The Future of Reading

October 13, 2008 at 11:29 am Leave a comment

Ever inclined to hide its most interesting articles in random sections, the NYT ran a fascinating article last week about how book publishers, authors and new-media-types are looking to drive youth interest in books by expanding the concept of a ‘book’ to include video games and interactive elements. According to the article:

“You can’t just make a book anymore,” said Mr. Haarsma, a former advertising consultant. Pairing a video game with a novel for young readers, he added, “brings the book into their world, as opposed to going the other way around.”

Mr. Haarsma is not the only one using video games to spark an interest in books. 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.

Publishers, meanwhile, are rushing to get in on the action. Scholastic, the American publisher of the Harry Potter series, recently released “The Maze of Bones,” the first installment in a 10-book mystery series that is tied to a Web-based game.

What follows is a good synopsis of the ongoing educational debate: video games promote learning vs. video games damage learning. Not surprisingly, no consensus is reached, but a number of interesting voices offer their take on the ways in which reading is evolving.

There is, however, a significant distinction that that article touches on but doesn’t fully explore. The book publishing industry, in its struggle to stay relevant amongst digital competitors, is confusing a new desire for interactivity for a shift in what people want from reading. The NYT quotes Rick Riordan, author of one of Scholastic’s new online reading games as saying:

“I think gamers and readers are looking for the same thing. They are looking to be dropped into an intriguing story and to become a character in the story.”

This point of view is technically true, but books and videogames are two fundamentally different mediums. For example, arguably one of the most famous early video games, Zork, was little more than a giant computerized “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. It entailed all the reading of a novel. What made it such a breakthrough was its interactivity: allowing the player to shape the narrative with his or her own simple text commands. By comparison, a book is a deliberately un-interactive medium. Most often the writer has an authorial intent and expects the reader to experience it but not participate in it. It’s a cliche to say, but a book relies on the commitment of the reader’s imagination.

In the last decade or two, the idea of a book as passive medium has become a highly unpopular view. The academic cheerleaders of the Postmodernist movement chopped the legs out from under reading by promulgating the concept that a book’s meaning is fundamentally out of the hands of its author, and the entertainment industry has proclaimed reading to be a dead-end for business next to the flash and glitz of technology. As schools and publishers have struggled with sharply declining reading levels, they have essentially followed suit by adopting the view that reading needs to adapt its core experience to survive.

This may be true, but it sets a dangerous precedent. At the end of the day, I have to believe that it will be a parent’s involvement—not a publisher’s innovation—that drives a child to read. By rushing to abandon the open-ended imagination in reading, educators, writers and publishers run the risk of abandoning reading’s differentiator as a medium. It would be a tragedy if 5 years down the line, schools and major publishing houses find themselves scrapping to compete in the video game and webisode market and wondering why they’ve lost their foothold in young people’s lives.

The Future of Reading – New York Times

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Entry filed under: Art + Music, Business, Technology.

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