Video games and encouraging reading

I suppose articles like this recent one in the NY Times and their reactions are a sign that video games are, in fact, becoming a rival of the accepted media formats. They still annoy the hell out of me. So I’m going to rant. (I’ll return to my series on violence and ethics in games, but I’ve been playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and I’m changing my mind about a few things. More on that later.)

The article discusses video games as the future of reading and outlines some literacy outreach programs in libraries to hook the young on reading. In the end, both the article and the reader reaction missed the point. By a mile. The problem is not that video game advocates are not critical about their chosen medium or that public libraries have either lost or abandoned the book-centric sense of purpose they once had. Both of these things are happening and in some cases they are flaws. However, the real issue is that we don’t have a clear idea of why reading or literacy is important.

Is there something about accessing information via visually decoding words on a page that is inherently superior to accessing information through watching an image or through listening to someone speak it? I don’t think so. At least, I don’t think the differences are as great as the complaints about the NY Times article make them out to be. My first evidence for this is completely personal. I have a LOT more patience for a crap book than I do for a crap television show or a crap video game. I like to read and I rarely will stop reading a book because it is too simplistic. I am VERY quick to give up on a videogame or tv series if that is case. (Yes, I’m looking at you Sanctuary and KOTOR II. I’ll stop reading a book because I don’t want to work hard at understanding it, but I’ll reread pulp novels just to stop my head from thinking for a few hours. It is entirely possible that I’m an outlier and there is a greater concentration of quality in written material than exists in other media, but the days are gone when writing was the only choice for preserving information for the future.

What I think is happening is that many people mix up reading with higher level reasoning. I agree that our society benefits from having its members being able to read and understand complex ideas, but I think we can go farther. Our society also benefits from visually literate members who can “read” complex cinematography and understand them in context. Our society benefits from music literacy as well. Not just because decoding dots on a five-lined staff into sounds is a stimulating mental activity, but because the intellectual activity of interacting with music in and across cultures enriches us all. Reading is important to musicians but it is secondary to the sound and ideas in the music itself. I think we should look at reading texts in the same way. That is to say, reading words and understanding their meaning is important, but it is a secondary activity to engaging with the thoughts and emotions that the words convey.

In order for us to understand the impact of video games on literacy, we need to remember why we think reading is so great in the first place. I am a reader. I’ll get sucked into a book more quickly than I will into a television series or a video game. I am also a teacher and I know that if I can entice student to interact with a new idea by listening, speaking, and acting as well as by reading it, that idea has a much greater chance of taking root. In the classroom, I’ll assign a reading if I think it has the highest chance of leading to student learning. If another media has better odds of leading to learning, I try to choose it over reading. For the kind of library instruction I teach on a regular basis, let me tell you, I don’t have them read “How to search a database” manuals. That would waste everybody’s time.

So when it comes to public outcry over libraries choosing games over books, I get annoyed. Certainly games tend to be juvenile and simplistic, but they can be a lot more. If juvenile and simplistic games are the problem, the answer isn’t a blind push for books. The answer is an informed push for developing gaming and new media literacy.

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