How Video Games Make my Kid Read

U9PedFPh-640x496When I was about 12 years old, I played my first RPG on the Sega Genesis – Shining Force. Even though I had been bilingual for as far as I can remember, it was Shining Force that woke in me the love for language. After playing Shining Force I moved on to the Phantasy Stars, then eventually to the Final Fantasies in the Super Nintendo. My growing love for stories and narrative led me to rediscover my love for reading, and when I asked Elle, a friend with a large library, what book I should read, she recommended that I pick up a series by Phillip Pullman called His Dark Materials. As I played my way through Dragon Force and Legend of Dragoon, I simultaneously read through Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series and Fred Saberhaggen’s Books of Swords.

My love for games led me to apply to my university’s computer programming major. My dream was to make a fully 3-d rpg with a compelling storyline and relatable characters. However, when I managed to land a job as tutor at the Writing Center, I got a different idea. The state of public education in my state at the time was largely pathetic (I’m not sure that it has improved a lot since). I looked at my friends and acquaintances and fellow tutors, all who went to pretty bad schools, very much like myself, and all who had exquisite vocabularies and excellent communication skills. When I asked them where they learned to communicate, they said that it was thanks to video games. One particular testimonial popped out in my mind (and still does), when my friend (let’s call him Ren for the sake of anonimity) told me that he learned the English language because of Final Fantasy VII. He would sit down with a dictionary and translate, and by the end of the game he was fluent. A few more years of playing RPGs and he had become good enough to land a job as a tutor at the writing center (where, at that point, I was student supervisor). “Wouldn’t it be cool”, I thought, “if I could somehow get a PS 2 in every classroom?” I asked my English professors about what to do, and they recommended that I go into education.

book-WhatVideoGamesHaveToTeachUsDuring my tenure in the field of education I engaged in research involving video games and language acquisition, published in several academic journals, and attended multiple conferences. Many teachers used my research and workshops as a guide, and allowed their students to do book reports on story-centric games. The results, they would tell me, were incredibly positive (research and theory since has corroborated this).

I have since moved on to theory and criticism, rhetorical studies, media studies, and other stuff, but I’m still passionate about games and education. Whatever the case, I can confidently say that it is thanks to video games that I now find myself in the process of writing and editing the final chapters of my dissertation (on the rhetorical and narrative elements of games and how they can be used to define genre).

Now, my kid finds himself at a similar situation as I did when I discovered Shining Force. Despite my best attempts (reading to him as a baby, telling him stories from books, etc), my kid has never been an avid lover of words (no doubt in part thanks to the sad excuse of a system that passes for “education” in my new state of Texas). Now, at the age of seven, he will intently stare at a page for minutes and eventually give up in frustration when he can’t read a word. He doesn’t care for the written word. He hates it intently. Unless it’s in a video game. So it is with great pleasure that I sit down on Sundays with my son to read. Right now we are “reading” The Legend of Zelda: Wind Wakers. Well, he is, anyway. He just read how some bird creature told him to “quell the fury of the dragon at the end of the mountain” so that he could “bequeath unto him the pearl”.

GZLE01-97“Oh, the pearl!”, my kid yelled at me a few minutes ago in excitement. “That’s what I need to get back into the boat and keep sailing!”

He clearly understood what the words told him to do when they were relevant to him. And so, we read on – him in his enjoyment as he attempts to solve puzzles to get to the next part of the story so that he can finally continue sailing. So, in all honesty and with complete candor, I say Thank You Nintendo. Thank you Namco and Atlus and all those game companies who haven’t forsaken comprehensive language use in their games; you’re the ones helping kids discover their love for stories.

Now if I could only stop my kid from taking out that ridiculous butterfly pendant every 2 minutes, that’d be golden. I swear, he almost plays as if he were Twitch playing Pokemon…



About Quijano

Johansen Quijano is a professor of English in The University of Texas at Arlington, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Development focusing on TESOL, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature. He has published and presented on a variety of topics including video game studies, popular culture studies, education, teaching methodology, language acquisition, romantic poetry, and victorian literature. His research interests include the above-mentioned topics, narrative, interactivity, simulation, new media in general, and 18th century literature. He also enjoys creative writing (fiction, historical fiction, and poetry), and reading all kinds of epic literary works - from the Epic Poem of Gilgamesh to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Posted on September 14, 2014, in Education Commentary, Media Commentary, Video Game Commentary and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Quick Questions:
    Do you still read books to your kid?
    Does your kid see you reading books?
    Is your dissertation finished?

    And have you read (or heard about) Dionne Soares Palmer’s dissertation “Second Language Pragmatic Socialization in World of Warcraft?” Any thoughts?

    Or Jonathan William deHaan’s paper “Acquisition of Japanese as a Foreign Language Through a Baseball Video Game?”

    Good luck!
    ¡buena suerte!

    • Hello Vee Cel, thanks for the comment!

      Yes, when it’s his bedtime I read him a short poem (because snobbery ^__^)
      Yes, on the evenings and weekends (currently fighting through the far less spectacular than its predecessor The Mallorean by Eddings) and he thinks they “look scary” (small font, thick book, etc)
      I’m waiting on comments for revisions, I defend this spring.

      I briefly discussed it with a colleague from the education department, and while I agree with the conclusions, I can’t say that the study itself was specially comprehensive (sample size was too small and specific, although I suppose that since she is evaluating the feasibility of the platform as a tool for learning it’s acceptable?). I have actually presented in various conferences about how virtual spaces can be used as communities of practice and have a chapter in an upcoming book about Second Life. WoW is certainly just as valid if you can find the right community. Just be careful that you don’t have your students stumble into one of the less linguistically formal “L45Cl4P4DC” communities (that means “level 45 cleric looking for paladin for Dragon’s Cave”).

      I have not read deHaan’s paper, but it sounds really interesting. Sports games aren’t the first genre I would look to for language acquisition – I think there should be either an element of community and interaction (WoW, SL, any MMO) or an element of story (Final Fantasy, Tales Of), but maybe I’m just basing that on my notions of 8-bit NES RBI baseball games. I know technology has come a long way and I haven’t played a sports game in ages. Maybe it’s time I give them a try!

      Thanks and good luck to you too!

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