The intellectual nourishment of reading books is so deeply ingrained in our assumptions that it’s hard to contemplate a different viewpoint. But as McLuhan famously observed, the problem with judging new cultural systems on their own terms is that the presence of the recent past inevitably colors your vision of the emerging form, highlighting the flaws and imperfections. Games have historically suffered from this syndrome, largely because they have been contrasted with the older conventions of reading. To get around these prejudices, try this thought experiment.
Imagine an alternate world identical to ours save one techno-historical change: video games were invented and popularized before books. In this parallel universe, kids have been playing games for centuries— and then these page-bound texts come along and suddenly they’re all the rage. What would the teachers, and the parents, and the cultural authorities have to say about this frenzy of reading? I suspect it would sound something like this:
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 soundscapes, 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 the 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, sitting alone in cubicles, reading silently, oblivious to their peers.
Many children enjoy reading books, of course, and no doubt some of the flights of fancy conveyed by reading have their escapist merits. But for a sizable percentage of the population, books are downright discriminatory. The reading craze of recent years cruelly taunts the 10 million Americans who suffer from dyslexia— a condition that didn’t even exist as a condition until printed text came along to stigmatize its sufferers.
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. For those of us raised on interactive narratives, this property may seem astonishing. Why would anyone want to embark on an adventure utterly choreographed by another person? But today’s generation embarks on such adventures millions of times a day. 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.
It should probably go without saying, but it probably goes better with saying, that I don’t agree with this argument. But neither is it exactly right to say that its contentions are untrue. The argument relies on a kind of amplified selectivity: it foregrounds certain isolated properties of books, and then projects worst-case scenarios based on these properties and their potential effects on the “younger generation.” But it doesn’t bring up any of the clear benefits of reading: the complexity of argument and storytelling offered by the book form; the stretching of the imagination triggered by reading words on a page; the shared experience you get when everyone is reading the same story. A comparable sleight of hand is at work anytime you hear someone bemoaning today’s video game obsessions, and their stupefying effects on tomorrow’s generations.
This text originally appeared in Everything Bad Is Good For You. Check out a Q&A between Steven Johnson and Clive Thompson, journalist and author of NYT magazine’s “Minecraft Generation” here.