Trig­ger Happy

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.steven­

Potas­sium is known to be good for the brain, so why not give banana-eat­ing the credit in­stead?

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