By Dr. Charlie W. Starr
“This discovery . . . will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories . . . they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”
Sounds like an educator bemoaning the way students use the Internet today, doesn’t it? Actually it is a quote from Plato’s Phaedrus, in which a man named Thamus announces the evils of a rising new technology called the book.
I’ve been doing some research on mass media lately and have learned, to my surprise, that a lot of the newest media (and some of the older ones) have some positive qualities most of us don’t know about. I’d like to explore some of these with you over the next few months.
Making Us Smarter
We complain about video/computer games for three reasons: bad content, no physical activity, and mind-numbing repetition. On the first and second counts, the news isn’t so good. The content of many electronic games is awful. If your kids or grandkids own a copy of Grand Theft Auto, burn it! There is, fortunately, a rating system for games just as there is for movies, and we should pay attention to it. And the nation is getting fatter, however, some games and gaming systems have been created to get people moving while they play.
As to the mind-numbing concern—according to Steven Johnson in his book, Everything Bad is Good for You, video games have increased in complexity on a drastic level. And that’s a good thing.
When you read a difficult book, one of the classics like The Divine Comedy or Moby-Dick, you often feel the need to consult a guide of some sort in order to understand the complexities of the book. But who has to get the Cliff Notes for computer games? The answer used to be no one, but that was back in the age of Pong. Today’s computer games have become so complex that a whole publishing industry has arisen with guides and tips for completing a game. Games which cause people to play for 30 hours, or games which present a puzzle that a player will spend hours trying to solve, are not offering mind-numbing repetition nor surface-level, immediate gratification. Such games present challenges to our minds.
Johnson, who has studied the neuroscience of gaming, even points out that video games improve our decision-making and problem-solving skills, specifically two abilities he refers to as probing (the ability to explore environments in search of solutions) and telescoping (the ability to organize and pursue multiple sets of objectives at once). While the content of many computer/video games may be terrible, there are also games with good content, and they are exercising and improving our mental faculties.
Side Note: One Piece of the Whole
We’ll talk about some other positives in mass media next month, but I want to end this first one with a side note. Since all I write about in this column is arts and media, it would be easy to read my collected articles as a gospel of fun and pleasure. But I write about these topics here because I’m the guy who does the Arts and Media column for The Lookout.
I think God calls us to good pleasures as a way to draw us to himself, as elements of the victorious Christian life, and as tastes of the true fulfillment in which we hope. And I think he calls us to make our Christianity a part of every aspect of our lives, even the way we entertain ourselves. (Articles like this are meant to encourage that concept.)
But God also calls us to service, sacrifice, and to be in the world and not of it. If I spend the next few months talking about what’s going right in media and entertainment, it’s with the recognition that even the best and purest earthly pleasures can draw us away from God.
I know fellow English teachers who make literature their god and Shakespeare their Bible. I know from my own life that even the best, most uplifting books or music can take away the silence I need in my life in order to pray and listen to God. And I know that too much time spent in pursuing even the good pleasures of earth can take us away from acts of service and sacrifice to which God calls us.
However, following Matthew 6:33, if we keep first things first, these other things can be added to our lives. The good news seems to be that what’s available to us is getting better.
Dr. Charlie W. Starr teaches English, humanities, and film at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, Kentucky.