Sometimes I dream about world domination.
Really, I do.
You know, a world where book-inspired play is taken to a whole new level.
Not just me and my kids and a book or two, but rather whole schools, even whole towns, with libraries’ worth of books and stories.
I promise I’d be a benign ruler. And one of my first cabinet appointments would be Dr. Matt Finch.
Matt knows a lot about taking playing by, with and out of the pages of a story to a whole new level; I first came across Matt in teen zombie battle. Always a good place to find future members of one’s dream team, don’t you think?
Since then, having wiped away the blood and gore, he’s constantly surprised and amazed me with his ideas for getting people of all ages creating and having fun, whether via comics inspired by M.C. Escher, gambling (of sorts) and games at the British Library or laying down The Great Kiwi Book Domino Challenge.
Shortly before Christmas last year Matt and I finally managed to meet up in person and when we did so he let me in on a new project of his – an incredible multi-player game he’s devised that gets kids and grown ups really excited about books, whether drawn from a library’s collection or with a bookseller’s stock. I knew straight away I wanted to somehow make this game happen wherever possible and so I’m truly delighted that today I get to tell the world about it, and share it with you all.
But first some more details!
Playing by the book: So Matt, what’s your elevator pitch for the game?
Matt Finch: It’s an all-ages roleplay version of events like the Frankfurt Book Fair. Children form teams which are mini publishing companies. They explore a collection of books, then compete to acquire titles which they create posters and marketing materials for.
We’ve also run this activity with adults too, at workshops and training sessions. If anything, the grown-ups are even more competitive.
Playing by the book: In your experience of running this game, what do the kids get out of it?
Matt Finch: Kids get to really explore and engage with a wide range of books, not just in terms of content but also design and other physical qualities.
There’s a bit of relay racing and simple money management as they try to beat other teams to the books they want. They then get to respond creatively to the books that they’ve chosen. Older children often think very strategically about the business of marketing.
It’s a rare chance to blend reading, creativity, and real-world business skills.
Playing by the book: And what about the adults facilitating the game? What’s in it for them?
Matt Finch: Libraries, schools, or booksellers who host the game get to engage communities with their collection in a new and inspiring way. When children’s publishers or booksellers get involved, it’s a chance to see how their target market engage with your stock – and what kind of marketing materials they would create for their books.
Whenever we’ve played this game we’ve tried to assign one adult to each team. We tell the children that the adult on their team is not their boss or their leader, but an extra resource for them to use. By changing that dynamic, adults get to work alongside the children in a different way, supporting but not directing…even taking orders from children when necessary!
Playing by the book: I’m sold! Take me to your game!
Matt Finch: You can download the full instructions for The Book Fair Game here!
Playing by the book: HURRAH!
Playing by the book: But before I run off and round up some people to play the game with me, I’ve a couple more questions.
Why is playing with books so important?
Matt Finch: Books are hardly the only gateway we have into other worlds and other ways of knowing, but they’re one of the most established and reliable. That kind of ancient magic needs to be explored freely, irreverently, and enthusiastically.
A game like the Book Fair lets children consider the book as a physical object – they even get to sniff them. It also encourages children to reflect on their personal response to a book and how others might respond to that book, too.
Playing by the book: What process do you go through when designing play opportunities which feature books?
Matt Finch: It’s great to incorporate literacy into even the most boisterous play activities. During our live zombie sieges in Australia and New Zealand, the ‘survivors’ had the chance to evaluate fiction and non-fiction as survival aids. In another session for younger children, time travel adventures began with spotting anachronisms in mocked-up newspapers.
In our biggest trial of the Book Fair game, with 100 kids from three schools, we actually folded the activity into a day-long adventure with ninjas fighting bandits – and setting up a bookshop as part of their quest.
For me, play begins with storytelling, and books are just one of many excellent hooks on which we hang the stories that inspire play.
Playing by the book: Did you “play” / act out books as a child? If so, what do you remember doing?
Matt Finch: Oh, all sorts of bizarre stuff got mashed together. By the end of junior school, it was intense. French Resistance stories out of Commando comic blended with Larry Niven scifi which was probably too old for me – with guns that shot slivers of anaesthetic crystal to knock out baddies! Take that, Nazis!
I also played with Star Wars toys, except they were never Star Wars characters. Lando and Leia were the heroes, Luke was a Space Nazi (spot the recurring theme) because he had blonde hair and a single black glove.
And it wasn’t just books. There are embarrassing photos out there somewhere of me and my brother dressed up as Agnetha and Anni-Frid from ABBA. It was about crossing the lines from everyday life to make believe, through any and all points of contact.
Playing by the book: What’s the last book you’ve read (for adults or children) which inspired you to do something, whether that was a trip to visit somewhere, a creative response, cooking new dish or….??
Matt Finch: I’m currently talking to Brisbane’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Writers’ Festival about possible partnerships and that led me back to eccentric rocker Julian Cope’s book The Modern Antiquarian, a guide to the stone circles of Britain.
It’s totally indulgent and bonkers, but experts were forced to agree that he’d done his homework and researched the book well. It’s a kind of deranged gazetteer to these ancient neolithic sites, and another example of how books are a gateway, at any age, between mundane life and weirder worlds. You only need to skim it once and you’ll be hankering to visit your nearest stone circle.
Playing by the book: Matt, just for you, here’s my favourite stone circle:
Maybe this is where my cabinet and I will hold our inaugural meeting when I finally take over the world. Yes. I rather like that idea.
Huge thanks to Matt (left) for setting free his Book Fair game into the wide world. Do download it and see how you could use it in your library, your school, your book group. Matt and I would love to hear about the adventures you have with it.
Matt Finch (@DrMattFinch) is 2016 Creative in Residence at the State Library of Queensland and writes a weekly newsletter, Curious, Mysterious, Marvellous, Electrical which you can join here: tinyletter.com/marvellouselectrical