Mastery through video games?

In his book Everything Bad is Good for You, Steven Johnson (who blogs at puts forth the argument that Pop Culture – especially video games – contributes to the intelligence and mental agility of today’s youth.

In his fourth book, Everything Bad Is Good for You, iconoclastic science writer Steven Johnson … takes on one of the most widely held preconceptions of the postmodern world–the belief that video games, television shows, and other forms of popular entertainment are detrimental to Americans’ cognitive and moral development.

The heart of Johnson’s argument is something called the Sleeper Curve–a universe of popular entertainment that trends, intellectually speaking, ever upward, so that today’s pop-culture consumer has to do more “cognitive work”–making snap decisions and coming up with long-term strategies in role-playing video games, for example, or mastering new virtual environments on the Internet– than ever before.

Texas teenager Brad Coleman would make a very good “poster-child” for this argument: his childhood experience with NASCAR racing games led him to his first NASCAR race only two weeks out of high school.

Games offered the only exposure Coleman had to racing growing up in Houston. His father owned a marketing company, and his grandfather, Don, was a Hall of Fame high school basketball coach.

Sure, he impressed babysitters as a toddler racing a battery-powered car at the mall, and his parents thought he might be a racer when he fell asleep at the age of 4 in his battery-powered Jeep with his foot pressed on the accelerator — and kept turning circles in the driveway.

But talented enough to go from his first go-kart race to his Busch debut in the span of five years? Yes, and part of the credit goes to Coleman’s natural ability honed by years of pretending to be doing his homework when he actually was racing cars on his Sega Genesis, then PlayStation, his computer and then Xbox.

“It all started out on the NASCAR video games,” Coleman said. “When I was a little kid, I knew all the NASCAR tracks like the back of my hand. That helps me now.”

Obviously this path to mastery doesn’t work in all professions, or for all individuals. But it is an example of how the right tools, along with some innate talent and a drive for success, can help you learn. Even if that tool is ‘something bad for you.’