Blog Post

Speed: Do Video Games Destroy Your Brain Cells?

I keep thinking about Proust and the Squid and the argument about time. I don't find it convincing that the micro-second of time in mental word-processing really matters that much. I don't believe that we lose that processing time with digital thinking. And I'm suspicious about arguments from speed because "the world going too fast" is the perennial complaint of the older generation going back at least to the ancient Greeks. The new always seems too speedy for safety, a complaint often voiced by those when cars (racing aroung at 12 mph) were invented, even though horse-and-buggy went lots faster.


The studies on cognition that I'm reading lately suggest that reading on line, for example, off a screen or a handheld device, takes longer (not less time) than reading in a book. TXT reading is faster--but only if one is part of IM (Instant Messaging) culture.  It's like the old-fashioned speed/dictation system known as shorthand; if you're not inducted into and proficient ahe method, it takes forever to decipher. It's not really a short-hand unless you know it well.   Same with the practice of reading on line.  We may skim more on line (studies are inconclusive about screens and eye movements), we may spend less time per page before wandering off, clicking the next thing, but that is not about speed (a decision to click and go to another link is glacial in cognitive processing terms).   And, back to the basic point, the actual optical focusing and word processing word-by-word takes longer on a screen for most people, even young ones who also read books. Practice will change that no doubt. Optic processing, as in all processing, improves with practice.   Neural coordination of optic processing and information processing also takes some time, no matter what the medium in which one is reading. But where does that leave all the worry about speed and how digitality is going to destroy youth by leaving kids exhausted and breathless?


A game designer once told me that the typical first-person shooter game operates at a cognitive processing speed equivalent to driving a car at 60 miles per hour. Her goal was to create meditative games that operate at less than 5 mph, approximately the speed of reading a book. I love that idea and I love her quiet, serene, beautiful games.


But the more I think about "cognitive processing," and the more I learn about cognition, the more sceptical I become about the analogy for video games. Information-processing, for example, does not occur in any one part of the brain.  There is no "reading" part of the brain and there is no "video game playing" part of the brain.  The functions are distributed all over the brain because both require enormously different kinds of input all contained together before the end result is meaningful thought, action, or prediction.  Nor is information-processing somehow separate from affective considerations, bodily considerations, emotions, and all the rest. For example, the fear-factor in the idea of kids playing games all day at 60 miles per hour is certainly less if one thinks about driving in a moving car on the highway . . . versus riding in that car. In fact, if we are going to push the video game/highway driving metaphor, we need to think about the difference driving versus riding in an actual car since information is processed very differently depending on your role in that speeding car.  In the passenger seat, you can't kill anyone (not usually anyway) so the stress factor is far lower than that of the driver who has the responsibility for maneuvering the vehicle through traffic, road conditions, cell phone distractions, screaming kids in the backseat, deer crossing the road, a nasty fight with one's partner, an impending exam, etc etc.  Unless, of course, you're stuck riding with a reckless driver and then the stress level may be much higher, since you have no control and are out of control.


Video game mastery is all about gaining more control. Why isn't playing a game more like being the passenger than being the driver? Or being the driver in safe circumstances.  Control, stress, responsibility are all the issues here, and they are concomitants of our experience of speed which is really an experience of control. I don't love roller coasters myself but I know lots of people who do and that illusion of chaotic rising and falling is (they tell me) fun. It wouldn't be nearly as much fun if, halfway through the ride, you were told either that a wheel had fallen off your roller coaster cart or that you were responsible for getting everyone on the ride back to safety.


Mindless experience of speed, in other words, can be a pleasure and a thrill. Responsible, death-defying speed (i.e. where you and others can really die) is a different matter. Video games, I argue, go more in the former category. Like TV watching. I'm a child of the TV era and I watch TV almost every night in order to go to sleep. All those rituals on late-night talk shows? The top ten? The monologue. The movement up and down the coach with stars plugging movies and not saying much of anything that matters too much. Soporific. Calming. For gamers, why isn't game play more like that? Routinized and relaxing.  Fun. 


Ah, fun.  The dirty word.  A new generation's fun, especially when it excludes the previous generation, is always viewed, by the older generation, with suspicion, as evidence that civilization is going to the dogs.  Brain death by online speed, one brain cell at a time, a whole human species in decline.  Aaarf.


As should be clear, I also am skeptical about "cognitive processing speeds." If I'm reading an article in Cognition, I know my brain is racing, trying to figure it all out, trying to see how much of it I buy, how much of it contradicts the article in the journal of Perception and Motor Science that I read yesterday. The text may be stationery--but my mind isn't! So what is the cognitive speed of unraveling contradictory and inconsistent argumentation across fields?  What is the cognitive stress of trying to reconcile conflicting diagrams of brain functioning, what Levitin calls cartographic determinacy? That elaborate combinatory analytic mental process known as difficult "thinking" isn't slow. And it isn't fast. Speed is the wrong criteria or, at best, is only a partial one. Trying to puzzle through the equations in an AI article, may well whirl the brain faster than playing GTA for the 1000th time.


There is speed. And there is speed. Thinking a complex problem through might entail nothing more, physically, than sitting in a chair for five hours staring at the ceiling. Or my preferred cognitive processing method when something is really tough to figure out: walking in the woods. Pretty slow. But what is the speed of an epiphany?  If I'm sitting in a chair trying to figure out contradiction in the fearful language of "speed," does that mean I'm relaxing? Does that mean I'm still? Does that mean my neurons are not firing? I don't think so.


All of these metaphors demand rethinking. The fear-factor has to be unpacked. "Cognitive processing time" is many things in many circumstances. As in most jeremiads against the digital, and as in far too many assumptions about cognition and cognitive processing, the argument-by-speed denunciation mixes cognitive apples and oranges.


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