Computer games are better than books

I remember several years ago Prince Charles said that children should stop playing computer games and read a good book instead. This was very widely reported in the Fox News/Daily Mail type media as if what he was saying was good common sense truth. In fact, as has been proven, he was 100% wrong. The exact opposite is true.

Since the industry started the behavioural experts have been looking at computer game players in an effort to find something wrong. And what do they find? Game players have better hand eye coordination, well this is hardly suprising. They have better problem solving skills, once again you would expect this. They have better social skills, this is the big one, the Daily Mail/Fox News types don’t understand it but anyone who knows anything about games knows it to be true.

At this stage it is time for an anecdote. London Taxi drivers are usually ex servicemen, ordinary soldiers, who must know every street in London and the quickest way between any two locations. This is a huge amount of data to store in a brain and each journey requires a big lot of processing power. Before they get a cabbies license they have to pass a very tough exam called the “knowledge”. In preperation they spend a year driving round london on a small motorcycle. Any visitor to London will be familiar with the sight of these trainee taxi drivers. Now the interesting thing is that they have measured the size of the brains of these people. And they get physically bigger during the year. Yes, your brain is not what you were born with, it adapts as necessary and can become more powerful if it needs to.

So let’s compare books and games. Firstly books are a passive, one way device. You just slowly absorb the printed data on the pages. Games are interactive, a two way process. Secondly books are a very slow way of transferring data into a human brain, games are several fold quicker because they use moving images and sound. Thirdly books are positively antisocial, they are a solitary vice, unlike gaming which is mostly social in a variety of different ways. Fourthly books have a very weak reward structure whereas games have a rich and varied reward system. Fifthly books are limited in their content by physical constraints, games, because they can be connected to the internet, have the potential to access virtually all human knowledge. Sixthly and finally books are limited in that you slowly download the data from them in a linear sequential manner, this is not how the human brain and life in general work, gaming has huge and total non sequential capabilities which make them vastly more rewarding and really speed up the rate at which the human brain can absorb data. In fact gaming puts you in the position of a London taxi driver in a way that books never could, they give the brain a far more thorough workout. The fact that the subject matter of most games is currently very limited is a problem that the industry is only just scratching the surface of and will be the subject of another article. For the moment this is one area where books have games beaten.

Over time it is inevitable that the use of books will decline in favour of gaming. In fact the very nature of what we understand as gaming will change enormously. The capabilties of gaming machines are so vast that it will take generations to realise their potentials.

So what do you think? Use the comment box below, you can tell me how wrong I am if you want.


  1. I think you underestimate books a little ! While games clearly aid logical thinking, path finding and spatial awareness, they do not encourage imagination, emotional awareness or abstract and philosophical thoughts in the same way that books can.

    I also disagree with your statement that books are passive and games are not. When most people are reading a book they can stop, think about what they have read, what the meaning of it is, what are the consequences and form new ideas in their head. How many times have you stopped playing a game to consider anything more than how to solve a puzzle ? Pushing buttons on a controller do not make a game less passive than a book, it just alters the order in which you receive the data. It only becomes active when you are thinking about the game on more than just a problem solving level and when those thoughts affect the game, like having a good conversation with somebody.

    Granted, games could one day become as intellectual, emotional and tied into the real world as books however looking at the current state of the industry and development costs I think it’s highly unlikely to happen anytime soon.

    Ultimately they are two separate mediums and I think that it’s unlikely that either could ever replace the other (provided that we don’t have some dramatic decline in education !)

  2. We should encourage people to do both — play quality games and read quality books. Books provide a depth and thoroughness of information that far exceeds what is available from games — this may change, but it is difficult to see how one would ever completely supplant the other.

    Try this experiement: Spend some time talking with a person who plays lots of games, but never reads books. Then spend time talking with a person who reads a lot. While the gamer may have good superficial social skills, the conversation quickly becomes boring because he has little of substance to talk about. Nine times out of ten the conversation with the book reader will be much more enjoyable and enlightening.

  3. In response to WaterWolf, the argument that games do not encourage the imagination, emotional awareness, or abstract thinking is an observation about most games, but not all of them.

    It is very true that most blockbuster titles have players exercising a limited set of reflex and hand-eye coordinated faculties, but I believe the future of gaming lies in those games that have been recognized as “games as art”. Intellectually and emotionally stimulating games are not that far off.

    Final Fantasy VII made people cry; F.E.A.R. made people jump out of their seats more than any book ever could; Deus Ex challenged people to make morally relevant choices and was chock full of philosophical/ethical issues regarding politics and religion. Players were forced to monitor their behavior and the consequences of their actions in a free-range, extensively interactive environment. One can ruminate over and abstract about matters of right and wrong while reading a book, but taking on such a scenario for one’s self makes for much more active participation.

    I will agree with WaterWolf that books are not a completely passive medium, but I think the issue has to do with the particular reasons why people play games or read books. People actively read books to be intellectually stimulated, but that is not the primary reason people play games. For the most part, games have provided recreational entertainment; that was their initial purpose and role in the social realm. The way game development is unfolding though, I think it is very possible that we’ll see many more games that warrant the acclaim of literature’s best.

    But yeah, books won’t be replaced. People just like to pick up a good book every now and then, and the social stigma against video games by conservative parents and authority figures will take some time to dispel.

    Anyway, whether they’re reading or playing games, we need to get kids to write more.

  4. @Evan: mmm, that experiment seems to me to be short-sighted. You’re essentially arguing that people who play games and don’t read are intellectually uninspired. A pretty bold statement.

    But I’m really just defending myself here, heh.

  5. To add to what Evan said, I’ll throw Bioshock into the mix as well. Firstly, from a story/imagination standpoint, the demo held my wife’s attention like a feature-length film, and that’s saying something since she’s a non-gamer and was only watching, not playing.

    Second, the game itself explores incredibly philosophical and ethical issues–such as taking the life of an innocent (albeit twisted) child in order to survive. There’s a level of guilt associated with a desicion made in a video game!

    Coupled with the above examples, it seems clear to me that the ability of games to inspire and ask thought provoking questions is coming sooner than most people think.

    Will they replace books entirely? Probably not in our lifetime, if at all. But I think Bruce is trying to push us to look further down the horizon than we normally do in regards to the potential of technology and its effects on society.

  6. Got my names mixed up. Was referring to Alex’s list of examples above. Apologies all.

  7. @Alex: I am an avid gamer, so I am definitely not trying to insult gamers (of course, I read a lot too). Certainly, a person does not need to be an avid reader to be interesting and intellectually inspired. However, in my experience, reading often has the effect of increasing the subtlety and sophistication of where that intellectual inspiration takes a person.

    Here’s another experiement: Read the posts on some popular gamer blogs (say, and some popular book blogs (say, The typical gamer discussion threads are just embarrassing by comparison. Fortunately, I have high hopes for this blog!

  8. Perhaps I should have emphasised more that virtually all the current limitations of computer gaming are self imposed. By the platform holders, publishers and developers. Set free, as it will be, gaming is capable of infinitly more than it does now. I have a pending article on this exact topic.

  9. @Evan: Yeah, it’s a tough point, because as Bruce says, the limitations of gaming are mostly self-imposed. That is, people choose to play games that are intellectually uninspiring (games that require more spatial problem solving and tactile skills), and the industry accommodates that audience. I guess what we’re arguing for here is the potential of gaming.

    It’s true; gamer discussion threads are likely to be less mature and probably not as well written. I think there is, though, a social component to that trend. Discussions about games are by their vary nature less austere and prone to colloquially informal language. Discussions about books tend to be more academic, probably as a result of the way books are treated in school as a platform for more formal debate. And again, books lend themselves to that kind of discourse; a handful of games do (Deus Ex, for example), but a lot of them don’t or gamers don’t see them as works of art.

    Anyway, of course I’m not trying to supplant the value of books here. I just think gaming has started to evolve away from the recreational diversion that it used to be.

  10. @Alex: Good points — I agree with you. You know, Deus Ex is one of my favorite games. When I first played it, I remember how excited I was about what it revealed about the potential of games. Given the accolades that Deus Ex received, I wonder why it has not spawned more games with similar qualities?

  11. @Evan: Heh, my guess is that a game like Deus Ex requires substantially more work and testing than a typical shooter. It would seem that a game (and a shooter in particular) with a non-linear storyline would require much more content than a game that constrains the user to a script.

    Also, following the release of Deus Ex 1, the gaming industry seemed to be all tied up in its efforts to improve the visual quality of games. Real-time lighting, physics, and advanced texturing became priorities for a lot of developers (Doom 3 and Half-Life 2 come to mind). Now that those features have been implemented successfully, I think we may now start to see more titles that follow in the footsteps of Deus Ex. Or at least I personally would hope as much.

    Let us hope that this BioShock business is one such game. =)

  12. I think one of the other key points made in this post is the benefits of experiencing or interacting with something over reading it as relates to learning and cognitve reasoning. The illustration about cabbies in london illustrates this point with presicion. Now if only companies would see the untapped opportunities in learning through gaming.

  13. Deus Ex is one of my favourite games of all time however I think it’s interactivity is mostly an illusion. I tried playing through it a second time, being as evil as I possibly could and basically murdering all innocent bystanders but it made no difference to how the game unfolded. Most of its plotline was lifted directly from the pages of books (Neuromancer for example).

    Deus Ex does however provide a good example of why I don’t think games are going to come anywhere near books in their sophistication for a long time. The bottom line is that Deus Ex just didn’t sell that well. Money is king in the games industry. It costs very little to produce a book but it costs millions to produce a game. None of you have mentioned the fact that Deus Ex had a sequel. Deus Ex 2 simply isn’t as highly rated as the original – that’s not progress !

    I’ve been dying to play Bioshock for ages now but I have to buy a new computer before I can (you never have to upgrade your eyes to read a book !) I hope it sells really well and doesn’t get outsold by cheaply made Harry Potter tie-ins. Apparently they had great difficulty finding a publisher.

    Bruce, I hope your pending article explains how you foresee the games industry being ‘set free’ as I’d be very interested. I’m a bit more pessimistic than you !

  14. I have a fairly holistic view of where I think gaming will inevitably go. This article forms just a part of that view. In forthcoming articles I will try and bring the different elements into play so as to create a broader picture.
    So if you keep coming here you will see how this fits in.

  15. @WaterWolf: Mmm, this is kind of late now, but I think the linearity you ran into while playing Deus Ex is a result of the limitations of the technology. At least that’s my take on it. Scripting and AI in first-person shooters just weren’t that well developed back when the game was in production in 1999. The software has come a long way since then and will continue to drive new immersive content.

    That something doesn’t sell well isn’t a perfect indicator of its value (I admit that there is a correlation there though). I just don’t think the gaming audience was expecting a FPS-RPG hybrid, especially when the FPS genre was too technically primitive to offer fully interactive environments. Look at the baseline first-person shooters now: real-time lighting, bump mapping, real-time physics, depth of field, motion-capture animation, etc.

    Most reviewers tend to assert that Deus Ex 1 was a better experience, while Deus Ex 2 was the better game. That is to say, Deus Ex 2 was more polished and balanced as a piece of entertainment software than its predecessor, but I think most would argue that cross-platform development is what led to its lackluster reception. In any case, the fact that a sequel does worse than the original is no reason to claim that both games are riding on a flawed concept.

    We’re almost there.

  16. People are stupid.Everything in our life has changed in the last couple of hundred years,except learning-we are still using the old,ineffective methods of forcing information from books into our brains.

  17. “People actively read books to be intellectually stimulated, but that is not the primary reason people play games. For the most part, games have provided recreational entertainment.”

    The facts do not bear this out. The millions of people who read “Harry Potter,” and all fiction bestsellers, did not do so to be “intellectually stimulated,” but indeed, for “recreational entertainment.” People read (fiction) books and play video games to escape.

    Books have the bonus of intellectual stimulation, greater eye-to-mind stimulation (words over visuals), and the related (double bonus) creating image stimuli that video games/TV/movies do not because of the latter’s non-thinking force-fed images.

    Which will people need more to succeed in life, especially in today’s Internet information explosion: reading or taxi driving? The answer is obvious if you can read this.

  18. well i needed an essay about books are better than video games so i thought to take it from here but when i read this i was shocked and impressed so i spoke this infront of my class and the teacher gave me an A+ can u believe it so i think its amazing

Comments are closed.