How To Improve Literacy & Instill A Work Ethic Without Pilgrims

Plenty of research has shown correlations between literacy and parents who read to their children.  This is only one example. Of course correlation is not causation, and several reasons for the connection have been suggested and may have validity. Maybe it is because parents model literacy, or because more time is devoted to the task by bedtime readers.  Maybe the positive association between reading and parental attachment creates a lifelong motivation to read.  Or, and this is my favorite hypothesis, maybe reading bedtime stories provides a moment when parental expectations for childhood performance are finally checked, and parents and children experience each other as fun.

Regardless, there was a lot of evidence in the 20th century to support the idea that reading together with your children is a good thing.  Unfortunately, how can parents persist encouraging literacy with adolescents?  And how can we encourage 21st century literacy? One suggestion I have is to supplement reading to your child with playing video games with them.

Wait, what?

I get a lot of requests for parent guidance around academic functioning and behavior.  Two essential components of academic functioning are literacy and diligence, or a work ethic.  A work ethic is also an important corollary to prosocial behaviors; in that being “good” often requires you to delay immediate gratification, work toward longer term goals, and be able to “read” social cues.  This work ethic does not have to be a severe or dour one, but rather what you could call a work ethic without the Pilgrims.  What parents are often looking for are some concrete suggestions for how to help children and adolescents develop their literacy and a work ethic simultaneously.  So if you are a parent and want to encourage literacy, prosocial behaviors, and a work ethic, and you want a concrete suggestion, I’ve got one for you.

What if you spent an hour a day with your kiddo playing the MMO World of Warcraft?

Now for those of you who are less of a technophile than I, let me be clear.  I am not saying do nothing BUT playing a video game like WoW with your child.  I am not saying do this INSTEAD of reading bedtime stories.  I’m suggesting that playing World of Warcraft is an additional activity that you can do if you want to promote literacy and a work ethic without the Pilgrims.  Here are some reasons why:

1. WoW helps foster 21st century literacy.  Each quest has not only traditional text to read, but other components of 21st century literacy kids need to learn.  What does clicking on an “Accept” button do?  Can you undo it?  How can scrolling over an image call up more information about it?  How might you use the resources of the internet to help inform the task you are doing (additional clues, maps, strategies, etc.?)  How can you ask for help either in-person or via text chat while you are trying to read the task?  These are just some examples of how literacy needs to go beyond the written page in the 21st century.  If we had been taught digital literacy as children, we would know “what cutting and pasting” text means, and how to do it.  We would not be kidnapped or overwhelmed by hyperlinks.  For those of you digital immigrants, I ask you to reflect on how much easier your life today would be if you had been taught digital literacy when you were a child.

2. Quests train us to find the meaning in the mundane.  In other posts I have discussed the concept of daily quests.  Our inner Pilgrim would have us teach our kids that life is full of things we don’t want to do, but we have to keep a stiff upper lip and do them.  But another take on this, and one that I ascribe to, is that intrinsic, positive reinforcement is overall the best and most consistent way to create adaptive learning and social behaviors.  Yes, the stick works, but the carrot is what helps make work less, well, worky.  When we can internalize the rewards we stand to gain from something on a deep level, it facilitates more agency and mindfulness in the work ethic.  So if we can somehow find meaning and engagement in things that are routine or require sustained effort, why not go that route?

Daily quests do just this.  They are tied to a system of rewards that blur the boundary of extrinsic and intrinsic rewards:  In Warcraft, completing your daily quests helps you acquire points in an economy that you can ultimately use to upgrade your gear.  In addition, these quests enhance your reputation with different groups of creatures in the game, which also unlocks benefits.  But it is intrinsic in that there are several different groups or rewards to choose from based on your own interests rather than an authority. (So to those of you who play, I’m interested in whether you’d characterize these quests as either intrinsic or extrinsic.  I’m not at all sure there is a simple answer, in part because the character we play is in many ways a curated self, which is different but not distinct from the self of the player.)

Take the recent WoW expansion Mists of Pandaria for example.  As I progressed in the game I noticed that other players had a flying cloud mount they were riding around.  I thought, “How cool, how can I get myself one of those?”  I chose that task over dozens of others, because it was the one most interesting and hence urgent to me.  Discovering the answer required lots of literacy by the way, both reading up on which group of quests counted towards earning that cloud on Google, as well as talking in-game to other players for information.  The quests consisted largely of exploring and locating certain landmarks and reading the stories written on them.  The stories were broken down into multiple parts, so that in the process of completing the quests I was putting together several stories.

Was this tedious at times?  A bit, but I knew why I was doing it and what I wanted to get out of it.

3. Video games, like other forms of art, often have a moral dimension. As I was doing these quests I was learning a powerful lesson in the game world.  Namely, that reputation amongst others is important, and often provides you with access to more privilege and power.  And I doubt many would argue that helping children learn about the concepts of privilege and access, and how they are often distributed differently amongst different groups in terms of race is an unimportant concept in the world we live in.   Video games like WoW have both cognitive meaning and a moral dimension.  It may be a moral structure that is self-contained in the world of the game, but for games to have a meaning to us they have to be both similar to and different from the rest of our life.  We reference our character’s “death,” with what death means in human experience.  If it was identical to actual death that wouldn’t work, and if it was totally dissimilar from actual death, the metaphor wouldn’t work.  Games like World of Warcraft have lots of messages and moral choices embedded in them, not all of them ones I support or agree with.  But playing the game can provide children and adults a microcosm within which we can see the merits of putting effort into routines.

Let’s bring this back to bedtime stories.  Nobody I know refuses to read their children bedtime stories because they have a moral dimension.  Sure, you may choose stories that reflect the morals that you are more comfortable with, but you don’t withhold reading a story to children because it has content and meaning.  Likewise most people I’ve met don’t refuse to read fairy tales because they aren’t “the real world.”  It seems similarly unfair to level the criticism that games and game achievements aren’t real and so should be avoided.  Indeed, it is because we can derive a sense of meaning and achievement more easily and vividly in video games that I would suggest that they are the building blocks for making sense and achieving things in the real world.  Human cultures have always produced art and fable to inspire and educate us rather than take the mundane on faith alone.

The above should not be taken as a single coherent argument about art, ethics, behavioral psychology or education, because it clearly isn’t that.  My goal here is to help parents see the role that video games can play in their efforts to encourage 21st-century literacy and a work ethic in their children.  There are hundreds of different quests in World of Warcraft alone, hundreds of opportunities to share an engaging and collaborative experience with your children.  Every one of these quests requires literacy and critical thinking to understand it, strategy and coordination to execute it.  These games can provide you with a metaphorical framework to help your children understand, work, routines and reading.  They prepare your children to become digital citizens and 21st-century employees.

And maybe they will provide you with a time-out from focussing on your child’s behavior and academic performance so that the two of you can enjoy each other’s company again.

 

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