MMO Family: How to encourage reading through video games

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, author Christopher John Farley posited that literature can learn from the rise and success of video games. Polls reveal that families are increasingly concerned that their children aren't reading as much as they should. And they're right to be concerned because studies have shown that good reading habits are forged during childhood, and after age 12, it's extremely hard to get kids to read if they aren't big readers already.

Video games and literature seem an unlikely duo, but there some important ways that gaming can encourage reading. Let's explore this topic in this week's MMO Family.

(Photo credit: Tim Pierce)

Social reading

Although the article is titled Four Ways Video Games Can Help Kids to Love Books, it's more about how literature should change and adapt by imitating video games. Farley begins by explaining that reading needs to be a more social activity, just as playing video games has become more and more social. He adds that because video games are now portable (as opposed to decades ago when it was confined to a TV or a desktop computer), they've eliminated the last advantage that literature had in the battle for kids' attention. When you are in public, it's hard to find a child with a book in hand because kids are too busy with their devices. He suggests that the activity of reading needs to be a family affair -- that everyone, including parents, needs to put down the devices and instead pull out a book. If it's a family activity, even if everyone has a different book, reading in the same room together can encourage children to read more.

Reading is FUNdamental

Another suggestion he makes is to make reading fun. Kids have a full plate with school, homework, sports, and activities, so reading should be a form of entertainment rather than another high-pressure activity. Farley tries to select a balance of serious and light reading and even takes his son to the comic book store because he wants his child to see reading as an enjoyable experience.

New worlds

Both books and video games conjure up amazing worlds to explore, but they both do it in different ways. Grand Theft Auto V has real depth and detail in its setting, but Farley adds that it feels as if you're just in someone else's dream. Meanwhile, literary worlds like Middle-earth or Narnia allow "readers to fill blank spaces with their own imaginations." Unfortunately, retail booksellers, and small bookshops in particular, are disappearing fast, and with them go the ambassadors who offer book suggestions and promote reading as an activity.

While I agree with Farley that literary worlds offer something that video game worlds do not, I think we're actually at an exciting time when it comes to the variety and accessibility of books. Of all the gifts my kids got this Christmas, the ones they have used the most were their Kindle readers. They still read physical books, but the Kindle allows them to browse through the world's largest bookstore, and there are some books that are available only through those Kindles. Now, more than ever, children have an endless selection of books right at their fingertips.

Log off, open book

Lastly, Farley suggests limits on gaming so that children learn to fill their leisure time with books and reading. In his household, he's set the rule that there's no video gaming at all during the school week. While he admits that it's loosely enforced, it has had positive results, and he's seeing more books being pulled out instead of game controllers.

His suggestions are good ones, although not necessarily new. But I think there's another way that video games encourage reading. When children are playing good video games, they're making their own stories, so we should encourage them to make that natural jump to actually writing them down and sharing them with others. Some game companies not only encourage that but have even published stories that tie in with their games. Games like Wizard101, Pirate101, WebKinz, and Moshi Monsters all encourage players to submit fan fiction, and the studios regularly feature it on their site. And Free Realms came out with a series of graphic novels a few years ago to tell the story of one of the main questlines in game. Children are big fans of their favorite games, and it seems natural that they'd want to not only write about their own adventures but use those games to imagine and create all sorts of stories.

Meanwhile, over in the Kindle store, there are hundreds of Minecraft stories written by fans of the game. Most are fictional tales that are a combination of the Minecraft world and the writer's imagination, and some are even written by children. They may not end up on the list of the world's classic works of literature, but many young fans of the game are reading and writing as a result, and they're learning the pleasure of doing both. Video games and reading don't need to be separate, conflicting activities. On the contrary, playing video games can actually encourage reading and writing, which is an important part of a child's development.

The MMO Family column is devoted to common issues with families and gaming. Every other week, Karen looks at current trends and ways to balance family life and play. She also shares her impressions of MMO titles to highlight which ones are child-friendly and which ones offer great gaming experiences for young and old alike. You are welcome to send feedback or Wonka Bars to