Fight Monsters and Learn to Read: Literacy through Video Games

by Julianne Grasso on June 2, 2011

Pokémon Emerald Version (Nintendo, 2005)

As a member of Generation Y, who came of age immersed in computers, television, and mp3 players, I really resonated with Rhonda Lauer’s recent post about learning with and through media.  I’ve got an audiobook on my iPod, a video game that’s supposed to teach me Japanese, and I watch the Discovery Channel (that counts, right?).  I’m certainly not alone, considering the seemingly giant market for “edutainment.”

Video gaming is one of the biggest and fastest-grown entertainment mediums, and most American households own some type of video game system. Typical commercial games like Pokémon and other “non-educational” games are what many view as the problem – how can we engage kids in more meaningful activities, instead of “mindless” gaming?  After all, video games are commonly blamed for childhood obesity, violent tendencies, and generally antisocial behavior.

As someone who has always played video games, my usual response to those assertions is a shrug;  I think I turned out okay (the jury’s still out), but I know I’m just one person—and were video games ever more than a fun outlet for me as a kid?

Yes, actually. They taught me to read.

I didn’t realize this was true until someone asked me, “Who taught you how to read?”  I racked my memories but couldn’t really give a definitive answer.  My teachers taught me how to pronounce and spell words I already knew!  But how??  Ah, yes, all those video games after school. And none of them were titled, “Learn How To Read on your Nintendo.”

Professor Layton and the Curious Village (Nintendo, 2008)

Super Paper Mario (Nintendo, 2007)

What many people don’t realize is that many popular commercial video games are already great tools for literacy, and they’re “real” games kids might actually want.  Video games can be like interactive movies, but it’s usually not practical to have a character’s every word spoken aloud, so they’re often rendered in text boxes for the player to read at his/her own pace.  While it’s true that more and more games today have more voice-acting and less textual dialogue, most still have a significant textual component in the form of menus and alerts.

In some ways, video games can engage kids in reading even more than books.  After all, games are at heart a series of challenges that the player must overcome, and that often means reading key instructions or dialogue to figure out what to do next.

Even if a game isn’t text-heavy, it may influence the player’s literacy beyond gameplay itself.  Players may seek help in the form of strategy guides (all or mostly text!), or read associated fictional material usually written by other players (“fan fiction”).  Even in-class writing can show the influence of video games.  A study in the Journal of Literacy and Technology showed the influence of video games on the in-class writing of adolescent urban males in one high school.  Their stories and characters mimicked or showed inspiration from the stories and characters of the games they played.  (It’s not just adolescent urban males; as a preadolescent suburban female in 5th grade, I wrote many stories that drew from the video games I played.)

When faced with the challenge of getting kids to read on grade level by third grade, it’s critical to consider every avenue that could get kids reading and reading well.  If they won’t touch a book, it’s worthwhile to investigate what they’re doing instead–and often, it’s video gaming.

I’ve compiled a very short, very limited list of some popular games that are kid-appropriate and full of opportunities to read.  To generalize, most of these games fall under the following genres: puzzle, adventure, and role-playing.

  • The Legend of Zelda series
  • Paper Mario and Super Paper Mario
  • The Pokémon games
  • The Professor Layton series (also has lots of math!)
  • Zack and Wiki
  • Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy IV-VI

The last bullet lists games that are actually quite old, but have been rereleased on both Nintendo and Sony game systems.  I include them here because those are the games that taught me to read.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Mary Fan June 2, 2011 at 3:59 pm

Great article, Julianne! And it makes so much sense…you’ve got a fair point about using any means necessary to get kids to read. Including video games.

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Rachael Pruitt July 6, 2011 at 9:05 pm

Julianne,
Loved your post & agree whole-heartedly. Is it possible to get in touch with you? I’m an educator who has also worked as an Artist in Residence in the areas of multicultural storytelling, creative writing & drama, and personal mythology. I’m very interested in looking at creative ways to bridge the old with the new and inspire student success–and self-esteem & creativity. Thanks for your time. All best, Rachael

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Julianne Grasso July 11, 2011 at 1:48 pm

Thanks, Rachael! If you’d like, you can shoot me an email at jmg268(at)live.com. I’d love to learn more about what you do!

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