My son, Sol, taught himself to read playing video games.
People don't believe it when I say that. They smile and nod, but the skepticism in their eyes gives them away. I get it. It sounds like the kind of story a guilt-ridden parent might invent in order to justify video games in the home.
And video games do seem to need justification. They are implicated in news stories involving young people and violence. They come up in discussions about childhood obesity. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry stated in 2006 that playing video games for large amounts of time could lead to "poor social skills, time away from family and hobbies, reading less, becoming overweight, and aggressive thoughts and behavior." Gaming has a bad reputation, to say the least.
I was never a gamer. I never got the hang of the controller, the subtlety of the movements. The frenetic pace of most games was too much for me, an already anxious kid. I'd go to the arcade with my sisters, play a little Ms. Pac Man and be ready to go home. By the time a Nintendo Entertainment System came into our house, I was fourteen and too interested in books and boys to notice.
My partner, Adam, on the other hand, was a gamer long before there was a title for it. Raised on a steady diet of Nintendo and computer games, he could spend hours playing without realizing how much time had passed. He once spent an entire semester of college on the Nintendo 64. He could not imagine a home without a game system in it. So when we moved in together, the video games came too, and I witnessed how much time -- time that could have been spent sleeping, reading, or walking in the woods -- was lost to gaming. I did not see the appeal.
But despite all the warnings, and my new mother anxiety about the effects of media on children, we didn't get rid of the game system when Sol was born. We didn't even hide it from him. However, I kept my distance from the games. The words "video game" and "addicted" were so tightly linked in my mind that I was certain they shared some archaic etymological root. There was also the violence, which seemed inherent to so many videogames. I didn't trust the Nintendo Gamecube as far as I could throw it.
But one day, a few years ago, when Sol was five, he sat down in front of the TV and instead of requesting an episode of Public Television's Cyberchase he asked to play the video game he'd watched his father play before. There it was, what felt like the beginning of the end. The game, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, was harmless enough -- a little boy dressed in green, sailing around, saving the world. He carried a sword against fantastical, cartoonish creatures. Still, I wasn't prepared for that question.
"I don't know," I said, sliding into a spot next to him on the floor. I leaned my back against the couch, where my two-year-old, Luna, practiced jumps and tumbles. Sol and I sat, legs folded like pretzels, staring at a darkened screen, waiting for an answer. I don't know why, but I'd figured I had a good four or five years before he'd be interested in video games. I wasn't ready to decipher ESRB ratings or wade through reviews in order to find the most age-appropriate, least corruptive games. And The Wind Waker hardly seemed a beginner's game, with puzzles designed for more experienced, less easily frustrated players. (Players that didn't still need an afternoon nap.)
"Please," he begged. Luna wrapped her arms around my neck, echoing her brother: "Peas."
I weighed thirty minutes of passive TV-watching against thirty minutes of mentally active gaming and decided to let him play. I assured myself that he'd quickly find it beyond his capabilities and be done with it without too much frustration. And this would stave off the video game dilemma for a few more years. That was the plan anyway -- as if years of parenting hadn't taught me that plans only work in theory.
The title screen was impressive, with brilliant graphics and upbeat Irish bagpipe music. This isn't so bad, I thought. Then the lines of text appeared: This is but one of the legends of which the people speak. Long ago, there existed a kingdom where a golden power lay hidden.... And the words kept coming. I hadn't remembered all those words! There were words telling the story of the game and words explaining which buttons to push. The text wasn't excessive, but to Sol it might as well have been War and Peace. When you know how to read, you take it for granted, like breathing.
"What does it say?" he asked.
I read to him, and he was captivated. Eyes focused, mouth slightly open, body motionless, as if conserving every ounce of energy to absorb the story. I remember lying on my back next to him when he was a baby, holding Higglety Pigglety Pop above us, his body intently still, save the occasional jab or kick of tiny fists and feet. And when nuzzling at my breast ceased to soothe, cuddling up with a book did the trick -- for both of us -- every time. I had read to him every day of his life, and, from the time he could make his preferences clear, reading was one of his favorite activities.
Yet I was not the least bit excited by this new, shared literary endeavor. It didn't feel at all like reading together. There was no smell of paper, brand-new or musty; no muffled whispers as my fingertips skimmed the pages, leaving an impression impossibly memorable and forgettable at once. There was nothing to hold except the game controller, which Sol managed just fine without me, pressing the buttons that brought up the next lines of text, rotating the joystick to move the Hero around.
I snuck glances at him as I read, watching his eyes occasionally grow in amazement as the story of the Hero, a boy who looked not much bigger than himself, unfolded. He'd looked like that when we read My Father's Dragon or The Wizard of Oz. I realized there would be no tidy ending to our experiment. I knew he would not share my ambivalence about video games. I knew he would not walk away from that game until he played it to the end. I knew I would not last another ten minutes sitting there.
"I don't think this will work, Sol."
"Why?" He looked up at me, perplexed, his forehead wrinkled until his eyebrows nearly touched.
"There's a lot to read, and I don't want to sit here and read it while you play," I said, rising to switch off the game.
"Can I play if I read it myself?" he asked, undaunted by his lack of experience, knowledge or skill.
I stopped, halfway up, frozen by his question. I looked into his little face, jaw set in earnest determination, deep brown eyes wide and focused on some point beyond me, beyond that moment. He wanted to do it, wanted to at least try.
I was reminded of the summer I was nine and read my way through the children's section of the library. An uncompromising librarian constantly steered me away from the titles that spoke to me from the shelves. Every week she offered the same chapter books with the same predictable characters and stories, books I'd long outgrown. When I finally insisted on bringing home A Wrinkle in Time, she couldn't refuse. That was the beginning for me.
I kissed the top of Sol's curly head, searching for that sweet smell that I knew still lingered somewhere beneath this emerging scent -- a mixture of grass, tree bark and maple syrup. I wasn't sure what kind of beginning this was for him, but I knew I couldn't stand in the way.
"Just a few more minutes," I said, scooping a giggling Luna into my arms and leaving him to work through it.
Those few minutes led to more the next day and stretched themselves across a week. In that time Sol went from sounding out street signs to following a storyline replete with all the elements of a good sea odyssey -- a noble hero, a band of pirates, a powerful villain, an ancient city buried under water. Within two weeks, it was clear he wasn't simply piecing bits together from the visuals or through trial and error. He was reading. He knew details about the story, could quote dialogue, and could communicate with the other characters in the game. While I was still puzzling over the best method of teaching him to read, he was teaching himself.
At the time it wasn't clear to me which was more surprising -- that Sol was so quickly mastering reading without any help from me, or that he was so quickly mastering the game. Occasionally I'd sit with him and watch him maneuver his way through thunderstorms on an endless blue landscape, consulting his map and compass, and eventually steering his way to some unknown island. I watched him enter a dungeon and tirelessly attempt to get from point A to point B without alerting the hog-creature guards. He had remarkable hand-eye coordination. He was quick-witted, a natural problem-solver. He was also becoming obsessed.
He asked to play first thing in the morning and grumbled when it was time to turn it off. He carried the game manual to bed with him at night and lay on his stomach studying its pages long after bedtime reading ended. Those old fears traipsed to the forefront of my mind, set up camp, and nursed a fire of doubt. Had I made a mistake? Had I opened the door to a world where video games ruled? And in doing so closed another on a childhood filled with play, imagination, and books?
Then I'd catch a glimpse of him through the kitchen window, wearing a green tunic, carrying a wooden sword, chasing invisible monsters from our yard. I'd watch him sail away on two wooden chairs pushed together, with Luna as first mate. I watched him translate the video game into his own world, playing out the story to endings of his own imagining. When he wasn't moving the Hero around the screen, he was the Hero, and I was hopeful again.
But I was still worried that gaming might displace his other love: reading. It never occurred to me that he would not inherit my affinity for words. It's encoded in his DNA along with the curls in his hair and the heft of his bones. But what if gaming took up all the extra space in his life, leaving no room for the stacks of books I'd envisioned surrounding him? I worried that plain paper and ink would never stand a chance against dancing graphics and an awesome soundtrack. I worried that gaming would be one more distraction from reading, from me.
Adam, not a worrier by nature, assured me that there was room for both reading and gaming. And he was right. Sol easily transferred his new-found reading skills from the world of gaming to the world of books. He pulled old favorites off the shelves and sat quietly decoding their messages. He followed along as I read to him with a new attentiveness, a focused concentration. He seemed to suddenly see words everywhere. He saw them and wanted to know them all.
In the end, the technology I dreaded was what accelerated my son's development as a reader. And as hard as it is to admit, I think it even inspired him in a way the printed word alone did not. Sol would have learned to read eventually without video games, but I think coming to it the way he did, following his own path, a path so foreign to me that it frightened me, made his arrival all the more gratifying. Gaming was his beginning, and from there he never looked back.
Sol is now nine years old, and he's still an avid gamer, but he's also an avid reader. He still plays video games first thing in the morning, and still grumbles when it's time to stop. But he also still can't get enough of books. They are everywhere in our house -- on the shelves, on the floor, the dining room table, on nearly every available surface. His voracious reading outpaces my own and if we start a book together I have to keep it hidden or else he will take it and finish it without me.
When he says there is nothing he'd rather do than play video games, I ask, "Really? Nothing?"
He reconsiders, then answers, "Well except for read. I'd die if I couldn't read."
The other day, as I sat at the kitchen table writing a review of The Great Gatsby, Sol came up to read over my shoulder.
"F. Scott Fitzgerald?!" he exclaimed.
"Mmm-hmm. You've heard of him?" I asked, my gaze fixed on the screen, fingers poised over the keyboard, determined to keep pace with the flow of words.
"Wasn't he married to Zelda Fitzgerald?"
I turned to him. "You've heard of Zelda Fitzgerald?"
"She inspired the name for The Legend of Zelda games," he said, head tilted forward, eyebrows raised, emphasizing the obviousness of this statement.
For a moment I was stunned -- not as much by this trivia as by the reminder of the link between gaming and books in Sol's mind. Somehow it made sense that a literary classic should lead us back to his favorite video game.
"What? Is that true?" I finally asked.
He shrugged. "Of course it's true. I read it on Wikipedia.