Home Screen of Teen Summer Challenge

Games often provide an opportunity to have fun, learn new things, simulate real life, and explore things only dreamed of before. Whether playing a board game, role playing game, or a video game, players are challenged to overcome obstacles and use strategy to solve problems and meet goals. In classrooms’ teachers are using game elements’ more and more to encourage practice, assess mastery, or explore new concepts with students, while keeping lessons interactive and engaging.

Much like the proverbial carrot and stick, rewards are a strong motivator, plain and simple. If you ask a group of teens to tell you one thing they can check out with their library card, most will stare blankly at you; if you offer up a piece of candy for an answer, everyone in the class will beg to be the one you choose to respond.

Gaming has this motivation built right in, though instead of rewarding players with treats, they get points, fun things to add to their inventories or badges to show off. This brings in another big motivator – competition. Although competition doesn’t appeal as widely as rewards, it is powerful to many. Who doesn’t like to feel like they are special, smart or more successful than their neighbor or friends? The combination of rewards and competition is a strong, almost universal, force for motivation.

Every summer, vast numbers of libraries across the world host some sort of summer reading program to encourage kids and teens to read. They give charts and logs for the participants to keep track of their reading. For the younger kids, this breaks a big challenge into smaller, easier-to-accomplish chunks, making personal success more consistently achievable. Unfortunately, that kind of gratification doesn’t seem to be as appealing to the teen population – participation from that audience is far lower than most libraries would like. So what would be a better motivator?

In 2012, Pierce County Library (PCL) was inspired to take our summer reading program out of the box and into the 21st century, by taking it online. The librarians were not happy with the participation levels of teens and wanted to do something about it. Ann Arbor Public Library and New York Public had seen success in having an online program, and PCL was determined to find a way to engage teens. An online game seemed like a natural answer.

More influence and inspiration came from Search Institute’s research on Sparks and Thriving (http://www.search-institute.org/research/sparks-thriving). Sparks refers to the intrinsic interests, talents, and passions that young people have that motivate them to learn, grow, and contribute. PCL wanted to introduce teens to as many new experiences as possible, encourage teens to further explore interests, and to celebrate the talent and passion demonstrated through the successes of projects during the summer.

The team was certainly ambitious that first year – determined to come up with something imaginative, engaging and different from what everyone else was doing. Using the framework of gaming as a motivator, the Teen Summer Challenge was born. A team of youth services librarians, led by two teen librarians, created content and a game platform that increased participation in summer reading from about 200 participants county-wide to about 650, with practically no marketing. The goal was to have a soft release to test the waters with the community – instead there was a pretty significant splash. With that achieved, each of the next two years led to further development and fine-tuning to meet the target audience and make it the best it could be for participants.

Probably the most common question is regarding what software was used, and can it be shared or purchased. The answer isn’t that easy – this program was not something that was built by a vendor or corporation, nor comes out of a box. The primary development was done completely in-house by a staff member who was very comfortable with WordPress. The guidelines and content creation for the challenge were written by librarians on staff. Using Buddypress along with several different add-ons, the basic framework was created. As the project grew and improved, grant funding and hired programmers helped to make the desired customizations.

Ann Arbor and New York Public Library’s programs used a different model, created primarily in Drupal, and now more libraries are joining the bandwagon and using a variety of other tools with success. The tool isn’t the important piece, use whatever you have (including paper logs), but it is to give teens a challenge and motivation, and then celebrate with them and give them bragging rights with their friends when they accomplish goals. Whatever form your game takes, be it scavenger hunts or small quests that are part of a bigger challenge, or something completely different, make sure it involves those motivating elements of rewards, achievements and some element of competition. Offer a wide range of options or interests to inspire a wide range of teens. You might be surprised at your participation and how even a little friendly competition will inspire teamwork, community and encouragement.

If you’d like to learn more, check out these links:

First year of’ PCL’s Teen Summer Challenge
Current year of’ Teen Summer Challenge’ 
New PCL Adult Program launched this year
Ann Arbor Library
New York Public Library
National Digital Summer Reading’ 

About Jami Schwarzwalder

Currently a teen librarian with the Pierce County Library System in Tacoma, WA.She is passionate about technology, making, and learning. See what I'm up to at https://about.me/jamischwarzwalder

3 Thoughts on “Gamification of Summer Reading

  1. Linda Williams on November 6, 2015 at 7:47 am said:

    I know this post is over a year old. And I love your ideas. But I want to ask you about a couple of statements that you make.
    I am reading the research on motivation and incentives, and cannot find anything that agrees with your statements: “Much like the proverbial carrot and stick, rewards are a strong motivator, plain and simple.” and “The combination of rewards and competition is a strong, almost universal, force for motivation.”
    Can you cite any article or research that supports these statements? Or is it purely anecdotal?

    • Jami Schwarzwalder on November 9, 2015 at 9:18 pm said:

      Thank you for your request.

      Primarily I was using the research of Jane McGonigal, James Paul Gee, Constance Steinkuehler, and Richard Bartle. Incentive-centered design, behavior modifications, and operant conditioning are terms you might find helpful in your research.

      There was an article in Education review earlier this year about how giving positive rewards over punishment was successful in school to encourage behavior modification. Payne, R. (2015). Using rewards and sanctions in the classroom: Pupils’ perceptions of their own responses to current behaviour management strategies. Educational Review, 67(4), 483.

      There was another article earlier this year about how extrinsic rewards motivate employees creative performance. Malik, M. A. R., Butt, A. N., & Choi, J. N. (2015). Rewards and employee creative performance: Moderating effects of creative self-efficacy, reward importance, and locus of control. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 36(1), 59.

      Lastly you might find useful the research from the MacArthur Foundation on students motivation to engage with Digital Media. It was part of our inspiration when designing the Teen Summer Challenge: Ito, Mizuko; et al. (2012). Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning.

      Good luck with your research.

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