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Back in 2003, I was a struggling freelance writer with a few graphic novels for kids under my belt. I was pitching articles to magazines, playing a lot of video games and wondering if a career in teaching was for me.

That was also when I stumbled upon a newly released book called What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. It gave me an idea for an article and I was fortunate enough to land an interview with its author, Dr. James Paul Gee.

Here’s the article reprinted in all it’s 2004 glory. I think the content is still relevant today, nearly 10 years later. What do you think?

Screen Doors

For boys who shun books, video games and the Internet provide a way into the world of words

By Liam O’Donnell

“I’d be happy if he read the Sunday comics,” laments Jodi DiGiuseppe, a mother of two from London, Ont. She has tried everything to get her nine-year-old son, Anthony, to read, with little success. “We banned the TV and offered bribes, but that didn’t work for long.” Like many boys his age, Anthony just isn’t interested in books. But get Anthony playing his favourite video game and he turns into a digital demon. “I have to drag him away from the screen.”

Having a button-mashing, book-bashing son is worrying for many parents. For the last six years literacy tests conducted by Council of Ministers of Education show Canadian boys trailing girls in reading and writing skills. In 1998, 13 year old boys scored 15% lower than girls on reading tests. In more recent writing exams, girls continue to score higher than boys. Are video games and other digital distractions to blame? While some parents and teachers are quick to say yes, a growing number of educators are coming to the defence of video games. Boys aren’t becoming illiterate, they say. Boys are redefining literacy, and gaining “digital literacy” skills. And in the workplaces of the future, these skills might give them a head start on their book-reading buddies.

Video Games are Literacy in Action

“Boys are becoming literate in spite of school instruction,” says Heather Blair, an associate professor at the University of Alberta. Blair and her colleague, Kathy Sanford of the University of Victoria, spent two years talking to adolescent boys, delving into their backpacks and desks, hoping to learn more about boys and literacy. “Computer games, Internet searches and online chat rooms have shaped the way boys interact with texts,” says Blair. In chat rooms, boys communicate in a constrained shorthand of shortened words that reads like a rapid-fire barrage of customised licence plates.

On the Internet, they scoured websites, absorbing sports statistics and tracking down secret cheat codes for their favourite video game. Parents are often mystified by skill and confidence boys show as they click their way through new technologies. This, say Blair and Sanford, is literacy in action. Their findings, recently published in the study “Canadian Adolescent Boys and Literacy”, are attracting attention from educators and giving hope to many frustrated parents.

Blair and Sanford believe that we need to expand our definition of literacy to include other sources of reading material like magazines, newspapers and text found on websites and video games. “There is a certain amount of reading in video games,” says Sanford, “And in some games, a high level of reading.” From the novel-length printed manuals to the clue-filled messages on the screen, the amount of reading material in games quickly adds up. In a format that relies so heavily on fast moving graphics, this written material is often overlooked by observers, but not by players. Understanding the game text is essential to a player’s success. “You have to read what the instructions are, and follow them exactly or you fail the level,” says one boy in the study.

Button Mashing Teaching Tools

When educators mention good video games, they are not talking about the ultra-violent, shoot-anything-that-moves variety. Dr. James Paul Gee, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, studied the structure of dozens of video games to reveal their educational potential. In his book, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, Gee examines the ways that video games can used as teaching tools. The best video games, he believes, offer challenges that can be solved in alternative ways, encouraging lateral thinking and problem-solving skills. The player’s decisions must affect the outcome of the game, placing importance on their choices and promising consequences to their actions. With the stakes this high, the challenges in the game should be at a level that is difficult but ‘doable.’ According to Gee, popular titles like Age of Mythology, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Legend of Zelda: The Wind Walker all have educational potential.

Gee is quick to point out that a good video game can only teach so much. The rest is up to the player. “Video games are only good for a child’s growth when played strategically,” he says. Strategic playing means that boys ask themselves questions as they face in-game challenges. Questions like: what problems do I face here? How can I best tackle this problem? What other approaches would work? Gee believes that the problem-solving skills developed while gaming strategically can help boys succeed in their literacy assignments at school. Blair and Sanford agree.

“Boys transform the assigned literacy work into something more fun, engaging, and personally meaningful for themselves,” says Sanford. Many teachers recognise this. That’s why your son’s grade-six language arts assignment is more likely to be a series of comic strips than a written book report. But even with traditional literacy exercises, boys will draw upon their outside interests to make a connection.

Boys Morphing Language and Learning

Blair and Sanford talk about one grade five student who was asked to write a short story starting from a visual prompt of a man sneaking around a corner. The boy wrote a story about a James Bond character who evades trip wires, climbs along rooftops and uses his high-tech watch to decode a safe’s combination. The language the boy used, like “wire traps” and “decoding”, and the actions of his character were all elements of his favourite “007” video game. By transforming what he had read and learned from playing his video game, the boy created a connection with his literacy assignment. Blair and Sanford call this “morphing” literacy, a term borrowed from the boys themselves. “Morphing is a word used by boys in their play to describe the transformation of one form or character to another.”

As the boys morph their school work to fit their interests, by using the words learned from their game experiences for example, they also expand the definitions of literacy to include language and skills learned from non-traditional sources like video games. These ‘digital literacy’ skills, say Blair and Sanford, will serve boys well in the coming years.

Digital Literacies are the Workplace Skills of Tomorrow

“The abilities to navigate the Internet and read multiple texts simultaneously will be perhaps more useful workplace skills than the ability to analyse a work of fiction or to write a narrative account,” Blair and Sanford predict. Email and the Internet didn’t exist 15 years ago, but today many offices expect new employees to have already mastered these technologies. 15 years from now, when today’s eight year olds are starting their careers, technology will have transformed the workplace even further. The digital literacy skills boys are picking up today, will make them more comfortable in this environment, giving them a distinct advantage.

Until then, how can we encourage boys to cultivate their ‘digital literacy’ skills while they play? Dr. Gee suggests that parents pick up the game controller and join in the fun. By playing video games with your son, parents can ask questions that will help him play strategically, while at the same time gaining insight into what attracts him to these worlds. And that could be the “game cheat” you need to convince your boy to put down the controller and pick up a book.


As an award-winning children’s author, gamer-geek and elementary school teacher, I often have teaching ideas and writing news to share with fellow educators. I deliver these resources and ideas to your inbox in my e-newsletter Reading Change.

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