Boys, Reading, and Video Games

Thomas Spence’s Wall Street Journal piece “How to Raise Boys Who Read: Not with Gross-out Books and Video-Game Bribes” has a number of interesting points. First of all, there’s the rebuttal of the common publishing myth that the way to get boys interested in reading is to offer them material along the lines of “Sir Fartsalot Hunts the Booger.” Spence writes:

Education was once understood as training for freedom. Not merely the transmission of information, education entailed the formation of manners and taste. Aristotle thought we should be raised “so as both to delight in and to be pained by the things that we ought; this is the right education.”

“Plato before him,” writes C. S. Lewis, “had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting, and hateful.”

This kind of training goes against the grain, and who has time for that? How much easier to meet children where they are.

One obvious problem with the SweetFarts philosophy of education is that it is more suited to producing a generation of barbarians and morons than to raising the sort of men who make good husbands, fathers and professionals. If you keep meeting a boy where he is, he doesn’t go very far.

While I object to the assertion that we should raise children for certain roles that they may or may not occupy later in life, I find interesting the parallels between Spence’s reaction against the “grossing-down” of boys’ books and the recent reaction against the “dumbing-down” of church that went on in the 1990s.

Spence then argues that the real reason boys aren’t reading is that video games are competing with books for their attention. I imagine many of our writers, who both read and play video games–and are male–can respond to this argument with more ethos than I can, but my question is: why isn’t the same isn’t true of girls? After all, the same video games are available to them, and yet they still (apparently) read. My guess would be that the true reason for difference lies not in the presence or absence of video games, but in different gender expectations that parents, consciously or unconsciously, foster in their children.

About Carrisa Smith
  • http://www.psonnets.org/ Mr. Poet

    Most video games are violent. Girls are not into violence as much as boys. Girls also are more used to sitting and being quiet. I went with my friends and their kids (one girl, four boys) to a friend’s house, where there was one boy and two girls. While the girls sat down to paint at a table, quietly, the boys geared up with toy guns and swords and armor, and they went outside to kill each other.

  • http://thatguykc.wordpress.com ThatGuyKC

    “If you keep meeting a boy where he is, he doesn’t go very far.” AMEN!

    I would think the comparison of the impact of video games between boys and girls is that the majority are targeted at boys (Halo?) and since boys have a tendency to be more visually stimulated than girls the attention is won (over reading) much easier.

    As a father of an 8 year old the whole video game vs. reading issue comes up continually. However, I’d have to credit my wife with instilling a love for reading in our son from a young age. He still reads 30 minutes every night without nagging. That being said he would just as soon pick up a PS2 controller as a book if we didn’t have parameters on game time.

  • http://spoonfulofhahne.com Seth T. Hahne

    I’m uncomfortable with making statements about the natures of boys and girls (e.g. girls don’t like violence and boys are more visually stimulated) simply because these aren’t really testable statements, but I will say that large-budget videogames are generally targeted particularly toward the male gaze. Even games like WoW that boast a large female user-base create barriers to enjoyment for females in order to stimulate the male user base. Add to that the toxic atmosphere of online gaming (especially toward those who are not straight, white, and male) and you’ve got a whole medium that actively works against making itself accessible to a potential female audience.

    It’s less a matter of girls don’t like violence (many do) or girls aren’t visually stimulated (many are) and more likely that girls aren’t given as many entry points into gaming as boys are.

    To the article’s point though: yes, the tension between entertainments is very much present. If I only had books, I’d be reading all the time. But, I have books, comics, videogames, movies, boardgames, conversation, and the internet all competing for my discretionary time. Therefore, I obviously don’t read as much as I could (though I love it). Likewise, however, I don’t play games as much as I could (though I love it). This article could be written from a gaming standpoint: Why aren’t kids spending more time playing games? We’re losing kids to books and sports and girls!!

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    What is the harm in preparing boys for the roles of “husband, father, and professional”? most boys will occupy one if not all of those roles and even if they don’t the training for such roles would be worthwhile preparation as it would apply to just about all areas of life even if they never occupy those roles. I know that was not your main point, but I see value in that.

    I think the question this article brings up is a valid one–has the rise of video games influenced the dumbing down of books for children? I would say probably–but that isn’t wholly the fault of video games as a medium in my opinion so much as the result of the type of video games that have been made over in the medium’s short history.

    Its worth noting that video games are a very young medium. As it grows, hopefully the industry will make more and more intelligent games. There are certainly many people like Rich (and many of our readers I am sure) who are influencing the industry to make more intelligent games. Also, I think the rise of indie games, more intelligent games are being made.

    I don’t have the stats, but most gamers are probably male and most of the games made are still games where you blow stuff up which may be “targeted particularly toward the male gaze.”


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