Cheat Code

Literacy, Reading

Motoko Rich’s article “The Future of Reading,” published in today’s New York Times, discusses the emerging trend in publishing and education of reaching out to young readers via video games. According to the article–

Increasingly, authors, teachers, librarians and publishers are embracing this fast-paced, image-laden world in the hope that the games will draw children to reading. Spurred by arguments that video games also may teach a kind of digital literacy that is becoming as important as proficiency in print, libraries are hosting gaming tournaments, while schools are exploring how to incorporate video games in the classroom. In New York, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is supporting efforts to create a proposed public school that will use principles of game design like instant feedback and graphic imagery to promote learning.

Loyal readers will recall that last year I wrote quite positively about the MacArthur grant to promote gaming literacy. However, the trend detailed in today’s article seems like a big step in the wrong direction. While graphic design and computer programming are vital skill sets we should be teaching our kids, trying to hook them on reading through video games is altogether different. It smacks of cheap gimmickry that dismisses outright that reading might be a pleasure unto itself. In an age when the majority of college students can’t handle complex but necessary reading tasks and high school illiteracy rates are woefully underreported, trying to hook kids on books with Dance Dance Revolution just doesn’t seem like a great plan. If anything, it’s yet another step in the dumbing-down of America, a land increasingly hostile to anything with a hint of intellectualism–reading included. No wonder the Nobel Committee are such dicks to the U.S. Buried at the end of the article, luckily, is a voice of reason–

“I actually think reading is pretty great and can compete with video games easily,” said Mark S. Seidenberg, a professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison who specializes in reading research. “So rather than say, ‘Oh, books are irrelevant in the modern era because there are all these other media available,’ I would ask shouldn’t we be doing a better job of teaching kids how to read?”

Professor Seidenberg seems like a wise and reasonable man. Let’s hope that we can get this country back on track and realize that the skill sets needed to survive and compete in a technological world do not replace but rather augment traditional literacy. Video games are great entertainment but it’s hard to imagine that they could ever trump the depth and breadth of philosophy and cultural currency contained in literature. Let’s not cheat our children out of that heritage by mistakenly believing that they cannot be taught to access it.

Gaming Literacy

Gaming, Literacy, Reading, Video Games

According to this NPR report, the MacArthur Foundation is providing a $1.1 million grant to create a new middle/high school in New York with a curriculum based on video game design. The idea here is that video game design promotes a new type of literacy vital for America’s success in the rapidly growing global economy. The report stresses a shift from older models of literacy, which focus on content memorization, to the pressing need to emphasize literacy models that engage the dynamic systems inherent in newer media.

I think that this is a fantastic idea. Some may find it a nonsensical or even radical shift in education, but we have to try something new. The educational system in this country is based on a model that hasn’t really changed since the industrial revolution. Although numerous sources rank America as having one of the highest literacy rates in the world, my own anecdotal evidence collected as a high school English teacher leads me to believe that this country is in the midst of a literacy crisis that is sure to have a major impact in the country’s ability to compete with countries like India and China.

The risks here are very, very real. Literacy is not just a matter of being able to read stop signs or popular novels or wikipedia pages–literacy is what informs the content of our cultural, social, and political discourse. And beyond the economic issues presented in our difficulty competing in fields like science and engineering–an issue that the MacArthur Foundation’s grant may help address–the everyday rhetoric in this country has become drastically dumbed-down, polarized, reduced to hackneyed platitudes and snappy sound-bites. Political and cultural discourse now consists of empty catch-phrases and meaningless psychobabble. I mean, it’s like totally gay, know what I’m sayin’?

This clip from Mike Judge’s satire Idiocracy neatly sums up the future of verbal discourse in America: