Inspiring Reluctant Readers with the Spy Quest Games and Books

Despite our best efforts with reluctant readers, sometimes it can feel like ‘you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink’. Finding the hook that draws a reader in is imperative, as it then helps an educator build on that interest to expand children’s vocabulary and imagination.

The Spy Quest game replicates the immersive and exciting techniques I used to educate covert surveillance agents

I saw this first-hand with my own children. My eldest, Nathan, was a reluctant reader during most of primary school. My wife and I found a hook to inspire him to read, and saw the massive difference it made to his attainment levels throughout high school.

Inspired by my previous career as a policeman and specialising in covert surveillance and international undercover operations, I created Spy Quest, an innovative online game, similar in some ways to Pokemon Go. I sometimes describe Spy Quest as a modern day treasure hunt; however, it is much more than that. The game replicates the immersive and exciting techniques that I used to educate agents during real-life training courses.

I’ve now worked within Scottish schools for over seven years and provided hundreds of schools with games on a not-for-profit basis through my company, Polybius Games. Developing a resource that genuinely helped teachers was a passion that was put before profit.

Using the games as a hook into reading

My plan to help children to fall in love with books involved embracing technology. I’m an avid gamer myself, and this ensured that I had an immediate affinity with the thousands of children I was working with in schools. I love books too: I regularly speak at schools across the country and tell children how I was inspired by Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys and The Three Investigators, books that I read as a youngster. Technology and the internet are here to stay: my plans were to immerse and excite children by taking storytelling to a new level.

Cover of The Cursed Diamond
The Spy Quest book series provides a great chance to help young fans of the game to develop a love of reading – and the latest book in the series incorporate some cutting-edge technology to further enthuse young readers. The Cursed Diamond is one of the first (if not the first) books in the world that incorporates Augmented Reality, which allows children to ‘read the book and watch the movie’ at the same time. The free Spy Quest app on iTunes has a ‘Spy Cam’ feature that utilises the phone camera to look for ‘triggers’. The triggers in this case are the illustrations found within the book. When the camera recognises a trigger, illustrations burst into life and unveil the exciting world of international espionage, from News channels reporting on the theft of the famous Hope Diamond, to satellites whizzing down from space to find the suspect's location in the world below. You can see it in action in some of the videos on our YouTube channel!

The response from schools, children and parents

Two young fans holding a copy of the book
The book was released in November 2016 at Waterstones in East Kilbride and attracted a crowd of over 1100 people, with a six-hour queue of people snaking their way out of the store. 320 books were sold, and we’ve continued to break store sales records across the country. Recently, we saw sales of over 1000 books at the Falkirk Storytelling Festival, as children from across the central belt gathered to find out more about Spy Quest.

‘Epic’, ‘mindblowing’ and ‘spectacular’ are just some of the words that children from St. Patrick’s primary school in Falkirk used to describe the books on social media!

Statistics taken from the events and school visits showed that:

  • 60% of children attending were buying their first book
  • 48% were boys

Many parents have written to me to express delight that their children have taken to reading. This review from Amazon is indicative of that: My son Ben from Chapelton Primary came to your signing on Saturday. He is finished your book in ONE DAY!!!! I wanted to thank you so much as I have struggled to get him to read books and he has not put your book down since we bought it. Just wanted to send you a message to thank you as a Parent, as I now have a 10 year old very excited and interested in books.

Many local authority library services have partnered with Polybius Games to build on the hook, and Spy Quest after schools clubs are springing up in Ayrshire, Lanarkshire, Glasgow and Edinburgh.

As the team and I prepare for the next step in the journey by opening a digital studio in Los Angeles early next year, we can be thankful that it began in Scotland and that children here will be eagerly awaiting the release of The Bullion Heist, the next book in the series.

Polybius Games want to build on the success and are offering schools and libraries free Spy Quest games. Get in touch by emailing enquiries@polybiusgames.com.

Loved this blog post from David? Check out this other post from teacher Jed Gilchrist about using computer games in the classroom.

Education blogger EdTech_Stories has been blogging extensively about Spy Quest and have gathered a comprehensive account of feedback found in social media with this Storify link.

David Goutcher

David is the owner and founder of Polybius Games, and the writer of the Spy Quest series.