A Seattle man thinks he’s found a more engaging way for dyslexic kids to read through a new app that combines eBooks with video games.
It’s developed by Joe Booth, who describes himself as a “reluctant reader” when he was in school.
“I was dyslexic and I was kind of a train wreck at school. I was good at some subjects but not at others,” Booth says. “I just fell in love with computers and I found that that was something I was very talented at.”
He found himself skipping school and hacking into video games to teach himself how to code.
“I got a contract when I was 15,” he says. “I don’t know whether I was smart or dumb, but I was like ‘I’m through with school. I’m going to make video games.'”
That career path seemed to work for him as he spent the last 25 years as a producer, executive producer and creative director on several major games for both Microsoft and EA – Ghost Recon, FIFA and The Need for Speed to name a few.
But he knew he was missing something. Along the way he learned to read.
“I really had to retrain myself in my twenties,” he says. “I literally went to the local library and went to the children’s section and I started with ‘Winnie the Pooh’ and all these children’s books so I could get into the habit of reading.”
A turning point was reading “A Prayer for Owen Meany” by John Irving. The novel portrayed a character with dyslexia who used a piece of paper to help him read. Booth saw that as a creative solution to a problem, and began to think about how he could use his strengths to solve problems.
Booth is now founder and CEO of Vidya Gamer, a company that takes concepts used in making video games “to re-imagine learning.”
From his home on Queen Anne in Seattle, he shows me how his struggle with reading and his gaming background are coming together.
“Let me open it up,” he says, as he grabs his iPad with the enthusiasm of a little boy reaching for a present at Christmas time.
He’s created Crowded Fiction, an eBook app that launches today. It’s unique in that it’s aimed at kids age nine and it uses video-game inspired strategies. It’s interactive, tactile, it’s social, and competitive reading.
The books have an achievement system that rewards readers for exploration. Readers compete with friends to top the leaderboard. They can compare their progress and choices against those of their friends.
The first story available is called ‘Jackson’s Choice.’
“In the first chapter, you find a dead body and there’s $100 on the body,” he explains. “You can take the $100 or you can put it back and no one’s going to know except you. That will affect the character moving forward. Has he crossed the line?”
The book is ‘open’ for a set amount of time. The final outcome will be determined by the collective choice of the crowd at the end of that time. So, if 51% of the ‘crowd’ choose to take the money, then Jackson is a ‘Grave Robber’.
A reader can go back and change their choice at any time. They can also compare their choices with those of their friends.
The content is age appropriate, and it’s more sophisticated than what he calls the “happy clappy” stuff of most books written especially for middle-school-age boys.
“That’s when they start to disengage from reading,” says Booth. “I hardly read at all when I was in high school because I was dyslexic so the books at my reading level didn’t feel like they were appropriate to me.”
While a lot of kids love to read, for those who don’t or who are dyslexic, Booth’s app might entice them to read fiction. It’s basically the gamification (the use of game thinking and game mechanics to engage users in solving problems) of education.
Is that a good thing?
“The research is clear that if you get down to great teachers with small classrooms, then you’re set up for success. That’s the number one thing needed in education,” he says.
“Guess what, this country is not going to fund that. This state is very poor at what they fund, so technology is the only credible pathway to give kids a diverse set of learning opportunities.”
By LINDA THOMAS