How Playing Video Games Got Me Back Into Reading
May 30, 2019
Something that often happens at the library is that parents will come up to me and say, “My child hates reading. I can’t get her to read anything that doesn’t have pictures in it.” And worse, “My kid had a bad literature teacher, and now he hates to read.” It’s understandably frustrating. Not only does reading greatly impact vocabulary, comprehension, and critical thinking skills, it cultivates the imagination as well. But what if your kid just won’t give it a chance?
When I was a kid, I spent every summer, all summer reading. I read books while taking walks around the block. I read them right before bed, and first thing in the morning when I woke up. My sister and I would lay in bed reading together until we fell asleep, and acted out scenes from books when we played outside. My childhood revolved around books. I absolutely loved to read.
And then I hated it.
When I was in eighth grade, I had a language arts teacher who made reading one of my most miserable school experiences. If this teacher wasn’t required to have us read something from the state curriculum, she restricted what we could and couldn’t read for class projects and the Accelerated Reader program (even if the book was actually on the AR list). The books she made us read were boring and stippled with political undertones that a 12-year-old from the 90’s wouldn’t think about. They didn’t stimulate my imagination at all; they only made me sad and angry. Soon, reading became a chore and something I dreaded doing, and after that, I never read a book for fun again until I became an adult.
I’d always enjoyed playing video games. Even though most video games involve extensive reading at times, the immersive, active environment never actually felt like reading, and so I could find my love of interesting stories while playing games, even after my horrible experience with that teacher, without really thinking about it. In my early 20s, I picked up a game for the Nintendo DS called Hotel Dusk: Room 215. The story was about a detective who ends up at a mysterious hotel in the midwest searching for his missing partner. He finds out that his hotel room has a connection to his partner – and himself – and explores the hotel and its employees while finding clues about his past and his partner’s whereabouts. The gameplay involved some simple puzzles, but for the most part, it was reading. Lots and lots of reading. You even had to hold your Nintendo DS like a book. This was my first experience with visual novels. After that, I wanted to play more games that involved more story, and less the stress of getting lost in sidequests, grinding for hours for items, and dying over and over in a difficult boss fight. I wanted games I could finish without getting stuck. Subconsciously, I wanted games I could just read.
Visual novels have been a popular genre for a while in Japan, but they’re now gaining notoriety in the west. Put simply, visual novels combine reading novel-esque stories with interactive elements, usually puzzles and/or decision-making, that lead to different endings for the story, depending on how you play. These days, you can find countless mainstream and indie visual novels on digital game websites like Steam. There’s even an open source software called Ren’Py that aspiring artists and writers can use to create their own visual novels.
These “game-books” were exactly what I needed to jumpstart my love of reading. The next visual novel that piqued my interest was an otome game. Otome games are a specific genre of visual novels targeted towards women that are half choose-your-own-adventure, half romance novel. Usually the gameplay involves making decisions at certain points that could either put you on the path to romancing one of the story’s male characters, or, you know, kill you and end the game. The stories aren’t just all mush and fluff, either. Sometimes plots get dark and heavy, and you forget that you’re reading a romance novel at all.
While visual novels are usually aimed at teens and adults, it might be worth considering a “mixed media” platform for your child’s entry into reading. If going from Llama Llama to Harry Potter fills your kid with dread, wean them into reading by having them engage in a reading format that doesn’tfeel like reading. Graphic novels and comic books are a great place to start, and are usually plot heavy enough to keep your kids’ attention while also distracting them with cool pictures. While some parents seem to have a bit of an aversion to comic books, keep in mind that graphic novels and comics (sequential art, as it’s called)are a form of literature taught in many college level literature programs, and it’s certainly better than your child not reading anything at all, isn’t it? If you allow your child to practice his reading in his own comfortable style, his own way, then he might be picking up chapter books sooner than you think.
Visual novel recommendations:
1st place: 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors
System: Nintendo DS, PS4, PS Vita, PC, Mobile
Plot: A young man named Junpei finds himself trapped in a cruise ship with no memories of how he got there. He then notices that he’s wearing a watch with a number on it that injects a deadly poison if he tries to take it off. Later, he finds out that eight other people with numbered watches are also trapped on the ship.
Review: If you like the Saw movie franchise, this grisly escape room thriller might be up your alley. First in the Zero Escape Trilogy, this novel/puzzle hybrid has you finding clues and solving math problems in order to get out alive. But if math isn’t your jam, there are cheat sheets on the internet for those who are just in it for the story.
Runner up: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
System: Nintendo DS, Switch, PC, PS4, Xbox One, Mobile
Plot: Newbie defense lawyer Phoenix Wright fights to defend his clients while solving cases to prove them innocent.
Review: If you like visual novels and you also like anime, you’ve probably heard of the widely popular Ace Attorney series. This is a fun detective/mystery that is also a novel/puzzle hybrid. The story and characters are more light-hearted than some of the other mystery titles I mentioned, so it’s suitable for tweens as well. Also, if you’re playing the English version, every character’s name is a dad joke.
1st place: Collar x Malice
System: PS Vita
Plot: Rookie cop Ichika Hoshino gets herself mixed up in a terrorist plot after getting kidnapped and having a deadly, poisonous collar placed around her neck. Ichika ends up working with a low-key private detective agency to uncover the X-Day murders, stop the terrorist plot, and remove her collar.
Review: I’m probably biased towards cop dramas/detective stories, so this is my first choice. The plot is so intense that whenever it got to the romance part, I had completely forgotten about it. While Ichika is an insufferable protagonist, the other characters are interesting and relatable, and the art is gorgeous.
Runner up: Code:Realize – Guardian of Rebirth
System: PS Vita, PS4
Plot: Cardia is the daughter of a renowned scientist who went mad, and then went missing, leaving her with a message to never go outside, never talk to anyone, forever imprisoned in her dark mansion alone. Her father once placed a crystal inside of her chest that acts as her heart, but also causes a toxic acid to run through her veins, melting everything that comes into contact with her skin. She finds herself to be an important part of a terrorist plot to destroy London, and is taken into protective custody by a motley group of gentlemen who end up working together when they discover that their individual goals are connected to Cardia and her father.
Review: I’d be doing a disservice as a library employee if I didn’t recommend this game. The romance options are all literary characters (Victor Frankenstein, Abraham Van Helsing, Sherlock Holmes, etc.), and the Steampunk aesthetic of this story set in Victorian London makes it an otome fan favorite. Cardia is an extremely capable protagonist (with a cool super power?), and all of her male suitors are, for the most part, nice guys with a lot of character. Note: playing this game actually made me read three of the characters’ source books, and I wasn’t disappointed.