A fantasy role-play game is casting a literary spell over boys. Elaine Williams reports.
When Andy Jackson-Hall was three, his dad, a dustman, read him The Hobbit. At nine, he tried The Lord of the Rings, which he has since read six times. Tolkien's Middle Earth, with its hobbits, wizards and black riders, absorbs him to this day.
In adolescence, he discovered a table-top fantasy war game called Warhammer that encompassed this Tolkienesque world and much more. It remains his passion. He is now 26 and employed by Games Workshop, the company that produces Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000, its sci-fi equivalent.
Games Workshop is just a year younger than Andy Jackson-Hall and claims to be the largest hobby wargames company in the world. It has just landed a contract to make the first tabletop game to accompany the forthcoming film trilogy of The Lord of the Rings starring Ian McKellen and Cate Blanchett. The first part is due for release in December and film industry observers believe it could eclipse Star Wars.
In his five years with the company, Mr Jackson-Hall has remained a voracious reader and has found that fantasy gaming can serve as a huge hook to pull teenagers, particularly boys, into the book habit. He set up partnerships with libraries on his home patch (he runs Games Workshop in York and lives in Hull), a scheme the Library Association is extending nationwide. His efforts have earned him the accolade of reading champion from the government-backed National Reading Campaign.
If you pass the expansive library windows on the Cleethorpes seafront, you won't notice the books - all eyes go to the display of meticulously painted miniature figures arranged in battle formation in a pastoral landscape. Welcome to the world of Warhammer, where the mortal armies of Chaos and Beastmen, Orcs and Goblins, slug it out with Woodelves from the Forest of Loren, their cousins the proud, intellectual High Elves and the Knights of Bretonnia, who have grown powerful under their leader, the Lady of the Lake.
As well as the figures, the display includes battle rulebooks - which outline the game's mind-boggling discipline and strategies - and the "codex books", which give the historical and geographical background to each embattled race and introduce the key characters. Then there are the magazines, comics, short-story monthlies, graphic novels and novels - all with tens of thousands of devout subscribers. Millions of words have been penned, thousands of pictures created by the artists and writers at Games Workshop's studios in Nottingham, who have to satisfy an obsessive demand for supporting literature as the Warhammer narrative continues to expand.
Role-play is at the heart of the game. As well as assembling and painting their fantastical figures, gamers have to conjure up entire scenarios that form the background to the battles.
Mr Jackson-Hall realised how all this could work wonders for reluctant readers when he dropped into Grimsby library one day. "Staff were telling me it was difficult to get boys to use the library, to grab their interest in books. We have no trouble getting boys - and the exceptional girl - to read the stuff in our shops. In five years I have seen the benefit boys get out of gaming. It feeds their imagination, helps them to settle down and concentrate, gets them talking about stories."
Jane Coward, a senior librarian at Cleethorpes, arranged for Mr Jackson-Hall to stage a gaming event for 11 to 16-year-olds in the library. Boys who had never before crossed the threshold came in to paint figures, which they could keep, and to do battle across the tables laid out for the game. They were also introduced to the literature and, three months later, continue to borrow the books, novels, comics and magazines. The average national loan rate for books in children's libraries is five times a year. In Cleethorpes the Warhammer titles are borrowed 10 to 16 times a year.
"We constantly strive to promote reading as a social activity," says Ms Coward. "Warhammer is social and creative, and it requires an enormous amount of concentration. The boys talk about what they have read, and they have to use their imagination to make up their own plots. It is certainly helping to change the library's image." Enter a Games Workshop store during any of the weekly late-night sessions and you will be struck by a lively but intense (and stuffy and slightly sweaty) atmosphere as dozens of young males - the age range is typically 11 to mid-20s - unpack their figures. They will spend the next few hours setting the scene, agreeing the strength of their armies - they may be evenly matched, or fight against the odds - and engaging their imaginations in the unfolding adventures, prompted by a roll of dice.
Some sit around reading White Dwarf, the monthly Games Workshop magazine (80,000 subscribers and 250,000 copies sold worldwide), with its intricate but dramatic Gothic illustrations and its news about special characters, armies and publications. Others catch up on Inferno, the short story magazine. Some seek out novels such as Hammers of Ulric, a story about the Knights of the White Wolf, the truculent, hard-drinking warriors of Middleheim and members of The Empire (another collectable army) who have to deal with persistent beastmen as well as some particularly powerful necromancy in their city: a muscular, bloody, moralistic and heroic tale.
John Carter, a former primary school teacher, is Games Workshop's promotions manager for the UK. The narrative the company has developed over its 25 years, he says, has roots in the writings of Michael Moorcock, Tolkien, Arthurian legend, classical myths, folklore and heroic sagas such as Beowulf. He says: "To play Warhammer well you have to have an open mind, you have to be adaptable. Boys like collecting things, and the game gives them the interest to collect and make stories as well as the figures."
Daniel Hanks, 16, has been playing Warhammer 40,000 for three years, and spends many Thursday evenings in the York shop. "I love the full background behind everything," he says. "I never used to read anything, but now read all the time. I like the sci-fi side. All the books are written from a character's point of view and you can imagine being that person. I've gone on to read all the Terry Pratchett Discworld novels. I can see the difference in my school work. I'm now getting above-average results for my English."
Conrad Bird, 11, was busy putting together his own creation - "conversion" as it is known - of a Warhammer Brettonian knight. "I'm going to call him Knight of the Perilous Lance. He's one of those guys who goes to jousts but he never gives his name and never lifts his visor. I'm going to paint him black and dark blue without any heraldry so he looks all mysterious. I like all the history in this and read lots."
Anne Masters, a senior librarian in York, is planning a Games Workshop event in partnership with Andy Jackson-Hall to celebrate World Book Day on March 1. She believes it will go a long way towards making boys see that "libraries can be relevant to them - not just full of books about girls on horses". The Warhammer literature slots into a recent growth in popularity in fantasy novels such as J K Rowling's Harry Potter series and Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy, and could well lead boys into C S Lewis or Ursula Le Guin. Games Workshop staff have noted that boys typically move on to Terry Pratchett and Tolkien and into mainstream historical fiction such as Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe series.
Ms Masters is untroubled by the blood-and-guts approach to narrative that is Warhammer's trademark. "It's obviously fantasy, not at all realistic, and it is attractive to boys. It's challenging stuff, with enormous detail. Boys like to read for a purpose, and linking it in with a hobby is ideal. In schools, because of curriculum overload, teachers cannot always take the time to find out what interests their pupils. Just because boys might not like reading the set books does not mean they do not read."
There are 800 registered Warhammer clubs, some of which meet in schools during lunch-time or after-hours. James Smith, the head of Preshute parochial primary, a 190-pupil rural school near Marlborough, Wiltshire, has gone one step further and used Warhammer as a basis for exploring many areas of the curriculum. Children take on and expand the table-top characters for role-play in drama; they write character profiles in English; they create maps in geography using co-ordinates of their own Warhammer-style world called Gorgonland; and they use problem-solving to send their characters on missions around this created world. Games Workshop is sponsoring the school to commission professional Gorgonland artwork based on their ideas. "The standard of work I get from this is exceptionally high," says Mr Smith. "Children, particularly boys, like to rough and tumble, and in this they can rough and tumble in their imaginations."
Peter Malcolm, deputy head of Rayleigh primary, a 460-strong school in Essex, has used Warhammer as a way of "picking up children who feel disenfranchised". Some of his pupils are now attempting short stories to submit to Inferno. He says: "They don't find it easy, but they have total commitment and they are emotionally engaged so the quality is developing."
Dan Abnett, 35, an Oxford English graduate, now writes for Games Workshop full-time after a freelance career on comics such as Batman, Superman, 2000AD and Judge Dredd, and is co-author of Hammers of Ulric. "Kids are reading a lot more than people give them credit for," he says. "They will spend quite a lot of money to read something the size of a telephone directory (a Warhammer rule book) which they will have to digest, reference and recreate. Reading a 100,000-word novel after that is nothing."
* Games Workshop had a worldwide turnover of pound;42.7 million in 1999-2000; UK turnover was pound;15m.
* More than 60 million miniatures and kits are sold each year worldwide.
* UK sales of Warhammer since October 2000: 22,819 copies of Warhammer Fantasy Battle boxed game and rulebook; 32,413 copies of Warhammer 40,000 boxed game and rule book.
* These are starter sets with basic kit and figures. To add to the set costs from pound;12 for 16 dwarves to around pound;18 for a special figure such as a giant.
* White Dwarf magazine has a monthly circulation of 250,000.