Monday, October 06, 2008

Hook, Line, and Stinker

In "Using Video Games as Bait to Hook Readers," the New York Times argues that children's book publishers are following the lead of other media outlets in creating games to promote a particular title or product line.

In digital literacy circles, this article has been much e-mailed, but there is actually surprisingly little substance in the story. One of their case studies seems to be almost randomly drawn from an Ivy League World of Warcraft player, and -- although experts James Paul Gee and Constance Steinkuehler are consulted -- little of note is said about the state of research in the field other than the following two very general sentences.

Some researchers, though, say that even when children don’t read much text, they are picking up skills that can help them thrive in a visually oriented digital world. And some educational experts suggest that video games still stimulate reading in blogs and strategy guides for players.

What's also interesting is that the reporter often does not bother to specify the genre of videogame that is created as a complement to a given book, as though an online casual game about collecting or managing digital objects was the same as an MMORPG. In the New York Times, book reviews and most other commentary about trends in publishing specifies the relevant genres, so this omission is especially strange.

The other feature of the article is its excerpts from interviews with contemporary authors, many of whom describe how videogames are shaping their narrative practices. I suppose this is not surprising, given the influence of film techniques on novelistic composition in the twentieth century.

I spent some time playing The 39 Clues, which is one of the games mentioned in the article. The narrative uses some of the techniques common in alternative reality games: conspiratorial e-mails, found documents, secret identities, and possibilities for multiple interpretation of the information presented. Children are required to register to play the game, although they are instructed to avoid user names that reveal identifying information.

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