonus-range scores left (13 and 12) plus an average score (10). Dexterity gets the 13 (+1 bonus).

And that's merely defining the basic faculties for a character. Once you released your Dwarven fighter into the world, the calculations involved in determining the effects of his actions — attacking a specific creature with a specific weapon under specific circumstances with a specific squad of comrades fighting alongside you — would leave most kids weeping if you put the same charts on a math quiz.

Which gets to the ultimate question of why a ten-year-old found any of this fun. For me, the embarrassing truth of the matter is that I did ultimately grow frustrated with my baseball simulation, but not for the reasons you might expect. It wasn't that arcane language wore me down, or that I grew tired of switching columns on the Bases Empty chart, or that I decided that six hours was too long to spend alone in my room on a Saturday afternoon in July.

No, I moved on from APBA because it wasn't realistic enough.

My list of complaints grew as my experience with APBA deepened. Playing hundreds of simulated games revealed the blind spots and strange skews of the simulation. APBA neglected the importance of whether your players were left-handed or right-handed, crucial to the strategy of baseball. The fielding talents of individual players were largely ignored. The vital decision to throw different kinds of pitches-sliders and curveballs and sinkers-was entirely absent. The game took no notice of where the games were being played: you couldn't simulate the vulnerable left-field fence in Fenway Park, so tempting to right-handed hitters, or the swirling winds of San Francisco's old Candlestick Park. And while APBA included historic teams, there was no way to factor in historical changes in the game when playing teams from different eras against each other.

And so over the next three years, I embarked on a long journey through the surprisingly populated world of dice-baseball simulations, ordering them from ads printed in the back of the Sporting News and Street and Smith's annual baseball guide. I dabbled with Strat-o-Matic, the most popular of the baseball sims; I sampled Statis Pro Baseball from Avalon Hill, maker of the then-popular Diplomacy board game; I toyed with one title called Time Travel baseball that specialized in drafting fantasy teams from a pool of historic players. I lost several months to a game called Extra Innings that bypassed cards and boards altogether; it didn't even come packaged in a box-just an oversized envelope stuffed with pages and pages of data. You rolled six separate dice to complete a play, sometimes consulting five or six separate pages to determine what had happened.

Eventually, like some kind of crazed addict searching for an ever-purer high, I found myself designing my own simulations, building entire games from scratch. I borrowed a twenty-sided die from my Dungeons & Dragons set-the math was far easier to do with twenty sides than it was with six. I scrawled out my play charts on yellow legal pads, and translated the last season's statistics into my own home-brewed player cards. For some people, I suppose, thinking of youthful baseball games conjures up the smell of leather gloves and fresh-cut grass. For me, what comes to mind is the statistical purity of the twenty-sided die.

This story, I freely admit, used to have a self-congratulatory moral to it. As a grownup, I would tell new friends about my fifth-grade days building elaborate simulations in my room, and on the surface I'd make a joke about how uncool I was back then, huddled alone with my twenty-sided dice while the other kids roamed outside playing capture the flag or, God forbid, real baseball. But the latent message of my story was clear: I was some kind of statistical prodigy, building simulated worlds out of legal pads and probability charts.

But I no longer think that my experience was all that unusual. I suspect millions of people from my generation probably have comparable stories to tell: if not of sports simulations then of Dungeons & Dragons, or the geopolitical strategy of games like Diplomacy, a kind of chess superimposed onto actual history. More important, in the quarter century that has passed since I first began exploring those xeroxed APBA pages, what once felt like a maverick obsession has become a thoroughly mainstream pursuit.

This book is, ultimately, the story of how the kind of thinking that I was doing on my bedroom floor became an everyday component of mass entertainment. It's the story of how systems analysis, probability theory, pattern recognition, and — amazingly enough — old-fashioned patience became indispensable tools for anyone trying to make sense of modern pop culture. Because the truth is my solitary obsession with modeling complex simulations is now ordinary behavior for most consumers of digital age entertainment. This kind of education is not happening in classrooms or museums; it's happening in living rooms and basements, on PCs and television screens. This is the Sleeper Curve: The most debased forms of mass diversion-video games and violent television dramas and juvenile sitcoms-turn out to be nutritional after all. For decades, we've worked under the assumption that mass culture follows a steadily declining path toward lowest-common-denominator standards, presumably because the "masses" want dumb, simple pleasures and big media companies want to give the masses what they want. But in fact, the exact opposite is happening: the culture is getting more intellectually demanding, not less.

Most of the time, criticism that takes pop culture seriously involves performing some kind of symbolic analysis, decoding the work to demonstrate the way it represents some other aspect of society. You can see this symbolic approach at work in academic cultural studies programs analyzing the ways in which pop forms expressed the struggle of various disenfranchised groups: gays and lesbians, people of color, women, the third world. You can see it at work in the "zeitgeist" criticism featured in media sections of newspapers and newsweeklies, where the critic establishes a symbolic relationship between the work and some spirit of the age: yuppie self-indulgence, say, or post-9/11 anxiety.

The approach followed in this book is more systemic than symbolic, more about causal relationships than metaphors. It is closer, in a sense, to physics than to poetry. My argument for the existence of the Sleeper Curve comes out of an assumption that the landscape of popular culture involves the clash of competing forces: the neurological appetites of the brain, the economics of the culture industry, changing technological platforms. The specific ways in which those forces collide play a determining role in the type of popular culture we ultimately consume. The work of the critic, in this instance, is to diagram those forces, not decode them.

Sometimes, for the sake of argument, I find it helpful to imagine culture as a kind of man-made weather system. Float a mass of warm, humid air over cold ocean water, and you'll create an environment in which fog will thrive. The fog doesn't appear because it somehow symbolically reenacts the clash of warm air and cool water. Fog arrives instead as an emergent effect of that particular system and its internal dynamics. The same goes with popular culture: certain kinds of environments encourage cognitive complexity; others discourage complexity. The cultural object-the film or the video game-is not a metaphor for that system; it's more like an output or a result.

The forces at work in these systems operate on multiple levels: underlying changes in technology that enable new kinds of entertainment; new forms of online communications that cultivate audience commentary about works of pop culture; changes in the economics of the culture industry that encourage repeat viewing; and deep-seated appetites in the human brain that seek out reward and intellectual challenge. To understand those forces we'll need to draw upon disciplines that don't usually interact with one another: economics, narrative theory, social network analysis, neuroscience.

This is a story of trends, not absolutes. I do not believe that most of today's pop culture is made up of masterpieces that will someday be taught alongside Joyce and Chaucer in college survey courses. The television shows and video games and movies that we'll look at in the coming pages are not, for the most part, Great Works of Art. But they are more complex and nuanced than the shows and games that preceded them. While the Sleeper Curve maps average changes across the pop cultural landscape — and not just the complexity of single works — I have focused on a handful of representative examples in the interest of clarity. (The endnotes offer a broader survey.)

I believe that the Sleeper Curve is the single most important new force altering the mental development of young people today, and I believe it is largely a force for good: enhancing our cognitive faculties, not dumbing them down. And yet you almost never hear this story in popular accounts of today's media. Instead, you hear dire stories of addiction, violence, mindless escapism. "All across the political spectrum," television legend Steve Allen writes in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, "thoughtful observers are appalled by what passes for TV entertainment these days. No one can claim that the warning cries are simply the exaggerations of conservative spoil-sports or fundamentalist preachers.... The sleaze and classless garbage on TV in recent years exceeds the boundaries of what has traditionally been referred to as Going Too Far." The influential Parents Television Council argues: "The entertainment industry has pushed the content envelope too far; television and films filled with sex, violence, and profanity send strong negative messages to the youth of America —messages that will desensitize them and make for a far more disenfranchised society as these youths grow into adults." And then there's syndicated columnist Suzanne Fields: "The television sitcom is emblematic of our culture; parents, no matter what their degree of education, have abandoned the simplest standard of shame. Their children literally 'do not know better.' The drip, drip, drip of the popular culture dulls our senses. An open society with high technology exposes increasing numbers of adults and children to the lowest common denomination of sex and violence." You could fill an encyclopedia volume with all the kindred essays published in the past decade.

Exceptions to this dire assessment exist, but they are of the rule-proving variety. You'll see the occasional grudging acknowledgments of minor silver linings: an article will suggest that video games enhance visual memory skills, or a critic will hail The West Wing as the rare flowering of thoughtful programming in the junkyard of prime-time television. But the dominant motif is one of decline and atrophy: we're a nation of reality program addicts and Nintendo freaks. Lost in that account is the most interesting trend of all: that the popular culture has been growing increasingly complex over the past few decades, exercising our minds in powerful new ways.

But to see the virtue in this form of positive brainwashing, we need to begin by doing away with the tyranny of the morality play. When most op-ed writers and talk show hosts discuss the social value of media, when they address the question of whether today's media is or isn't good for us, the underlying assumption is that entertainment improves us when it carries a healthy message. Shows that promote smoking or gratuitous violence are bad for us, while those that thunder against teen pregnancy or intolerance have a positive role in society. Judged by that morality play standard, the story of popular culture over the past fifty years — if not five hundred — is a story of steady decline: the morals of the stories have grown darker and more ambiguous, and the anti-heroes have multiplied.

The usual counterargument here is that what media has lost in moral clarity it has gained in realism. The real world doesn't come in nicely packaged public service announcements, and we're better off with entertainment that reflects that fallen state with all its ethical ambiguity. I happen to be sympathetic to that argument, but it's not the one I want to make here. I think there is another way to assess the social virtue of pop culture, one that looks at media as a kind of cognitive workout, not as a series of life lessons. Those dice baseball games I immersed myself in didn't contain anything resembling moral instruction, but they nonetheless gave me a set of cognitive tools that I continue to rely on, nearly thirty years later. There may indeed be more "negative messages" in the mediasphere today, as the Parents Television Council believes. But that's not the only way to evaluate whether our television shows or video games are having a positive impact. Just as important —if not more important — is the kind of thinking you have to do to make sense of a cultural experience. That is where the Sleeper Curve becomes visible. Today's popular culture may not be showing us the righteous path. But it is making us smarter.

from Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter by Steven Johnson, Copyright 2005 Steven Johnson, published by Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.

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