Readers, Viewers, and Players Cherie Harder
Monday, February 24, 2014


“We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”
– Marshall McLuhan


Sometimes sales data can provide useful insights into what we as a society value, and how we are changing.

Compare, for example, sales of last year’s top-selling book compared with the best-selling video game: the leading video game of 2013, Grand Theft Auto V, sold over 12 million copies in the US alone (and over 26 million worldwide). In contrast, the best-selling book in all print categories, The Diary of a Wimpy Kid, sold a mere 1.8 million hardcopies.

By some measures, the total of all hardcopy (hardcover and paperback) book titles sold in 2013 was a little over 500 million. In contrast, the top ten video game titles alone sold over 70 million units. The total quantity of book titles being published (or self-published) has soared, even as sales have stagnated — there are far more book titles out there, with fewer people reading them. In contrast, more and more people are playing video games, and they tend to play the newest and most popular. Increasingly, our common cultural reference points are electronic, rather than literary.

Time-use studies corroborate this trend. Various studies report the average teenager spends less than 10 minutes per day reading – and several hours a day immersed in electronic entertainment. And a study by the National Endowment for the Arts entitled To Read or Not to Read found that while the proliferations of kindles, nooks, and other e-readers have made books easier and cheaper to obtain than ever, time spent reading and reading comprehension are steadily declining. We spend more time texting than reading, more time playing video games than reading, and far more time watching some form of video than reading. We are no longer a nation of readers; we have instead become a nation of viewers and players.

The consequences are enormous. The content we consume, and the medium in which it is communicated, not only affects what we think about, but how we think. And the shift in the media we rely upon will affect the ways we reason, what informs us, what entertains us, and what we value.

It has been decades since Marshall Mcluhan warned that “the medium is the message,” and argued persuasively that the mode of communication shapes and biases content. Just as (to borrow an example from the late sociologist Neil Postman), it is difficult to discuss philosophy by smoke signal, it is also difficult to communicate complex arguments by Facebook or TV, or the moral seriousness of violence in video games.

And while a few of the books on the best-seller list could reasonably be described as trivial or even trashy, it is noteworthy that the majority of the ten most popular video games are rated “M” for violence and essentially cast the player in the role of thug, assassin, or vigilante, and award points for each kill. In the case of the top-selling game, Grand Theft Auto V, players can engage in torturing a character (even getting to select the equipment used). In addition to the regular bloodshed of the game, the few female characters that appear in the game are usually prostitutes, victims, or both.

And whereas time spent consuming violent electronic entertainment has been strongly correlated with increased aggression, desensitization, isolation, and what has been called “mean world syndrome” (the idea that the world is violent and harsh), time spent reading also correlates with higher levels of civic and community involvement. A recent Census Bureau survey indicated that those who read literature are more likely to be involved in their community – including volunteering, voting, and giving to charity: whereas 43% of literary readers were involved in volunteer or charitable efforts, only 17% of non-readers were.

In short, the decline of reading over the last few decades has consequences for us both as individuals and as citizens. We are affected by what we read, watch, or play, and our imagination and assumptions are fed by the form as well as the content of what we consume. The shifting of our common cultural reference points from the literary to the electronic will shape our assumptions about what is interesting, noteworthy, and valuable; the content we ingest will mold our view of both reality and possibilities. What we can do about it is a discussion worth having. But if trends continue, chances are you won’t be reading about it.




Cherie Harder