Monday, February 13, 2006

Anti-social Software: The book

Daytime television is so unbelievably bad that I regularly choose to watch TV shows about video games rather than suffer the constant chirping of celebrities, even though I'm not much a gamer myself. I'm treating it as a learning experience.

One thing I've learned by watching video game review shows is that there is a very strong emphasis on multiplayer gaming. If a hot new PC, console, or handheld game doesn't doesn't allow you to play over the web, connect to a service like XBOX Live, or allow wireless play, then the makers of these games are called on the carpet. No one is content playing just against a computer anymore.

I thought of this as I was reading Everything Bad is Good For You. Steven Johnson imagines a world that's identicle to ours except that video games are invented before books. He then guesses what teachers and parents would have to say about reading:

Reading books chronically understimulates the senses. Unlike the longstanding tradition of gameplaying—which engages the child in a vivid, three-dimensional world filled with moving images and musical sound-scapes, navigated and controlled with complex muscular movements—books are simply a barren string of words on the page. Only a small portion of the brain devoted to processing written language is activated during reading, while games engage the full range of sensory and motor cortices.

Books are also tragically isolating. While games have for many years engaged the young in complex social relationships with their peers, building and exploring worlds together, books force the child to sequester him or herself in a quiet space, shut off from interaction with other children. These new "libraries" that have arisen in recent years to facilitate reading activities are a frightening sight: dozens of young children, normally so vivacious and socially interactive, sittle alone in cubicles, reading silently, oblivious to their peers...

But perhaps the most dangerous property of these books is the fact that they follow a fixed linear path. You can’t control their narratives in any fashion—you simply sit back and have the story dictated to you. . . . This risks instilling a general passivity in our children, making them feel as though they’re powerless to change their circumstances. Reading is not an active, participatory process; it’s a submissive one. The book readers of the younger generation are learning to "follow the plot" instead of learning to lead.

While Steven Johnson is trying to make a point how much video games have been demonized by parents and pundits, I think we can still take some of the passages at pure face-value. To an outsider, reading looks terribly anti-social. To a non-reader, the library wouldn't been seen a social place (much less as a lauded "third-place") but as somewhere where people can be alone, together.

If we want libraries to be perceived as social places (and thus, have a place in a society where TV channels are dedicated to video games), we are going to have do more than provide chairs where people can read.


Art said...

This is a
Lisa S. sent me in the Fall that was an argument against computers in the classroom, but in some ways, I thought the reasoning was more applicable to the isolating aspects of reading than anything else that was targeted by the author. One of my kids was in a panic during summer vacation this year because he had to get home in time to pay the municipal tax bill on his virtual town. I still haven't mastered taxes after more than 4 decades and at 14, my son knows far more about assessments and tax schedules than I do. But most of these skills came from the joint learning that he and his friends carried out in connection with the game, it was really the social layer that was created around the game that made it happen. I wonder if book clubs fit im here, since even though reading itself and libraries at some level may seem passive, there is a strong building of empathy in the process. Anyway, great post! Back to code4lib, which is achieving some strong social interaction on top of a library conference, maybe there is a model here for libraries as well.

Mita said...

In his book Stephen Johnson says that, surprisingly, there isn't much research assessing the impact of video game culture. Of what he's read, he especially recommends What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy.