My son, Jacob, is 17 now. He’s at college and he works part time in Waterstones bookshop and, when his increasingly hectic social life permits, he reads novels.
When he was 11 he didn’t. Pretty much ALL his spare time was devoted to playing on his xBox. I kind of blame myself for that. Having worked in the computer game industry for 10 years as a games designer, I was the one who had keenly introduced computer gaming into the household. I think I justified that in many ways… if he was playing “strategy” games, I argued that it was boosting his ability to multi-task and problem solve. If it was a “run-n-gun” shooter, I rationalised that it was increasing his reaction times and “blink-thinking”.
Basically, I was justifying the addition of a £300 babysitter that sat neatly beneath our TV set and allowed me to get on with my job, undisturbed. What an idiot. Worse than that, a blinkered, lazy, idiot.
I have become the proverbial turncoat… the traitor. (Ex-game designer-turned author) I’ve turned against the profession I once enjoyed working in, because, being a dad, I was witnessing the end result. Jacob’s life was becoming a dwindling bubble. He was living inside a world where there were only three activities, eat, sleep… play. And “play” had boiled down to a simplistic relentless, repetitive process of “trudge forward”, “shoot moving things”, “pick up ammo clip and health pack”.
So, I decided the next book I’d write would be one with a very specific objective; to be addictive enough that, at the very least, it would be a toss up after dinner between picking up that console controller, or picking up that freshly printed manuscript. That was basically my “mission statement” for TimeRiders, and rather cynically, I employed every trick I’d learned as a game designer to keep Jake coming back for “just one more go”.
So… here are a few little tricks I snuck in.
Bitesize effort and reward: games are designed to trickle constant “yay-you-DID-IT” rewards back to the player. The rewards come in the form of points, or bonuses, or boost-ups, or just plain ol’ back-slapping. It’s basic psychology, the same way you’ll tell a puppy what a good boy he is over and over for pooping in the right place… you give him a little endorphin rush.
As a game designer you do become very quickly aware that what you’re asking the player to do is actually quite dull and very repetitive. (Candy Crush: slide same-coloured sweets into lines. Call of Duty: aim target cursor at moving things.) So, this is how you keep them doing that thing… the promise of constant little rewards.
With TimeRiders, that translated into short chapter breaks. For a boy (or game-obsessed girl) reading a book, the chapter break effectively is like getting to the “next level”. (When I go into schools ask lads how far they’ve got in a book, they’re more likely to give me a chapter number. Girls on the other hand, are more likely to say “I got to the bit where…”). Quite often, these chapter breaks could just as easily be marked with an asterisk, or a double line-space denoting a cut in the scene. But, giving them a chapter break gives them hard data on the progress they’ve made. It’s a gender thing… a guy thing, I guess :)
Easter eggs: game designers drop these in as barely concealed “things you can discover and later brag to your friends about finding”. Quite often these are references to pop culture. For example a quote from a film, a character name from a film. It’s no mistake that Grand Theft Auto’s cutscenes bare an uncanny resemblance to the Quentin Tarantino movie Pulp Fiction, one of the most quotable films of all time.
Well, I did the same thing… references and knowing nods to films and games I know they’ve seen and played.
Me and Jake have used to sit side by side and watch the Terminator movies, the Back to The Future movies, the Jurassic Park movies and many more. So… for him (and me) it was fun to drop subtle nods-and-winks to these movies. Every time he found one in my first draft manuscripts, he’d come into my study, nudge me, grin and say “yup...spotted that one, dad.”
Special FX: males tend to think visually. So writing TimeRiders, I was mindful of giving Jake as much spectacle as possible, lots of what film makers call “Big Money Shots”. The character turns a corner and wham!!! Jaw-Dropping Visual!!
And this is where books can completely ace films and games. With a few well chosen phrases, you can get that boy (or girl) filling in all the blanks; imagining New York’s skyline filled with looming Nazi airships, or a battlefield or alien world filled with impossibly expensive CG effects. Because… that’s what every young reader carries around in their heads, the most expensively funded special effects studio. Give them the frame work, the hooks and they’ll lavishly fill in all the details. That way, you make them a co-contributor to the creative process rather than just being a passive consumer. I guess that’s why I consider the book to be the best “portable platform” in the history of entertainment technology. It makes the writer and the reader, equal partners in the venture.
So nothing profoundly original there. Just common sense. The ABCs of game design applied to novels. And it works. Jake is busy right now, but I know, he has the book habit. When he’s a bit older, has a full time job and a mortgage… and more time on his hand, he’ll get his kicks from novels again.
Nb: the xBox now makes a rather fetching doorstop in the corner of my study. Alongside the dust covered playstation and the Wii.
Alex Scarrow is part of an all-star lineup at Manchester children’s book festival this year, run by Manchester Metropolitan University from 26 June - 5 July. You can catch Alex reading from and talking about TimeRiders at the festi on 2 July find out more here. The latest in Alex Scarrow’s TimeRiders series is The Infinity Cage.
Do you ever find it difficult to concentrate on a book and feel the pull to gaming instead? Is it more of a boy thing or does this affect girls as well? Tell us about it by email email@example.com or on Twitter @GdnChildrensBks.
Alex Scarrow (born 14 February 1966) is a British author most well-known for his young adult science fiction series TimeRiders.
Alex Scarrow used to be a rock guitarist in a band, spending ten years after college in the music business. He eventually figured that he was very self centered and too self absorbed and not able to involve other input ideas into his band and would never become famous nor get a record deal. He left the music industry in order to become a graphic artist and then he decided to be a computer games designer. He worked on game titles such as Waterworld, Evolva, The Thing, Spartan, Gates of Troy, Legion Arena, and Ultimate Soccer Manager.
He started his writing career initially by writing screenplays, but after difficulty entering the business he turned his strongest screenplay into the successful A Thousand Suns novel. He has since written a number of successful novels, including October Skies. He has also written several screenplays, and is currently writing a highly successful young adult fiction series, which, according to his TimeRiders website, "Allowed him to really have fun with the ideas and concepts he was playing around with when designing games."
He currently lives in Norwich with his son, Jacob and his partner, Debbie.
Alex Scarrow is planning to span the TimeRiders series over 9 books in total. The series is about an agency which consists of three teenagers who have cheated death, and who travel in time to fix history broken by time travel.
Ellie Quin is a new series about a young girl who thought she was ordinary. It turns out she couldn't have been more wrong. She's the most valuable, the most dangerous, the most sought-after human in the universe... and there are people already zeroing in on her.
- Ellie Quin Book 1: The Legend of Ellie Quin – 23 December 2013 (ISBN 978-0-9575-1600-7)
- Ellie Quin Book 2: The World According to Ellie Quin – 23 December 2013 (ISBN 978-0-9575-1601-4)
- Ellie Quin Book 3: Beneath the Neon Sky – 23 December 2013 (ISBN 978-0-9575-1602-1)
- Ellie Quin Book 4: Ellie Quin in Wonderland – 1 January 2014 (ASIN: B00I9P2Q3W)