educationvirtual children by Scott Warnock

Video games and boys’ literacy

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So, to me, these two dudes – and I wanna stress that they are dudes — in my house seem to be at the video games a lot. I thought this would never happen to me.  I thought I would steer them to loftier pursuits. But there they, at FIFA and Minecraft. I have this awful feeling their brains are leaking intellect because of video games. I particularly worry about the brightness of their literacy lights.

But maybe I’m wrong. I recently came across a study, “The Mismeasure of Boys: Reading and Online Videogames,” from a few years ago that wonders if, in fact,  gaming might be good for boys’ literacy. Constance Steinkuehler from the Wisconsin Center for Education Research investigated boys’ literacy and video games and indicates that we might have it all wrong.

No doubt there’s a growing problem with boys and school, particularly in terms of literacy. Summarizing other work, Steinkuehler paints a grim picture:

Boys routinely score lower than girls on basic literacy assessments such as the NAEP test, with one third of male students in 4th, 8th, and 12th grade testing below basic in reading compared to one fifth of female students. The gap widens with age. Boys consistently underperform in—or opt out of—literacy-related courses such as English and composition.

By the end of high school, a quarter of boys with college-educated parents read below basic level — meaning a newspaper could be a challenge. A favorite book of mine about this topic, Michael Smith and Jeffrey Wilhelm’s Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys”: Literacy in the Lives of Young Men, takes another hard look at boys’ literacy. That story is complex, and it focuses on how important it is to be able to choose valuable and relevant texts as opposed to traditional, “canonical” texts as well allowing boys to find meaningful social activity through/with the texts they read.

So boys’ literacy and learning is complicated — but troubled. Like me, many people wonder if all their screen time is contributing to or even causing the problem. Instead of reading, they’re looking at screens.

However, Steinkuehler upends that relationship. Her team conducted four studies examining various potential literacy aspects of World of Warcraft. They  interviewed gamers about WoW texts; examined those texts closely; and compared “game-related literacy” to “other, more sanctioned contexts,” in particular looking at the implications of required vs. chosen readings.

The results were surprising. For instance, she finds that the texts in games “overwhelmingly” require “reading skills at the high school or high school graduate level.” In addition, texts involved in “natural gameplay can function as a bridge into more academic forms of language” and game-related reading practices “may be particularly efficacious for readers diagnosed as struggling in school, because they are interest-driven rather than externally required.”

This study finds we may have it all wrong: “Indeed, videogames increasingly appear to be a solution to—rather than a cause of—the problem of adolescent boys and reading […] Reading is an important (albeit often hidden) component of participation in videogame culture. Thus, videogames and print text are not in competition with one another but instead represent two vital, complementary components within the media ecology of today’s youth.”

The article focused on Wow, but in thinking this over, I admit I see this dynamic at work in my house, even in their beloved FIFA. They spend  lots of time crafting teams, poring through information that requires not just textual but, I think, numerical and statistical literacy. I heard my 10-year-old talking FIFA with a college soccer player (on our way to the final Hobbit movie — more about that soon), and he amazed us all with his detailed, comprehensive knowledge about even obscure players.

He cares about that. Steinkuehler concludes that we know that “test-takers underperform in topics they simply are not interested in or enculturated into.” In terms of our view of boys’ literacy, she’s straight-up: “This illusion is our contemporary mismeasure of boys in America.”

I can’t deny it: This was a tough pill for me to swallow. It would be good that their brains aren’t rotting, but I hope my newfound optimism is not just an effort to rationalize that Xbox One Santa’s bringing next week…

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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6 Responses to “Video games and boys’ literacy”

  1. Some games are even encouragement to outside study and reading. My son has become deeply interested in history because of games like Skyrim and Minecraft. We got him a book on the theology of the Elder Scrolls games for Christmas… Good stuff.

  2. I blame Obama.
    For everything.

  3. Scott–I once heard somebody say that everything bad is good for you. Or words to that effect.–Don Riggs

  4. Just wondering, has anyone taken a survey to see how many 1) corporate leaders 2) political leaders; are avid gamers? I don’t know the answer but I’m sure the number is on the increase and those numbers will probably stun all of us ! LOL.

  5. Is there anything in the literature about the power of Penthouse Forum to aid in young men’s literacy acquistion?

    And that the death of literary porn has done more to hurt teen boys’ reading skills than any video game or other modern distraction?

  6. “They spend lots of time crafting teams, poring through information that requires not just textual but, I think, numerical and statistical literacy.”

    Like, say, Fantasy Football? LOL!

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