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BYU team creates literary video game

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 18 2014 3:52 p.m. MST

"Readers to the Rescue" can be accessed online at http://read.gov/readers/.

Photo Co: BYU News Release, Brigham Young University

To the parents of children who are addicted to technology, it may feel like the days of kids reading for “fun” are all but over.

A group of BYU students, however, believes that catering to young readers through electronic devices will make all the difference.

In an effort to sharpen young minds and promote reading among grade-school-age children, BYU teamed up with the Library of Congress to create “Readers to the Rescue,” a video game designed to make stories found in classic books exciting again.

Jeff Sheets, director of BYU’s Laycock Center, led a collaborative team of students from different study emphases to create the game.

“This project has a long and colorful history,” Sheets said. “I had worked with the literary efforts (of the Library of Congress) before. They were always more passive approaches: billboards, television ads and public service announcements. We’d always talked about, ‘What if we could start a more active approach?’ ”

Along with guidance from the Library of Congress, the students worked together to come up with a product that would allow children to read traditional literature — from the comfort of their favorite screens.

“We thought, ‘Let’s not approach this from one medium,’ ” Sheets said. “The No. 1 problem is we need young third (through) fifth graders to read, so we took that as our first task and made a creative solution. We looked at it and said, ‘We don’t care where they are reading; we care that they are reading.’ ”

By using the same technology to entice children that is usually used to entertain them, the Laycock and his team felt they had the best chance of capturing the attention necessary to keep children interested in reading.

“Readers to the Rescue” is a free program, available to play on both mobile devices and computers. The game can be accessed by visiting read.gov.

One of the main objectives of “Readers to the Rescue” is to engage children in the storylines of the books they will eventually unlock.

Classic storybook characters, including Snow White and Alice in Wonderland, are brought to life in the digital pages of the game. These characters then are captured, and it is up to the reader to save them. Sheets described the game as being set up like a “visual Mad Libs,” where the reader places different characters in different scenarios much like a “choose your own adventure” novel.

The game has 36 possible outcomes, with each outcome unlocking a digital copy of a children’s book currently in the public domain. According to Sheets, the hope is that kids will actually read and unlock all of the possible books, creating a free online library for themselves.

Members of the BYU team, which consisted of more than 30 students from several different departments, said they believe in the importance of reading while young.

Seth Skousen, who programmed the digital content of “Readers to the Rescue,” remembered trying to convince his brother to read the Harry Potter series years ago. After making it about halfway through one book, his brother then asked if he could "just watch the movie instead."

These events inspired Skousen to encourage younger kids to read.

“Today, children especially have become more consumers than creators,” Skousen said. “With computer games and television, you’re active in the entertainment process but it’s passive in the creation. 'Readers to the Rescue' is an opportunity for kids to play the game but also for them to unlock a character and learn more about it.”

The project was several years in the making, with the preliminary BYU team brainstorming ideas and presenting them to the Library of Congress for approval.

Robbie Rane, who served as creative director for the project, explained his involvement in the brainstorming process.

“It started in the very beginning with a brief from the Library of Congress,” Rane said. “We talked about tons and tons of ideas until we landed on one that would do the job.”

Once that idea was fully formed, students were interviewed and chosen to be part of the creative team. After collaboration and development, Rane said he feels that their efforts have paid off.

“I’m really proud of what we were able to build as students,” he said. “We built something much more impressive than I could have made or a few students could have made on their own. I think if most people saw it, they would be surprised students made it. I think it exceeded a lot of expectations.”

Email: kguderian@deseretnews.com

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