Shoot first, ask questions later
Videogames are good for you, right? Everyone seems to agree. The Theme Park co-designer and DeepMind AI entrepreneur Demis Hassabis was recently on Desert Island Discs, and explained how he uses games to improve his cognition. “I think you can learn a lot from them. In business or in life there are not many times you can practise, in a safe way, ideas or strategies, or develop your own mind. So I find games are a little bit like a gym for the mind. So I’ve used games, boardgames and computer games, to train my own mind.”
Such talk is perfectly tuned to elicit curiosity and a lowering of the barriers of prejudice from that segment of the Radio 4 audience not itself familiar with videogames. Videogames are good for the brain! Well, of course, it stands to reason: if they make the brain work hard, that must have positive effects, just as working your muscles hard in a gym makes them more bulgy. Hmm, maybe those Nintendo addicts aren’t just screendazed zombies after all.
This sort of argument has been going on for a while, at least since the science and culture writer Steven Johnson published a book called Everything Bad Is Good For You in 2005. That attributed the general rise in IQ levels over the past few decades (also known as the Flynn effect) to increased consumption of videogames and complicated serial-TV box-sets. However, it was based on mere correlation. The UK’s consumption of bananas had also increased during that period, and potassium is known to be good for the brain, so why not give banana-eating the credit instead?
Unfortunately for the games-are-goodfor you thesis, there is very little scientific support for it. Formal investigations of brain-training games in particular — which you would expect to improve general cognitive skills better than any kind, if it were possible — repeatedly find no evidence that they do. A Florida State University study earlier this year found that improving working memory in memory games resulted in little to no “far transfer”: that is, improvement of memory in other tasks. “It’s possible to train people to become very good at tasks that you would normally consider general working memory tasks: memorising 70, 80, even 100 digits,” said lead researcher
Neil Charness. “But these skills tend to be very specific and not show a lot of transfer. The thing that seniors in particular should be concerned about is, if I can get very good at crossword puzzles, is that going to help me remember where my keys are? And the answer is probably no.”
Given the repeated null findings for brain-training games, it may very well be true that playing videogames of any kind — whether it’s or — produces no lasting increase of any kind in general cognitive skills. But then why should that be a surprise? The old stereotype of the chess grandmaster who is forever forgetting where he put his keys encapsulates a real truth. Becoming skilled in one domain does not mean you are better skilled in all. And this doesn’t mean that chess or videogames are a waste of time.
So maybe it’s time to think more politically about why people who admire this medium feel the need to defend it in this way. I suspect it’s a symptom of a more general culture in which any kind of activity that is not explicitly geared to economic exchange must be justified by an appeal to some other productive purpose that it allegedly has. Thus, videogames improve our brains. And thus, humanities scholars periodically announce that the study of literature is valuable because it increases our empathy towards people who are not like us. (Never mind that, notoriously, the Nazis adored 19th-century German poetry and music.) In general, university degrees are now valued not for their intrinsic value in terms of mind-expanding education, but simply according to how well they help students get jobs afterwards.
We are, then, living in an age ruled by what Adorno and Horkheimer decried as “instrumental reason”: when all intellectual activity is subordinated to concrete practical or economic effects. It has become frowned upon to defend any cultural activity in terms of the pure joy it affords. However, to do this is to assert our humanity, and our right to a kind of pleasure that has no ulterior motive. We should insist that we love videogames simply because, like all art, they are perfectly useless.
Steven Poole’s Trigger Happy 2.o is now available from Amazon. Visit him online at www.stevenpoole.net
Potassium is known to be good for the brain, so why not give banana-eating the credit instead?