Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Everything Bad is Good for You

The book, Everything Bad is Good for You, should be on every teacher's reading list. Johnson raises themes that I saw mirrored in the film Sight

With this title, you would be justified in thinking it’s a book about drugs, alcohol, or free sex, but surprisingly it’s a book about popular culture and how people learn. The primary premise of Steven Johnson, the author, is that far from making people dumber, popular culture is actually making us smarter.

Using examples from the arenas of video games, TV, film and the web, Everything Bad makes a strong case for the mental complexity of popular culture today as opposed to 20-25 years ago.

For example, Johnson talks about video gaming’s “dirty little secret”- that a lot of time spent playing games is not fun at all. He points out that many gamers will spend hours trying to solve a puzzle in a particular section in order to advance to the next level. Johnson argues that far from turning his or her mind off, this person is doing a lot of thinking.

He states on page 182, “Think about it this way: if our brain really desired to atrophy in front of mindless entertainment, then the story of the last thirty years of video games... would be a story of games that grew increasingly simple over time.” Johnson demonstrates that the exact opposite is the case; games have become much more complex. Just compare yesterday’s Pac Man to today’s Halo.

Throughout the book, Johnson identifies different types of intelligence that video games provide and stresses that in the areas of problem solving skill, gamers score very strongly. Even though he has a good argument (in many ways I think he’s swinging the pendulum far to the opposite side), I think he misses one very important “intelligence” that does usually suffer through popular culture.

Earlier this week I was having lunch with a youth pastor and was telling him about Johnson’s book. He was quick to tell me about a 16 year old young man from his church’s youth group who, it seems, has lost his zeal for life, spending all his time playing video games. We talked together about Daniel Goleman and the “other” intelligence that he made famous, the idea of Emotional Intelligence. In this boy’s life, this appears to be stunted by playing these games.

I don’t believe that in Everything Bad Johnson is 100% correct. However, I do believe a book like this is important for all of us in education to be aware of and to wrestle with the issues it presents.  



  1. For sure, thinking is deep. I just wonder about the rest of the body. Movement is one thing that I'm not quite ready to do away with for all the thinking in the world.

  2. Although it is true that problem solving is necessary for most video games these days, I suspect that the problems to solve are very similar. I think that too much of one thing (anything) is at the expense of experiences in other areas. Too much video gaming is at the expense of what? Time in nature? Exercise? Direct human communication? Reading?


  3. I sometimes wonder what miraculous magic can video games have upon children, teenagers and even adults. Personally I never saw the fun of it, I guess that I am an assumed digital immigrant. It' s interesting to see though that I might be wrong and when I tell my kids to stop I may be mining their problem solving skills.
    You got me curious. I am an educator.
    I bought the book!

  4. Thank you all for your responses. I enjoy Johnson's book as a huge pendulum swing where he is being provocative to make his point. I agree with you as a fellow educator (and parent of a 13 year old boy) that balance is needed and time outside, in nature, reading a book, etc. is also essential for thinking, learning and becoming a whole person.

  5. I enjoyed your post Rick, thanks. A few thoughts came to mind particularly around current technologies and gaming attitudes. You might like to check out MIT MediaLab's Sixth Sense technology (a precursor to 'Sight' technology) - http://bit.ly/5mHZJ and making a better world through gaming - http://bit.ly/dCbJKt

  6. I think like anything in life it depends on the individual. There are people out there who drink sensibly and the others who seemingly can't. Just like there are people who love video games but keep a balance, and others that can't.

  7. thanks, Rick - I love a vigorous defence of popular culture! I do agree though that our emotional intelligence is at risk these days... But not just from games. When I walk along the street and a parent shepherds their children along, taking no note of other pedestrians, no subtle moving a bit to the side to allow someone to pass, no smile at a neighbour, no acknowledgement of the humanity of others... I see the de-humanising of those children through the parent's dehumanising of us - and this worries me more.