Video Games (More or Less) Taught Me How to Read

As a lad I was mostly indifferent to books, which may have had something to do with the amount of video games I was playing. But I turned out to be an oddly literate gradeschooler in spite of my early lack of bibliophilia. Which may have had something to with the kinds of games I was playing.

I grew up on the text-laden Super Nintendo RPGs, which marked a period where console games were coming into their own as legitimate platforms for storytelling. Final Fantasy III (VI in Japan) blew my Ninja Turtle-addled mind. Then came Chrono Trigger, Ogre Battle, and the deceptively Playskool-ish Earthbound.

When playing those games I had to constantly read, and read, and read out of necessity, whether it was to follow a set of directions, interpret a character’s abilities to form a strategy, or simply follow the story.

When I wasn’t playing neighborhood baseball or Nerf guns, I might have burned through paperbacks of Louis Sachar and Bruce Coville, but I spent even more time poring over instruction manuals, strategy guides, and Gamepro. Of course this wasn’t the same as reading books, but it still proved adequate in helping me acquire a command of the language. (Albeit a strange one, considering how often I “equipped” my backpack before leaving for school or scored a “critical hit” in dodgeball.)

I was doing a lot of reading.

At this time my friends who had more… literary initiative, I suppose, had their noses into Roald Dahl and C.S Lewis and were not on as many 16-bit odysseys as I was. From what I can tell they turned out fine, and I think I did, too.

I remember carpooling with other kids in my elementary school up to Denver to compete in a statewide Brain Quest competition (which we won). A teammate and I were talking about our Gameboys we brought, which caused one of the girls to turn around in her seat and say that video games “rot your brain.” The irony of her remark didn’t strike me until much later.

Gaming just supplemented what few books I read back then, and it also incorporated a good measure of problem solving, strategizing, and basic math. It simply didn’t leave me worse off. I was a weird kid, I must cop to that, but I have reasons to believe that that was more a matter of genetics.

Down, Down-Forward, Forward, Punch

I’ve talked before about the current competition that my game-playing habits enjoy against my willingness to read. In light of that, I have to say there quickly comes a point where playing games doesn’t develop jack; it’s merely time pissed away. When you’re a kid, though, what you’re regularly reading seems to matter less than the fact that you’re regularly reading, period.

This whole video-games-can-supplement-literacy argument I’m putting out there is merely anecdotal, but the science on this sort of thing is mostly unreliable. I came across a recent report that appears to disagree with me, suggesting  that video games actually stunted boys’ growth in language arts by displacing “after-school academic activities” (but I would say that the literary demands of Final Fantasy greatly transcend those of Shrek Smash ‘n Crash, which was one of the games test subjects were to play). Cognitive research on video game playing, though, whether judging it harmful or beneficial, holds to a time-honored tradition of being misleading and sloppily conducted, and this test unfortunately conforms to that in many ways.

Eventually all this reflection will come to bear on my parenting decisions, once I have a lad and/or lass of my own. Much has changed in 15+ years. Games will of course continue to grow in sophistication, which might also present a disadvantage: spoken dialogue and voice acting have replaced most of those endless blocks of text that filled the games of my formative years, so reading’s less and less a part of the experience.

Maybe I’ll have a kid who’s a tough nut, too, when it comes to fostering an interest in books. A moderated pastime in video games would still be okay by me, if not encouraged. Maybe he or she will then turn out to be a weird kid, too. But at that point I’ll tell myself it’s purely genetic.

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