Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Wising Up with World of Warcraft?

Author Steven Berlin Johnson's seven-year-old nephew, Wyatt, was restless during a rainy family vacation a few years ago. To distract him, Johnson gave Wyatt a rudimentary tour of SimCity, one of the bestselling video games of all time, in which players control every aspect of a virtual city—from zoning to taxation to transportation. Simplifying for his nephew, Johnson stuck to exploring the game's graphical elements, such as icons of children romping in a digital playground.

Then he showed Wyatt a part of town where he was having trouble. The factories he built were boarded up, deemed unusable by his virtual citizens. Wyatt looked at the screen, at his uncle, back at the screen. "I think you need to lower your industrial tax rates," he suggested.

After a double-take (or two), Johnson realized that Wyatt had been processing the brief overview of SimCity on a very high level—and one that's hardly unusual for his generation. As much slack as our reality TV-driven popular culture receives, today's "mindless" activities are actually making us smarter, Johnson argues in his book Everything Bad Is Good For You, also the title of his Thought Leader session this morning. He maintains that an increasingly sophisticated lineup of video games and television shows has made us able to think on a much higher level than we could 30 years ago.

For example, Johnson pointed to Lost, one of today's most-watched series. Yes, people sit down to passively watch the show each week—but there's nothing mindless about it. The characters, plot lines and unsolved mysteries number in the hundreds. Compare this to perhaps the most complex show of the 1980s, Hill Street Blues, which never became a huge hit; NBC eventually put out a press release admitting it made the program "too complicated" for viewers.

Today, we not only understand, we participate, creating communities that dissect and explore our favorite games and programs in-depth. Johnson flashed slide after slide of webpages from Lost fansites, where viewers post theories, ask questions, even create detailed maps of the show's imaginary island. Same goes for digital games, such as the popular and incredibly elaborate Civilization IV. Invested in the characters, the unfolding stories, fans dedicate literally hundreds of hours thinking about pop culture.

Compare this to the typical museum visit: two or three hours, 20 or 30 minutes per exhibit, and that's it for at least a few months. Entertainment today involves challenge and engagement, Johnson explained. If museums can apply the lessons of popular culture, we have a "great opportunity to take the Wyatts of the world, bring them into your spaces and figure out how to challenge and engage them as well."

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