Saturday, March 08, 2008

Reading and Gaming in 2008

E. Gary Gygax died this week. When he co-developed Dungeons & Dragons in the Seventies, I'm sure he did not realize that his passing would make all the major newspapers, including the New York Times.

The NYT Op-Ed on the subject says that geek culture has won - the types of people who sloped off and met up with a dungeon master for a weekend of D&D thirty years ago are now the people in demand because of their skills, and the vocabulary they - I guess 'we', although I've never played D&D myself - use is now the lexicon everyone needs to communicate in the modern world. I'm not completely convinced, but writer Adam Roberts makes a good case for it.

While I was reading the article, I noticed that NYT articles have an innovation that makes them rather modern themselves. If you double click on any word, your browser takes you to a thesaurus and displays the definition. I hadn't realized that until today, and I'm still rather gobsmacked by it. It's a simple enough thing, I suppose, but I've never seen it before (except in writing applications on my own computer). On the other hand, I've seen many sites that will link a word with a blue underline and when you double click on the word you get an ad for acupuncture or a balloon-thingy telling you that tires are half-price at Ed's Tires of [your town name here] or some other completely unrelated POS that has trained me never to click on those blue links. But this actually works.

It's not perfect, mind. Adam Roberts, according to the article, works for Wired (a magazine), and when I double clicked on the word 'wired', the definitions ranged in tone from fuddy-duddy to funky, but not one of them told me Wired was a magazine (or a website). I suppose they are deliberately trying to keep the Ed's-tire-iness out of the definition engine, but I still found it funny.

I wonder if a newspaper that is its own thesaurus will improve reading scores? There's always a kerfuffle about declining reading scores. I think Cassandra has been wailing about reading scores since approximately the time I first learned to read newspapers. People may have even whined about them before I learned to read, too. An indignant article in the Guardian last month pointed out that the studies which show a declining interest in reading often specifically leave out reading on the internet. To the framers of the study, the web simply doesn't count, I suppose because it they think it is a newfangled fad like Beatles Haircuts or Pet Rocks and will soon go away leaving us all feeling sheepish and vaguely fooled.

The Guardian article, Dawn of the Digital Natives, dissects a National Endowment for the Arts study called To Read or Not to Read, which says (I guess; I haven't *ahem* read it) that we are all Doomed due to a lack of literary culture. Teenagers' reading skills are down one percentage point from teenagers tested in 1988. The Guardian points out that we knew they were going to be - they didn't test well in 1999. But nine year olds, tested for the current study, jumped seven points (about 1.2%) over nine year olds tested in 1999. So today's youngsters are reading better than 1999's youngsters. Not so much of a crisis after all.

And the NYT's dowdy but clever dictionary can't help but improve that further.

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