Saturday, October 06, 2007

Games Good, Books Bad?

In a recent discussion over a Feminist Gamers, the topic of controversies over books versus controversies over games came up.

(pretty much, someone said something to the effect of "books never get treated this way!" and I called bullshit.)

Might Ponygirl replied with

But I think that videogames just don’t enjoy the sort of support in their controveries that books do.

Which is true, but "books have it bad too!" really wasn't the point I was trying to make. But then I wasn't really sure what my point was at the time, and my point wasn't the topic of discussion. The good news: I figured out what I want to say, and I have my own blog to say it at.

And really, I did say it in my comment over there, I just didn't explain it very well.

[P]eople rarely see “bad” books as evidence that books are bad, even though that’s exactly what they do when it comes to TV, movies, and games.

The flipside to this - the one that people rarely see - is that this also means that you now have the issue of what qualifies as a book. Most often, the debate is phrased as whether something is "really" literature. In my line of work the question often becomes whether it's something the parent will accept as fulfilling the requirement that they "read more and goof around less." (Needless to say, graphic novels rarely count, despite their growing popularity.)

Like a lot of common misconceptions, this doesn't seem, on the face of it, like a bad thing. And it isn't always. Parents should push their kids to to challenge themselves, and I don't believe that kids get as much from reading Goosebumps as they get from reading Bridge to Terabithia.

But there's the catch, the requirement that they get something out of it. Pleasure apparently doesn't qualify as "something" in that sentence.

(And now my ADD brain is remembering a conversation I had recently with someone about how we don't get enough vacation time. Back to the topic at hand....)

Whenever I suggest a book, and the kid says yes but the parent says no, it's almost always because it's not "serious" enough. Whenever a kid asks for a book, and the parent says no, the most common reason given (aside from cost) is that it's not "what they should be reading" - as in, you should be reading something that isn't called Captain Underpants and isn't full of pictures.

Now, I'm not saying that books have it worse than games. They don't. (Recent library workshop aside) Games can only dream of qualifying as worthwhile in their own right, rather than as a way to trick kids into doing something worthwhile. Even TV, which I think is much more limited in possible educational value than video games are, is more likely to be labeled as educational than any video game. What I'm saying is that the problems that books do have overlap with the problems that games have, so displays of sibling rivalry are hardly helpful.

Lauren wrote at Feministe that

The part that’s insidious for me is labeling the [Baby Einstein] videos “educational” when “entertainment” is clearly more honest. When parents start scheduling them into the child’s day, they’re doing so in their children’s best interest, but potentially to the detriment of the child’s education. Especially when a parent who is interesting in helping to further the child’s education might have better tools available to them for a similar price.

And I have to agree. But the problem is that you aren't supposed to give anything to small children that isn't explicitly educational, so there's really no other way to market them except to say that they are good because they are educational. And the AMA's dishonesty about why such videos are bad for kids** gives the companies even more incentive to lie about their product than they would have otherwise. Disney can't make ads simply saying that they are the best entertainment videos for babies and toddlers (even though I think they are) because such things are not supposed to exist.

One thing I do disagree with Lauren about is the type of educational value the Baby Einstein's videos have. Supposedly, it's all in rote learning - people seem to think the videos act like flash cards. However, If you watch the videos it's clear that kids mostly learn from them by processing the stories, the same kind of learning that we supposedly encourage when the stories are told through other mediums. To me, this confusion implies that the value we place on storytelling depends highly on the medium through which the story is told. Which, in turn, suggests that the greatest value we place on storytelling is on it's ability to familiarize children with the "right" kinds of mediums - or facts and skills. Stories themselves have dubious value, perhaps because their intent is to entertain as well as teach. The perception seems to be that, once kids can read, unless they are clearly "reading to learn" something specific, reading is not always good for them.


Books are challenged and banned for all kinds of reasons, but there is a common thread running through all the challenges to books for children*** - and no, it's not religious beliefs or sexual content. It's whether or not the book counts as "literature." Controversial topics are usually considered ok, so long as the book is clearly lecturing at them. That's why books are more likely to get support when they are challenged. Since it's the actual message itself that's being debated and not the basic content, you have an easier time finding people who agree with the message strongly enough to fight for it.

The children's novels that made it to the ALA's top ten challenged books for 2006 are the Gossip Girls series, the Alice series, The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things, the Scary Stories series, Athletic Shorts, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and The Chocolate War****. The adult novels are Beloved and The Bluest Eye. So, sex, obviously, is a big no-no. And anything that suggest that the white, heterosexual man is not the center of the universe.

But apparently, kids having fun isn't really a good thing either.

(In fact, I'd say this is a big part of why sex is a no-no. Sex without procreation has no value other than fun.)

While there are plenty of books that kids ask for by name because they have to read it, there are fewer that kids ask for because they want to read them. Yet, out of all seven of the kid's books on that list, there are only two books that I've never been asked for by name, by a kid, who wanted to read it for fun. I'm not going to count the hundreds of thousands of books in the store and library to do the math, but fairly certain that 70% of the books in either place don't fit into that category.

Even more than that, four of those books are ones that reluctant readers - several, in fact - have asked for by name. I don't need to do the math to be absolutely certain that the number of books in the store and library that fit into that category is much, much lower than 50+ percent.

Now, again, I'm all for parents pushing kids to challenge themselves.

Still, I find it telling that the Gossip Girls is number two on the list of most challenged books for 2006, and yet the CW started a new series based on the books this fall. (Presumably aimed at a similarly aged audience.)

The contrast between the Harry Potter movies' sucess and book challenges made more sense, because it tends to be just a select group of people who dislike Harry Potter so much that they think kids shouldn't read it. But nobody likes the Gossip Girls. Well, no adult anyway. So while I'm sure that there are lots of kids who will be told that they can't read or watch Gossip Girls, I'm sure there's also a great many whose parents and teachers and librarians try to talk them out of reading Gossip Girls but whose parents won't care about them watching Gossip Girls any more or less than any other TV show.

Now, parents don't hate these books because they are fun, they just see fun as having extremely limited value.***** There's this idea that's taken root in our collective minds that, unless something is explicitly educational or healthy, it's probably bad for kids.

Or maybe it's that, if kids are having fun, they can't possibly be learning as well. So it's one thing for them to watch Gossip Girl, it's another for them to suck all the educational value out of reading by reading trashy books.

I think it's probably both, depending on the situation.

We need to educate people on the health and educational benefits that video games have. The internet and TV too. But we need to advocate for kids' right to have fun as well. Even if for no other reason than because the idea that fun is a privilege, not a right, leads us to cut off kids access to things that are explicitly good for them. Like exercise (ie, recess) for grade schoolers, or books for reluctant readers. Even the dynamic that Lauren decries in her post is one in which parents choose to have their kids watch Baby Einstein videos rather than play in healthier ways because the supposed rote learning they get from the videos is thought of as more educational that the learning they get through play.

*That and we think kids are really stupid - Baby Einstein couldn't possibly teach through stories because babies are too young to process stories. Never mind that they do so all the time. (I let go, it falls.)

**All kinds of studies supposedly say that any time watching TV lowers vocabulary, but I've yet to see one that doesn't make some stupid decision, like not control for time spent talking to parents or lumps kids who watch TV and play with books with kids who just watch TV.

***Children's books that children are meant to read themselves, rather than books like And Tango Makes Three which is primarily meant to be read to them.

****The common perception is that The Chocolate War is literature, but it's placement on the list is a holdover from when this was not the common perception, back when it came out and, along with The Outsiders and other peers, created the YA genre.

****We also think kids are excessively stupid. Like, kids who will be able to vote in two years are completely and totally unable to distinguish fact from badly written wish-fulfillment fiction. Have I mentioned that yet?

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