Those darned kids are smarter than we are — from 4-bit to 128-bit in three decades

2600FROM JASON’S HOPE FOR THE FUTURE — Humans are a bunch of idiots. We’re barely even smart monkeys. Want some proof?

Pork sales dropped by almost half when the “swine flu” made headlines. George Lucas cast both Jake LLoyd and Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker. The McCain-Palin ticket got 59.9 million votes in November 2008. Decca Records refused to sign The Beatles to the label in 1962. People choose to sky-dive.

Tom Hanks turned down the lead roles in Field of Dreams, The Shawshank Redemption, and Jerry Maguire. A man who in 2007 robbed a Kansas City Family Dollar tried to make his getaway from police via a city bus. Ross Perot had a chance in 1979 to buy Microsoft for mere millions of dollars and passed it up.

The good news is that we’re getting smarter. I recently stumbled across the Wikipedia article on the Flynn Effect, named after James Flynn, Emeritus Professor of Political Studies at the University of Otago in New Zealand. His research shows intelligence quotients in much of the civilized world continue to rise year over year by three points per decade.

I thank Pac-Man.

Now, I’m not suggesting that the l’il yellow guy take all the credit for the big jump in human progress. But let’s just think about the evolution of games of the past three decades.

Do you remember the Atari 2600? That glorious hunk of wood-paneled junk was my go-to machine for much of my happy childhood — back when a color television was still considered a luxury and you could rent a VCR from your corner video store. The game titles were not zeniths of strategy. You bounced a four-bit block between two paddles in Pong. In Space Invaders, you had two directions to move and one direction to fire. Pole Position had you negotiating gentle turns… once in a while.

The 2600 had one button.

Let’s explore, by way of contrast, some modern games:

In Left 4 Dead, my game of the year, you have to coordinate with four other players to strategically clear hordes of zombies using multiple firearms and incendiary devices in a dynamic 3D playing area, securing certain strongholds and using classical war techniques such as bottle-necking, construction of kill-zones, triage, fire walls, safe rooms, and sniper nests to stay alive in a destructible environment, often overcoming attacks by unpredictable hordes and special-class zombies.

Oblivion lets players loose in a 16-square-mile fantasy sandbox game world with dynamic time and weather events, with more than 1000 characters to interact with, and just as many monsters. Players choose to become one of 10 races and 21 classes, each with customizable skillsets, weapons, armor, statistics, and backstories. In addition to the world-spanning and epic main plot, there are 220 side quests, making for hundreds of hours of exploration, goals, and rewards.

Age of Empires III pits eight competing European colonial powers against each other in a real-time strategy rush to conquer the New World circa 1492 to 1850. Players control up to 200 combined military and domestic units each and can build 20 different building types, each granting various abilities, resources, upgrades, and tactical advantages as opponents square off in huge melees with competing objectives for victory.

That’s a little more complex than jumping over Donkey Kong’s falling barrels, isn’t it? And kids today have no problem running roughshod through these games, barely stopping for breath before moving on to the next new release.

I mean, these kids with their new-fangled games and their mad skillz make me feel like a frickin’ retard. And I’m part of the Information Age generation, despite my white hairs. I hate to think how much like dinosaurs my grandparents feel; my wife’s grandmother didn’t even have a telephone until she was a teenager.

No wonder kids are getting smarter. Look how much more demanding their entertainment is — today’s video games challenge them to think more laterally and do far more in-depth problem solving than freeze tag, passive TV-watching, baseball, or checkers ever did.

Gamers think differently than non-gamers, a July article in Neuropsychologia says (according to some guy on the Internet. I didn’t actually read it). Video games change how players allocate their attention, testing proved, forcing them to set priorities, discard irrelevant information fed to them in the game, respond more quickly to targets, and pick up better on in-game cues.

ABC News reported in 2005 that a University of Rochester study showed gamers scored 13 percent higher than non-gamers when asked to count the number of squares that flashed on a screen for a 20th of a second.

A now-famous 2003 study in Nature quoted the same university’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, saying video games improve visual skills. Four experiments, including the one mentioned above, showed habitual gamers outperformed their non-gaming counterparts. A fifth showed that non-gamers improved after sitting down in front of the screen to play.

Hell, my mom can’t even figure out Tetris, and Guitar Hero (on easy) destroyed my dad. Yet I’ve seen perfectly average six-year-olds pick up Pokemon Platinum and start kicking ass. I think the correlation is perfectly clear.

I’m not saying I’m going to deprive my kids of a good game of basketball in the driveway to force them to play, say, NBA Jam. But in the face of the evidence, I’m not going to lie to them and say the vidjagames will rot their brains.

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