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Reading Between the Lines

A fascinating documentary; a balanced conclusion on the uncertain impact of videogames on reading habits - so why are we suffering more lazy stereotyping?

It's almost exactly a year since I last wrote on the apparently deadly threat of gaming to literacy. Then, it was provoked by the Children's Secretary Ed Balls cautioning that too many dribbling brats were transfixed by those evil little gaming boxes instead of reading, as a means to mask the failure of the government's education policy.

Mercifully, Balls is too busy telling us the whole of civilisation is doomed to terrorise gaming any further. But now, a fascinating BBC documentary, aired earlier this week, has revived the issue of whether videogames are stifling cognitive development.

'Why Reading Matters' was an illuminating and engaging look at how modern neuroscience is beginning to reveal the remarkable effects of reading on the human brain. Moreover, it was a powerful defence of the humble novel against the rampant advance of digital media.

Gaming played a small but significant part; and while the programme's conclusion was balanced and reasonable, it was undermined by yet another lazy portrayal of gaming that should serve as a sobering reminder of the challenges the medium still faces in gaining broader acceptance.

The central thesis was that neuroscience, via cutting-edge techniques like fMRI scanning, can now show how reading stimulates brain activity and development; and specifically how fiction boosts our ability to experience empathy. Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights - a novel in which literacy is a potent metaphor for social freedom - is cited as a classic example of how the reader is able to engage and experience the emotions of characters as if they were actually feeling them. And neuroscience, by examining the action of mirror neurons, confirms that our grey matter responds to narrative events in exactly the same way as we would to real events.

We were also treated to the inspiring experimental revelation that Shakespeare's semantic inventiveness, in sporadically changing nouns and adjectives into verbs for greater impact - "godded" instead of "deified", for instance - "literally electrifies the brain" in a way more prosaic writing does not. It was riveting stuff, and if you missed it I heartily recommend fishing it out on iPlayer.

But to those who delight in railing against videogames, these findings are being used as ammunition with which to blast the medium once more as a moron-producing brain-killer. Gaming's nemesis here was no lesser an authority than Susan Greenfield, director of the Royal Institution and globally respected brain expert.

Here's what she had to say: "Computer games, which emphasise process, here and now experience, the thrill of pretty much instant gratification as you win the princess, or slay the dragon, are very different from reading, which focuses on content, on narrative. A narrative gives a meaning to life beyond the here and now.

"When you play a computer game to rescue the princess, the princess is meaningless. You don't care about what she's feeling or thinking. She's something to be rescued - as simply the prize, the endpoint to the game. Whereas when you read a book, you care about the princess."

With literature, "intellectually you end up in a different place from where you started. You've gone on a journey". There is, according to Greenfield, no journey in gaming. What mind-numbing, ill-informed, unsophisticated nonsense.

Thank goodness, then, for that other hugely respected British scientist, so enamoured of the virtues of gaming that she endorsed a range (and took a stake in the company), while merrily chirping about the medium's life-changing benefits. Who she? Step forward, Susan Greenfield. Shurely shome mishtake?

In her spare time, Greenfield also represents MindWeavers, which flogs MindFit, a PC game designed in the wake of Nintendo's Brain Training phenomenon to, in the words of the firm's CEO, raise "the seriousness of the brain training craze and takes it to the next level." It's a mini-game compilation, backed by scientific research, which claims to improve vital functions like spatial awareness and hand-eye co-ordination. Rather like games have been doing for over 30 years, no?

MindFit is unquestionably a worthy endeavour, and proof of the real, measurable good made possible via the medium. So how can the same person who endorses this, dismiss the entire creative output of an industry as nothing more than mindless 'save the princess/slay the dragon' cliché?

It's the same old problem: neophobia. And it shows that even the greatest intellects are still subject to the same generational foibles. The presenter of 'Why Reading Matters', science writer Rita Carter, who was superbly informative for the most part, revealed her own unconscious neophobia when she interviewed a group of gamers in a segment that was not just intellectually lazy, but also borderline irresponsible.

To address the proposition that games "deny the values of traditional storytelling", she spoke to people playing a hardcore online deathmatch shooter - which, of course, lacks narrative by design - knowing full well the answer to her question "What's the aim of it?" was always going to be "To kill each other".

"In order to do this you have to get yourself a bit worked up and, I would have thought, a bit angry?" she prompted another with reckless glee. Yes, we're all slavering assassins-in-the-making. And she followed that with the fantastically leading suggestion that it "alters your mind and makes you a different type of person".

Carter may see this as mischievous at worst, but anyone on this side of the fence knows that the casual reinforcement of these stereotypes isn't just condescending, it's dangerous. And, post-Byron, bitterly disappointing.

It's the waltz, rock'n'roll, and TV all over again: the ignorance and suspicions of an older generation. The irony being, of course, that we're watching this via a medium that was subjected to the very same paranoid assaults of the next generation up. The concern is legitimate, the analysis irrational.

The programme immediately redeemed itself with Carter's voiceover asserting that "these vox pops don't add up to scientific evidence, and they don't reflect the intensely social and co-operative element of much online gaming". Fine; but then why interview online FPS gamers in this context? It's like making a programme about the French, and asking a bloke in a stripy jumper and beret, with onions dangling around his neck, about his favourite cheese.

Gamers are still treated by those of a certain age and experience as a weird species in a lab - Carter might as well have been David Attenborough standing in the middle of a jungle, prodding a luminescent spider with a twig.

Yet credit where it is due, and to counter Greenfield's views, Carter interviewed Naomi Alderman, an award-winning novelist and designer of 'alternate reality game' Perplex City. She rubbished Greenfield's argument and cited wondrous PlayStation 2 title Ico as a 'save the princess' game that creates massive empathy in the player. It's a fine example. There are, of course, countless others.

Technology, it seems, can be embraced when it advances understanding of your own specialism; yet casually rejected when it enables new forms of entertainment you don't understand. That's the crux of Greenfield's problem. But as much as she might want to be the female Dr Kawashima, she should understand that no-one is doing a better job of getting these products, whatever their scientific merits, into the right hands than Nintendo. MindFit does, after all, cost 90 quid. And with what exceptional imagination, charm and flair did the developer of Professor Layton and the Curious Village turn the infuriating tedium of an IQ test into a thrilling mystery?

It is absolutely legitimate to raise concerns about the effects of videogaming; but it's that much harder to examine them when judgement is clouded by cultural baggage. At the other end of the spectrum, we have a scientist like Will Wright, a man who embraces the digital revolution in all its forms, who sees not Greenfield's bleak Orwellian future of intellectual atrophy, but one of "creative enablement" where games actively engage more of the brain and "democratise the story-telling function", as he remarked last year in an interview on Spore, a game that smartly packages complex scientific theories as entertainment.

Greenfield sees a generation looking at the world with "screen-shaped eyes"; Wright sees computer and TV screens as windows to a larger, more profound world of advancement through collective intelligence.

At the same time e-books, like Amazon's newly-announced Kindle 2, are transforming the way we consume the written word and facilitating access to literature as never before. And Nintendo has followed suit by releasing 100 Classic Book Collection for its handheld, further democratising the process. These developments don't mean people are any more likely to read the 'right' things; and the importance of reading has, thanks to science, never been clearer. But technology is making it easier.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have another chapter of Wuthering Heights to empathise with. On my DS.

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Johnny Minkley avatar

Johnny Minkley


Johnny Minkley is a veteran games writer and broadcaster, former editor of Eurogamer TV, VP of gaming charity SpecialEffect, and hopeless social media addict.