01 May 2009

Using Tie-Ins to lure kids into reading – REALLY?

I was really intrigued by the NYT article “Using Video Games as Bait to Hook Readers”, because it’s an article that approaches a subject, that, as a ‘budding librarian’ (as one of my former undergrad professors now refers to me) I have always wondered about – the tie-in.

I was discussing my own children’s’ reading habits with that same professor, who has a 21-year-old son. I’m so proud of how my daughters love to read – they love not only being read to, but reading to me. (My younger daughter, who is 3, plays at it – but still…I figure its good practice.) I was insistent that these good reading practices will make them into readers as young adults and adults. They’re smart. They like to read. It seems as simple as 2 + 2 to me.

My professor informed me that his son, as a child, was the same way, but somewhere around the age of about 10-12, he just stopped reading. He had loved reading …and then he just stopped. My sister recently bemoaned a similar situation to me – my nephew, who is 10, and for whom I have bought books his entire life – who used to not be able to go to bed at night without a stack of books beside him – has inexplicably stopped reading. As soon as I started reading the NYT article, I was asking myself all kinds of questions.

The NYT article cites tie-ins as both a marketing boon for gaming systems, and a way to get teens into, or back into, reading. Large children’s publishing houses like Scholastic are producing series of ready-made book/game tie-in series. Many of the popular games on Gaming Systems, such as HALO, or online games like World of Warcraft have tie-in novels that extend the story and draw the reader further into the fictitious world of the game. According to the article, when “Brisingr”, the third book in Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance series came out, Random House commission an online game to go with it.

A science fiction “tie-in” author, PJ Haarsma, a former advertising consultant, is quoted in the article as saying that pairing a video game with a novel for young readers “brings the book into their world, as opposed to going the other way around.”

Herein lies somewhat of a problem for me. So much of what is offered to young people today, starting at a very early age, is pre-packaged. One of the great things about reading, or at least I think so, is being pulled into the world of the book. And, really, how much of the whole tie-in phenomenon is about the reader, and how much is about generating a revenue stream?

That being said, I keep thinking about my daughters and what they like to read. So far, there have been no appeals for the Hannah Montana tie-in books, the High School Musical tie-in books…but my daughter is only 6 (almost 7). When she asks for them, I will probably let her read them, because I want her to continue to hone her reading skills. So, can tie-ins be effectively used to continue to encourage kids and teens to continue to read during those years when it may not be as interesting to them? Probably. But only through their creative use and promotion by librarians, educators, and parents, I think.

I’ve always been intrigued by tie-ins, mostly because they just seem kind of dumb to me. (Of course, I do realize the value of them to other people, and would never judge someone for reading them – they just don’t happen to be my ‘thing’.) I got curious about the whole phenomenon. I found a couple of websites for writers that deal with media tie-ins, not specifically gaming, but also movies and TV shows. The first was the website of the international Association of Media Tie-In Writers (http://www.iamtw.org/) and the second was their blog, located at http://iamtw.blogspot.com/. I was a little amazed that there’s a writing group for tie-in writers, that they have their own blog, etc.

After reading this article, though, and doing that small amount of research, I still have these questions about gaming tie-ins – or any tie-ins for that matter.

1) Thriving in a visually oriented world may indeed be necessary at this stage in the technological development of society…but what are the ramifications of that? What is lost? By making everything so readily available, so pre-packaged – what is lost in the process?

2) What do tie-ins provide the reader that is any different than, say, a break-out sci-fi novel or series? And why do some people like tie-ins, while others do not?

3) With reading, and drawing the book into the kids’ world as opposed to drawing the kid into the world of the book – how are we depriving kids of the opportunity to use their own imaginations to visit other worlds? Or, ARE we depriving them of that?

Just a few thoughts.

So, I guess my ultimate question is this – are the companies that produce the games, manufacture them and sell them really interested in promoting literacy to the youth who play their games? Or are tie-ins a marketing tool masterfully adapted from the movie/tv genre to the gaming genre? I would vote for the latter, but also would like to hear others’ opinions.

1 comment:

  1. My money's on the second. I remember reading a few years ago an article in Publisher's Weekly describing somebody's (Scholastic's?) plan to reintroduce '80s favorites like Transformers, Strawberry Shortcake, and Care Bears. The publicist went into great detail about the plan--introduce retro gear, like pajamas and tank tops and retro-style T's, for the twenty-something nostalgia crowd first, because kids look up to "cool" teenagers and young adults; second, launch re-designed versions of the toys, assuming that you'll get first the "I loved this when I was a kid" crowd, and then the kids themselves interested; third, premiere cartoons, movies, or other media assets; fourth, books and movie/TV tie-ins. It was so carefully plotted, and showed such long-range planning to reintroduce the brand, that I was both impressed and chilled. Now everytime I see a kitschy, retro-inspired anything, I imagine the deluge to follow.

    On the other hand, I'm glad to see the "retro" designed toys like Lincoln Logs, Etch-a-Sketch, Chutes and Ladders, and the like. There for a while the only options were TV-branded toys--the SpongeBob Squarepants Etch-a-Sketch, the Duncan Hines EZ Bake Oven. Ugh.