Wired 13.05: Dome Improvement

I just finished reading the oddly titled article Dome Improvement over at Wired and I must say I’m mildly confused and extremely interested in this topic. The article looks at the steady climb of IQ in the civilized world. It attributes the rise partially to genetics and not as much to environment (among other things) and it makes some interesting observations. Like this one, regarding twins:

Identical twins raised in different environments have IQs almost as similar to each other as the same person tested twice, while adopted children living together – shared environment, but no shared genes – show no correlation.

Very interesting.

But what does this have to do with video games? Well, the author of these studies wonders where this increase in IQ is coming from. It can’t be schooling, given the current state of our public school system (which I don’t buy completely). It also can’t be correlated with nutrition, since diets haven’t changed for the better since the 50’s. So what is making kids smarter? The explosion of media, including — you guessed it — those evil video games!

The best example of brain-boosting media may be videogames. Mastering visual puzzles is the whole point of the exercise – whether it’s the spatial geometry of Tetris, the engineering riddles of Myst, or the urban mapping of Grand Theft Auto.

That might be a stretch for some, but I’ve seen it first hand. I’ve seen my four year old nephew play computer games like it’s second nature to him. My two year old daughter can recognize different characters in video games and she know I’m supposed to shake trees to get the fruit out of trees in Animal Crossing. These might not be developing life skills but they are helping these little minds develop. In my book that’s a good thing.

And I think the author of the Wired article is a pretty good authority on this topic. He’s the author of Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, which sounds like an interesting read. I’ll have to check it out.

Update 5/11/05 – 11:59pm: Seems like this article (and book) are getting quite a bit of air-time. Kottke has a big list of both media and blog links. Render and Damned Machines also chime in.

Law & Order takes on Video Games

I’m a fan of the Law & Order franchise and I catch most of the Special Victims Unit (SVU) episodes. One thing that makes the series compelling is that the cases they deal with don’t always end up tied up with a happy little bow where the bad guy is caught and the victim can pick up and move on with their lives. Sometimes, the bad guy (or girl) gets away with murder. It something that bugs the heck out of my wife (she needs everything packaged perfectly) but I enjoy it. I don’t enjoy the fact that bad people do bad things and get away with it, I like the fact that life isn’t fair and sometimes really crappy stuff happens. So it was this reason that caused a little trepidation when I heard that tonight’s episode was about some kids doing a crime they have done over and over in a video game. I thought for sure they were going to hammer away the “violent video games make violent kids”. At first it seemed like that was the path they were going to take. It wasn’t looking good.

The officers come across a body of a hooker who’s been hit by a car, beaten and robbed. Det. Stabler’s son recognizes the M.O. as the object of a video game called “Intensity” (*cough* I mean Grand Theft Auto *cough*) where the object is to run people over and beat them up to take their money. Again, I don’t like where this is going.

Long story short, they catch the teenagers who did the crime, and their high-profile, ignorant-as-nails lawyer cooks up a plea of not guilty because they were addicted to video games and couldn’t distinguish right from wrong. My favorite character of the series, Dr. Wong lays the psychiatric smack-down on the lawyer and basically says the narcissistic adrenaline junkies knew exactly what they were doing. When the lawyer asks him if he thinks video games make the kids that play them violent, he basically says “No”. What’s this? They are actually saying the violent video game “Intensity” didn’t drive these kids to do a heinous crime? That they, of their own conscience, ran a girl over because they were sickos, not whacked-out video game players? Astonishing! I can’t believe it, but the “Main Stream Media” (the evil one?) is actually saying violent video games don’t make kids do violent things? I thought this was a no-no! Someone is gonna get it over at NBC! Didn’t they get the memo? But sure enough, there it was, laid bare for all to see. Complete with the guilty verdicts for the two teenagers on the count of 2nd degree murder. Amazing.

Overall, they did a pretty good job of portraying video games in the episode. The don’t just show them off as mindless entertainment and they definitely don’t make it seem like they’re a breeding ground for an army of killers. The company that made the game Intensity also made children’s games. The gamers weren’t nerdy looking teens, although of the game programmers did. I’d have to ding the kids who played the perps. They weren’t convincing gamers. The boy in particular seemed more like a frat gamer than a “real gamner”. But I give them credit, they did a lot of things right. The even had Stabler’s son playing a Tapwave Zodiac at the end of the episode (shameless product placement? Probably. My guess is the kid owns a GBA in real life). I thought the episode was well done, and I applaud the writers from avoiding the knee-jerk reaction of blaming the video game and getting to the root cause — these kids were just plain bad seeds.

Update (2/9/05) – It appears I wasn’t the only one who caught this episode. Andrew at Tales of a Scorched Earth posted his comments here.

Update (2/15/05)Here are some more comments, by new-to-me Clubberjack. He also made some pretty good points.

game girl advance

game girl advance:

“1. Willingness to take measured risks – gamers learn this innately long before they get to business school.

2. Different way of interacting with others. For example, less respect for hierarchy and seniority. In game world, anyone can be beaten by a 12-year-old. Gamers tend to respect ability, not seniority.

3. Seriousness about expertise, and being rewarded for that expertise. No matter how many times you fail in a game, if you REALLY want it, you CAN beat it. No doubt a helpful attitude in business.”

Just a quick blurb from game girl advance, commenting on a book called Got Game talking about how video games are training a new generation of business people. I like the three points made, especially the first one. Anyone who played the original Prince of Persia know all about taking measured risks.

Maybe these new business people can have some influence over at Electronic Arts.

Video games aren’t all bad!

For a while there, video games only received bad press. GTA-inspired shootings and murders involving an Xbox were the headlines. Now stories of what good can come of video games are starting to come out. There have been stories of surgeons who play video games have more success. Now, Wired News has this story about a “Games for Health” conference where game makers and health educators are getting together to talk about games. There are games that can be used for training –

Rosser, who heads the Advanced Medical Technology Institute at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City, knows how he’d like to see games used. Since 2001, he’s worked with games like Super Monkey Ball, for Nintendo’s GameCube console, to train doctors in laparoscopic surgery. What Rosser found was that students who had played video games for more than three hours in one week — even once — had 37 percent fewer errors during the procedure, and got the operation done 27 percent more quickly.

And for treatment –

… which has used video games and digital worlds to treat more than 400 people with anxiety disorders. Patients there use the games to face their phobias. People afraid to drive play Midtown Madness, a racing game; those with fear of heights use a custom-crafted level from the Unreal Tournament shooter game, which features pixelated skyscrapers 50 stories tall.