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Videogames, literacy and learning

An introduction to the National Literacy Trust and their work
Two pairs of hands play with games controllers.
© JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

The National Literacy Trust is an independent charity working with schools and communities to give disadvantaged children the literacy skills to succeed in life. They have a focus on literacy in the digital age and oversee projects, events and initiatives designed to engage children and young people with literacy.

In 2020, Director of Research Christina Clark, Research Manager Irene Picton and Head of School Programmes Tim Judge co-authored a report exploring Video game playing and literacy.

Why research video game playing and literacy?

Much of our work at the National Literacy Trust is informed by what children and young people themselves tell us about their reading, writing and listening attitudes and behaviour. In 2019, as part of some research looking at reading and technology (Picton et al., 2019), we asked 11 to 16-year-olds what they chose to read online outside school.

We were surprised to see how many responses related to video game playing and culture, for example, in-game text, reviews and forums. Recognising that this interest seemed to be motivating reading in an age group not known for their enthusiasm in this area, we were keen to explore whether it might be associated with wider literacy attitudes, including writing, speaking and listening.

How did we approach the research?

Our programmes team had developed good relationships with children’s publishing and video game industry experts, and we were able to work with contacts in the Association of UK Interactive Entertainment (Ukie) and Penguin Random House Children’s to design a survey focusing on video game playing and literacy.

The survey went into the field in late 2019 and received more than 4,500 responses from 11 to 16-year-olds across the UK. Video game playing was very popular in this sample, with 2 in 3 (65%) girls and more than 9 in 10 (96%) boys saying they played video games regularly.

What did the research tell us?

Young people’s responses suggested that video game playing could not only provide a route into reading and writing but could also support creativity, empathy and mental wellbeing for many young people. For example:

  • 4 in 5 (79%) of video game players said they read something relating to game playing at least once a month, from in-game text to blogs, books and fan fiction.
  • 2 in 5 (40%) told us they were motivated to read to find out more about video games. Free-text comments suggested that video game playing could support everything from vocabulary to creativity: “It [playing video games] helps me learn new words and gives me more stuff to imagine if I ever needed to write a story.”
  • Video game playing also inspired some young people to write. 3 in 5 (63%) video game players wrote something related to games regularly, from scripts and blogs to practical advice to help other players.
  • The sense of expertise and social capital conferred by video game playing also came through in relation to speaking and listening. As one young person told us, “It helps with my self-confidence when I’m able to talk to others. The ability to teach others.”
  • Findings also suggested that the shared cultural experience of playing video games helped young people develop social connections with peers both online and ‘in real life’. For example, more than 3 in 4 (76%) of young people said they talked with their friends about video games, while just 3 in 10 (29%) talked about books.
  • Playing video games could provide access to, and a sense of immersion in, the world of stories for the least engaged readers. Nearly 3 in 4 (73%) of this group said playing video games helped them feel more part of a story than reading a book-based text.
  • 2 in 3 (65%) young video game players said playing video games helped them imagine being someone else, suggesting potential benefits for empathy. Many also told us video games helped them deal with stress and difficult emotions.
  • Some parents recognise these benefits for wellbeing, with 3 in 5 (60%) saying that communicating with family and friends as part of playing a video game had been helpful for their child’s mental wellbeing during the first lockdown in spring 2020.
  • Data from our Annual Literacy Survey in 2021 revealed that text or messages from friends or family as part of video game playing were the second most popular on-screen text read by children and young people after personal/direct messages (e.g. texts, WhatsApp or Instagram). Almost 9 in 10 (87.5%) of children and young people say they read these (Picton and Clark, 2021).

We were excited to see that media organisations across the world picked up on our first report. For example, this short piece on Sky News highlighted many of the positive findings:

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

Implications and possibilities for new programmes of work linking video game playing and literacy

Of course, reading a book and playing a game are quite different experiences. For example, many video games put the player at centre stage, meaning young people are not only part of the story but become the storyteller themselves as they contribute to how it unfolds.

Our survey showed that a lot of creativity, communication and connection is happening around video game playing, and we hope it contributes to a growing body of evidence exploring the positive impact of video game playing on literacy (see, e.g. Amorim, 2022; Pasqualotto et al., 2022; Steinkuhler, 2011).

We are really interested in how video games can be used in the classroom as both stimulus for literacy learning and a way to engage reluctant readers and writers. There are some brilliant examples of teachers using video games in the classroom, including programmes such as Twine, but also drawing on their children’s interest in video games to engage them in literacy activities.

Recently, we worked with Professor Sally Bushell and James Butler from Lancaster University to evaluate a pilot project using their Litcraft platform. This aimed to engage upper primary-aged pupils with reading and writing by exploring story worlds constructed in the Minecraft platform.

Findings were promising, with children reporting increased reading enjoyment, frequency and confidence, and one participant commenting: “I liked that you could do tasks on iPads and books. It made me more interested in the book and I enjoyed reading it.”

At the same time, we know many teachers, parents and young people find it difficult to see a place for video games in the classroom, and there are also concerns around things like screen time. A balanced, evidence-based approach to using video games to support learning is essential, recognising the parallels between digital and physical play, such as teamwork and socialising.

To fully realise the potential for video game playing to engage young people with reading, writing, speaking and listening, our next steps include finding opportunities for careful and considered partnership working between the industry, academia and schools.

Suggested activities

  • Sceptical about the links between literacy and video game playing? Why not try one of the many video games that support literacy, as suggested by expert Andy Robertson from Taming Gaming.
  • Need some inspiration to prise a young person away from their console for five minutes? Check out our book list packed with engaging, game-related titles from the experts at Penguin Random House Children’s
  • Know a young person who might be interested in a career in video game production? Find exclusive videos, interviews and tips that show young people how literacy can give them a route into working into the industry.

There are other activities and more advice on the Literacy Trust website.

Irene Picton


© The National Literacy Trust, 2022
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