Image Courtesy of Studio Bliquo.
Marco, a fourth grader in an Italian public school, plays Skies of Manawak, a newly developed computer game, during class time supervised by his teacher. One zone in the game, “The Flight,” looks like a typical action game: he collects objects, avoids obstacles, and battles enemies to fulfill a given quest.
Once Marco finishes a level, he is directed to “The Village”: this zone bears key characteristics of an incentive world, and he has to redeem points earned from “The Flight” to decorate his village. The village comprises nine mini games, each designed to train a different cognitive skill. In one game that trains working memory, Marco is shown a series of graphics before being prompted to select the last three graphs he saw. In another game designed to cultivate split attention, he needs to control a person and a bird simultaneously, weaving around obstacles by jumping or sliding as the person and flying higher or lower as the bird. After he accomplishes a few tasks in The Village, Marco finally discovers the next quest that leads him back to “The Flight.” Difficulties of the action segment and mini games are adapted based on Marco’s performance on each task.
Skies of Manawak (SOM) is a child-friendly action video game developed by European researchers to train Italian reading skills in children and help develop the ability to pronounce words and texts fluently and accurately. They recruited 151 students aged eight to twelve without learning disorders in a public school for training. Students were randomly assigned either to the experimental group playing SOM or the active control group playing Scratch, a kids-tailored, interactive programming game.
Researchers integrated both Skies of Manawak and Scratch into the school curriculum. Students played the games during class time in a classroom for one hour twice a week over the span of six weeks. The training was simultaneously a social experience. “For example, the children that played Scratch not only learned the basics but also prepared a Christmas card altogether for their teachers and parents,” illustrated Angela Pasqualotto, a post-doctorate researcher at the University of Trento and the University of Geneva who was the first author of the paper published in Nature Human Behavior.
Participants were evaluated for their reading skills three times: before the training, right after the six-week period, and six months after the end of training. Besides word lists and meaningful texts, they are also asked to read out lists of pseudowords. Have you played the word-guessing game Wordle? How many times have you put in a word that reads perfectly fine, only to find out that it doesn’t exist? Pseudowords are groups of letters that abide by the rules of pronunciation but aren’t part of the vocabulary in a certain language.
At the end of the six-week training period, students that played SOM demonstrated significant improvement in both reading speed and accuracy, while there was no difference pre- and post-test among students that played Scratch. This difference was maintained at a follow-up test six months after the training. This study pioneers in showing an improvement in reading accuracy in addition to reading speed, both of which are fundamental for literacy.
Benefits of SOM were found to extend beyond improving literacy. The experimental group showed significant improvements in visuospatial attention and cognitive planning. The former was measured with a Bells Test adapted for children, where participants tried to find as many bells as possible amidst distractors in a graphic. The Tower of London test was administered to evaluate planning. This test is set up with two boards with pegs and several beads of different colors. Examinees try to move the beads on one board to match the pattern on the other in the least number of moves. Both advantages were maintained at the six-month follow-up. Further follow-ups twelve and eighteen months after training showed a small but significant improvement in Italian grades—an advantage that grew over time.
Besides reading the text aloud, scientists also measured reading comprehension but found no significant improvement. “Comprehension is a more complex ability which requires many other subskills,” explained Pasqualotto. However, she pointed out that comprehension was only measured right after the training, and long-term improvements in Italian grades may suggest slower and more modest progress in complicated skills like comprehension.
Previous studies on non-conventional training tools have been largely centered around children with dyslexia, a learning disorder that involves difficulty in reading. Affected individuals have a hard time decoding letters and words into related speech sounds. This study extends positive findings in dyslexic children to a broader population.
It took the experimenters over three years to complete the study—two years on game design, followed by recruitment, training, and follow-up studies for up to eighteen months. Along the way, they encountered a variety of challenges. Game designers recruited over three hundred children aged eight to fourteen to help refine the SOM storyline and aesthetics. It was extremely tricky to get children at this age to follow instructions and to collect and analyze their opinions. When the game was finally ready for testing, researchers had to coordinate logistics with teachers and continuously edit their proposal to fit into the original curriculum.
Usually, in a randomized control trial, experimenters don’t know whether a participant is assigned to the experiment group or the control group. This process of “blinding” reduces the researchers’ biases when evaluating the participant. In this study, however, it was impractical to blind every experimenter, since at least one of them had to talk to school representatives and supervise the training. In the end, two experimenters were blinded, and the third, Pasqualotto, became the one who oversaw the entire program. Researchers compared the results scored by the blinded experimenters against combined results from all three of them and found no difference between the scores.
Italian is an extremely transparent language: from the rules of pronunciation, one can almost always pronounce the word correctly. In contrast, English is an opaque language, with numerous sounds corresponding to one letter and vice versa. In logographic languages like Chinese, there is no alphabet, and the reader needs to remember the sounds of each character. Pasqualotto and her team hope to assess the efficacy of SOM in other languages and compare it to that in Italian. “My expectation is that training attentional control and executive functions, particularly working memory and cognitive flexibility, could be beneficial for all languages,” Pasqualotto said. But it will be interesting to investigate the potential differences in the extent of progress made across languages.
The training was carried out before COVID-19 when social interactions were still largely unrestrained. However, with the global pandemic, it is harder not only for these interactions to happen in the classroom, but also for experimenters to meet with participants and administer the tests.
The pandemic pushed Pasqualotto and her team to make it possible for children to play the game and carry out subsequent testing at home. While the game was originally developed on computers, the researchers are now coming up with a version on tablets, since touch-based technology is more accessible and popular in an average household. They are also renovating testing protocols, so that cognitive tests can be administered at home without the presence of experimenters. They hope to eventually develop a product complementary to school activities that is simultaneously useful for research purposes.
Despite the many challenges and obstacles, Pasqualotto has been pleased with what her team has achieved. “Research should have an impact on our life. This type of study is certainly demanding in terms of time and organization, but it also gives you a bigger reward and sense of satisfaction in the end,” she said.