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Moving on to serious stuff, like Grand Theft Auto

I spoke to Steven Johnson briefly before his presentation at Pop!Tech. He told me he was going to try to add some seriousness, gravitas and weight to our discussions, trying to move us beyond the trivialities of life – global warming, biodiversity, the rise of China – and onto talking about serious subjects like Grand Theft Auto.

This is a tough point in the program to give a talk on a book called “Everything Bad Is Good For You”. But hey, it’s a great book and a good talk.

Johnson starts by telling a story about giving his seven year old nephew a tour of Sim City, showing him the buildings and basically assuming the kid knew nothing about the game. He showed him a part of his city that wasn’t thriving and explained that he didn’t know what to do to make this district thrive. His nephew looked at the screen, thought for a moment and said, “I think you may need to lower your industrial taxes.”

It’s rare that most seven year olds show a gift for urban planning. But clearly games can help us be smart in ways that books sometimes don’t.

Johnson believes that part of this has to do with the complexity of narrative we see in modern games. He points out that in an old video game like PacMan, there are really only two or three objectives. But in newer video games like Legend of Zelda, the narrative involves dozens of subgoals and objectives, none of which are explicitly spelled out. Adults encounter these games and say, “What am I supposed to do?” Kids say, “You’re supposed to figure out what to do.”

He shows us a clip from the TV show “Lost”. He makes the argument the show is structured like a game – you need to explore along with the characters. And the show has details that only become clear if you pull it apart screen by screen. He argues that the scene we’re looking at is basically a televised version of Myst, one of the paradigmatic exploration games. It’s one of the first TV shows designed for multiple viewings – for exploration, just like a game.

Johnson talks briefly about virtual worlds like there.com and Second Life – he points out that people have been predicting for many years that these graphic environments would happen, and now people are actually building these things. It’s becoming somewhat routine for people to have avatars. That said, it’s not all good news – he tells us about his sister’s (presumably ex-) boyfriend, who became increasingly addicted to a massively multiplayer online game. One night, when he missed a dinner date, she confronted him… and he responded by saying, “Can’t you understand, I’m growing stronger!”

Johnson believes that there’s a strong tendency for tendency to standardize on a single platform – we may well see this happen in MMPOG spaces as well, as users decide they’re pissed about high switching costs, the impossibility of communicating between systems, and the need to reinvent structures built in one world for another world. Johnson doesn’t mention it, but I’d not be surprised if an open platform were capable of being the one game that rules them all.