Stories of Our Time

Reading for pleasure may be in long-term decline, but storytelling is not.

Kids are digital natives. Talking to their friends on Snapchat, sharing photos on Instagram, and laughing at TikTok challenges: kids live in an all-pervasive technology world. As a result, reading habits have shifted. 

A bookshelf is one of the most powerful resources we have to enhance our worldview, broaden our perspective, and celebrate our differences. Unfortunately, according to World Book Day, 383,755 children in the UK don’t have a single book to call their own. ‘Book poverty’ is a real issue: for 1 in 3 children receiving free school meals, the book they receive with World Book Day £1 book tokens is the first they have ever personally owned.

What’s more, only 52.5% of 8-18-year-olds read for pleasure, the single biggest indicator of a child’s future success according to the National Literacy Trust. However, that’s not to say that kids don’t love stories.

“I read books for school but in my free time, I don’t really. I like to watch stuff, not read stuff.”
Girl, 8

No matter how much reading habits have changed, kids will always want stories and characters to love, whether they’re from video games, movies, or books. Stories show them far-flung places, relatable or extraordinary characters and eye-opening situations that expand and enrich their world. 

Reading for pleasure may be in long-term decline, but storytelling is not.

The Gaming Evolution

With multi-layered stories and in-depth characters, today’s video games allow kids to shape their gameplay and narrative however they choose. 

Video games are more accessible than ever. Most kids have access to mobile games or consoles, and the time they spend on gaming is constantly increasing. In turn, gaming has ceased to be a niche market. Bolstered by the coronavirus lockdown and a desire to connect, video games are no longer perceived as a mindless distraction: people and companies want to know how to maintain relationships and communities digitally. So instead, videos games have become platforms for mental stimulation and social connection.

A recent study undertaken by the National Literacy Trust, supported by Ukie and Penguin Random House, revealed that playing video games can improve young people’s literacy, creativity and empathy.* With narrative-driven gameplay and a network of dedicated players, kids can control characters, make choices, in turn, immerse themselves into the game and a whole new world. 

“Animal Crossing is my favourite game because you live a life like you live right now.”
Girl, 9 

For example, the popular sandbox game, Minecraft, gives kids a foundation from which they explore and express themselves creatively. Roblox takes this one step further with kids creating whole new worlds and story-driven mini-games such as Daycare or Field Trip Z. They have the freedom to shape their entertainment and tell their own stories. Read more about why kids love Roblox here.

In addition, 4 in 5 (79%) young people who play video games read materials relating to video games regularly. Whether it’s through in-game communications, reviews and blogs, books, and fan fiction, kids love to consume content around their favourite games, just as they would their favourite book or movie franchise. 

“I like Minecraft books from a YouTuber called Stacyplayz. They are more of a story or adventure.”
Boy, 13

As demonstrated by the above graph, 58% of kids aged 6-16 watch content around gaming on social media. So not only does gaming tell stories through play but also tell stories through socials. Beyond reading content around the games, kids love chatting online to other players via Discord or Twitch or watching YouTube series of their favourite influencers playing games, which inspires them to play along too.  

The Craft of Storytelling

Earlier this summer, we spoke to Waterstones Children’s Book of the Year Winner and author of The Highrise Mystery series, Sharna Jackson, and she delved into the extensive video-game writing process, “We have to write so many words. I think games have like half a million words in them.” 

“We have a prompt, and then we come up with the scenario and write it, literally like a script: one character says this, another character answers, the expression that they might use,” Sharna explained. As with a book, lots of time goes into crafting the world and narrative for a video game to create an immersive experience for its players.

With expansive worlds, video games provide escapism. Like books, they help kids deal with stressful situations, most notably during lockdown. 

Rising Readers

Despite the dominance of video games, books are still an integral part of many kids’ lives. Whether they read before bed or during school, we speak to many book-loving kids during our Youth Trend Spotting calls. Horrible Histories, Harry Potter, and The Chronicles of Narnia are a few series frequently mentioned. 

“Erin Hunter books and Horrible Histories are my favourites. It’s a good way to pass the time. You’re engulfed in a new world.”
Boy, 10

Another favourite among kids is Jeff Kinney’s bestselling Diary of a Wimpy Kid series which has recently bagged an animated film adaptation that will stream on Disney+ on December 3rd. From Alice in Wonderland to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for years, film adaptations have brought kids’ favourite characters to life, captured their imagination and further engrossed them in the storyline.

[Is reading important?] “Definitely. The kids at school are all surprised ‘cause I don’t have a phone and don’t watch TikTok and stuff, but I don’t care. I don’t want a phone.”
Boy, 10

Audiobooks and podcasts are also on the rise and break some of the barriers to reading for reluctant readers. We surveyed over 3000 kids and 21% said they prefer listening to audiobooks before bed or during long car journeys. 

“I listen to them every single night.”
Girl, 9

Looking forward, we can only expect more expansive and immersive gaming. With the rise of artificial intelligence, we predict the incorporation of AI into games to build players’ perfect, ideal games with their desired elements, story, and characters. A story catered towards their tastes. 

Be it through video games or books, we all have stories that stick with us; that we turn to for an escape. Ultimately, the world is changing every day, and stories in whatever shape or form are more important than ever to help kids to understand it.

Read next:
The Enduring Power of Jacqueline Wilson
Sharna Jackson on The Value of Listening to Kids