An illustration of a man reading, drawn in the style of the video game Minecraft.

‘Minecraft is the greatest teaching tool since the printing press’: how an open mind on video games can aid reading

Growing up dyslexic, books felt like ‘bullies’ to Max Brooks; today, the bestselling author says there’s much we can learn about reading – and learning itself – from video games.

The war against video games, or indeed any kind of non-reading medium, has been going on since I was a kid. This is nothing new; before there was a screen in your pocket, there was a screen on the television. You know: ‘Turn that telly off! Go do something meaningful!’ But these other media could have been – and can still be – gateways into reading.

In fact, I think we got reading all wrong. I think there’s a degree of snobbery and ignorance that crushes children’s love of reading. I know that anybody can love reading, and I say this as a life-long dyslexic who turned reading and writing into a profession.

‘Natural’ readers and the rest of us

One of the problems with reading, ever since I was little in the 1980s, has been the distinction made by what I’ll call ‘natural readers’. There are people in life who, from the moment they cracked a book, were in love. They just took to it, and they can’t understand why the rest of our species don’t work that way.

I’ll never forget it: I was in eighth grade, and we were assigned a book report, and a friend of mine, with his mullet and his heavy metal T-shirt, said to the teacher, "I wanna read, like, a Stephen King book". The teacher said no, and used it in what he thought was a teaching moment to lecture the whole class about how Stephen King isn’t ‘literature’, and you shouldn’t be reading that. Looking back now, it’s the worst thing he could have done. Here’s a 14-year-old boy who’s probably only thinking about girls and Van Halen, and he wants to read a book. That teacher should have said, "Wow, of course!"

'Video games aren’t an enemy to reading and learning; they can be your friend if used correctly.'

Unfortunately, too many teachers became teachers because they were natural readers, and they couldn’t understand why their students weren’t as into reading as they were. Because I grew up with dyslexia, I hated reading; it was horrible, and I despised it. Books were bullies; they made me feel stupid. So if kids aren’t reading, it’s not because they can’t, necessarily; it’s because they haven’t been taught in a way that allows them to love it.

That’s where Minecraft, and other problem-solving video games, come in when it comes to reading. Video games aren’t an enemy to reading and learning; they can be your friend if used correctly.

Minecraft, video games, and the real world

To my mind, Minecraft isn’t just a video game – it’s a life simulator. The object of the game – now the bestselling video game in history – is to discover and extract materials and then build tools, items and structures out of them to survive. You get whatever you can get out of it, living the life you want to live: you could build yourself an elaborate castle, or just acquire wealth by mining into the earth; if you want to be a warrior, or be a farmer, you can. It’s basically ‘choose your own adventure’ for video games.

The game will give you a problem like ‘Don’t starve’, but it gives you a million ways to do it: you can hunt, fish, forage, scavenge. Minecraft teaches you to be a creative, individualistic problem-solver, which is exactly what this next generation is going to need in the gig economy. By playing games like Minecraft, you realise what your natural talents are, and what you need to work on. If you give 100 kids an older game like Call of Duty, there are just going to be winners and losers, but if you give 100 kids Minecraft and say ‘Don’t starve’, there are going to be 100 different solutions to put food in their stomach.

No matter what subject you’re in, it can teach you, whether it’s engineering, the sciences, even the social sciences – dealing with another player in the game, or dealing with villagers. It teaches you ecology, it teaches mathematics; I can predict, through mathematics, what my house is going to look like. Beyond that, it teaches basic life lessons: planning and preparation, any project-based learning. Sweden actually has Minecraft classes in schools to teach things like civil engineering and city planning. I’ve said this before, and I don’t think I’m exaggerating: I think Minecraft is the greatest single teaching tool since the printing press.

Creativity and adaptation

My son and I play Minecraft together all the time. He likes creative mode, where you never starve, you can’t be killed, and whatever material you want to build with – stone, gold, wood, whatever – you just go into the magical inventory and grab it. But I urge him to play survival mode, where you spawn with nothing: you can be killed, and you start starving the moment you spawn. If you are killed in survival mode, you respawn with nothing, and back where you started in the game; I think that’s a great life lesson.

A lot of times, in real life, you have to start over: you get fired from a job, or your skills become redundant because they’re replaced by technology; or you are in a relationship that breaks up. When that happens, we problem-solve, we learn, and we adapt.

If reading isn’t someone’s principal strength, don’t fret: there are many ways to read. When I was tested for dyslexia, it was discovered that I took my information through my ears more than my eyes. My mother took all my schoolbooks to the Braille Institute in downtown L.A. and had them read onto audio cassette, because that’s how I learned.

'If reading isn’t someone’s principal strength, don’t fret: there are many ways to read'

Today, part of my job is to read voluminously, but I still have to go to Audible or have Alexa read stuff to me; I keep the hard copy next to me and I underline as I go. In 1982, my teachers might have said I was being lazy. Today, we are innovating and adapting.

If Minecraft has one last priceless lesson for this planet of ours, it’s that the game is always updating. You might be able to master all the skills and the world around you, but suddenly the game updates and the world changes, and you learn all over again. Welcome to real life, right?

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Illustration: Mica Murphy / Penguin

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