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Steven Johnson: “Imagine an alternate world identical

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 26, 2005

Steven Johnson: “Imagine an alternate world identical to ours save one techno-historical change: videogames were invented and popularized before books”. “Reading books chronically under-stimulates the senses. Unlike the longstanding tradition of gameplaying — which engages the child in a vivid, three-dimensional world filled with moving images and musical soundscapes, navigated and controlled with complex muscular movements — books are simply a barren string of words on the page.”

Reader comments

WinterApr 26, 2005 at 4:43PM

This is a silly argument. It’s not an either-or proposition. Basketball engages children in vivid, three-dimensional worlds too, so what?

JoshApr 26, 2005 at 5:04PM

Agreed—I’m looking forward to the book, but this is a pretty silly thought-experiment. (Of course, it is excerpted out of context, etc.)

Plus, video games are stultifying. The benefits video games have in this thought-experiment don’t really exist. Killing people in GTA does not equal full mental engagement.

Stefan JonesApr 26, 2005 at 5:09PM

If video games came first, we’d never get books. Or much of anything else.

TimApr 26, 2005 at 5:54PM

If video games came first, it’s possible they’d serve a completely different need, or, rather, they’d serve the need that books did when they were first invented.

The interesting part of this exercise isn’t imagining existing video games in place of books. It’s imagining what video games would have looked like if they had originally been developed for the purpose of education and information dissemination instead of pure entertainment.

storyvilleApr 26, 2005 at 7:36PM

if video games came before books, then people would go ga-ga over the user’s manual.

okeimakeiApr 26, 2005 at 8:34PM

For people to learn how to use electricity,then program,and later make an videogame,they needed books.
But if that had happened,i´m sure right now books would be the hit of the summer.Imagine the wait for a new Dan’s Brown book!

Jean-Philippe MorinApr 26, 2005 at 8:43PM

“Reading books chronically under-stimulates the senses” And that guy writes a book? That’s what we call a performative contradiction.
“Books are simply a barren string of words on the page.” that’s before you begin to read. When you read your IMAGINATION is active. Rencent video games are so realistic that they leave nothing to the imagination.
“Why would anyone want to embark on an adventure utterly choreographed by another person? ”
Duh, the same reason humanity enjoyed stories for thousands of years and will continue to. The whole point IS “simply sit back and have the story dictated to you”. The guy never enjoyed a movie?? From which planet does he comes from?
And he wants something with complex muscular movements, he should do SPORTS, not sit on his butt playing video games. This is a load of rubbish, sorry.

RolandApr 26, 2005 at 9:10PM

I think some people are taking this as a straight “video games are better than books” argument, when it’s actually intended to make people think twice about their automatic “video games are bad because they’re not books” assumptions.

jkottkeApr 26, 2005 at 9:32PM

Yes, please:



- read the link

- know what “thought experiment” and “imagine” mean



before commenting on this. Thanks.

Fred BlasdelApr 26, 2005 at 9:52PM

The Da Vinci code is a awful shitty book, but as a massively overproduced video game, it could work. Sort of.

Steven JohnsonApr 26, 2005 at 11:09PM

I would add one request to Jason’s: understand what “satire” is. In fact, I’ve just added the following clarification to the post:

WARNING: What follows is Satire. I do not personally believe what is written below. It is an imagined rendition of what some pompous, self-satisfied gamer would say about books had he never actually sat down and read one. It’s designed to make you realize how selective and short-sighted most of the criticism about gaming is. So if it seems selective and short-sighted in its description of books, that’s precisely the point.

Jean-Philippe MorinApr 26, 2005 at 11:13PM

Ah! Sorry, I read too fast. You can disregard and delete my previous comment (and this one too).

KaranApr 27, 2005 at 4:34AM

amazing, the number of people who react too fast :P

As a long time gamer and avid book lover, I often wonder why there is so much contrast between the two in the minds of what I like to call the traditionalists. Well pointed out, Steven, I’ll keep an eye out for this book.

BrianApr 27, 2005 at 2:27PM

I love video games. I would love to see more books made into games, leaving out movies.

- “Cloud Atlas” on PS2? :]
- Two-player “Don Quixote” would be fun. “Man, I don’t want to be Sancho Panza this time!” :]

dowingbaApr 27, 2005 at 4:26PM

Anything but more games-into-movies conversions. Seriously, have any of those ever been even remotely good? Or at least not totally sucked?

JoshApr 28, 2005 at 10:06AM

Whoa, Steven, the satire was totally lost on me!—Thus, the danger of the excerpt I guess.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.

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