Arthur Morgan leads his horse across a dramatic landscape in a screenshot from 'Red Dead Redemption 2' (2018) Rockstar Games.jpg
Stories & Ideas

Thu 06 Jul 2023

Reading digital games

Education Videogames
Alex B

Alexander Bacalja

Senior Lecturer in Language & Literacy, Melbourne Graduate School of Education

What does it mean to read a digital game? How is reading a game different to playing a game? And why is an understanding of the relationship between reading and playing essential for teachers hoping to bring digital games into their classrooms for teaching and learning?

There is a temptation to see playing a game as something quite different from reading. There are no pages in games. Many games have little to no text. And the interaction that takes place when we use controllers to direct an avatar is nothing like looking at words on paper.

I propose that it is impossible to play games without reading.


Games like Stray (2022) involve little text and appear to require no effort at all to play. However, we cannot take control of the game’s protagonist cat without ‘reading’ and making sense of a huge number of signs and symbols as we navigate the gameworld

If we approach the idea of reading from a traditional perspective, then we would limit ourselves to thinking in terms of phonics. A phonics approach to reading focuses on the way letters represent sounds and sounds, in combination with other sounds, represent words. Our understandings of reading have moved well beyond this over the past fifty years. It now includes a strong emphasis on meaning making. In other words, what meaning do we produce when we engage with words, sentences, paragraphs, whole texts, and even signs in our everyday life. Put another way, we engage in meaning making when we see a stop sign, flick through social media, and pass judgement on the fashion choices of those sitting opposite us on the train.

We are, therefore, always reading.

What does this have to do with playing games in schools? When we are playing digital games we are always making sense of those elements on the screen (we are also making sense of the world outside of the screen, the vibrating controller, the team members berating us in our headsets, etc). Game interfaces represent a kaleidoscope of signs. Mini maps, colour, sound effects, music, narrator voice-overs, symbols, and movement represent just a sample of the signs that we need to make sense of as we move through game worlds. The interpretation of these signs usually occurs unconsciously. Play and reading become so intertwined that we barely notice that we are constantly using these signs to make meaning from our play, and using this meaning to make decisions about our next actions.

For educators, this can be a problem.

jedi survivor

One of the most popular games in 2023 has been Star Wars: Jedi Survivor (2023). A cursory glance at the game interface reveals a complex web of multimodality that a player must negotiate if they are to successfully use their jedi avatar to move through the game’s story

When we play games for pleasure it is does not really matter if we lose ourselves in our play. Many would argue that this is the primary objective of play, to be so immersed in a gameworld that we temporarily suspend thoughts about the real-world. However, teachers using games for explicit learning objectives need to carefully consider what kinds of reading they want their students to engage in as they play games in classrooms.

animal crossings

Animal Crossing: New Horizons (2022) offers an abundance of daily activities to be completed by a player. The gameworld is full of stimulus ready to hold our attention. For teachers, there is a need to carefully consider what we want students to focus on during gameplay and how directed reading can support specific learning outcomes

I say ‘kinds of reading’ because there is no ‘single’ reading. Different ways of reading produce different kinds of attention. Exploring three examples of reading here can help show how each might be used differently to support game-based learning.

Close reading

Close reading is the practice of slowing down and sustaining our focus on one feature of a text. Ivor Richards (1929) developed this approach to reading in his 1929 book Practical Criticism, arguing that the field of literary criticism needed new techniques and methods for understanding what we hear and read. Richards demonstrated how an orderly and focussed attention to specific features of a text provided a more intimate understanding of the texts under investigation.

More recently, Fisher and Frey (2012) have identified five characteristics of close reading, namely: a focus on short passages, the use of complex texts, limited front-loading, repeated readings, and text-dependent questions. Importantly, close reading is not a practice that is limited to poetry or other literary texts. Professor of English Jane Gallop (2007) argues that we can extend close reading beyond the literary world to other cultural products.

What might close reading look like when applied to the digital game classroom?

Rather than asking students to analyse entire games, teachers would focus student attention on very specific moments in a game. These moments could be as short as a few seconds in duration and would be selected so that study can be sustained on features of this moment. This study might be interested in the language used by game characters, the effect of the background music, the choices available to the gameplayer or the way design choices contribute to the development of the game avatar.

Reading intertextually

Intertextuality describes the continual exchange and act of relationship building between texts. First coined by French philosopher Julie Kristeva (1986), the term captures the way that the meaning derived from one text is connected to meanings and messages imposed by the readers experiences with other texts. Put another way, reading a digital game inevitably involves bringing readings of other games and texts with us.

Arthur Morgan leads his horse across a dramatic landscape in a screenshot from 'Red Dead Redemption 2' (2018) Rockstar Games.jpg

Games like Red Dead Redemption 2 (2018) draw on genre conventions across multiple media to support the gameplayer to make sense of their experience. Hollywood’s long obsession with the ‘Western’ genre of film, from Unforgiven (1992) to The Wild Bunch (1969), as well as more recent TV series that subscribe to similar conventions, such as Yellowstone (2018), Deadwood (2004), and Walker, Texas Ranger (1993), have built up a body of knowledge about the genre that the game’s designers have incorporated into their game. These conventions are ripe for student analysis.

In Barry Atkin’s book More than a Game (2003), the author uses intertextuality to explain the ways that the Lara Croft-led Tomb Raider series makes sense to gamers. Connections are made to other genres of media that have established norms and patterns regarding adventure stories. Atkin’s compares features of the Tomb Raider world with the Indiana Jones movies, to show how gamers bring knowledge and expectations from their film-watching to their game-playing, and that this knowledge informs how they interpret what to do with Lara Croft.

Critical reading

Critical reading is an approach to texts that begins from the premise that all texts are a product of ideology and that acts of reading are political. The aim of such reading is to support students to understand how language, texts and their structures as ways of representing the world. To encourage students to read critically is to adopt a political approach to teaching and learning. As Australian Professor Allan Luke put it, a critical approach is interested in processes of naming and renaming the world, seeing its patterns, designs and complexities, and developing the capacity to redesign and reshape it (2012).


First person shooters, such as Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007), are highly problematic. They narrowly and negatively portray specific cultural groups. Critical literacy provides a set of tools to help students interrogate representations that might otherwise go unchallenged by young and old alike.

While educators around the world have embraced digital games for teaching school content, much of their teaching treats the games used in classrooms as neutral texts. Strategies for critical reading can vary by discipline, text-type, and the purpose of the particular reading. Teachers hoping to shift student reading practices to more critical objectives might consider:

  • Asking questions about the designers of the game and their motivations.
  • Getting students to take notes recording the characters encountered in a game and the features of those characters.
  • Documenting examples of language used in the game and inviting students to experiment with the effect of different language choices.
  • Surveying the choices available to the gamer and ‘playing’ with the effect that different choices might have on the messages of the game and the effect on the reader.

We rarely bring these digital technologies into our classes for the sake of play alone. We have specific kinds of meaning-making that we hope students will generate. Close reading, intertextual reading and critical reading are just a few of the many ways that we might want students’ engagement with games to be directed through particular ways of making meaning. As teachers design their own game-centred curriculum units, it is important that they consider how they will deploy reading as a strategy for specific learning objectives so that they can maximise the benefits that can come from these highly engaging media.

Resource links

The author has handpicked the following relevant resources and lesson plans developed by the ACMI Education team and others.

Attempt a close-reading using activities within the ACMI Game Lesson ‘Illuminating character and setting with The Gardens’, as several ask students to close read different levels and moments from the game.

The concept of intertextuality can also be explored using ‘Multimodal literacy with ‘Short Trip’. This lesson plan providess opportunities and prompts that allow students to compare the game to other texts, such as picture story books, comics, and even museum exhibits.

Critical reading is also encouraged with ‘Building a better society with Sid Meier’s Civilisation VI’. In this lesson plan, students are asked to critically assess the decisions of ‘nation builders’ and to explore the motivations and consequences of invasion and colonisation.


Atkins, B. (2003). More than a game: The computer game as fictional form: Manchester University Press.

Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2012). Close reading in elementary schools. The Reading Teacher, 66(3), 179-188.

Gallop, J. (2007). The Historicization of Literary Studies and the Fate of Close Reading. Profession, 181-186.

Kristeva, J. (1986). The Kristeva Reader (T. Moi Ed.). New York: Columbia Univeristy Press.

Luke, A. (2012). Critical literacy: Foundational notes. Theory into practice, 51(1), 4-11.

Richards, I. A. (1929). Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgment. London: Routledge.