29 November 2007

The Wright stuff

On videogames ‘versus’ reading

As George W. Bush nearly asked: “Is our children reading?” The answer appears to be no, according to the 2006 report of the International Literacy Study. As the Guardian summarises its findings:

England has plummeted from third to 19th in an international league table of children’s literacy levels as pupils replace books with computer games.

Imagine the headline 100 years ago: “Children Spending Too Much Time Playing Outdoors with Hoops and Sticks, Says Minister; Should be Forcibly Enclosed to Read Improving Literature.” There’s always some apparently pointless youth activity to scapegoat.

As has always been the case, though, the adult paranoia expressed here about the supposedly harmful influence of videogames depends on a sublime ignorance of the form. In fact, you’re not going to get far in most modern videogames if you can’t read. And some of them make you read an awful lot.

News headlines don’t tell you, for example, about the cherishably batty series of games for the Nintendo DS starring Phoenix Wright. These games, in which you play the part of a defence lawyer in a series of increasingly surreal criminal trials, take place almost entirely through conversations that you have to remember and then sift for contradictions, before triumphantly shouting “Objection!” in a crowded courtroom. At a rough estimate, one Phoenix Wright game contains at least as much text as your average children’s novel.

Meanwhile, another game for the DS, The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, not only has innumerable scripted conversations and written signs to read, but makes you write as well — scribbling notes on your maps (via a touchscreen and stylus) so you can solve the puzzles and navigate through increasingly tortuous temples. A child playing this game is probably more passionate about reading its prose for clues and taking detailed notes than he is about doing his homework. But that’s not the game’s fault.

Ah, but is the writing in these games any good? Well, it’s variable, like the writing in books. Some of it’s rubbish and some of it is very good. (In my opinion, Phoenix Wright is funnier and cleverer than most TV made for adults.) But quality doesn’t really matter. My memory of reading as a child is basically that of voraciously hoovering up any old crap. (This turned out to be excellent training for becoming a book-reviewer.)

Not all of the games that children are playing are so dependent on reading, of course. Doubtless children are also playing a lot of games where you race shiny cars or shoot zombies into bloody chunks with massive guns. Well, everybody has to relax now and then. To insist that a young person spend every minute of his waking day in adult-mandated forms of self-improvement would be a kind of child abuse.

There is a larger paranoia about decreasing literacy among the young caused by maleficent new technologies. It seems at least as plausible that youth literacy isn’t actually decreasing; it’s just moving into arenas that the fogeys don’t know about or understand or have any idea how to quantify – like videogames or instant-messaging or writing in Internet forums, or the wonderfully playful transformations of English in lolcat captions.

At any rate it’s clear that young people aren’t put off games like Zelda or Phoenix Wright because they demand reading skills. On the contrary, the games reward reading. As the experts and politicians commenting on the report wonder aloud how to put the “buzz” back into reading, Phoenix Wright and Zelda are already doing it.

So if English children are not so much interested in picking up a paperback, maybe that says more about the quality of books currently being foisted upon them than it does about the evils of digital entertainment. Children are, after all, quite discriminating. If someone writes a new Harry Potter, they’ll curl up with it for days. If not — there’s always the games console.

  • Steven, and what about adults? As far as I know, they’re not reading as well. Instead, most of them love playing videogames. I mean, it’s not a sort of “do what I say, don’t do what I do” ?
    Best regards,
    Luiz Felipe

  • Ugo

    I believe that thanks to the internet we are reading now more than ever: blogs, forums, sites,…

    It is just a matter of a change in the format: less TV, books, newspapers and magazines, but a whole lot more internet.

  • Well, I think that there are a couple things to be said about both of these comments:

    I think that part of the problem with video games is that for kids, there are some video games that are very intellectually stimulating and challenging. I myself feel like my days of playing SimCity and Civilization really enriched me as a ten year old. The problem is that we grow older, and there’s nothing that brings us further, there’s a point where the games stop growing with us. This is silly, just like we have the Hardy Boys when we’re in elementary school, we have Thomas Pynchon for when we’re in grad school; so why not games involving challenges that stimulate the adult mind. Levels of challenge should be a spectrum, this is the problem.

    However, this isn’t to say that reading is replaceable. I think that we should all be reading, regardless of our age. I would disagree with the idea that the internet has replaced this and is making us read “more than ever.” There’s a difference between an obnoxious neo-con blogger and Francis Fukuyama, between fanfiction and Dostoevsky. Print media is far more professional, and there is far more to learn from it. No disrespect to people who write online, but one really can’t get everything from the internet, or even a fraction of it. Wikipedia may be impressive, but at the time being, there is far more out there in print, and it would be a grand mistake to neglect it.

  • Hi Alexander,

    I agree entirely that videogames haven’t grown up as quickly as their players: this is a point I made from time to time in my Edge column (for instance, Difficulty, Moral Maths and Ode to Automata). That’s one reason why I tended to champion the designers (like Croucher or Kojima) who I felt were pushing in that direction, even if they weren’t always successful.

    As someone who writes books to be printed, I’m inclined to agree in the main with your second paragraph. Other things being equal, the fact that a piece of writing has been through the process of publication means that it will have had more critical eyes on it at every stage. However, this is not to say of course that there aren’t trashy books, and excellent internet-only writing, to be found. It’s certainly true that the idea that everything can be found on the internet is just an illusion. (A good proportion of my research time for Unspeak was spent in the British Library.) On the other hand, I find the promise of all printed books being googlable very enticing…

    There’s a difference between an obnoxious neo-con blogger and Francis Fukuyama, between fanfiction and Dostoevsky.

    I think the latter difference is bigger. ;)