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Why Johnny Can’t Read. Or Think. Or Do Much of Anything.

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Nov 23, 2010
Category: Psychology

Timing is everything.

A starred review — the very best kind — from Publishers Weekly is not a small thing, so an enterprising publicist at Penguin Books sent me the rave. The book, coming out in January, is by Jane McConigal. The title: "Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World." (To pre-order the book from Amazon, click here.)  The review, in part:
 
As addictive as Tetris…. For the nearly 183 million Americans who will spend an average of 13 hours a week playing games, McGonigal’s book is a welcome validation of their pursuits. But for those who don’t understand, or who may worry that our growing preoccupation with games is detrimental to society and culture, McGonigal argues persuasively that games are in fact improving us.
 
On the average day, it doesn’t make me crazy that a large chunk of a generation fries its brains playing computer games when it might be doing its homework. In fact, it brings out the shithead in me. If young slackers want to sabotage their future with games that build a bogus sense of mastery and self-esteem, go to it, kids — you’re making getting somewhere just that much easier for my games-restricted daughter.
 
But just before that e-mail arrived, I had read a New York Times article, Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction— and I was enraged. Because computer games, spiced by a super-sized helping of Facebook, seem to rewire the brains of heavy users. These young gamers can concentrate, but only briefly. Their real skill: jumping quickly from one activity to the next. With predictable results:
 
In an experiment at the German Sport University in Cologne in 2007, boys from 12 to 14 spent an hour each night playing video games after they finished homework. On alternate nights, the boys spent an hour watching an exciting movie, like ”Harry Potter” or “Star Trek,” rather than playing video games. That allowed the researchers to compare the effect of video games and TV. The researchers looked at how the use of these media affected the boys’ brainwave patterns while sleeping and their ability to remember their homework in the subsequent days. They found that playing video games led to markedly lower sleep quality than watching TV, and also led to a “significant decline” in the boys’ ability to remember vocabulary words.
 
What does this mean? Well, in one California high school, teachers can’t give a reading assignment and expect students to do it — even when the book is as addictive as Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried." The solution: The teacher has the kids — these are high-school seniors, many of them college-bound — do their homework together. In class.  Out loud.
 
Have you read “The Things They Carried?” If so, you know it’s searing, unforgettable. You can’t put it down. At least I couldn’t. (For my review, click here. To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.) Let’s enter in the record: It’s a great book. Given that, can you believe this:
 
“Who wants to read starting in the middle of Page 137?” she [Ms. Blondel, the teacher] asks. One student begins to read aloud, and the rest follow along.
To Ms. Blondel, the exercise in group reading represents a regression in American education and an indictment of technology. The reason she has to do it, she says, is that students now lack the attention span to read the assignments on their own.
“How can you have a discussion in class?” she complains, arguing that she has seen a considerable change in recent years. In some classes she can count on little more than one-third of the students to read a 30-page homework assignment.
 
What, you may wonder, is more pressing than homework? You guessed it. Games. Facebook. And, for one kid, making and editing YouTube videos (that poor kid, with mostly failing grades, believes he’ll get into a good film school and then become a director). 
 
I guess it was inevitable that someone would write a book “as addictive as Tetris” in praise of these kids and the way multiplayer games breed “collective intelligence.”
 
Who is Jane McGonigal? And how did she come to believe “that those who continue to dismiss games will be at a major disadvantage in the coming years…and the future will belong to those who can understand, design, and play games?”
 
I don’t have her book. But I do have Google. And I see that Jane McGonigal is very impressive in all the old-fashioned ways as well as the cool new ones — she’s got a PhD and great credits and spiffy clients and a potent title (Director of Games Research & Development at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto) and as many speaking dates as she can handle. And she has some amazing ideas. Like: If we want to solve hunger and create world peace, the world’s gamers need to get up to 21 billion hours a week. Like: If we enjoy play more than work, we should increase our time at play. And more. Just watch:
 

 Just to be clear, I’m a big fan of collaboration — when it’s real. For example, when 250,000 people submitted drawings that became a Johnny Cash video.  Or every page of The Collaborative Habit, the book I worked on with Twyla Tharp. But playing games that lead to communities that go on to solve real problems — I think we’re more likely to see Sarah Palin publish her translation of “The Iliad.”
 
Jane McGonigal has a husband. And a dog. No kids yet. I don’t point that out in the way of a jerk who says, “What does she know?” I mention it only because her admiration for smart kids who suck at schoolwork but play 10,000 hours of computer games before they’re 21 might get re-examined if it were her kid zoning out in the back row.
 
It’s well and good for kids to play. And to play computer games — in limited doses. But I’m thinking about a photograph I recently saw. It was of an 8-year-old girl in China. She was on her way to school. She got there by crossing a raging river on a zip line.
 
That Chinese girl is our 8-year-old daughter’s future competition — or collaborator. Somehow I feel she’s not coming home to play games. Call me crazy, but I don’t think an American kid who’s passionate mostly about World of Warcraft is going to present much of a challenge to her. And I think it would be good if pretty much everybody read — for starters, because it’s about the real world of real war — “The Things They Carried."
 
PS. Just read a Thomas Friedman column inspired by the Times piece on Digital Distraction. Here’s the last paragraph:
 

If you want to know who’s doing the parenting part right, start with immigrants, who know that learning is the way up. Last week, the 32 winners of Rhodes Scholarships for 2011 were announced — America’s top college grads. Here are half the names on that list: Mark Jia, Aakash Shah, Zujaja Tauqeer, Tracy Yang, William Zeng, Daniel Lage, Ye Jin Kang, Baltazar Zavala, Esther Uduehi, Prerna Nadathur, Priya Sury, Anna Alekeyeva, Fatima Sabar, Renugan Raidoo, Jennifer Lai, Varun Sivaram.