Teen boys have long been a source of frustration for literacy teachers. This student demographic has typically been resistant to reading encouragement strategies for no other reason than reading simply isn’t cool. Now, this isn’t to say that boys are immune to the entertaining side of reading: comics are fairly appealing to most boys, for instance. But reading as a tool or as a medium of communication has long eluded a good number of boys.
Here are a few reasons from some of the accepted research that the Ontario Ministry of Education subscribes to:
1) Reluctant readers often don’t find that the reading material in schools is personally or otherwise relevant.
2) Personal selection of reading material is often seen as a motivator to reading success.
3) Reluctant readers lack self-esteem regarding their ability to read.
In this article, I’ll discuss how the game Heroclix can be a useful educational adjunct to begin addressing these issues with students in a fun, hands-on way, with examples from my own classroom.
An introduction to the game
Let’s begin with a basic introduction to Heroclix. A collectible figure game, it was launched in 2002.
First, the basic pieces one needs to play the game are the figures.
Each figure (depending on the Heroclix set) is based on a well-known superhero from a large comic publisher like Marvel or DC. So, a figure could be a representation of Spider-Man or The Incredible Hulk. Their abilities would be based on the various adventures that either one of these characters has undergone and would be historically accurate. Likewise with DC, a player could choose from a range of superheroes like Batman, Superman or Wonder Woman. Generally, players can buy these figures in various themed packs or starter sets. For example, there’s the Marvel Avengers vs. X-Men Starter Set or the DC Blackest Night Starter Set which generally come with the maps you need to play. You can also jump start your collection with a whopper like the 75 Assorted Heroclix Figures Set which includes both Marvel and DC characters. (There are also non-superhero Heroclix like the Lord of the Rings Starter Set and the Street Fighter Starter Set.)
Each figure has a movable dial that includes the following statistical information: Point Value, Movement, Attack, Defence, Damage, Range and a series of coloured boxes around each of these statistical values that denotes a particular power. Each power allows the character figures certain abilities that are modified by the statistical attributes.
The general objective is to overcome your opponent’s clix in combat. In order to defeat your opponent, you have to cause enough damage to force him to turn the dial on his figure enough times (or “clicks”) until the figure runs out of characteristics. Your figure does this depending on his damage rating and how many times it hits the opposing figure.
There are some fairly basic mathematical calculations involved in this process. For example: your figure, with an attack rating of 10, is trying to hit an opposing figure with a defence rating of 17. You subtract 10 from 17, which gives you a result of 7. That is the number you need to roll equal to or higher than on two six-sided dice in order to hit. Now, your figure’s damage rating is 3. Therefore, if you succeed in the die roll, your opponent turns the dial on his clix figure three times to reflect the damage it has taken. When it runs out of values, the dial turns to a “KO” result, indicating that the figure has been “knocked out”.
The figures vary in level and rarity, ranging from “rookie,” “experienced,” “veteran” and “unique.” Initially, the power levels were distinguished by higher point values and the “unique” clix were rare. After 2007, the ranking system was changed to reflect a different status of rarity. Instead of the same figure in three different stages (rookie, experienced, veteran), the figures were only released in one form with only one of these levels. However, each figure was regarded as “common,” “uncommon,” “rare” or “super-rare” status, denoted by a white, green, silver or gold patch on the dial. Eventually, “ultra-rare” figures were released as well. These figures were also released with power summary cards. These cards required an additional bit of reading but were somewhat useful in serving as a quick summary of the figure’s powers.
Next, the game is played on a square map divided into various smaller squares with scenery and different terrain. They are either indoor or outdoor maps (important if you are playing with flying characters). Additional terrain or object markers may be placed on the map at different stages of the game that can indicate ways that the characters can interact with the environment and allow for tactical modifiers to the game.
Sound complicated? It’s actually easier than you may think, but it does involve a lot of memorization, quick calculation and foresight as you try to combine different characters with complementary powers. However, if you are someone who likes comics, then you already have an idea of what these figures can do. Call it “pre-reading,” if you like, which is a very valuable skill in developing literacy among reluctant readers like teenage boys.
Now that you’re more or less familiar with what the game entails, let’s move on to how it can help address the three reading problems I listed above.
1. Reluctant readers don’t feel the material is relevant to themselves
Gotta say, I have to go along with this one. I mean, let’s face it: not a lot of people, never mind your typical 13 or 14-year old boy are going to find the plight of your average orca whale particularly interesting. Yet typical non-fiction choices are perpetually dominated by things like issues of the environment, human rights, the history of different Canadian explorers, and so forth. That’s a tough sell, even if you manage to bribe the recalcitrant reader with thoughts of extra gym time or some free time on the computer.
Non-fiction choices are usually dominated by the demands of the provincial curriculum. It used to be that kids would have to read this, regardless of the interest level. They had no choice: read it or you’re classified as a behavioural problem and it’s off to the office you go. However, enlightened educational theory revolves around the concept that an educator needs to enlist the buy-in of the reluctant reader to achieve a modicum of success. So, the question remains: how are you going to get a kid who doesn’t want to read non-fiction to read non-fiction while still adhering to issues of the mandatory curriculum?
The answer is found in first getting them to read non-fiction content directly relevant to something they want to do, like game rules. In order to get my burgeoning Heroclix groupies to start playing, I showed them the rules and told them that they needed to be familiar with the powers listed before they played. Now, to an early teen boy, the thought of having a toy in hand that he can’t play with until a task is completed is akin to placing a doggy biscuit on the nose of a trained cocker spaniel waiting for its master’s permission to bite into the treat. The kid is practically slavering to play with his Heroclix figure and will immediately jump to start reading.
Now, I know that this isn’t the same type of material that needs to be covered in subjects like Science, History, or other sleep-inducing subjects like Geography, but it’s the principle at play here that’s the important factor. If we can get a reluctant reader to become accustomed to completing the dreary side of reading, then it becomes an easier chore in the knowledge-based subjects to initiate the reading. Procedural writing documents like game rules, lists, and databases when based around something the student can find personally relevant are the gateway to mastering reading skills for information acquisition.
2. Personal selection of material as a motivator for reading success
We’re talking about superheroes here.
Imagine you’ve just told a teen boy that he can see his favourite superhero in combat, but first he has to read his dial, his figure’s summary card and figure out his own movement, attack range and damage potential by paying attention to his opponent’s figure. It’s a no-brainer. If that’s what he has to do in order to see his favourite character in action, he’ll do it. It becomes a labour of love rather than an arduous task.
After seeing teen boys play this game in my classroom at lunch, I notice a definite improvement in their ability to focus and concentrate on the school work. It’s like the game has activated the portion of their brain that makes them want to be more engaged in their studies. They’re more inquisitive and they pay more attention to class discussion. Yay for little plastic toy dolls!
The other thing that also motivates boys to action is competition. That’s one aspect of their nature that doesn’t easily lend itself to reading, which partially explains their resistance. I mean, it’s not like you can measure reading with a speedometer. But in Heroclix, the boys who can assimilate their figure’s information more quickly than their opponents tend to do a lot better at the game. The competitive urge to see their hero overcome their enemy is not simply a motivating factor, it’s a fantasy come to life. This is the make-believe stuff that is the foundation of the enjoyment of reading fiction and it reduces the resistance to read because it’s simply what needs to be done in order to have fun.
3. Reluctant readers lack self esteem about their reading ability
The one thing I’ve learned in the last eight years of playing Heroclix is that regardless of how much I plan, we’re all equal in the rolls of the dice. I used to struggle in attempting to create the perfect Heroclix team, only to have my efforts thwarted by the unfortunate throw of a pair of ones on two six-sided dice, otherwise known as a critical miss.
Now if there’s anything that’s going to reduce your self-esteem in the context of play, it’s that, but the good thing is that in Heroclix it happens to everyone. Bad luck is a huge equalizer and for every bad throw of the dice, someone has to have a good one.
The same holds true for poor readers faced up against superior ones. It takes a great deal of effort for a low level reader to create a team of Heroclix figures by theme, but he will do it because that’s what the other players will be doing. The willingness to swallow pride and ask for help in doing this also becomes evident, along with the desire to put in extra time to create a suitable team that will match up with the others.
Faced with the prospect of succeeding and the desire to do what it takes to succeed, low self-esteem does not become an issue anymore. Risks will be taken in order to simply be like the other “readers” (i.e. players). Regardless of low academic ability, the low-level reader will overcome his disadvantage and force himself to improve. In time, he will become better and more inclined to spend more time in becoming better. Can a teacher ask for anything more?
Of course, in competition, there are always winners and losers. But even if the poor reader is at a disadvantage, a good match is still worth the effort. As long as the disadvantaged reader makes a good show of himself, then he won`t lose any sense of self-esteem. When faced with the prospect that he could possibly win, the reward is worth the risk. I`ve seen students of different grades and academic levels interact on an equal basis, regarding each other with the same degree of martial respect that Reed Richards would give Doctor Doom. Of course, Doctor Doom doesn’t require additional teacher support as he tries to plough his way through The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe but you get the general idea.
Lastly, consider that superheroes and villains exist in a medium of conflict and competition. Coincidentally enough, so do teenage boys. See the connection? Nothing’s going to stop them from being competitive so rather than try to suppress that tendency, it’s better to give them a healthy, fun and intellectually stimulating venue for it. And unlike sports in which certain kids are always at a distinct disadvantage, Heroclix has that great equalizing factor known as the die roll.
The numeracy component
An additional bonus that Heroclix offers with its emphasis on reading is its numeracy component. Every math teacher is loath to admit what every literacy teacher lauds, but improved literacy is essential to improved numeracy. In Heroclix, the student has to count with manipulatives, perform quick, basic subtraction, and modify values based on variable conditions and total amounts comparatively when considering point values of teams.
To an adult, the amount of calculations can sometimes be a little taxing, particularly when alcohol is involved as it often is when I play with my friends. But to a student with developing academic ability, it is actually a bit more of a challenge. But while it certainly improves these abilities, it also has the effect of demonstrating relevance to the student. Not to say that the fundamental function of basic mathematics is the culmination of table-top gaming, but it demonstrates applicability of academic skill development. To the student who asks “when am I ever going to use this?” the answer becomes readily apparent and it becomes hard for me, as the teacher, to refrain from saying, “I told you so.”
The only thing that is absent from the game is the underlying understanding of how the figures’ point values are calculated. Do the powers have a definitive point budget/cost so that it is possible for the student to perhaps create his own original Heroclix? I’ve never seen anything about this idea mentioned in any of the supporting literature or fan sites (HCrealms.com, Heroclix.com), but it certainly would be a great idea for the students to create fictional characters into the game medium. They could recreate favourite comic characters not already represented in the game, or they could simply just make their own. Not only would this allow them the mathematical opportunity to allocate point amounts to present a theme, work within a budget and so forth, but it would also give them another way of experimenting with alternative creative writing techniques.
To conclude, the game is a lot of fun. But what really excites me about it is the possible educational benefits that it offers that are generic enough to fit into pretty much any curriculum. I also get to interest the students into reading comics (something that deserves its own separate discussion about educational benefits) since the Heroclix figures are based on when certain comic characters were popular. Sometimes their curiosity leads them to ask me questions and put my comic trivia skills to test, but it also excites them into finding a particular storyline of comics and reading it for themselves. Anything that gets a kid interested in reading can’t be all that bad, and as a teacher it’s part of my job to work with what a student has to offer in order to activate that learning potential.
Plus, it justifies to my wife all the little man-dolls I get to collect in my office.
No, honey – they’re not toys, they’re learning manipulatives. And yes, I’m sure I can write them off as a business expense.