When PJ Haarsma wrote his first book, a science fiction novel for preteenagers, he didn’t think just about how to describe Orbis, the planetary system where the story takes place. He also thought about how it should look and feel in a video game.

The online game that Mr. Haarsma designed not only extends the fictional world of the novel, it also allows readers to play in it. At the same time, Mr. Haarsma very calculatedly gave gamers who might not otherwise pick up a book a clear incentive to read: one way that players advance is by answering questions with information from the novel.

“You can’t just make a book anymore,” said Mr. Haarsma, a former advertising consultant. Pairing a video game with a novel for young readers, he added, “brings the book into their world, as opposed to going the other way around.”

Mr. Haarsma is not the only one using video games to spark an interest in books. Increasingly, authors, teachers, librarians and publishers are embracing this fast-paced, image-laden world in the hope that the games will draw children to reading.

Spurred by arguments that video games also may teach a kind of digital literacy that is becoming as important as proficiency in print, libraries are hosting gaming tournaments, while schools are exploring how to incorporate video games in the classroom. In New York, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is supporting efforts to create a proposed public school that will use principles of game design like instant feedback and graphic imagery to promote learning.

Publishers, meanwhile, are rushing to get in on the action. Scholastic, the American publisher of the Harry Potter series, recently released “The Maze of Bones,” the first installment in a 10-book mystery series that is tied to a Web-based game.

In advance of the publication of “Brisingr,” the third book in the best-selling “Inheritance” fantasy series by Christopher Paolini, Random House Children’s Books commissioned an online game. About 51,000 people have signed up since June to play and chat on message boards on the site.

But doubtful teachers and literacy experts question how effective it is to use an overwhelmingly visual medium to connect youngsters to the written word. They suggest that while a handful of players might be motivated to pick up a book, many more will skip the text and go straight to the game. Others suggest that video games detract from the experience of being wholly immersed in a book.

Some researchers, though, say that even when children don’t read much text, they are picking up skills that can help them thrive in a visually oriented digital world. And some educational experts suggest that video games still stimulate reading in blogs and strategy guides for players.

Motoko Rich
New York Times

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