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Tech for Good - Getting Kids to Read More, and Enjoy It

We have been in this game for a long time. We had digitised several of our books and were offering them as apps before ebooks had ever been thought of!

I have been writing books for children and young adults with my writing partner, Steve Barlow, for over 20 years.

Like any authors or publishers of books for children and young adults, our biggest challenge is the 'reluctant reader'. When boys in particular reach a certain age, they generally stop reading, choosing instead games consoles, YouTube and tablet games for their entertainment.

The Holy Grail for us in the children's books market is a tool to lure them back to the joys of reading. And working with our publisher, Hachette, plus some very well respected video games developers at Insight Studios, we think we may be onto something.

We have helped to create the New Star Soccer G-Story app. It's got football (tick), gameplay (tick) and a great story (we would say that, right?) to knit it all together.

The concept is simple: the G-Story format mixes traditional (written) story narrative with real gameplay challenges. The written story takes different narrative paths, depending on how the user performs in each game segment. As a result, there are multiple plot threads and multiple endings.

Games obviously compete with traditional books for readers' time and attention. Instead of moaning about that, we're exploiting it! Study after study from the Literacy Trust, the Reading Agency and similar bodies show that uncommitted readers are more likely to be motivated by reading from a screen than from paper. Add the elements of competition, gameplay and choice, and you have a narrative that is bound to capture the attention of even the most die-hard refusenik.

We have been in this game for a long time. We had digitised several of our books and were offering them as apps before ebooks had ever been thought of!

In our Outernet series, developed with Harry Potter guru Barry Cunningham over 15 years ago, we had a narrative in books that was extended on the Web - by visiting the Outernet site and inputting passwords embedded in the text of the books, more narrative, interactivity and gameplay could be accessed.

The weakness of the series was that it had to be mounted across the different platforms of books and the net, as in the early years of the millennium there was no platform on which books, gameplay and interactive decision making could all be combined. Now there is - and we believe that by exploiting many of the capabilities of smartphones and tablet computers, we have created an entirely new kind of story that will appeal to boys, and girls, in different and exciting ways.

Up until now, e books have been made to look very much like paper books. Even the way pages turn is, in many cases, modelled on the way a paper page turns.

In other words, e books in their current form don't exploit all the things that many of the devices on which they will be viewed can do. We can have new types of narrative, cut between narrative forms, give the reader (or user or player) control over the narrative.

That's what we've done in New Star Soccer G-Story.

The challenges of writing this were far greater than any of us realised going into the project. We estimated that we could tell the story in 70,000 words. It actually took 180,000. That's longer than Catch 22 (or to put it another way it was like writing 35 of our iHero gamebooks!)

The reason is that we had to describe every outcome of the game. When the player takes a shot on goal, he may score - or he may miss. He may kick the ground and not the ball. Every one of those eventualities had to be considered and described.

What's more, these events are cumulative. If the player scores in a game, that goal stands for the whole of the game. If he misses, ditto. This is true for every scoring opportunity, and also affects what the opposition players do. So we had to write for all of those possibilities.

Then again, the player may have elected to play for Chelsea - or a non-league side. If the player's home stadium is in London, it has to be described differently from the ground of Ilkeston Town.

Finally, whatever moral choices the player makes - for instance, their choice of agent - has to be adhered to every time that character appears in the story, offering different opportunities and different advice...

Catch 22? We don't know how it didn't turn into War and Peace!

But we firmly believe this new type of storytelling will engage a new generation of kids and encourage them to read more for pleasure. Our research with children, parents, teachers and literacy groups suggest we're on to a winning formula. This could well be a new chapter (ahem), in children's books.

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