Summer Reading is a Game (that sucks)

Over the last few days I reacquainted myself with the YouTube channel Extra Credits.  The folks over on that channel have spent years doing analysis of video game systems and doing 5-8 minute videos that explore why some games are amazing and some games are deeply flawed and breaking down the exact reasons why.

However, it was when I got to the video about intrinsic and extrinsic awards that a lightbulb went off in my head.  Here watch it.

Now, as intelligent people we know the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic reward systems.  But when thinking about the summer reading program a lot of times we default to making the program solely about the act of winning your prizes along the way.  Reading is a means to an end, and that end is a personal pizza (or whatever your end prize is).

As the video above demonstrates, sometimes people grind through a game (that means doing something boring and repetitive for hours on end) only to get the super fancy widget at the end of having done all that nonsense.  Then, once the player has acquired that object there is a fleeting sense of accomplishment and then “now what?”

A lot of summer reading programs are set up in exactly this way.  They are a grind quest.  “You child must read 16 hours and then you will win this prize!”  “Fill in all the bubbles on this sheet and you will win this other prize!”

While for many kids the yearn for cool prizes is certainly a motivating factor, the means to achieving that goal is not necessarily in and of itself interesting.  When we set up summer reading programs as a grind quest the message we are pushing is not that reading is fun in and of itself.  It’s that you MUST read, because this thing is super cool.  This is the real world equivalent of being tasked with slaying x number of creatures so that you can make a new set of armor from their hides.  The act of doing it is a mindless repetitive thing that you are not entirely invested in doing.

That is what we’re saying about reading.

But it doesn’t have to be.

In another video they talk about how the video game “The Secret World” has embedded in it meaningful puzzles that require the player to explore things in their environment, and in some cases in the real world.

“Missions can either be boring and routine, or a magic entry point for your world.”

Something like The Secret World encourages people to keep exploring.  Looking for clues, and looking for meaning in things.  There’s nothing that says we can’t imbue a summer reading program with the same level of exploration, discovery, and wonder.  This helps build an intrinsic desire in the player (reader) to want to read.  If the game mechanics encourage you to read so that you discover new and exciting things along the way, and gives you enough branching pathways to find things in your own time in your own way.  That makes reading itself something more valuable to the player (reader).  You’re not reading for the sake of reading to win a pizza.  You’re reading because there is a mystery to solve, or a puzzle to break.

I think we can redevelop the summer reading program to be less about cranking through a specified number of books or hours of reading to win a prize, and more about reading as a joy in and of itself.  By shifting focus to developing an intrinsically rewarding experience (with occasional prizes, because people still love prizes) and making the act of reading more meaningful experience in the game I think we can help build a love of reading as a personal interest.

There are a TON more videos over on Extra Credits, and I would strongly encourage you all to go take a look over there. I would also love to hear from you all about ways that you’ve explored creating meaningful gameplay in your summer reading programs.

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