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How Final Fantasy Taught Me to Read

A question I get asked a lot is, “Why?” As in: You’re not a parent — why are you so interested in building a premium education company focused on preschool learning?

It’s an important question, and one with many answers. Some I’ve shared with you before, but today I thought I’d speak a little bit more about why I’m involved with Tiggly, and why I think what we’re up to here is so important.

To paraphrase a classic piece of advertising, when it comes to the learning benefits of digital tools, I’m not only the co-founder of our company, I’m also a client. You see, a major early influence on my cognitive development was video games. As the youngest of three, video games actually played a major role in my desire to learn to read.

Allow me to explain.

I can’t say for certain whether Mario Bros. on the Nintendo Entertainment System was the first video game I ever played, but it very likely was. I distinctly remember those first few times playing it with my brother and sister, and how I would move the controller through the air as I made Mario jump, as if physically moving the controller might coax Mario higher.

Two things happened, however, as the months went by and I continued playing my NES. One, I got a lot more into video games than either my brother or my sister. And two, I started playing role-playing games (RPGs) like Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior. Specifically: Final Fantasy 1 and Dragon Warrior 1, the games that created the genre.

RPGs, as a genre, are story-driven games that back then were text-heavy. Whereas in Mario you could understand the fundamentals of what you were up to even if you couldn’t read a lick (dinosaur kidnaps princess, plumber to the rescue!), RPGs didn’t work that way. You needed to be able to read for them to make any sense.

This created a problem. I didn’t know how to read when these games came out: I was about 4 years old when Final Fantasy was released. And my older siblings grew increasingly less inclined to read all the dialogue aloud to me. It was boring for them and inefficient for me.

There was only one solution. I needed to learn how to read, at what I now understand is a relatively young age.

In case that sounds self-congratulatory, the point isn’t to pat myself on the back — the point is that I know from my own engagement with video games, that what we would today call “digital” or “online” experiences can compel a child to pursue offline learning experiences.

So thanks in part to games like Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior, I plowed through those old Bob Books with my mom. I wanted to do the hard work of early literacy so that I could get my digital reward.

I remember sharing that story with some classmates in high school, one of whom said he thought that was sad, which made me feel kind of ashamed. I knew why he said it then, and I still get it today — back then though I couldn’t see the bigger picture (or at least I couldn’t articulate it).

The bigger picture is that there is no bad reason on earth for wanting to learn to read. Whether it’s because you want to read the sports pages or The Sound and the Fury, whatever creates that initial spark propelling you forward is something to be celebrated.

And you want to know what I hope? I hope that someday 25 years from now, I’ll read an essay by an aspiring education entrepreneur and she will tell a story about how Tiggly taught her a love of math or reading — or at least how it contributed. I can hardly imagine anything I could accomplish professionally that would be more rewarding than that. That’s why I’m here.

Bart Clareman