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Game Playing

A Conversation with Steven Johnson

HUMANITIES, November/December 2006 | Volume 27, Number 6

NEH Chairman Bruce Cole talked recently with Steven Johnson about how computers can change the way we think. Johnson is the author of four books, among them EVERYTHING BAD IS GOOD FOR YOU, a defense of today's computer culture, and, most recently, THE GHOST MAP, on the solving of a nineteenth-century cholera epidemic in London.

When OliverTwist meets Grand Theft Auto

Bruce Cole: Tell me a bit about your background. How did you get to be Steven Johnson?

Steven Johnson: One of the key things to the story is that I am a dropout from grad school in English literature. I was a semiotics major at Brown, and then I went to Columbia for grad school, where I was working on the nineteenth-century novel. I spent my early twenties sitting around reading Dickens, George Eliot, and Balzac and Flaubert, and a little bit of American literature.

At the same time, the computer world was starting to explode. The Internet was starting to appear, and some of these games were coming out: SimCity, the first iteration of that, came out in 1989.

I was following the world of humanities and at the same time the computer world. To use your phrasing, I became Steven Johnson around 1995, when the Web first appeared. I realized that those two worlds could live together in a beautiful, intellectual way.

I started putting together the idea for my first book, Interface Culture, which was about the world of computer interfaces and the world of culture. At the same time I started on Feed, which was the first general-interest Web magazine before Salon or Slate came along.

I dropped out of grad school—I did everything but my dissertation—and went off and started writing about these things. One of the underlying drives for all this was to write about the technological world through the lens of the cultural critic.

With Everything Bad Is Good for You, the first real spark of that book came while I was playing a video game with my nephew, who was seven or something at the time. We were on vacation and it was a rainy day. I thought it would be fun just to show him SimCity. I was basically showing him the graphics. I pointed to an area that I was working on in the city, and I said, "I'm having trouble with this area. All these factories are run-down, and a couple of these are abandoned, and there's a big crime problem," and he turned and he said, "I think you might want to lower your industrial tax rate."

I was stunned. He'd never really seen the game before. You could see that in that seven-year-old mind, that the combination of the gameness of the game, the feedback, that you could interact with and tweak in some way and see results. He was learning about the system of urban planning and what happens when you tax industrial districts, and he was learning in a way that no seven-year-old would ever want to learn on his own in a classroom. I thought, there's something powerful that's going on here.

Cole: The whole idea of the computer culture is new, and it's very, very important. When you realized that basically you have two worlds, the world of technology and the world of the humanities, how did you make that connection?

Johnson: There were a couple of crucial moments, and the Web was the uniting one. One threshold moment for me was in the early 1990s, the first time I spent time on one of those old-style, dial-up, bulletin-board services like Echo or the Well, before the Web. It basically was a discussion forum. I remember joining Echo in—it must have been '91—and posting my thoughts and listening to what other people were saying, having this conversation among strangers at an incredible level of sophistication. One of the most amazing things about this forum is that you get into a level of depth and intricacy, and intimacy sometimes.

However, I'm a great champion of the dynamic interactions between strangers that you have on city sidewalks. I write a little bit about that in my book Emergence. These exchanges can go on for weeks and months. These voices have a texture and a richness and a literary quality. Everything is written. People were writing in public for other people. It seemed like a magical world. As the Web came along, what was so extraordinary at first glance was hypertext. You saw your first Web page and you clicked on a link, and suddenly you were on a Web server in Australia. There was this incredible feeling of "I'm navigating the world of information through links, these magical words that take me from one place to another."

In the last few years, more and more people are able to communicate with strangers in new ways. That's what blogging is: people are able to publish their ideas and get into conversations with people they simply wouldn't have met.

Cole: No one could have predicted or visualized this the way you did, or the high-level written discussions.

Johnson: I went to some of these early hypertext conferences in the early 1990s, when it was all about literary fiction.

Cole: What was the technology?

Johnson: It began with experimental kinds of fiction and poetry. Robert Coover, the novelist, wrote for the New York Times Book Review about this new idea of writing stories in hypertext. Instead of reading them to the finish, you'd follow different paths, Choose Your Own Adventure, and books like that. This was in the early 1990s. They had a couple of different kinds of software; one was called Storyspace. And it was not a network. You'd get it and put it in, and then you would follow the story on a disc. It was closer to a game than to the Web.

At that point I became intrigued. If you had told me that five years later my ninety-year-old grandmother was going to be using hypertext-surfing the Web, casually understanding it, clicking on a link that takes you to another page-I would have said, "You're insane. Obviously, that's not going to happen. Maybe 10 percent of the population will figure this out, but they will never be the man in the street." And my grandmother does surf the Web now. She's ninety-four. It's incredible.

Cole: It is amazing how people do adapt because of what it is. People pick up.

What are the real benefits for the humanities of this technology with the hypertext?

Johnson: We've always said the point of all these things is to understand our history better, understand our culture better. When you read something really interesting or when you encounter a provocative decision, it's a conversation starter. That happens with influential books, with influential speeches, or any form of culture. The Web now makes it much easier to have those conversations have a public trail. You can now go to any Web page, any academic paper, or op-ed, and see instantly what people all across the blogosphere are saying about it. Every work now has this beautiful kind of trail or conversation that it carries behind it.

Cole: I think of text as something that has a beginning and an end, but I think of the Web as process. It is ongoing, and you don't have to know where you are going.

Johnson: Yes.

Cole: So I think of it as a start. No matter how much we love and support books here at the Endowment-and they're important-they are defined by their indexes. When it's finished, it's done. If you think of an online encyclopedia, not only do you have access for anybody with an Internet connection, there's this ongoing force where material can be amplified and added to, even video or film. And then there's this vast intellectual international crowd that contributes. I don't know what you think about Wikipedia.

Johnson: It's like wind power. It's an incredible free source of intellectual energy. It's funny you mentioned that about encyclopedias. Over the weekend, I was reading that the Australian croc hunter, Steve Irwin, died, pierced in the heart by a stingray barb. I go, "Wow, the stingray stabbed him in the chest." So I go to Wikipedia and look up what is the deal with the stingrays and these barbs, and about halfway through the entry, it mentions that Steve Irwin was killed. Within ten hours of when it happened.

Kevin Kelly has written about this amazing willingness of so many people to write on the Web for free, with no reward other than the positive feedback from their peers and the love of sharing the wisdom. We lived for a long time with a very clear dividing line between the experts and the laypeople, and what turns out to be the case is that experts aren't that expert. The laypeople have lots of weird, unpredictable zones of expertise about small and large issues.

If you build tools that are good at taking collective intelligence and filtering it, you can solve the problem. When you have that kind of system, a group of a hundred laypeople is always going to outsmart a single expert.

Look at Wikipedia. There are scholars that contribute to it, of course, but there are a lot of people who just are obsessed with stamps or obsessed with the Civil War or obsessed with stingrays, whatever they're obsessed with. If you give those people a forum where they can express the knowledge, they will happily share it for zero dollars, for nothing other than the "wow! I know you asked that question, I can help you out with that."

Cole: Because they're fascinated and they want to communicate.

Johnson: Yes. People are often much more generous than people think they are. Even if they never meet those people face to face, there's a social etiquette and network that's blossoming that encourages people to share.

This kind of amateur culture is organized. There are a number of different movements online now of people who are interested in going in and looking at information and tying it with relevant categories. In a way, Google is the beginning of this. Google's insight was, let's organize the Web by asking everybody who contributed to the Web to help us organize it. Every time somebody links to a page, we're going to count that link as a vote for that page's authority, and every time somebody chooses not to link to a page, well, they will have less authority. So rather than hire a bunch of people to organize the Web, they outsourced the problem to the entire Web itself. Implicitly, by linking your vote in and tallying up the votes, we have a much more organized version of the Web.

Cole: This results in the position, the page rank.

Johnson: Basically, that's the secret to Google.

Cole: Yes.

Johnson: Over time that turns out to be an incredibly useful way of organizing it. Google changed the way the Web works. In the mid-1990s people used to say, "Yeah, the Web is beautiful, but you can never find what you're looking for. You search on all these things and hit that button and often it's all wrong." People don't talk about it that way anymore. Google solved the basic visibility problem, and they did it by letting everybody help organize it.

There's now a photo sharing site, Flickr, that's very popular that Yahoo! owns. Just the other day they rolled out a new service that lets you go through all the photos that people have uploaded, and Geos codes them. So basically, you know where that photo was taken. You can pop up a map, point to that spot on the map, and from that point forward, that photo will be associated with that point in space. After one day, I believe, more than one million photos were cached. Down the line it's going to be incredibly useful whether I want to find out about a restaurant or I want to find out about a public school.

It will be compatible with all those systems you will be able to look at on your little handheld device. If you're trying to figure out what a neighborhood looks like, you can click and say, "Hey, give me all the photos of that neighborhood; I want to get a sense of what this is."

So people are doing all this work, not necessarily just of creating a process, but going through the process that's already out there and supporting it, clicking on the right spots and making the right connections. They're working like architects do. They're trying to figure out where everything belongs.

Cole: I know one of the purposes of your book, which I thought very interesting, is that the brain is like a muscle that wants to be exercised. Sometimes you can't really see any purpose to this. People simply want to do it.

Johnson: Yes. The human brain works better when things are challenging but not too challenging. Games are in that zone. They're aware of your skills, and so they're able to start more slowly and then expand. Pong was like this. The games could see how well you work, and basically they would get harder and harder each time as your skills improved. That turns out to be the magic combination for the human brain: I like to be challenged but not overwhelmed. As our forms of media have gotten more malleable, as our media know more about our aptitudes and skills, we're able to build media that lives in that zone much more effectively. One of the problems with television historically has been that it's trying to talk to everybody, and everybody has different levels of expertise. When you're trying to talk to everybody, you have to hit the lowest common denominator. That's the formula for dumbing down. I think that the mass media of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s was actually negative. Television was dumbing us down.

Cole: That's made clear in your book. Let's talk about how it's done. In television shows like The Sopranos and 24, you really do have to work at it a little bit. You need to keep up and understand where all these plotlines are going.

Johnson: I sometimes make people watch the first five minutes of an episode of Dallas from 1978. What you can't believe is how slow and condescending the show is. It feels as if the writers are writing for somebody who has an IQ of 75. Every single bit of information is spelled out. These two are brothers. Did you understand that? People just loved Dallas. It was the hottest show on television, and now it's incredibly boring because, as you said, we have been in a sense trained to watch ever more complex narrative patterns on TV.

Cole: And we like it.

Johnson: Take a show like Lost, which came out after Everything Bad was published, but which embodies everything I said. Lost is an immensely complicated show, and it is a huge international hit. If you had taken Lost and put it on the air in 1985, people would have said, "I cannot understand it, there are way too many characters here. This is not going to work." It would have done worse than Hill Street Blues in the ratings. People would have been overwhelmed.

Now the audience is ready. I think it's partially because they've been not only trained by television to get more complex, but they've been trained by video games, by the Internet, and other forms of media.

Cole: You made the case in an editorial as well.

Johnson: That was where I put the formulation together-it was in the original proposal for the book. It was this: Always, when you're dealing with new forms of communications, there's this implicit prejudice in favor of the older things. People want to use the standards of the old to judge the new, and invariably the new is different.

Cole: Somebody was telling me the other day that the technology of the talkies was invented three or four years before the first talkie, but that the studios felt people weren't ready for talkies.

Johnson: That's interesting. Inevitably, you end up comparing things to the old forms that have all the pedigree behind them. One of the problems that people have with games is that they think about them in terms of novels or in terms of films. Things that the novels are really good at doing, games are not good at doing. They're terrible in terms of character depth, psychological depth. I don't think that the stories are all that interesting-they have nice graphics but they don't trigger the same sorts of imaginative leaps that novels do. And so they take that criteria and they apply it to the new thing, and they say, "Well, this is no good. This isn't nearly as good as the book I was reading."

Imagine an alternate scenario where games had been invented three hundred, four hundred years ago, and they've been played for years and our whole institution is devoted to celebrating them, and all of a sudden books were invented and they were all the rage for your kids. Kids are reading books and grown-ups are saying, "What is going on with the books the kids keep reading?"

So I came up with all these criticisms about books. They're socially isolating. They discriminate against people with dyslexia. They force people to follow linear thoughts that somebody else has dictated in advance. They're teaching people to follow the plot instead of teaching them to lead, to make decisions.

Cole: What's happening to our kids?

Johnson: Yes. Kids are clearly going to be ruined by these books.

All these things are empirically true about books, but to point them out and not mention all the clearly positive things that one gets from books, well, you're missing a huge part of the story. That's been the case with games. They seem to be very violent. They don't have a lot of character development and complexity. The critics miss all the interesting things that are happening.

Cole: When I talk about your books, I say, look, he doesn't say that video games make you a better person, that they make you more moral, that they encourage quiet contemplation and philosophical reception. You don't say that.

Johnson: That's right. If the culture is literally just going to give up books for games, something will certainly be lost. Maybe the ratios are going to change because there were no video games thirty years ago, and now they're a huge part. But we don't seem to be giving up books altogether. We seem to be just adding games to the mix.

Cole: Learning in this new computer culture has changed dramatically.

Johnson: There's been this assumption that this was the end of Western civilization as we know it. Another side of the debate thought that maybe it wasn't going to be quite that bad, but it was still pretty bad.

Actually, the games may be having a positive effect. There is a lot of positive work that goes into playing some of these games, and, increasingly, even television has gotten much more complex. There probably are very positive cognitive skills that we're getting from these interactions. But we're not seeing those skills because we're using the criteria that was developed to make sense of the skills you get from reading books to evaluate these new experiences, and the skills are very different.

The first thing I knew I needed to do was to jar people out of their literary prejudice. And for the record, I want to point out that I write books for a living, and I think, as you said before, books are fantastic. People need to read books.

Cole: The editorial piece you wrote talks about all the negative things about books. What are the positive things about games?

Johnson: The most basic one is that games are, in a very real sense, about making decisions and dealing with the consequences of those decisions.

Anytime you're playing a game, what you're doing is analyzing the situation, thinking about what the screen is telling you in terms of the world represented, thinking about the resources you have at your disposal, thinking about your long-term objectives, short-term objectives, the rules of the game such as you understand them, and guesses you might have about other rules that are going to appear down the line. You're analyzing all that information, synthesizing it, and making a choice about the best strategy going forward. Then, a second later, you're making another decision based on the feedback the world gives you on that decision.

That is not what happens when you read a book. That is not what happens when you go and listen to a lecture. That is not what happens when you watch a movie. What you do when you do all those things is you listen to the excellent decisions that have been made by other people and kind of bask in their wisdom, which is a very powerful way of learning. But it is not, in a sense, exercising the decision-making muscle in the brain. As powerful as books are, as powerful as movies are, as powerful as listening to a great teacher is, I would argue that one of the most fundamental ways to define what it is to be smart is the ability to make the right decision at the right time based on the available evidence in front of you. What's happening in these games is that kids, for fun, are exercising that decision-making muscle.

The objection would be: Is the content of the game so gratuitous or silly or simple that the exercise is kind of pointless because all you're doing is learning how to shoot prostitutes in Grand Theft Auto or something like that.

Cole: You talk about decision-making in games. Is there any kind of moral value attached?

Johnson: Maybe one of the criticisms would be that there's too much evil. But morality is a huge part of the gaming world in terms of the content. There's a quite successful game called Black & White, which is a game in which you play a god, literally, who's trying to persuade villagers to worship him. The basic premise is you can be a beneficent god or you can be an evil god, and you have to make the decision about how you want to persuade people. You can strike people with thunderbolts or you can give them grain to eat. You can build a kind of strategy for that world.

Grand Theft Auto is the most controversial game of the last decade, and in many ways it's a game I'm not particularly crazy about. One of the things that's interesting about it is that it is a completely open moral universe, but you have to make a decision. You can play through Grand Theft Auto as a taxicab driver picking up fares and making money in that world, or you can play a kind of Mafia boss, a thug. Different games have different value systems and they reward some behavior over others, but there is always kind of ethical dimensions to the decisions you make because your choices have consequences.

If you look at a game like The Sims, which is the most popular game of all time, on some level you have a basic value system, which is that you want to let your characters live and be happy. You're running a little family. You're dealing with the moral decisions that you make in everyday life: What's the best ratio of going out to work versus spending time with my kids, versus trying to make as much money as possible, versus building a big house, versus having quality time or educating myself, all those types of decisions.

It's probably true that games are morally educational in the way that some cultural forms can be. But most great works of art, I would say, are pretty morally ambiguous. They're about the clash of different value systems. The more a work of art gets into the realm of this-is-what-you-should-do-with-your-life it's less like a work of art. It seems more like a scripture.

Cole: It actually loses its entitlement to be called great art.

Johnson: Yes, yes.

The best example may be the latest installment in the series Civilization-Civilization 4. This was probably the number-two best-selling game in the fall of last year. What you do in Civilization is recreate the entire force of human economic and technological history. You sit there with your society and say, "Oh, I would like to maybe start cultivating an agrarian state here, and I'll interact with this emerging technocratic religious state over here. Then I'm going to do this, and maybe I'll introduce some of these new religions here." You basically simulate human social interaction. That's the number-two game in the country.

The content of the game is great when it's good, but it doesn't even necessarily have to be good. Most of us agree that playing chess is a great introduction to learning problem-solving and pattern recognition. Yet the content is meaningless.

Cole: There's no content.

Johnson: You don't learn any life skills, you don't learn any real trades, you don't learn history, you don't learn anything of substance. But when parents have seven-year-olds who are really good chess players and are really into their chess clubs, you don't hear them going, "Oh, this kid won't stop playing chess all day." They're bragging about it. The cognitive skills the kids are getting in the games is much closer to the kind of skills you would get from playing chess than it is in reading great literature.

Cole: The light bulb went on for me when you wrote in your book about decisions and strategies. I thought, this really applies to research and knowledge. You click onto an article or several articles, and you get an archive and you pull out a map, and then you see a film and the like. The ever-expanding progress of knowledge acquisition-it's a new way of learning.

Johnson: Yes. I'm one of the authors who embraced Google's idea of scanning books. It drives me crazy that I have this library of books that has hugely influenced me, and I can't do anything with them when I want to-it's not searchable.

Cole: The idea of the seamless library is appealing.

Johnson: All of this is great, presuming that people continue to read books from start to finish most of the time, and that they, while reading, go off to read something else, or at the end of it, go back to their favorite passages and figure out what conversations are going off of this page or that page.

If the part of reading that involves sitting down and committing to another person's voice for two hundred pages or four hundred pages or one thousand pages, whatever it is-if that part of the experience goes away because the cloud is so pervasive and peptic, then there is something that's lost.

The best example of that for me is Everything Bad Is Good for You, which is the most bookish book of all four that I've written to date. It was very much a linear argument that has to be read in sequence. It's a work of persuasion where I start and say, "Listen, I know you probably don't accept this, but let me persuade you of X so that I can get you to Y, so that I can get you to Z, so that I can get you further down this chain."

I couldn't have written it in a blog. I couldn't have written it as a video game, I couldn't have written it as a documentary. The book was the absolute best form for that kind of long form of persuasion.

It was the continued respect for books that helped launch that conversation, and there was a sense of, "This guy wrote a whole book about it. We have to maybe pay attention to it."

Cole: I don't see the book and the Web as mutually exclusive. I see them as symbiotic.

Johnson: Exactly right. I think people like John Updike, who got all hot and bothered about it, assumed that nobody will read in that linear way anymore. That's not what's going to happen. People will continue to read books. They just will have these amazing other conversations spiraling off of them once they finish them.

Cole: I agree.

Let's talk about your new book. The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic-and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World.

Johnson: This is the only book that I have any credentials in because of my grad school years focused on the nineteenth century.

It tells the story of an outbreak of cholera in 1854. It tracks it over ten days. It's a terrible epidemic that killed about 10 percent of Soho in London in about five days, and it would have killed more if people hadn't fled the neighborhoods. And it ended up being crucial to the solving of the riddle where the cholera was coming from, because the central figure in it, John Snow, was the only person in London who understood that cholera was in the water and not in the air, as the public authorities thought at the time. He convinced the public health authorities that there was a contaminated pump.

Cole: But how did he understand that?

Johnson: He was a doctor. He was a classic nineteenth-century amateur. He worked with a lot of working-class people in Soho and he had developed on his own, as one of his many side projects, this theory about cholera, that it was in the water. He had been building the case of this theory, which had been shot down every time he tried to publish it in the Lancet.

Cole: But how did it develop?

Johnson: He was able to recognize that the disease seemed to be affecting people as though they had swallowed the poison rather than inhaled it. He was also a fantastic kind of armchair sociologist who would go out and try to figure out where people were living when they were getting sick, what they were doing.

In this case, he ended up making a map. The map showed that the deaths were heavily concentrated around one well. He managed to persuade people to shut down the well, and eventually got people to believe in his theory.

It's a crucial moment. London at that point had about two and a half million people. No city had ever been that big before in the history of civilization. There was a real sense at the time, because of the epidemic, that there was something fundamentally wrong about building cities at that scale. It was going to be like Rome, and it was going to go back to fifty thousand people and collapse in on itself.

In setting up a public health infrastructure and creating clean drinking water, in a sense what happened was we set the stage for the Greek epic story of the next century and a half, which is the mass migration to the city. In 1800, 3 percent of the planet lived in cities.

Cole: Your larger point is, this led to the development of cities.

Johnson: Yes. They built the sewers, and the water started getting clean, and all of a sudden now we have cities with twenty million people. We have fears and concerns about cities, and some of them are the same concerns about disease and mass death, but we don't doubt the idea that cities of that scale are sustainable anymore.

Cole: How did the Web change the way you do business? Let's say you were writing this book fifteen years ago.

Johnson: One difference is that you can go to the Web on a hunch. You're working on a book and you think, "Oh, there's something interesting to write about bacteria" and how cholera is a bacterium. On that impulse, you hit Google, go to Wikipedia, and instantly find yourself in fifteen or twenty different places. You can very quickly get a survey of the landscape. What you don't get are necessarily completely solid facts. You don't necessarily get fully developed theories, you don't necessarily get a linear persuasive argument, all those things that are important. But it lets you very quickly get a lay of the land that would have been immensely hard to do.

Cole: Or you probably couldn't do.

Johnson: I also have a particular program that I've grown attached to. This program lets me grab snippets from anything I'm reading. I also have research assistants who are reading print books that have not been digitized who will transcribe things that I find interesting. I put all those quotes into this program. I can say, "Show me things that are like this passage."

A while back I was doing something on vampire bats, and it sent back all these results about game theory. The first proof of the efficacy of the tit-for-tat strategy in game theory in real life was the patterns of sharing of blood between vampire bats.

Cole: The pattern could be discerned.

Johnson: I just throw all this stuff in there when I'm in the research mode. Then, when I sit down to write the book, I go through and find core passages that are crucial, and I go to the program and say, "Show me other things that are related." It triggers associations that I wouldn't necessarily have had before.

Cole: That's amazing. What you would have done fifteen years ago is you would have done some research and you would have started at the beginning and worked through.

Johnson: Yeah. And people used to try and do it with index cards. They would try to get it but it was cumbersome. The cards aren't searchable and you can't do things like say, "Find me things that are like this."

Imagine if most interested scholars had this little mini-library of the quotes that influenced them. This would be the alternative of going to the experts and saying, "Tell me about this world."

Cole: But at the end of the day, what do you do? You write a book.

Johnson: Yes. At the end of the day, I go back and I write the book because there's still no better way to convey all that information to people. And as an author, there's nothing like going and talking to some of the people who have read the book. A reader really gets inside your head. That's what Updike was talking about, and he's absolutely right, that there is this one-to-one kind of sharing of experience or wisdom that happens via the commitment to listening to somebody on a page for three hundred pages.

Cole: These book and digital worlds are not mutually exclusive, they're mutually beneficial.

Johnson: Yes.

Cole: This has been great talking with you. Thanks so much.