Context Book: Everything Bad is Good for You

Is it just me, or is everything making us dumber. Whether it’s reality TV or Google or video games, it’s clear from the vast majority of voices in print and on the internet that popular culture is making us dumber.

Or is it?

Not according to Steven Johnson in his book Everything Bad is Good for You. Here are a few of Johnson’s main points:

  1. Reading is only seen as the paragon of free-time applications because it came first. Not to say that Johnson is anti-book. He wrote one, so that alone should say something. Reading is extremely important for developing and honing mental skills like imagination and books, according to the author, “remain the most powerful vehicle for conveying complicated information.”
  2. Other forms of popular culture such as video games, television and the Internet are becoming increasingly complex and are “honing different mental skills that are just as important as the ones exercised by reading books.”
  3. By examining data on IQ scores collected by James Flynn, we can see that we appear to be getting smarter in ways that can not be attributed to improvement in education or lifestyle. Johnson posits that the reason for the change is the growing complexity of popular culter.

My favorite part of the book focuses on video games; those oft-maligned experiences of cultural degradation. Games may seem like playtime, but most of today’s video games require serious WORK. For example, I play the online game Runescape. I was told that while the game gets better after you become a member, you should work on leveling up before you join. Okay, I thought, Easy enough. So I took my little avatar and started killing stuff, first chickens, then cows, then baddies like trolls and orcs. And you know what: it got boring! And I was only at level 30. The recommended level for a member is 60+!

But every other kid that walks into my library has spent hours and hours killing trolls to level up their combat skills and more hours perfecting a skill (mine was mining) that will provide them with money. Why do we do all this? For the eventual reward. The little box that pops up telling you that you gained a smithing level is worth everything in the world. Those rewards are what keep players playing the game even when it seems monotonous.

And the most important thing for our brains is what happens while we’re playing the game and killing all those cows. It’s a process that Johnson calls probing and telescoping. First, a gamer has to figure out what s/he needs to do. To do that, we test theories and hypothesis. This is what Johnson calls probing.

What happens when you click on the brown cow? You kill it.

What happens when you click on the black cow? You get milk.

What happens when you click on the milkmaid? Nothing…

At the same time, a player is trying to reach an ultimate goal. In a game like Zelda, that might be beating the game. In an open-ended game like Runescape, it might be leveling up or getting a certain amount of gold. In order to reach that goal, you must accomplish many other smaller goals. This part is called telescoping.

I want to buy a better sword so,

I need more money so,

I need to sell better things so,

I need to increase my crafting ability so,

I need to craft leather gloves so,

I need a needle and some tanned leather so,

I need to give some hides and gold to the tanner so,

I need to get some hides so,

I need to kill a cow

Now, you say, that’s nice and all, but when will you need to kill cows, buy swords, or make leather gloves in the real world. Well, it’s not about the cows. According to Johnson, “the collateral learning of the experience offers a far more profound reward: the ability to probe and telescope in difficult and ever-changing situations.”

So video games aren’t just helping us learn, they’re helping us become life-long learners and problem solvers. And as I’ve said many times before, the kid who saves the world probably won’t remember when the Battle of Hastings was, but s/he’ll know how and where to find the information s/he needs.

Johnson goes on to discuss how television (even reality TV) increases our emotional intelligence and how the internet increases social connections.

What’s the connection to libraries? If pop culture is making people smarter, then it’s not just fluff to offer DVD’s and computers at libraries: it’s essential. Maybe we should start circulating video games, too! (Sit down, AL.) Sorry for the long post, everyone but I hope it was interesting (if not entertaining!)

All quotations taken from:

Johnson, Steven. Everything Bad is Good for You. New York: Riverhead Books, 2005.



  1. October 27, 2008 at 2:53 pm

    I love this book! I think circulating video games is an awesome idea. My library recently started… we have had a huge success. We had already been circing computer games for years, so it was not a huge stretch to move into video games. Circulating video games has been such a positive thing for us, I can’t even think of one negative comment about it from patrons. Dad’s love it!

  2. Carol said,

    October 29, 2008 at 1:30 am

    Thanks for the long, interesting, and entertaining post. When you discuss increasing skills by repeating the same activity over and over and finding it boring and tedious, my mind conjures up memories of the hours of piano practice from my childhood. Getting good at anything takes practice and practice takes discipline. That lesson alone has value.

    My son just returned from a Counter Strike tournament in Michigan and after reading your post, I feel a bit better about the hours he devotes to this game. I often hear him directing the activities of the game through his microphone and headset. Perhaps the skills he is practicing with the game will help him to be a better negotiator and resource manager someday, since his ambition is to go into hospitality management. It’s an interesting thought.

    We circulate Wii and PS3 games and have for about a year. They go like crazy and our circulation of print materials is increasing by double digit figures at the same time. The only negative comments have been that we don’t have enough copies, something we are striving to address by examining how our collection development funding is allocated and eliminating some of the stuff that is just not used anymore. Lots to think about in your post. Thanks again!

  3. Michael said,

    November 1, 2008 at 6:10 pm

    Good post about a great book. I like your examples. I’ve realized some of the games I play on my iPhone have helped me in various ways: concentration, alertness, etc… sometimes better than a strong cup of tea.

  4. Parry Rigney said,

    November 4, 2008 at 10:23 pm

    Thanks for the great post!

    “Reading is only seen as the paragon of free-time applications because it came first.”

    I like the way he puts this, and believe I agree with him. I’m now primarily a reader, but as a teenager I think films were more my way of entering into the human conversation. Movies were things that my family shared – as cheesy as this sounds, they held us together in a big way during some times. (Our family was in the top ten of highest number of Blockbuster rentals in town – if only our library had offered a better selection!) So, that’s just one personal anecdote to support Renee (and the author) that other forms of media can be as meaningful as print literature, and they need not be our “maybe if we have the time/space/money after we’ve bought our books collections.”

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