The story is a familiar one. An aspiring writer loved to read as a child. The book store was her candy shop. She forwent television for the sake of devouring the classics, and she now has pristine prose to show for it.
My story is not quite that one, but is equally familiar. When I was a child, I loved video games. I loved them ever since my father introduced me to my first one: Super Mario World.
Yes, I loved books too. But you would not find the ‘classics’ in my second grade personal library. In their stead you found Michael Crichton, Anne McCaffrey and Terry Goodkind. While I remember their work very fondly, I do not place it on the same shelf as Mark Twain.
Like most parents would, my parents encouraged my reading habit and discouraged my (sometimes excessive) video game habit. You’re going to melt your brain, they said!
The common perception is that books are good for you, and video games bad. But is this true?
If you asked people on the street, most of your interviewees would probably agree that books make you smarter; video games make you dumber. But what would they say if you asked why?
I have not done this experiment, but I can imagine the following responses:
“Books expand your vocabulary!”
“Video games make you dumb because they’re a waste of time.”
There is truth to be found in both of these statements, but better answers can be had. Not all books are good for your brain – is the spectrum of vocabulary you receive from 50 Shades of Grey really all that useful? Probably not, unless you frequently find yourself needing to describe things that are throbbing or gross. Meanwhile, some games are good for you!
The benefit of (some) books
Literature’s effect on our brains goes way beyond a few extra vocabulary words or an improved grammar.
Research has shown that our understanding of certain words is directly tied to the structures in our brain that deal with the concept represented by them. When you read words like pungent, stench, stink, aromatic, reek, flowery, perfume, etc., your olfactory cortex lights up! [NYT] When you read the word run, your motor cortex lights up!  In fact, our understanding of words is so dependent on these relevant brain structures that Parkinson’s patients demonstrate impaired processing of action and movement verbs. 
What does this mean for our brains? It means that language might be the best substitute for physical, real world experience. Our brains crave stimulus, they can’t function without it. Language contains the unique ability to simulate stimuli that aren’t present! And of course it does, that’s its intended purpose. So, it is no wonder that 50 Shades of Grey (not to be confused with Grey Pleasures) enjoys the popularity that it does.
The simulation is so powerful that researchers have drawn a connection between empathy and reading fiction. [NYT] Fiction presents us with an eccentric sample of circumstances that our brains can simulate with remarkable fidelity. The bigger and more varied the sample, the better prepared we are for challenge to our social norms. We learn to adapt to our social environment; we become more accepting and tolerant. However, it’s important to note that this effect could be nullified by reading too much of the same thing (especially in the nonfiction category).
All of this research suggests what we probably already knew: books are powerful learning tools with the ability to expand our neural networks. But it also suggests that this can be true when teaching is not the book’s intent, and that the effect might be much more intense than we guessed.
The malignity of (some) video games
Video games certainly have the potential to be injurious. Every year, there are stories of teenagers who fall over dead in Asian internet cafes because they spent so much energy, effort and time improving their virtual avatars that they forgot to eat and drink. Call of Duty has damaged relationships in Xbox owning households everywhere. The real world dating prospects of hardcore gamers are often hampered, and plenty of precious, life-bearing seed is wasted because of it. Perhaps this is the greatest testimony we have to the tragedies that await at the bottom of gaming’s slippery slope.
However it is important to note that these tragedies are not attributed to video games, but video game addiction, which is an affliction especially encouraged by certain types of games, and among certain personality types.
One explanation for video game addiction lies in B.F. Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning. It’s main hypothesis should seem very familiar, even obvious: behaviors can be reinforced or discouraged by a correlated consequence. This is the science at work behind the art of dog training.
The relevant facet of this theory is that of variable reward schedules. A behavior can be learned by a consistent positive reinforcement, but when the reward is doled out at random intervals the behavior can become chronically compulsive. This explains gambling addictions, and even less vilified problems like facebook or email addictions. You keep hitting that refresh button because something new might be there. If you received new email and facebook notifications once a day at 5PM on the dot, you wouldn’t spend nearly as much time on either.
Role playing games, especially the MMO variety, exploit this effect. In the World of Warcraft, monsters randomly drop items of varying value. In Pokemon, the most desirable monsters have a low probability of appearing. In order to acquire that valuable item or pokemon, the average user is going to have to spend a lot of time repeating the same action over and over again. And he does.
However, we still haven’t addressed the process by which these virtual items become valuable in the first place. Why is a special sword in WoW such an effective, behavior-reinforcing reward?
There has been much research done into the world of online avatars. Interviews with addicts of WoW and life-simulator Second Life suggest that avatars might become conflated with the user’s real world identity. Some players went so far as to say their virtual avatar was just as much a manifestation of their identity as their physical self! 
With this hybrid identity construct in place, we can easily see how value can be ascribed to virtual items. The user pursues virtual wealth just like people pursue money in the real world, thanks to the same set of expectations, pressures and need. But in games like WoW, instead of food, shelter and clothing the player seeks recovery items, weapons and armor.
It also becomes easy to see how a player might obsess over their virtual ‘image’ like people in real life obsess over their physical image. But an avatar’s image is not just virtual hair and clothes. In many online games (not just the RPG kind), the player’s ‘level’ is displayed alongside his avatar. The higher your level, the more respect and attention given to you. And so, the gamer grinding away killing orcs to get stronger is not so different from the meathead at your local gym who’s been hitting the bicep curls hard for five years now, or the calorie counting nutrition nut. Indeed, this sort of the behavior likely consumes much more of the addict’s time than those explained simply by variable reward scheduling.
All of these addictive behaviors are destructive, and bad for your brain. They tend to crowd everything else out of our attentions, hinder our learning and destroy our relationships. Yikes.
But there is one more support for the parents’ argument. The video game industry is increasingly embracing the mobile platform. These games are designed for ease of access and disaccess. You can start them up in a second if you’ve got a spare moment, but also put them away immediately if the real world comes knocking, without fretting about losing your progress. Most of these games have little or no narrative structure, and successive levels are usually distinct, tenuously related entities. Compared to books, they move very quickly and haphazardly.
Games like this, videos with rapid scene transitions, and information blitz websites like Reddit can all force our brains to be everywhere at once, and thus blur our focus and limit our attention span.  I often find myself needing to refocus myself after playing a fast paced game like Super Smash Bros. or Mario Kart before I can effectively start writing again (reading a chapter or two in a book usually gets the job done).
So yea, video games can be pretty bad for you.
It doesn’t have to be like this
I said earlier that I loved reading as a child. Michael Crichton was a favorite of mine. But if you asked me for the most pivotal artwork of my young development, if you asked which particular piece had the longest lasting and most dramatic effect on me, I would not respond with a book, or a film (though Jurassic Park was astounding for single-digit me), or a painting or Broadway show or song. It was The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
If you’ve never played, Zelda is an essentially solitary and narrative experience. I played that game for hours at a time, and then I replayed it. But the time was not spent because I needed to get that item, or I needed to improve my avatar for the sake of impressing virtual ladies. It was because I wanted to see what came next. What challenge awaits my protagonist (Link) in the next room? What will happen to the Princess Zelda? Will she and Link make out at the end?
I kept playing for all the reasons I kept turning pages in my books before bed.
If books are such a spectacular neural substitute for experience, imagine the potential for video games! We have already discussed how easy it is for someone to project themselves onto an avatar, to insert themselves into their games. When I swing my sword in Zelda, I am swinging my sword. I am not just hitting the A button! Likewise when you read the word jump, you’re not just reading.
I yearned for this level of involvement and interaction with my books. After I finished reading, and before I went to sleep, I would recreate everything I had just read, but with myself inserted as a character. I would not usurp the protagonist, but join his party. I became a friend, a confidant and a useful ally. Essentially, I modded my books. And my character was always the most badass.
In games like Zelda, this self-immersion is an essential feature- there was no need for late night DIY hacks.
Despite the magic of experiences like Zelda, games tend to be overlooked as a viable art medium. They are also often the first to be vilified. Why are films like Pulp Fiction, Scarface and The Godfather heralded, despite their depicted violence, while Grand Theft Auto is decried for corrupting our youth?
Because of the narrative and teaching potential of video games, and landmark achievements like Zelda, I contend that video games are an art form and should be held in the same regard as the more noble media: music, visual art, film, and literature. My alma mater offers annually a class on comic books, as literature. The only classes offered concerning video games are those that teach you how to code for them.
There is a lot of commercial noise in gaming, but the same is true of the other media. Every year there are more shitty books written, shitty songs sung, shitty paintings painted and shitty movies produced than good ones. This is the nature of human creativity. My point is that Shigeru Miyamoto is a greater genius than 99% of the authors who litter the bookshelves at your local Barnes and Nobles, and he should be lauded as such an artist, not simply as a game designer.
Gameplay and narrative can and should exist symbiotically. They should complement each other, rather than sit next to each other at the dinner table like restless siblings. Video games offer us an opportunity to tell stories that cannot be told in books! Stories that the reader helps write! Surely such a medium could rival the neurological health benefits of books. I long to see it happen.
Are books better for your brain than video games? In the current state of things, yes. Intrinsically, no. We need to start producing better, safer games before we can convince your parents of that.
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