John Hersey, author of Hiroshima, once worked on a committee for his children’s school to determine why children were struggling at reading. The group’s discovery was that the reason the children were struggling was because they thought the primers they were reading looked boring. They didn’t want to read stories featuring illustrations of perfectly mannered children that just looked dull, insipid, and boring. This idea of using interesting illustrations was taken up by William Ellsworth Spaulding, an editor at Houghton Mifflin’s textbook division. He borrowed an illustrator named Ted Geisel from Random House to create a textbook that contained words that experts had decided were important for first graders to know. Nine months later a book featuring 236 of those words from the list was created. Geisel had noticed that many of the words on the list rhymed; the first two words happened to be cat and hat. Cat in the Hat was followed by a second book that used only fifty words from the list, Green Eggs and Ham.
So what does this have to do with gamification?
Author Dan Roam mentions in his book Blah, Blah, Blah: what to do when words don’t work that school started to get boring for him around the same time that it became more about reading and less about creativity. What Hersey, Spaulding, and Geisel did was take that perceived boring reading and make it more interesting.
Gamification means applying game theory and mechanics to a none-game contexts to engage users. Game mechanics are a set or rules that must be accomplished before moving to the next level. Typically, there is also an incentive for completing those tasks. Gamification has most recently been applied to how we interact with media like watching television shows. We download an app, check-in when watching live, earn badges for completing tasks, and interact with other users. It is also being used to increase customer engagement for website usage through interacting with the site and other users with participation tasks. Here we have two words: engagement and interaction.
Our world is changing at a fast pace through our increasing usage of mobile devices, media applications, and new technology. The way we learn and think is also changing to accommodate our new environments. There has been a lot of talk recently about screen time and children. Some see it as beneficial and some see it as harmful. Hopefully, more research will be coming forward on the issue, but from what I have read it is the engagement and interaction keywords that keep standing out in every argument on both sides of the issue. Applying gamification to reading seems to be an opportunity for us to make things interesting for a new generation of readers. Some of us are already doing this in our summer reading programs by using game boards instead of reading logs.
This is how I see gamification…
This time last year, my son was a struggling reader. I knew I could catch his interest if the book was about a dog, but other than that he really did not want to read. Now my son is the type of kid who does math problems for fun. He liked being read to, but did not want to be the one reading. Around this same time, he was starting to become interested in video games. He wanted a particular game that involved a lot of reading for the instructions to move through the game. It was one of those RPG games where you have to read the character dialog bubbles to know what tasks to complete to move to the next level. My husband and I both agreed that he could have the game as long as he was willing to do the reading on his own. He had to put in the effort before he asked for help. This was his incentive to practice his reading. If he didn’t read the dialogs then he couldn’t move to the next level. Now he is reading everything in sight. Recently, he has moved on to chapter books.
Gaming was the hook to spark my son’s reading interest. Transmedia Storytelling also provides many outlets back to reading; there are books based on video game characters, cartoons, movies, etc. Things are kept interesting because they are extensions of the originals, not just retellings in a different format. My son’s current video game interest is Skylanders…which also has a book series.
We can’t keep doing things the same way we always have been. Children are changing just as much today as they did back when Hersey was trying to discover why school children were struggling to read about syrupy sweet school girls and boys endlessly playing. We need to adapt our approach to reading to incorporate new technology and provide incentives so that we can hook those reluctant readers. If an app can inspire a child to read and become a lifelong reader then shouldn’t we find ways to embrace this technology rather than condemn it?
Our guest blogger today is Jennifer Hopwood, Training Coordinator for the Southern Maryland Regional Library Association and a member of the ALSC Children and Technology committee.
If you’d like to write a guest post for the ALSC Blog, please contact Mary Voors, ALSC Blog manager, at firstname.lastname@example.org.