Thursday, April 23, 2009

Video Games, Cell Phones are creating 'Uber Thumbs'

I think it’s true, Generation Y is all thumbs. But this isn't necessarily as bad as the turn of phrase might have you believe. Since I was a boy, I’ve been surrounded by devices and gizmos that I’ve operated primarily with my thumbs. Think back to your first GameBoy. Remember that big, clunky grey box with a yellowish screen that featured a 12 pixel version of the iconic plumber and his lanky Italian sidekick? I’d sit on the couch, or in bed late at night with a flashlight under the covers, trying for the life of me to pass that level with the giant Easter Island heads until my thumbs were aching and sore. It seems though, that for all of us who are accustomed to navigating our childhood on a d-pad, this time spent thumbing our way through level after level has prepared us perfectly for a world replete with new tech toys and gadgets that require such opposable dexterity.
Cell phones and smart phones are the new GameBoys of the 21st century, and their proliferation into the mainstream market across all age cohorts has provided us with a more level playing field on which to judge people’s abilities. Ask your self this, what level can you get to in brick breaker on the Blackberry. Come on, you know you’ve tried your best at least once. Now ask your parents the same question. I can pretty much guarantee that you will have achieved a higher score than them, even though they’ve been using a Blackberry for just as long a time as you. Now if you went back to when you were doing your Mario thing, and you asked your parents to try and beat a level, I’m sure they would have had trouble understanding how to hold a shell while running and jumping at the same time. It just goes to show you that though our parents are using their thumbs more often thanks to cell phones and Blackberrys, they still can’t hold a candle to the years of conditioning we’ve been through.
In an article from The Observer, a Guardian News and Media paper, columnist Amelia Hill writes about how cell phones and video games have caused a kind of “physical mutation” in people under the age of 25. Research from Asia shows that people under 25 have developed thumbs that are much more powerful and dexterous compared to their other fingers. As technology is designed with our thumbs in mind, and we use our thumbs more and more to interact with the world through these technologies, our thumbs grow stronger and increasingly predominant as our most useful digits.

I wonder, if in another century of thumbing our way through life, will we have completely different looking hands? Will society start using thumbs for more things? Will giving someone the ‘thumbs up’ be the ultimate act of affection? Well, probably not, but I do wonder about the future of the industries that have led us down this path of thumb supremacy. The video game, mobile phone and computer companies that design the tools and toys we use every day will likely be the largest influences, not to mention benefactors, of a thumb-centric society. It will be interesting to see if they keep these sorts of designs going, or if they switch to more finger-oriented interfaces.
Regardless of the future however, it’s interesting to note the changes that have already taken place in our physiology. Remember, the next time you challenge your parents to a thumb wrestle, make sure you put some money down. The odds are stacked in your favour!

As a note, if you find yourself stricken with the dreaded ‘Blackberry Thumb’, here are some stretches you can do to help alleviate the pain and get you back to work… or brick breaker.

Thumbs up man.