Reading Games and Playing Books: Why the Library Should Have a PlayStation

The verbs we use to describe our engagement with different texts are medium-specific. We read books, watch films, and play games. In fact, the verb implies the medium: if I ask, “Have you read Harry Potter?” a reasonable response would be, “No, but I’ve watched the films.” Although Harry Potter exists across a range of media platforms, my choice of verb confines the question to the Harry Potter books. The exclusive relationship between verb and noun is mutually enforcing and creates a closed hermeneutic loop: if I am reading it, it must be a book; if it is a book, I must be reading it. If I am playing it, it must be a game; if it is a game, I must be playing it…and so forth.

A device like the iPad, however, mediates books, films, and games; it can be page, screen, and console. This problematizes medium-specific definitions of text engagement. When I am on my iPad it may not be immediately obvious to an observer sat across from me whether I am reading Harry Potter, watching Harry Potter, or playing Harry Potter. The observer would have to look from the device to me – to my hand movements, my gaze, my posture – to determine the nature of my engagement.

The cohabitation of books, films, and games on a single device subsumes their material differences and draws attention to their kinship. It shifts focus from what a medium is to what a medium does, or rather to what one does with the medium. As a result, it invites us to rethink the notion that reading, watching, and playing are discrete and discontinuous activities. The iPad and similar devices provide us with an opportunity to review the allocation of verbs that describe text engagement and develop a precise, thoughtful, panmedial discourse. In other words, the iPad calls for a discourse that can accommodate the playing of books and the reading of games.

Why is it important to develop a discourse to describe text engagement that isn’t medium-specific? Let’s say the observer watching me interact with my iPad stands up and looks over my shoulder. He sees that my iPad screen displays a page of written text authored by Rowling, or a pre-pubescent Daniel Radcliffe gurning at the camera, or an animated LEGO Harry Potter avatar responding to my furious tapping and swiping. If reading denotes decoding written language, watching denotes observing visual phenomena, and playing denotes participating in a recreational act, then the observer can confidently determine whether I am reading, watching, or playing, can’t he? In the first instance, all three forms of engagement are recreational and all require a certain degree of physical, interactive participation in the form of tapping and swiping to change the display. Secondly, all three forms of engagement entail the observation of visual phenomena. Whilst Harry Potter videos and Harry Potter videogames are visual in an obvious way, written language has an undeniably visual dimension that exceeds the flat, monochromatic shapes of letters on a screen. Consider as evidence the severity of my disappointment that Radcliffe bore no resemblance to the image of Rowling’s protagonist I saw with my mind’s eye whilst reading the books. Finally, there are myriad kinds of reading that exceed the interpretation of written language: I can read body language, situations, palms, lips, minds, maps, music, signs, the gas meter, a subject at university, or a radio transmission – ‘Do you read me, Reay?’ ‘Sir, yes, sir!’ When I engage with Harry Potter on film, I am reading Rickman’s sneering tones, I am reading Harris’s Merlin-esque costumes, I am even reading Radcliffe’s gurns.

Although the pedant in me despises terminological imprecision, this is not the reason that I want people to think critically about the habitual allocation of the verbs of text engagement. The real reason is I want a PlayStation 4. And lots of games. And I want them all in the library. And maybe a beanbag. I want to write my thesis on the literariness of children’s digital games. Firstly, because I’ve accepted that print texts are no longer the primary medium through which children experience story. Whether this makes you want to bury your face in an Oculus Rift or bury your face in your hand-illustrated, limited edition copy of Alice in Wonderland, you need to accept this too. It’s the truth. It’s happening. Dry your tears on those softly odorous pages. It’s going to be ok. So long as you give me a PlayStation.

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We need to start flexing our critical discourses and theoretical positions in preparation – these games aren’t going to read themselves. If we don’t, we are going to carry on reading articles populated with images of children “captured in passive spectatorship before the entertainment traps of technologies such as game consoles, iPads, and mobile phones” forgoing “the joy and fulfilment [of] creative joint play” (Heath 2016, p 128). Yeah, that’s from an article written in 2016. Twenty-sixteen. By an academic. Not by a member of Mumsnet or a journo for the Daily Mail whose knee-jerk reaction is unalloyed disgust. But by somebody whose job it is to think carefully and deeply about these things. This kind of condemnation of digital media relies heavily on the loaded contrast of spectatorship and entrapment with play and fulfilment. It uses media-bias embedded in language to dismiss a diverse body of texts based on their medium, and claims ‘reading’ for books, and books alone. And it won’t share. Very nasty playground manners. Especially since the connotations associated with specific verbs engender a set of assumptions about the text. Reading, for example, connotes concentration, edification, and insight. Reading is a skill that is vigorously honed and measured in schools and has historical significance as a marker of emancipated citizenship. In short, reading is considered a worthwhile activity and the book-as-an-artefact symbolises the apotheosis of civilisation. An extremely effective way of denigrating video games is to extol the virtues of reading, claiming all of these wonderful connotations for books (codex, mind you, none of these mind-controlling, eye-squaring e-books thank you) and denying games a slice of the connotative pie. On the other hand, a powerful way to disrupt media-bias is to loosen the ties between the verbs of text engagement and specific media by demonstrating the continuous transubstantiation of reading, watching, and playing that takes place any time a child engages with a text. I am readying myself to read some games (and, hey, maybe play some books). All I need is that PlayStation…

This week’s blog comes from Emma Reay, whose MPhil thesis is going to be a thing of masterpiece. 

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