Can gaming be a pathway to reading?

Knowingly or not, new parents usually make decisions based on their own upbringings. But sometimes rapid change forces parents to make unprecedented decisions. The generation who only read books had to decide how much TV is too much. The generation who got their first mobile/cell phone at 20 had to decide whether their toddler might benefit from a tablet before they were expected to use one in school. No modern parent can deny that screens are an incredible tool, but neither can they deny that they are an incredible distraction.

No one knows this better than Ben Clark, who was held back a year at school when his literacy skills were judged not up to scratch. Ben was six years old and had just developed a love for the Super Nintendo and Mario. He was less keen on his Read With Me books and the antics of their not so compelling protagonists, Tom and Kate. While these books were designed to help Ben, he actually ended up learning to read from comic books.
“Mum was an English teacher and she didn’t care what I read as long as I was reading, so when she noticed me stealing the Garfield comic from her newspaper, she went and bought me my own Garfield book.”

Soon Ben was getting a new comic book every week from the second-hand markets, and re-joined his friends in their year at school. Not long after that, he became interested in Young Adult Fiction, and was soon moved into the advanced class. By the time he had finished Year 12, he had won the Young Writer of the Year in his state, and was awarded his school’s English award. Ben went on to get a Masters in Writing, Editing and Publishing, and decided to work in the games industry. But his experience had given Ben an idea.

“Technology and the advent of things like social media have a lot of people worried about kids’ literacy, but gaming literacy is at an all-time high. So, I thought, what if I could use the power of gaming to create a book that you had to beat like a game, and which was also really funny and engaging. That’s when I came up with Beat The Book Studios.”

The idea is simple in its conception, if somewhat complicated in its execution. In Ben’s first game, Kingdom Catastrophes, up to four players work together to save a fairy tale kingdom that is destined for disaster. Players take turns each day to choose one of twenty fairy tale occupations where they face weird and wacky situations, make difficult choices, and build or lose their strength, magic and charisma along the way. Meanwhile, the narrator counts down the days and gives players clues alluding to what type of disaster they will face when their time runs out. There are a range of different catastrophes that can befall the kingdom, and over one hundred short post-game epilogues that change depending on players’ choices throughout the game, and on whether the kingdom was saved or destroyed.

Unlike Choose Your Own Adventure stories or other branching narratives, the Kingdom Catastrophes gamebook shuffles its stories to present a different series of challenges every time readers play. Ben says that this offers a unique challenge.

“I think many writers think that the more choices they offer, the better their story is. But there is no point offering ‘choices that matter’ and ‘hundreds of endings’ if the reader becomes bored after playing the game once. Instead of saying, How can I offer more choices?, the writer should be saying, How can I make every choice entertaining? Only then will readers enjoy making choices and come back and play again. Quantity is good, but never at the cost of quality.”

While Ben has high hopes that his game will be an affordable way for parents to encourage their children to read, he does not think children will be his only audience.

“I don’t think there is any age that people enjoy being talked down to. Kids are smart and if they don’t know a word they can use the same device that is playing the game to look it up. In a typical book they might just get bored, but if they want to win the game they will take the time to look up a word like nefarious and decide whether they should trust the character that is described that way. I think the key to encouraging reading is writing stories that appeal to all ages. When I was a kid, I enjoyed the feeling that I was reading the same things as my parents.”

*** insert your own opinion about the game and conclude***