Guardian: Will videogames create a two-tiered society?

Originally posted 7/20/07 on

A blogger for Britain’s influential Guardian newspaper is asking, “Will playing games create a two-tiered society?” Writer Bobbie Johnson, the Guardian’s technology correspondent, writes in response to a Discovery magazine article touting the benefits of video game playing.

Studies have indicated that young people who play video games have increased abilities in reasoning, puzzle solving, and “forward thinking” (although it has been pointed out that kids who already possess these abilities may be attracted to playing video games.)

Johnson asks:

Given the increasing interest in virtual worlds and near-game environments, it’s not hard to imagine that some people will adapt much more quickly to a futurenet based around 3D – the kind of thing imagined by William Gibson’s Neuromancer or Neal Stephenson in Snow Crash.

But given the research mentioned, will we end up with a divided society? Imagine a future internet where games players have a massive advantage over ordinary users. Will we see a divide between the visually literate and those who just don’t (or can’t) get it?

It’s an interesting question. It’s one thing to have economic and caste inequities – but a medieval lord was no more or less intelligent than the average peasant (and not always better educated). The science of anthropology, invented in the 19th century to prove that some races were inherently better than others, instead showed by the middle of the 20th century that “racial” differences were shallow, and that intelligence has no correlation to race or ethnicity. Is technology moving us towards a world where one set of people is demonstrably more intelligent than another?

Science fiction has dealt with this question many times; Huxley’s Brave New World and Wells’s The Time Machine are the most famous examples. Technological enhancement of the human mind is a common theme in cyberpunk fiction; and as in Gibson’s Neuromancer, not everyone can afford these enhancements.

Video games don’t directly enhance intelligence. But they train the brain, and not just in ways that help a player use a computer. (And I don’t think there will be a 3D “futurenet” as described by Gibson. Why direct an avatar through a maze of pretty 3D representations of web sites, when I can just click on a name on a list? See what I mean?)

A well-designed game teaches critical thinking (the single most important intellectual skill), reasoning, prediction and communication. It heightens visual skills and the reflexes. And the game content can be as mind-expanding as any book, film or music album.

I’m concerned about economic inequities that will lead to technological and intellectual castes. But that seems to be an issue for 50 years from now. Right now, we’re seeing a large segment of society choose to limit their own intellectual growth, both technologically and otherwise, for what they errantly see as moral reasons.

My mind is so advanced, I have chosen to present my argument as a chart.

Intellectual Enhancement Counter-intellectual Response The “reason” for the response
It's-a Mario!
Jack Thompson.
Banning games.
Klebold & Harris.
Games engender violence, crime, moral corruption and asocial behavior.
The World Wide Web.  Information Superhighway.  Cyberspace.  The Net.
Internet use.
Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. The Internet is a series of tubes.  It's not a truck.
Internet censorship, tiered Internet, apathy.
Hey! I was looking at those!
The Internet is for porn, intellectual property theft, and plotting terrorism. It should be used only for business and profit. Also, it’s too hard to bother to learn how it works.
Stephen Hawking is smarter than you.  He could probably kick your ass, too.
Math, science, logic, & computer programming education.
George W. Bush wants you to know what he thinks of you.
No Child Left behind.
Shop class.  Well, carpenters and plumbers do make more than most physicists.  And more than most games journalists.
Schools should prepare kids for vocations; let the smart ones get scholarships.
Rock me, Amadeus.  Amadeus Amadeus.
Arts, music and history education.
Piss Christ.  If you don't know, look it up.
No funding; censorship of art, music, history texts.
The animatronic Lincoln at Disneyland.  He never mentions that he opposed freeing the slaves for most of his career.
Why am I going to need to know this? And teaching real history is unpatriotic.
Timothy Leary.
Winners don't do drugs!  And FBI Director William S. Sessions is a winner!
Banning development of mind-enhancing drugs.
I took my Paxil today.  That's why I'm not in the EG chat, flaming n00bs.
It’s okay to use drugs to treat mental illnesses and neuroses; but enhancing the healthy is unethical.
It's a very, very small digital camera.  Very sneaky.
Photography, sound recording.
How dare you take a photo?  In a public place?  Whaddya think, there's a First Amendment or something?
Banning photography and recording in public places, businesses.
The Rodney King video.
Intellectual property protection, privacy.
You'd think discovering the Secret of Life would cheer you up a bit.
Yes, that's Jesus.  Riding a dinosaur.  Seriously.
Ted Haggard isn't gay. It's all a big misunderstanding.
The only way to be moral is to believe the Bible is inerrant.
One small step for a man, one giant leap for Mankind.
Yep. Distilled water can cure anything.
Ben Stein
If a scientific discovery doesn’t not fit with my political (global warming) or religious (cloning, physicalism, evolution) proclivities, it must be wrong.
Richard Dawkins.
Atheism, religious criticism, religious pluralism.
One of the Danish cartoons that can get you killed.
Political correctness, censorship, threats against authors and cartoonists.
Burning The Satanic Verses.
Criticizing religion is the same as oppressing the religious.

It’s one thing to have intellectual inequity forced upon you. It’s quite another to chose to hobble your own ability to think and reason, especially in a democracy. If your political, religious or ethical philosophy is rigorous enough, you should not need protection from competing ideas. If your lifestyle is successful, it should not require protection from new technologies.

If videogames were actually harmful, I would be the first to quit my job and come out against them. But I know from my own personal experience they are not; and as a writer I have carefully examined the arguments and studies for and against. The only way to believe videogaming itself hurts children is to be intentionally ignorant.

I call people who choose anti-intellectualism the “Stupid-American Community.” It’s a community that’s growing. And that’s the “two-tiered society” that worries me.