Dostoevsky, meet Dungeons & Dragons: Can video games promote reading?

In another installment in its series about the future of reading, the New York Times ran a piece this week about the tie ins between video games and books that some publishers and authors are beginning to explore. One author of a science fiction book for teens remarks:

“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.”

And another writer/teacher has the following prediction:

“I wouldn’t be surprised if, in 10 or 20 years, video games are creating fictional universes which are every bit as complex as the world of fiction of Dickens or Dostoevsky,” said Jay Parini, a writer who teaches English at Middlebury College.

Elsewhere in the article, a librarian ponders the following question:

“I think we have to ask ourselves, ‘What exactly is reading?’ ” said Jack Martin, assistant director for young adult programs at the New York Public Library. “Reading is no longer just in the traditional sense of reading words in English or another language on a paper.”

If you ask me, playing a video game is no more likely to make my kid a better reader than becoming proficient at Guitar Hero is going to make him a better guitar player.

One of the most cogent arguments that was posted about the article puts it this way:

Without supporting research, all we have is a group of people trying to sell video games and claiming that those games will make kids want to read books, thus, presumably, making the parents who buy the games for their kids feel less guilty and enriching the people who develop the games. It’s a win-win proposition. But perhaps the “victories” have nothing to do with reading books.

But before we dismiss any digital gadget as anathema to the pursuit of all things literary, keep in mind that the road to media convergence goes two ways. A good example is the popularity of an application from a company called Lexcycle, Stanza, which can be downloaded for free to an iPhone (as well as to any PC or Mac). A recent article in Forbes describes it this way:

Stanza, like Kindle, lets users download new content directly to their device. It has a snappy interface that allows readers to flip through a book simply by tapping the edges of the page and responds far faster than Kindle’s poky E-ink screen, which takes about a second to turn pages. On the downside, the iPhone’s LCD screen can strain eyes after hours of reading and chews through battery power far faster than Kindle or the Sony Reader, both of which can go without recharging for days. Lexcycle currently offers only public domain books–most of which were published more than 50 years ago–and creative commons titles offered up without copyright by the books’ authors. The Kindle, by comparison, costs $360 and offers more than 180,000 titles, including new releases and best sellers at around $10 each.

I recently witnessed this somewhat ironic collision of classic lit and new technology when my own kids discovered they could download the Stanza app to their iTouches. So they took a break from playing Jewel Quest II and started reading “Animal Farm” and “Sherlock Holmes”. Apparently they’re not the only ones doing this. The Forbes article continues:

In the meantime, Stanza’s scarce supply of new content hasn’t stopped users from finding plenty to download. According to Paris-based Feedbooks, Stanza’s largest distributor of content, the application’s users have downloaded more than 2 million books. By comparison, Kindle users who access Feedbooks’ book catalog–directly via multiple methods, including through its preinstalled Web browser–have downloaded less than 40,000 of Feedbooks’ titles, although they also have wireless access to the company’s contents.

Think of what those numbers mean for those doomsayers predicting the demise of the written word. I’ll bet my Kindle that sales of books by Tolstoy, Orwell, and Austen haven’t approached 2 million total in the last fifty years. These statistics merely prove the theory that if you offer hassle-free access to compelling content, it will be consumed. OK, so maybe it’s too much to expect my thirteen year old to read War and Peace on a 3.5 inch screen, but I didn’t have to drag him to the library to get it in his hands either.

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