ITP: Steven Johnson In-Class Talk

Wednesday, September 21, 2005


L.A. Machine Guns. Or something.

On Tuesday Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad Is Good For You and other books, visited a class of mine to guest lecture. He spoke mostly about the arguments presented in his book. I’ve transcribed the “gist” of what he said, but by no means consider this a completely accurate account.

Steven Johnson: What I was going to do was to convey some sort of argument that’s in my book, Everything Bad Is Good For You. I’ll walk through it because I think it’s relevant to what you all are doing.

So this is a book that came out in May and it sparked a little bit of a controversy. It was an attempt to engage in a debate about the state of today’s culture. One side thinks it’s bad and the government needs to make it better. The other side just thinks it’s bad. [Laughter.] But it’s not just a race to the bottom.

The book became a maelstrom for a while. [Shows Time Out New York cover with the book on it being read by a bikini model.]

What I argue is about a trend in society, not that society’s perfect… The Sleeper Trend. Culture not from the perspective of values but from cognitive complexity: how much problem-solving must one do, how many memory-based tasks. The Sleeper Curve. After the Woody Allen movie.

In that movie, all of the things that were supposed to be bad in your diet turn out to be good for you. [Shows clip.]

And that’s what I propose in the book, that the popular things supposedly in bad taste are actually getting better for us.

And it started with games. I grew up playing computer games. I had an Intellivision when I was eleven. And I witnessed this amazing complexification of games when Sim City came out, when Myst came out. And I was watcing all of this happen and I saw this total condescension. But I didn’t see anyone recognizing what was going on. [Shows stuffy George Will quote.]

So I thought of this great anecdote of introducing my nephew to Sim City. It was a rainy day on vacation. So I thought I’d show him the game. I was a pretty condescending tour guide, showing him the major landmarks: mayor’s house, river, etc. I said after about 20 minutes, “I’m having trouble with these factories.” He told me I needed to lower my industrial taxes(!). This is a seven year old. Something about the interactive form was helping him take notice and puzzle things out. And this is what’s fascinating.

Think of the Sims, the most popular PC game of all time. You have to spend half of your time doing chores, taking out the garbage. If you don’t, you lose the game. So what’s going on when teenagers are willing to do chores on the screen for fun? That’s the really interesting thing. There’s something else going on. G. Will has got it wrong.

To think of this interms of problem-solving, I’m going to show you an old film to get you acclimated. [Shows “How to Use the Dial Telephone” from 1927.] What’s interesting is not that they have to explain, but how much they have to explain the explanation. Every step has a lavering of explanation. [It’s goofy. They keep reiterating the same info over and over.]

And that’s the mindset we’ve advanced significantly beyond.

Reading Vs. Games.

I want to talk about the bias we have about readeing vs. games, that reading is rewarding and games are not. [Shows Dr. Spock quote that doesn’t say much good about games: “A colossal waste of time.” And such.]

So what I proposed in trying to get people around their biases is a thought experiment. What if video games had been invented before books? What if the kids were into the books and the parents all against them. So I wrote this op-ed:

[Satire. Satire.] “George Will would say: ‘Books are but a berren string of words on the page… Tragically isolating… Why would anyone want to embark on an adventure utterly choreographed? … Reading is not active, it’s submissive… [etc.]’”

I should say: I write books for a living. The point is that you can’t judge a new medium on the criteria of an old one.

Merits of reading:

  • Info
  • Attention
  • Following narrative threads
  • Patience
  • Imagination

[Quote from John Dewey about collateral learning.]

Games exercize the mind, skills useful for thinking about real-world problems. Think about Chess, for examples.

Collateral Learing of games:

  • Patience
  • Decision-making
  • Probing
  • Telescopic thinking

The first thing about games: They require immense amounts of patience. People don’t realize how hard they are. The walkthrough describing the universe of GTA3 is 53,000 words long. [Novel-length.] It’s a rich world.

The other fundamental think that happens with games is that you’re forced to make decisions. You have to think of long-term objective, short-term objective, resources, physics/rules of the game. And you’re putting all of that togeterh to make a strategy. Then you get feedback from the game, then you make another decision.

In a book, you’re following someone else’s decisions. And is there any other definition of “smart” than “able to make the right decision at the right time with the given information available?” [Like in a video game.]


[Screenshot from Sim City 4000 (the new one).]

What you do in Sim City is you probe and explore to figure out what’s going on and what will work and what won’t. That’s a rich, powerful form of thinking. It’s very difficult to do with books, for instance.

Some of you may think I’m stacking the deck using Sim City, but the same is true with sports sims. If you go into a game like ESPN 2K Baseball, you’re also managing an entire organization. You have to make a profit, limit your spending, improve the team, deal with loyalties, etc. It even has a “Steinbrenner” menu, where you can see if the owner’s happy or mad with you.

There was an article in the Times a month or two again about how some teens would rather play the video game for the sport than watch the sport on TV because it was more hands-on. And would you rather your kid zoning out on the couch or thinking about how to make the budget and the payroll and manage all of these variables at the same time. That’s more thinking, not less.

Telescopic Thinking

“Telescopic thinking” means balancing short and long-term goals. Think about Pac-Man, for example. [Shows a slide with various Pac-Man goals. There are about four. Then shows a slide for a new Zelda game. It’s got about eight ranging from “You have to manipulate the controller” to “”Your ultimate goal is to rescue your sister.”]

The least interesting thing about this is rescuing the sister. And I’m convinced you’ve learned nothing from the content of Zelda. But it’s interesting how much you have to do to get to the goal. You have to get help from the islanders, get the letter, go into the cavern, etc.

Two things important about this: It’s open-ended, but not all that open-ended. You have to get the sequence right. And none of these objectives are spelled out: You have to figure out what they are in the first place. It’s as if you were to sit down to play chess and different rules applied but no one told you how the pieces moved: You would have to figure it out on your own.

And this is a literary analysis. And, as such, there’s no moral depth to it, no drama. It reads like a math word-problem. [Shows funny example.]

Gee’s Cycle. [Shows a slide. I’m not going to type it. Probably can be found online. Essentially: 1) Probe 2) Form hypothesis. 3) Test.] Essentially, kids are learning the scientific method.


I think what’s happened over the past 10-15 years is that the interactive media has been making us smarter on some level and that television has been getting smarter, maybe for a related reason. We’ve seen pop TV move in that direction, particularly with drama.

The problem I have with TV people is that they have a nostalgic image of what television used to me. They bring up MASH but never Webster. So I like to shock people by showing them what it was like. [Shows clip from Dallas, 1978.] This was the hottest show on television. People were eating it up. [It’s really slow and boring by today’s standards. Yawn.]

Postman’s Golden Rules

  • Thou shalt induce no perplexity.
  • Thou shalt have no prerequisites. (Every show should be self-contained.)
  • Thou shalt avoid exposition.

I thought I would disagree with these, but I don’t. He was just talking about the late seventies. Though the first two rules are no longer true.

I did some charts about the narrative structure of TV shows. Dragnet is just a line. There’s one plot thread. Solving the crime.

Starskey and Hutch have a joke plot at the beginnning. Then solve the crime. Then go back to the joke at the end.

Hill Street Blues is much more complex. Sometimes as many as eight or nine different threads. The show started with a “roll call,” a clever waay to reveal all of the plotlines. 2-3 dominant plots. 4 secondary ones.

The Sopranos. Many plots, but each scene sometimes hits several plots at once. And no real dominant thread. All seem quite equal.

Hill Street Blues was too complicated for its day. Critically acclaimed, finished dead last in the ratings. And it slowly clawed its way up in the ratings. After season four, NBC admited it was too complex and advertised a simpler set of plotlines.

But today many very popular shows have even more complex plots than Hill Street Blues.

Only a couple of Hill Street Blues’ plot threads tied to other episodes. But almost all of the threads in the Sopranos tie to other episodes. This is building a unified cause-and-effect about what you’re watching. It’s kind of like a Dicken’s novel, a rich form of thinking.

Another way to look at this is with social maps. [Shows social map for an episode of Dallas. About ten characters. About seven relationships crucial to the plot. Now shows one for “24.” And it about four times as complex.] 24 has far more characters and relationships. And it’s even more complex today because they’ve got a mole plot and you don’t know who the mole is. And this is a huge show. If you were to have put it on the air in 1978 people just wouldn’t have been able to process it.

Mapping social netowrks is a very importnat skill. People who can do it tend to be very successful people. If our narritive systems we engage in for fun elevate this skill, that’s important.

Why Is This Happening?

So why are we seeing this Sleeper Curve trend?

Tech. of Repetition: VCR, TiVo, DVD, BitTorrent, etc. Economics reward content that can sustain multiple viewings.

Previously, if you missed an important scene, you missed it forever. Or until summer reruns or something. So info had to be repeated over and over so people wouldn’t miss it.

The reason Seinfeld and the Simpsons are still on the air is because you can rewatch them and find new subtleties.


  • Para-sites.
  • Blogs, FAQs, fansites, walkthroughts, commentary tracks.

There’s so much information about shows out there, it’s amazing. The shows can become this complicated because there’s this whole evolving support system that wasn’t there twenty, thirty years ago.

The regime of competence

  • In-game learning. Games slowly get harder as you play them, for example. They assess your ability and slowly ratchet things up as you get better and better and better. And this is fun, as those of you know in ITP. Puzzling systems out is intellectually and emotionally rewarding. There’s a sweet spot. And non only are games doing this — interfaces in general are doing this. Starting with the web and e-mail.
  • Proliferation of interfaces.
  • The myth of the slacker mind. If you offer people interesting interactive experiences where they’re forced to think, people love that. People will always choose that over Three’s Company.

That’s part of the book.

Now, for questions. [Which I did not transcribe, sorry.]

The end.

If you can make it there...........

Posted Fri, September 23, 2005, 12:59pm EST by Brian

Well, like totally far out. Hope everthing's going well and good luck. Just got back from Croatia. Very relaxing.

L.A. Machineguns

Posted Mon, September 26, 2005, 1:18pm EST by Cote'

Dude, I played that video game the other day. It's kind of lame with all the robots jumping around everywhere.