Professor Susan Greenfield's interview in The Sunday Times last week posed a troubling question to sleepy-eyed breakfasters - Is technology ruining children?
And not for the first time, computer games specifically are the guilty party - or at least, the most guilty party. Let's examine Greenfield's theory, as put across in the interview. It's based in neuroscience, an area I have very little knowledge of, but essentially it seems to boil down to this:
Dopamine is the chemical produced in the brain when we complete a goal - it makes us feel good about what we've achieved. But the prefrontal cortex - the area of the brain which allows us to reflect on the consequences of our actions - could be damaged by "excessive dopamine hits". In other words, experiencing the thrill of achievement too frequently could lead us to stop thinking about the effects our actions will have on the world.
Even worse, by continually focusing on process (what we're doing) and neglecting content (the meaning of what we're doing), we may never form the "highly personalised individual conceptual frameworks" which are the basis for our very identities.
Why are computer games such a concern? Because, Greenfield believes, they are all process, and no content. They repeatedly grant the excitement of achieving a goal, but they do not make us think. As the interviewer puts it:
"If the purpose of a game, for instance, is to free the princess from the tower, it is the thrill of attaining the goal, the process, that counts. What does not count is the content – the personality of the princess and the narrative as to why and how she is there, as in a storybook."
If I understand Greenfield's theory correctly, she's suggesting that games could be creating a potentially dangerous excess of dopamine, but provoking no intelligent thought to counter its effect. This would ultimately lead to her terrifying 'Nobody Scenario' for a generation of young people: literally, "for the first time in human history, individuality could be obliterated in favour of a passive state, reacting to a flood of incoming sensations." (Emphasis mine, for scariness.)
There are two points I'd like to contest here.
The first is the idea that computer games are all about the process, and have no content to speak of. This is simply untrue. The imagined 'princess game' is necessary to make the point seem cogent, but let's take as a counterexample the game Bioshock, released last year to stellar reviews and high sales.
Does Bioshock disregard "the personality of the princess and the narrative as to why and how she is there"? No - it is infused with storytelling. Like any great mystery it throws you in at the deep end, and challenges you to decipher what's going on from your own investigations. It pivots on your unfolding relationships with several memorable characters. It demands that you make genuinely difficult moral decisions, the ramifications of which echo through to the end.
Bioshock is not unique in this regard, but I like to use it as an example partly because it sold extremely well - it's important to note that such games are not obscure, unloved releases. Mass Effect is another success story, a game set in a richly detailed universe that practically revels in presenting you with difficult choices, and making you feel the consequences. In fact, adverts for the game went so far as to specifically emphasise this.
To claim that games are content-free - or even that they universally emphasise process over content - is something you can only do when you haven't really played them. I doubt that Professor Greenfield has ever played a modern, critically acclaimed game such as Bioshock from beginning to end. In fact, I've never heard of a single prominent critic of video games who can claim this. (Corrections welcome on both counts.) This is one thing when you're a reactionary newspaper columnist, but when you're constructing a scientific theory, a lack of basic research into your subject matter is not a good start.