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Does RPG reading complexity impact participant development of intrinsic reading motivation, speed of development, and total reading advancement?

by Hawke Robinson published Aug 22, 2017 03:55 PM, last modified Aug 22, 2017 04:45 PM
RPGs are well known to spark interest in reading, and may promote overall reading advancement. That being said, how much does the reading comprehension required for RPGs impact this overall advancement? Using "Adult" RPG Systems with youth, rather than "bringing down" a system to "their level". This is one anecdotal example that I can share, since it is my own kids, but I have seen repeated many times in practice with others, over the years. But have not (yet) run a controlled study to validate or negate these observations. Your thoughts and experiences?

In working with various youth populations, through The RPG Research Project (, I have seen a wide variety of results from utilizing RPGs to help participants achieve various educational and therapeutics goals.

One very common benefit is development of an intrinsic motivation to become a stronger reader.

With the increase in popularity of role-playing games for both tabletop and computer-based formats, there has also been a recurrence of "children's RPG systems", geared for younger audiences.

Also with the increase in popularity, are more and more simplified, some argue "dumbed down", RPGs, that target a lower overall reading and math abilities. How much does the reduced complexity in reading, math, logic, attention span, etc., change the overall impact of the benefits from RPGs, as documented in earlier decades where the RPGs had higher reading and math comprehension requirements?

On the Kids RPG side, games such as No Thank You Evil (NTYE) by Monte Cooke Games, Hero Kids by Hero Forge Games, etc.

We have very much enjoyed, and seen nice results with NTYE, though we haven't (yet) tried Hero Kids, or the others.

Some recent discussions asking "which RPG for Kids do you prefer, and have seen better result with?", triggered my wanting to share some anecdotes, regarding something niggling at he back of my mind, about this "dumbing down" of games to a child's current functional level, rather than "raising up" their abilities in an accelerated fashion using their interests to power their intrinsic motivation to learn and develop at a more accelerated rate.

These RPG Kids games are great, please do not misunderstand, and for many kids, they are the "exactly right" introduction they need to get them interested in the joys of RPGs, and work as a great stepping stone toward full "adult" level RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), The One Ring (TOR), Rolemaster, GURPS, and hundreds of others.

And then there are the increasingly "rules light" RPGs out there, like the Cortex 2 based Firefly RPG, and many others.

I would like to share some anecdotes of my using full RPGs with much younger youth, which it seems, through observation and overall reports, may further accelerate the reading development of participants, over these "kidified" RPGs, and some of the parallel events that feed the loop of development (which of course are further confounds, but may still be pertinent). But since they have not been run in controlled studies, I cannot state with any certainty that these observations are in fact causal and able to be generalized to the overall public.

Using "adult" systems with youngsters, ages 4+. Specific Example: MERP, AD&D 1st Edition, & D&D 3.x.

My three sons were 4, 6, & 8 when I introduced all three of them, together, to the joys of tabletop RPGs (now they are 17, 19, & 21).

The youngest couldn't read much, and only very rudimentary addition/subtraction math skills, but the other two were quickly becoming advanced readers (12.9 grade level, by 5th/6th grade).

So, when I introduced them to RPGs, I had to (initially) explain a lot of things as we went, but they very quickly started to insist that I give them the time to calculate or read the results on their own, "I can do it dad, just wait a sec!" And very quickly they were indeed accurately figuring it out on their own. :-)

We were a reading family, and when they were very little, we read them faerie stories, Princess Bride, The Hobbit, and many others, encouraging them to read on their own as much as possible. The youngest was most resistant to taking up reading on his own.

As a consequence of his resistance, combined with his attending a private school in Spokane, "North Wall School", which provided him with many great experiences from around the world (different cultural theme each week, learning foreign language key words each week, and very hands on activities), while he received some great broader education, his math and reading skills were far behind his peers when he entered into the public system around 2nd grade.

The youngest was lagging on his reading until early 3rd grade (he was rated at only 1st grade level at the beginning of the school year).

The school and teachers were very concerned as he struggled to catch up to the class, and he was very frustrated himself, but didn't want to do any of the "boring" homework or in-class reading assignments, and was embarrassed by lagging behind his peers in these areas, which furthered his avoidance.

Then a series of events took place that helped to finally "light the spark" of interest in reading for him.

it started with combination of my introducing him to tabletop RPGs, and computer-based RPGs like NeverWinter Nights (NWN).

At one point he was pointing out, as he explained playing NWN to his grandmother, that "I can't read what the NPCs are saying, but I kind of figure it out", and his increasingly asking me in the NWN game "dad, what does _this_ say", pointing to some NPC dialog posted by the game at what he knew was a critical stage.

He became increasingly frustrated that he couldn't read the tabletop RPG rules, or the dialog in the computer-based game, and started to decide on his own that he wanted to no longer have to keep waiting for me to be available to walk him through sounding out and learning the meaning of all those words.

Pretty soon he was whipping up his own characters in MERP, AD&D, and D&D 3.x. And clicking away in NWN and other games.

This helped him be intrinsically motivated to develop his reading skills for utilitarian purposes. But he still wasn't into reading for pleasure.

Then he fell in love cats, and came across the book series "Warriors" (cat book series), which sparked his interest in reading novels, and not just utilitarian reading. And he asked me to help him try to create a tabletop RPG based on the series.

Then he decided to read The Hobbit, and then the Harry Potter series, and others.

By the end of 4th grade, he had rocketed ahead to 11th grade level in his reading testing, and over the summer, as he started early 5th grade was at 12.9 (the system not rating higher than that).

Since he was 11 years old, he decided he wanted to be a professional writer.

A few years ago he spent 5 days a week at Starbucks, setting a personal goal of writing a minimum of 2500 words a day, on his novel. He never tried to publish it, but we enjoyed it, and as we've passed it around to people, they have very much enjoyed, and have asked him to write more, to find out what happens next.

He has now for a couple of years run his own RPG groups as GM, and has co-written the adventure modules for Tolkien Moot (

While I believe that if I had started my boys with something like NTYE, they would still have grown their interests similarly, I wonder if the push for a higher level of reading comprehension to get their "gaming fix" might not have been as effective in the strength of their reading development, as it was with the higher level game systems and rule books.

While there are many potential confounds over such longitudinal studies, perhaps shorter 3-12 month controlled studies between groups could be develop to ascertain if the RPG system reading complexity has an impact on intrinsic motivation to advance reading capabilities faster than less complex systems?

One group would be using "dumbed down" games like NTYE, another group something like D&D or MERP, and another the control group, just using board games or interactive games, that do not require reading for the success and enjoyment.

I don't know if/when this will happen, but it would be interesting to see if all the anecdotal experiences I've had, and observed in participants, were reflected (or not) in a more controlled approach.

To try to reduce some of the confounds that we had control over (so many we can't), have them all running through the same parallel adventures, and with either the same GM for all games, or rotating GMs for each session to try to reduce a single GMs influence. Hmmm. Would be nice to be able to implement.

This doesn't seem like too difficult a study compared to some of the other RPG Research Project goals, but of course funding needs would be fairly considerable.

Computer-based would be more expensive to develop, though it might be possible to just pick a few off the shelf games, and this would reduce the confound of GM variance.

I welcome your thoughts and ideas on this hypothesis, does the reading complexity of a tabletop or computer-based RPG, have an impact on the intrinsic motivation for reading and acceleration of reading development?