The latest WIRED has an editorial by Clive Thompson about Minecraft and literacy. In the article it is suggested that Minecraft (and other video games) have engaged reluctant readers to the point where they are able to overcome their reading problems and devour challenging texts with near perfect accuracy.
I usually enjoy Thompson’s reach, he tends to push back assumptions, but in this case it feels hyperbolic. “Minecraft is the hot new videogame among teachers and parents”. It was three years ago, but then it hasn’t just been sold to Microsoft for billions (with a “B”) of dollars. Sometimes I can’t tell if it’s hyperbole or marketing.
Thompson goes on to state: “Minecraft is surrounded by a culture of literacy.” So is any hobby, video games are not magical because of this. Motor vehicles are surrounded by a ‘culture of literacy’ – look in any magazine rack. Back in the day Dungeons and Dragons was surrounded by a ‘culture of literacy’ with books and magazines galore. Movies are surrounded by a ‘culture of literacy’ (IMDB, Entertainment Weekly etc), so is technology in general (WIRED). That we read and write about the things that interest us is hardly a shock. Why should video games be any different? Many reluctant readers are willing to read material about a subject that interests them. That this is newsworthy is a bit baffling, what is more surprising are the assumptions further on in the article.
I suppose WIRED might have written an article about that, but Enid Blyton doesn’t have the market reach of Minecraft or the magic we desperately want to believe inhabits our brave new and oh-so-very-valuable media.
How could they do this? “Because they’re really, really motivated,” Steinkuehler tells me. It wasn’t just that the students knew the domain well; there were plenty of unfamiliar words. But they persisted more because they cared about the task. “It’s situated knowledge. They see a piece of language, a turn of phrase, and they figure it out.”
Contextualization also assists a reader at the level of themes and ideas. Being conversant in a video game allows you to make assumptions about words and concepts you would otherwise have no link to through the text. No doubt many of those struggling readers were able to accurately guess vocabulary and concepts from their own experience, the text becomes a secondary resource, literacy a secondary skill. Large scale contextualization can help a strong reader parse a complex, unfamiliar text, but if it is being used to parse familiar concepts and materials I’d argue that it isn’t assessing literacy that effectively.
Literacy isn’t merely the repetition of familiar ideas, at its best it is the ability to deeply comprehend new ideas through a written medium. Video games might offer a hook that helps reluctant readers engage, but to suggest that Minecraft or any other game could act as a solution to illiteracy is more than misleading, it’s dishonest. It’s also why complex, long term skills development like literacy is best left to education, where quarterly earnings and attention grabbing don’t attempt to outsell learning.