Archive April 2010

Designing Games to Help Boys Reading: 0


Let’s start this conversation by dispelling a common myth that women speak three times more words everyday than men do. According to Matthias Mehl of the University of Arizona, after placing digital recorders on 400 college students, the differences in verbalizations was minimal. In fact, he contends that the gaps throughout life are there, but minimal. However, the U.S. Department of Education concludes that after several decades of collecting data, that boys are 12 percent behind girls in reading skills when they begin Kindergarten and that by 12th grade 47 percent less boys graduate as proficient readers than girls. Researchers attribute only 3 percent of a toddler’s language ability to gender and genetics whereas they attribute at least 50 percent to their environment and language exposure.
I think we would all agree that reading is the single most important skill in school achievement. Students who do not read well struggle in almost all subjects.

Ask any elementary or middle school teacher and they will tell you that boys are much more likely to read subject matter that interests them. No doubt that boys have a wider range of interests, but one area that we know belongs almost exclusively to boys is first person shooter games. According to the Pew Research Center 50% of teenage boys play mature first person shooter games like Halo where only 14% of teenage girls play this type of game. So what if minor modifications to first person shooter games (FPSG) could enhance the reading skills of school age boys?

Think for a moment about the last FPSG that you saw or played. How much reading was required? Now think for a moment about real world military mission planning. My friends in the military tell me that mission planners and leaders read intelligence reports, fitness reports, cultural background information, weapon specifications, and situation reports. Often this work involves acquiring passing familiarity with another language when deployed to war zones overseas. Can game designers embed these types of written materials in the game? Of course they can. Written materials may be the easiest form of material to include. Let’s take the traditional tiered level of game design. Players start out mastering the basic movement and/or fire commands. They begin to practice those skills, getting killed quickly at the beginning, but quickly gaining skill and knowledge about the operational controls. As they progress, their characters, gain weaponry, strategic advantages until they become proficient at defeating the enemy. Levels of difficulty increase, the enemy becomes more adept, better equipped and the player has to respond.

Now switch to real-world combat. Units and individuals who are deployed to hostile lands adapt, gain skill, become better at using their weaponry and hopefully survive their first firefights. The big difference lies in mission intelligence. Safety lies in the ability to know what enemy they face and what the conditions are. Mission planners spend considerable effort and resource trying to gain meaningful intelligence on the enemy’s movements, armament, strategies, location etc. This information is transmitted in great part in written form to the mission planners who then brief the field commanders who then pass this on to their troops in verbal form.

I would suggest that in a typical FPSG that as the player progresses through the levels that continued success increasingly demand higher and more complex reading skills. Readability level tools are available on the web to ascertain reading level (i.e., 4th grade, or 7th grade etc). A good one can be found at For more information on readability scores check out Wikipedia at:
It has long been known that we get good at what we do. Practice makes us better at anything. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers claims that to be truly great at anything, a person needs innate ability, dedication, perseverance and drive. But above all, they need approximately 10,000 hours of practice. If we want our boys to be proficient readers they probably need at least 5,000 hours of reading practice before graduation from high school. Do the math. 5,000 / 10 years of school (let’s take out grades 1 and 2) this means 500 hours of practice reading a year. Divide that by 365 days and we see that children need about 1 ½ hours of reading a day, every day, for ten years to reach half the number required to be an “expert”. And all this assumes that there are no learning disabilities.

Clearly adding reading to FPSG will not provide 1 ½ hours a day of reading, but every little bit adds up. Besides, the kind of reading that these games could contain could be fairly high level reading driving the motivated player to engage reading material well above their grade level in order to survive in the war zone.

What do you think?