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.

Getting kids to read: Take them to the movies

Yesterday the New York Times ran a story headlined: “To Reach Children, Publisher Tries Films”. It starts off:

When the children’s book series “The Spiderwick Chronicles” became a popular Hollywood film, its publisher, Simon & Schuster, enjoyed a subsequent lift in book sales — and little else. But under a new deal with the Gotham Group, a Los Angeles-based management firm, the next time Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing owns the film rights to a book — and that book is eventually turned into a movie — the publisher will be promised its own piece of the pie.

The article actually devotes more ink to the increasing number of tie-in deals being struck between publishers and film studios than it does to the effect movies have on kids’ reading habits. Nevertheless, there is a direct relationship between the release of a movie based on a book and subsequent sales of that book. Some books had aleady reached commercial success, such as the Harry Potter series, and the films only boosted their sales further. Other titles, though, had languished in obscurity for years, only to be rejuvinated by the release of a movie based on them. Sales of Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass, first published in 1995, saw a 500% increase even before the film of the same name was released last December. Similarly, when the movie Polar Express was released a few years ago, sales of the original book jumped 50%, even though it was first published two decades earlier (and had received the Caldecott Medal).

This is not a recent phenomenon. Even sales of the best selling book of all time, the Holy Bible, saw an uptick after the release of The Ten Commandments fifty years ago. Publishers nearly always see a jump in sales of their backlist titles if the movie builds any kind of an audience. In the past however, authors and their agents typically negotiated film rights separately from the book deal. With the advent of the alliance such as that between Gotham and Simon & Schuster described in the article, the publisher will share in the revenue generated when its children’s books are turned into video games, comic books, or other properties. This type of tying arrangement is likely to help prevent the oft-foretold demise of literary pursuits by 21st century teens. Studies have shown that given exposure to interesting content, kids will in fact read. If their interest is piqued through exposure to a character or plotline, be it through a movie, video game, or website, chances are they will take a chance on the book of the same title. That has to be good news for both publishers and booksellers.

NY Times asks: “R U Really Reading Online?”

Yesterday The Times ran an article on Page One that was the first of a series that will investigate how the internet and other technological and social forces are changing the way people read. The article features several families with children who prefer to read on the Web rather than with books, in contrast to their parents, who are characterized as old fogies who still read books and newspapers, and reminisce about Walter Cronkite and Ed Sullivan on TV. There’s the 15 year old Cleveland girl named Nadia who spends six hours a day online, at sites like fanfiction.net and quizilla.com, which are sites that offer users the chance to create their own stories.

Now she regularly reads stories that run as long as 45 Web pages. Many of them have elliptical plots and are sprinkled with spelling and grammatical errors.“So like in the book somebody could die,” she continued, “but you could make it so that person doesn’t die or make it so like somebody else dies who you don’t like.” Nadia said she wanted to major in English at college and someday hopes to be published. She does not see a problem with reading few books. “No one’s ever said you should read more books to get into college,” she said.

Right. And brain surgeons don’t really need to go to medical school.

There’s also the high school senior from Greenwich CT who surfs over 100 technology and political blogs and websites daily. His name is Zachary, and although he loves to be online, he also reads books (he just finished The Fountainhead). Zachary is entering Columbia University this fall. Maybe Nadia should, like send a text message to Zachary, and ask him, “Like Zach, what book did you read before you went to college? And if it’s more than fifty pages(omg!), could you, like put a summary of it on fanfiction or something?”

After a healthy dose of apocalyptic anecdotes heralding the decline of literary standards among the youth of today, the article goes on to cite two notable findings:

  • A recent study of more than 700 low-income, mostly Hispanic and black sixth through 10th graders in Detroit found that those students read more on the Web than in any other medium, though they also read books.
  • One early study showed that giving home Internet access to low-income students appeared to improve standardized reading test scores and school grades. “These were kids who would typically not be reading in their free time,” said Linda A. Jackson, a psychology professor at Michigan State who led the research. “Once they’re on the Internet, they’re reading.”

While the article makes no mention of e-readers, (like the Kindle) the above reference leads me to believe that if e-books and e-readers were to become standard issue for low income teens, the achievement gap between whites and low income minorities would begin to diminish. Kindles and their ilk are cheaper than (most) computers, and provide unrestricted access to the one component that is the most highly correlated with academic success: books. The ability to read newspapers, magazines and blogs, is an added bonus that provides access to current developments and diverse viewpoints. All this without the cost of broadband access nor the distractions of YouTube. Texting’s not so good on it either. FWIW.

Score: Teen Fiction 1, Video games 0

An encouraging piece of news appeared in Newsweek’s web edition on May 19:

Generation R (R Is for Reader)

The book business may be flat, but there’s at least one bright spot: the booming sales of books for teens–and no, it’s not all Harry Potter. Contrary to the depressing proclamations that American teens aren’t reading, the surprising truth is they are reading novels in unprecedented numbers. Young-adult fiction (ages twelve to eighteen) is enjoying a bona fide boom with sales up more than 25 percent in the past few years, according to a Children’s Book Council sales survey. Virtually every major publishing house now has a teen imprint, many bookstores and libraries have created teen reading groups and an infusion of talented new authors has energized the genre.

And one publishing executive quoted sheds some light on a trend that might be behind this development:

“because of MySpace, Facebook, blogs and authors’ and publishers’ Web sites, young readers are communicating interactively now with each other and with authors.” Another reason for the YA boom cited by Levithan and others is that teen books have become an integral part of today’s overall pop-culture entertainment menu. They segue into television series, movies, videogames, cartoons and the Internet. If teens see that, say, “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” is coming out in theaters, they’ll read the book in advance of the movie.

This is a trend that smart publishers will pick up on, and leverage the rise of social media to drive a huge market that lives on the net to become lifelong readers. Think of it: releasing a new chapter a week of an up and coming YA author’s latest novel in digital format, building audience and loyalty as readers post them on their blogs, on their Facebook page, create fan clubs, etc. THis is one use case in which free will lead to higher sales, because unless everyone has a Kindle (or possibly an iPhone), many readers will opt to go out and buy the book rather than read the whole thing on a tiny cellphone screen. Maybe this strategy would’t move the needle on sales of Harry Potter books, but there are plenty of lesser known works that could find a new audience using this approach. It could also breathe new life into publisher’s backlist.

http://www.newsweek.com/id/136961/page/1