If you listen to certain sectors of publishing and education, you’d be convinced that boys don’t read and we are losing our younger generation of readers to gaming. It’s not a new argument. Years ago, we were hearing that we were losing them to TV. The argument that we’ve been losing them to gaming has been around since the before the Nintendo NES. My answer now, as it was then, is that we aren’t asking the right question. Instead of asking if we are losing readers to gaming we ought to be asking why we might be doing so.
So, what is the answer?
First off, I’m not convinced we’re losing readers to gaming. Sure, a lot of folks would rather hook up their PS4 or Xbox One than crack a book. Part of the reason is that they can quickly become immersed in gaming in a way they haven’t figured out how to do with a book. Part of it is because a lot of what they are being required to read in school doesn’t interest them. After all, what normal kid, especially a boy, wouldn’t rather be playing pirate or space marine or race car driver instead of reading a book about a teen with mental illness or who is homeless? That’s especially true if the kid in question thinks about the reading or gaming time as part of their off-time, their non-school time.
In other words, kids – like adults – want to be entertained. While there is nothing wrong with reading about serious topics, for anyone to do so voluntarily, they need to be interested in the topic. It has to hold their interest somehow. That is something so many publishers and writers seem to have forgotten.
What brought this home for me – yet again – was following the so-called controversy that tried to attach itself to Bioware’s Dragon Age: Inquisition. At a time when Gamergate was starting to gather traction among certain people, there came condemnation of DA:I because it didn’t have a playable non-binary gender specific (or whatever) character. Which, if you know anything about Bioware was laughable. For years they have had characters in the RPGs that you could choose sexual preference for. Yes, there might be limitations on who you could “romance” in the game but, hey, you have the same limitations in real life.
But back to the point. The so-called controversy put DA:I on my radar. Now, I would probably have looked at the game at some point down the road because I’m a Mass Effect fan. I might not have liked the ending of ME:3 but I have always enjoyed Bioware’s RPGs. The previews and early reviews of DA:I were enough to put it on my “to buy” list. The manufactured controversy around the sort of playable characters had me getting the game sooner rather than later.
And, as suspected, the playable characters could be straight or gay or simply not interested in sex. No big deal and, in my mind, no controversy.
But it was the story in DA:I, like the story in the Mass Effect series, that drew me in. It is also what started me thinking once again on the question of why we might be losing readers to gaming.
The answer is very simple – in games like Dragon Age: Inquisition, the player is drawn into the story and cares about what happens, not only to his playable character but to the supporting cast. There is a connection forged between player and characters/game, the same sort of connection writers should be fostering with their readers and which is so often not done because there is more emphasis placed on writing socially relevant or “message” fiction.
Don’t believe me? Talk to gamers, young and old, who will put tens to hundreds of hours in a single game. Listen as they discuss what draws them to a game and why they keep playing. Those games they abandon are often games they find lacking a decent plot. This is something game developers have learned and they have taken steps to avoid in newer games. An example of this is the hiring of Rhianna Pratchett (Sir Terry Pratchett’s daughter) by developers like Crystal Dynamics and Irrational Games/2k to help write or write games such as Tomb Raider, Rise of the Tomb Raider and Bioshock Infinite.
RPGs have really come into their own as plot driven adventures of the video kind. They give gamers stories and characters they can care about and become invested in. At a time when kids aren’t being taught how to read for enjoyment, at least not in schools, is it any wonder they turn to gaming for their “fix”?
So, no, we aren’t losing readers to gaming. We are losing readers because of the lack of “approved” books that are entertaining and that give the reader a reason to become personally invested in the plot and characters. We, as authors, need to pay more attention to the what and why instead of the woe is me.
Oh, and Dragon Age: Inquisition is very much worth the time and money. It is a game that is beautiful to look at and it has a story and characters you can enjoy being part of. The few glitches are far outweighed by the rest of it.