x3- Books and Video Games as Interchangeable Vice

Davidson’s book got me thinking a great deal about how I experienced learning as a child and what it would have been like if the tables were turned.  As an elementary school student, I was “the bookworm.”  I carried at least one book on my person at all times and was caught reading Goosebumps under my desk in my first-grade math class on more than one occasion.  Eventually, the school librarians gave me a special dispensation of sorts where I was allowed to take out five or six books per week while everyone else only got to take out two.  I read to the exclusion of almost every other activity, and my teachers and parents encouraged me to read as much as I wanted.

My younger brothers, however, were a different story.  Although they were never opposed to reading, in grade school they would have much preferred to play video games.  In the late 1990s and early 2000s, however, parents and teachers looked upon video games with skepticism, which Davidson attributes to concern stemming from the Columbine incident (147).  Much to my brothers’ constant irritation, video games were a privilege at home- you had to ask Mom’s permission to play them, and you were restricted to an hour or so of playing time.  There were no Call Of Duty-esque games in the house until about 2006, when the older of the two was about fourteen, and even after that, both boys had very restricted gaming time.  In the absence of homework or chores that needed to be done, they’d be told to go “read a book.”

Davidson asserts that “games have been considered an important tool for teaching complex principles and honing sophisticated forms of procedural thinking,” and that such activities can teach players to recognize “all parts of a problem, all possibilities for winning and for losing, [. . .] and the best set of responses (procedures) to maximize success” (146).   Science has apparently proven that they improve multitasking abilities, hand-eye coordination, teamwork, and metabolic function, (149-50).  I was not aware of any of this, to be honest.  I’ve never been a gamer, and I don’t see the attraction.   However, now that I understand a bit more of the science behind how games work, things make a bit more sense.

It makes sense now that both of my brothers are great with team work and have a more positive view of dealing with other people.  On the other hand,  I loved the isolation and pure imagination that came with books, and am typically a bit more apprehensive of working with others.  Where I love endlessly discussing strange theoretical ideas and minutia, both of my brothers enjoy and are skilled in the application and processes of creating a cohesive product.  All three of us are skilled, but in markedly different ways.  Of course, all of this begs the question:  Do games and books attract people of a certain personality type, or do they have a heavy hand in creating them?  For space’s sake, I won’t go into that.

In the above clip, from the 2006 Doctor Who episode “Tooth and Claw,” the Doctor encourages his companions– including Queen Victoria herself– to arm themselves with books and knowledge in order to defeat the werewolf-like creature that is terrorizing Torchwood Estate.  In this context,  the books are defensive mechanisms, preparing the Doctor and his companions to deal with the aggressions of a dangerous enemy.   If books were demonized even half as much as video games have been, education and childhood for children around the world would have been markedly different.  If those tables were turned and books were limited and seen as a vice because they were regarded as dangerous and violence-inducing, the Doctor, Rose Tyler, and Queen Victoria might have been in a very different sort of situation.

I was fortunate to have teachers who understood how important reading was to me, and more than one of them made a point to encourage reading, response, and analysis as a part of their curriculum.  My third grade teacher created an optional advanced reading activity group for about twelve students, in which we read different books and had our own special binders for discussion and response.  Davidson seems to agree with my opinion that reading is one of the most important ways to encourage imagination and curiosity in learners of all ages, calling the kindergarteners “the luckiest children on earth” (98).  Not only do they they have the privilege of quiet time to spend reading whatever they choose, but they have an educator who recognizes and encourages independent, self-directed learning.

On page 129, Davidson poses the concept of a year-end “boss-level challenge,” a project (or several smaller related projects) produced from the cumulative learning and particular skills of each student.  It makes so much sense that I’m astounded it hasn’t been implemented more widely in the mainstream.  Instead of testing arbitrary and generally irrelevant knowledge, such a project would give students a platform to develop useful skills like reasoning, communication, the importance of community outreach, and research.  Basically, it sounds like a masters’ thesis for kids that is almost more applicable to real-world situations than an actual master’s thesis.  Whether the project incorporates the skills and ideas they learn from books or video games, all that matters is that it would measure their useful life skills and arm them to be productive contributors to society.

I realized that I never actually got to talking about a classroom educational experience, but I will say that I wish this book had been around when I was in elementary school.  If educators had realized the apparent potential that video games have for developing skills applicable to the classroom and real life, I feel like I would have had a very different and more diversely enriching school experience.  I wouldn’t trade my love of books and the enrichment that they’ve contributed to my life for anything.  However,  Now You See It has forced me to consider the value of video games, which I have generally viewed as useless and a waste of time, and think about how learning would be different if it was books that were considered dangerous vices.

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11 thoughts on “x3- Books and Video Games as Interchangeable Vice”

  1. Gab,

    I’d like to push back a bit regarding your implication that books and reading foster isolation while video games do not. Before the age of XBox Live and online capabilities for gaming platforms, video games were very much played in or could very well foster isolation—with certain exceptions for multiplayer games like Mario Party or link battles (using a physical link cable) in the Pokemon games from the first through the third generations (GameBoy Advance).

    Second, I’m not sure I agree that we can, or even should, make an interest in video games or books as mutually exclusive as you’ve implied with your question, “Do games and books attract people of a certain personality type, or do they have a heavy hand in creating them?” I, like you, grew up reading books, especially Goosebumps, but I also gravitated to video games because they allowed me to navigate narratives in a totally different way than books did.

    What is a video game if not an interactive story?

    Finally, I’d say that certain books are demonized as much, if not more than, certain video games. Let’s think about the ever-lengthening list of banned books, yes?

    1. I mean, basically everything I’m saying in my post is extremely subjective and based on my experiences with all of these different activities. In regards to the games, I’m coming from a situation where I would estimate that 85% of the people I know who consider themselves serious gamers have little to no interest in reading. I’m not sure if that’s something that is seen across the board in gaming communities, but it’s always been a trend that intrigued me.

  2. I have to agree with Chris here, though I think it’s not unnatural to see videogames and books as separate interests when (as many do) the discourse on games focuses on multiplayer games. It is true, after all, that I’m generally in a different mood playing Call of Duty than I am reading Northanger Abbey. I might even be different people in those moments, since I’m not usually characterized as a sneaky, aggressive jerk (which I am in CoD) when I read books.

    The thing that bugs me about discourse about video games is the way that, even in contemporary work (like Davidson), no one seems to want to give them a genre besides “video game.” For instance, the social skills and problem solving that your brothers seem to have gained from videogames is predicated on a rather specific form of social (multiplayer) gaming, where my own taste stays very close to what you described as your passion for books–singleplayer games, where I could use the game to flesh out imaginary concepts or follow a particularly good narrative. The appeal of the Romantic solitary reader (gamer) is high.

    I think there might be several different gamer crowds, from the social gamer, the multiplayer addict, and the (somewhat Romantic) singleplayer solitude gamer. All of these people certainly also read.

    Criticism frequently fixates on games as social, nonnarrative texts, where in fact many of them certainly surpass the narrative content (and complexity) of books. Some games are positively literary, and provide an experience not unlike solitary reading (or, often, solitary writing). I think, Gab, you’re spot on in coming around to their pedagogical purpose, and I like that by the end of the essay you retreat from viewing reading and playing a game as particularly different activities.

    I suspect, had you (or I) been born a bit later, we’d have less of a hard time imagining these things going together. It might be a little bit generational.

  3. I find this whole line of thinking about video games to be fascinating. I’m in an interesting position in that, while I play video games (Nintendo being the console I’m most familiar with), I actually watch people play and commentate on youtube far more. My interest in this started with youtubers/gamers that produced machinima (or animated storylines using video games). I got into this with Red vs. Blue. This show, produced by Rooster Teeth, used Halo to create a narrative that played with questions about video games and entertainment (among many other things). It began in 2003 and is ongoing, making it the longest running webseries. From there, I grew interested in watching people play games – from Minecraft to GTAV – and so my fascination with video games comes mostly as a spectator, though watching the let’s plays tends to make me want to purchase a 360, buy a bunch of games, and acquire gamer friends.

    I think my gaming interest, however, comes from my general interest in remediating and repurposing texts; what is done (and what can be done) with a source text (including written texts here) has proven time and again to be more interesting to me than the text itself.

  4. It wasn’t really all that long ago that people were discouraged from reading too much; reading was considered a isolating and time-wasting pursuit. Novels, particularly, were viewed as frivolous. And as Chris pointed out, certain kinds of books and particular genres (erotica, genre fiction, sci-fi, graphic novels) are often villainized as well.

    I, personally, don’t get video games. But I also don’t necessarily think that’s because I’m a reader. Some of the gamers I know are also avid readers.

    Like you, I was impressed with Davidson’s end of year project idea. Maybe calling it a boss-level challenge would get the younger students who love games involved and excited about the opportunity to show their stuff!

  5. Gab,

    What a fascinating post! A couple of comments, almost at random:

    1) Gender: You like books; your brothers like video games. You and Janel are unsure, yet generously receptive, about video games; Chris and Michael like them. I think there’s something going on here. (Although I have to admit I’m a conflicting data point; I have no interest in video games.)

    2) Reading as a valued or ostracized activity: I remember being treated with suspicion not only by my classmates, but by my teachers—who, granted, were nuns—for my interest in reading. And I’m not really that old. I’m not convinced that reading is a universally valued activity. Indeed, I bet there are stlll many households where normal kids play video games and nerds read books.

    Joe

    1. Thanks Joe! I do think that historically, there has been a gender divide. Now, though, I notice a lot more women being interested in video games. My roommate, for example, is a huge gamer. There’s also a fairly strong movement in some circles for increased acceptance of women in video gaming.

      I think that what is considered valuable depends greatly on the culture and context in which it occurs. I see it like this: f your peers were mostly into athletics, student government, and other social activities, that would be seen as the norm. Anything that deviates from that norm, such as tendencies towards introversion or more independent activities, would be recognized as different and thus somehow suspicious. It demonstrates a sort of nonconformity, and thus would not be as valued as behaviors that reinforce the familiar, comfortable social structure/heirarchy.

      An extreme example, but I think it illustrates my point: look at the Quakers! Their activities and beliefs reinforced ideas that would undermine the power structure of the Church of England or the New World’s Puritan hierarchy. Throughout (mainly) the 17th century, Quakers were persecuted in England, and once they emigrated to the colonies, were disliked, banished, and imprisoned there as well. All because they dissented from the religious norm and had different values than the majority. Not to say that readers are detained and ridiculed in the town square, but the status quo often isn’t kind to them.

      PS- I also dealt with nuns in grade school and high school, and fairness, I think nuns are suspicious of everything!

    2. Second reply– chatting with my female gamer roommate about the gender divide. She offers this food for thought:

      – Especially at the pre-teen age, there are more books geared for girls and less for boys. In contrast, the video game industry is geared towards teenage boys, and the ones that are geared towards younger women tend to be less about strategy or storyline and more focused on traditional gender roles (cooking games, games about horses, nurturing something, etc).

      – Apparently video games have their own book series? I wasn’t aware of this, but she says that she knows a lot about the Halo universe because she’s read the accompanying book series and also plays the game.

      – Female characters in a lot of games are either helpless damsels that you have to save, or they’re completely absent from actual gameplay (see: Princess Peach in Super Mario).

      – Especially as adults, women experience a lot of misogynistic feedback in online multiplayer game situations- they’re either not welcome in the traditionally male-dominated community and repeatedly told so, or they get creepy, unwanted, sexually-driven attention because of their gender from “creepy neckbeards.”

      She also offers this as a humorous look at the situation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9KSDnE5_Jsw

      1. To respond to some of your roommate’s generalizations (just trying to complicate, not be combative!):

        What about games that are hugely popular among male players that feature strong female leads like the Metroid series (it was a huge middle finger when Nintendo finally revealed Samus’s identity as female) or Tomb Raider? There’s no excuse, however, for how gendered the Mario games are, which is part of the reason I dislike them.

        It’s not just adult women who experience unwelcoming attitudes in online gaming communities. Anyone who even remotely identifies as/with a portion of the LGBTQ/QUILTBAGPIPE community has very little room to play freely.

  6. I’d like to take your post and, instead of talking about video games themselves, move in the direction of “game mechanics.” I’m actually a little terrified to use this phrase–I’m still pretty uncertain about what it means exactly.

    But I definitely agree this idea of an end-of-the-year master’s thesis (but for kids!) is one that does make a lot of sense. As I understand it, based on reading Davidson, “game mechanics” basically means reorganizing the syllabus so that learning comes as a necessary by-product or hurdle in achieving an independently meaningful goal or challenge. (I’m thinking, for instance, of that classroom she ends up visiting in chapter five, where the students choose different “jobs” and “projects” for the day and then learn what they need to in order to complete them: “In this class, the students are testing themselves and one another all the time” (137).)

    I think the (really big) challenges as an instructor, especially at the university level, is (1) trying to transform student expectations away from traditional assignments to something more intrinsically motivating, and (2) planning out what some useful challenges that will provide specific learning outsides will be. Maybe we can also put that work on the students themselves?

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