The term “media literacy” has been around for 20 years or so and I always thought it meant the ability to analyze and evaluate media – TV, radio, the Internet – and understand the messages they deliver to us. For example, does a commercial for the U.S. Army glamorize being a soldier to lure in action-movie-trained boys who are just about to get out of high school? How do car commercials, in any nonprint medium, communicate a feeling of being “master of the road”? How did the “Little House on the Prairie” TV show affect our perception of American history?

But it appears that video games in libraries communicate media literacy as well, if we believe what Jenny Levine and game-boosting librarians tell us. Here’s a worthwhile article from the Chicago Sun-Times’ Neighborhood Star section: “Library adds media literacy, including games, to list of offerings.”

The article, by Angela Caputo, does discuss whether the new Wii system at the Chicago Heights Library, which requires kids and teens to have library cards before they can use it, increases the players’ use of the library, and leaves the question open for discussion:

“We figured if we could get them into the library itself and then get them cards it’s a step in getting them to look for books,” head children’s librarian Norma Rubio said.

As libraries turn to more unconventional materials, such as games, to satisfy patrons, a debate over whether libraries are “dumbing down” their collections has gained steam, the American Library Association’s Jenny Levine said.

Levine, of course, promotes games as a great way to draw young people into the library, and I know that research is going on as we speak to demonstrate whether or not games will lure kids into reading – of any kind – or not. Here at the Austin Public Library, the librarians running game tournaments have set up tables with reading lamps in the darkened rooms in which the tournaments are held, with a pile of young adult books and graphic novels to look at while participants wait for their turns at the game machines, and I’ve heard that at least a few of the kids are taking advantage of them.

But do games really teach any kind of “media literacy”? Not the kind of media literacy I know. Blasting monsters and winning races don’t teach much as far as my way of understanding how the media subtly communicate real-life messages is concerned. Now, the game “Grand Theft Auto” probably communicates a lot as far as a vision of America goes, but I don’t think many libraries are about to use it in their teen tournaments.

Nor, as far as I can see, are librarians doing anything to communicate what what media literacy really is when they present these game programs. I still feel the games are a lure, plain and simple. Some teens (mostly boys who never got the it’s-okay-to-read-if-you’re-male message) want them, so we provide them to get them into the building.

(Not that’s there’s anything wrong with that. But I think we should openly admit that we’re using non-literacy-oriented media to draw kids in who’d never touch a book with the proverbial ten-foot pole.)

And – honestly? I think game tournaments are not a good way to convince kids that reading print is good. We should be booktalking way more – nonfiction booktalking in particular – and doing more poetry and comics programs to do that.

But I can’t wait to be proved wrong.


Have you visited It’s part of the WETA Web site family from Washington, DC, Public Television. It’s a great resource on adolescent literacy for teachers, parents, and librarians working with teens.

The AdLit home page as I write features a piece on “Background Knowledge and Reading Comprehension.” For young people to be truly literate, they need more than the ability to simply decode the words they see on a page or a screen. They need to know the basics of the things being discussed. On which continent of the world, for example, is Iraq or Bolivia? What’s the difference between a reptile and an amphibian? Which war came first, the Revolutionary War or the War of 1812? More middle and high school students than you think have no clue.

Most important, students can find all these facts through Google, but can they explain them in their own words? An awful lot of students in 2008 subscribe to a copy-and-paste-without-really-reading-anything mentality.

Even though librarians don’t teach young people the knowledge they need to succeed in school, it’s important for library folks to understand how kids and teens learn and what they need to know to become truly literate. The site is a good one to read and keep in your bag of resources – in other words, it helps you build up your background knowledge about how young people learn and what they need to know – and to pass along to parents and others working with middle and high schoolers.

I’ve mentioned them before, but remember WETA’s other two literacy sites: Reading Rockets for pre-readers and beginning readers, and Colorin Colorado to encourage literacy skills in Spanish-speaking families.