Sunday, May 01, 2005 / A&E / Books / Brain candy / A&E / Books / Brain candy: "To buttress his point that pop culture is improving Americans' minds, Johnson cites the rising average scores of Americans on IQ tests in recent decades. The play -- maybe work is the word -- involved to win at some of the hottest-selling video games demands the same sort of head-scratching and analytical acumen needed to crack an algebra problem, as he depicts it.
''To locate the items, you need the pearl of Din from the islanders,' he begins, in illustrating the initial steps in one stage of the latest ''Zelda' game, ''The Wind Walker,' where the objective is rescuing your sister. ''To get this, you need to help them solve their problem. To do this, you need to cheer up the Prince. To do this, you need to get a letter from the girl. To do this, you need to find the girl in the village.' Spelling out all the steps to complete the one stage requires nearly three pages.
Likewise, complex television shows such as ''The West Wing' and ''24' possess a narrative sophistication that ''can only be described as subtlety and discretion,' according to Johnson. In each episode, crucial plot elements are deliberately withheld, and Byzantine subplots introduced one week can fade away only to surface without warning weeks later.
Johnson's argument that the whole thrust of pop culture is having the effect of enlarging Americans' mental capacity is, of course, a giant theoretical leap. Just as decades of inquiry into the effect of TV violence on the nation's youth is yet to produce a consensus among experts, no argument that pop culture is making Americans smarter is likely to be conclusive. Johnson's book, nonetheless, provokes smarter thinking about the right questions to ask in the first place."
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