As if flying: Scientists have developed a computer game that primary school children can use to subliminally train important brain functions. As a result, they show significantly better reading skills than the control group even months after the training. The interesting thing is that reading doesn’t play a role in the video game itself. The children have to save the world there with a bird as company.
Video games now have a mixed reputation. While they used to be considered a useless pastime or even harmful to young people, various studies over time have also emphasized the positive effects of computer games. For example, they can improve working memory, reduce reaction time, and even stimulate the hippocampus, improving learning performance. Excessive media consumption, especially in small children, can also impair basic cognition and worldview.
While impact studies mostly examine general media consumption or unspecific computer games, there are also video games that are specially developed for learning progress. These run under the term “serious gaming” and are sometimes used to help learn a new language or as motor training.
Decode more than letters
Angela Pasqualotto from the University of Trento in South Tyrol and her team have now investigated whether such a video game can also help primary school children learn to read. They have developed their own computer game called “Skies of Manawak” especially for this. However, this does not simply put letters or words in front of the children, but trains more subliminal skills that go beyond decoding letters into sounds.
“Reading involves many important mechanisms that we don’t necessarily think about. This includes knowing how to move our eyes on the page or how to use our working memory to connect words into a coherent sentence,” explains senior author Daphné Bavelier from the University of Geneva.
A child and his bird
“It is known that action video games improve these skills, such as vision, general attention, working memory, and cognitive flexibility,” says Pasqualotto. The Skies of Manawak game was specifically designed to train these different brain functions, known as executive functions, through ten different mini-games.
“The game’s universe is an alternate world where the child is accompanied by their raku, a flying creature. You have to complete different missions to progress and save planets,” says Pasqualotto. The developers have made sure that the missions are non-violent and therefore suitable for children.
Gamble for six weeks
For their study, the researchers recruited 150 Italian school children between the ages of eight and twelve. Half of the children played the game Skies of Manawak two hours a week for six weeks. The other half, the control group, received the well-established educational game “Scratch” for the same period, which is intended to teach children the basics of programming. Both games are basically aimed at training the executive functions of the brain.
“We started by examining the children’s ability to read words, non-words and paragraphs, as well as their attentional control,” explains Bavelier. After the six-week game phase, these skills were tested again.
“We found a seven-fold improvement in attentional control in the children who played our action video game compared to the control group,” said Pasqualotto. The team also saw significant improvements in reading speed and accuracy among Skies of Manawak players — there were no improvements in the kids who played Scratch. It is also worth mentioning that the children’s reading skills have improved, although the game itself does not contain any reading exercises.
“What is also particularly interesting about the study is that we carried out three further evaluation tests six, twelve and 18 months after the training. Each time, the trained children performed better than the control group. This proves that the improvements have been sustainable,” adds Pasqualotto. The scientists were also able to find a long-term improvement in their school grades in Italian with the action game group – but not in mathematics.
Different depending on the language
In the next step, the video game will also be translated into German, French and English and made available to the general public. However, it is unclear whether the results of Pasqualotto’s study can be transferred to other languages.
“When reading, decoding the letters varies in difficulty depending on the language,” explains co-author Irene Altarelli. “Italian, for example, is very transparent: every letter is pronounced. More obscure languages, such as English or French, create different learning challenges. Here you have to learn exceptions and experience how a different context affects the pronunciation.” Since most words in German are pronounced as they are written, chances are that the translated version of “Skies of Manawak” can also help students in this country , don’t be bad. (Nature Human Behaviour, 2022; doi: 10.1038/s41562-021-01254-x)
Source: University of Geneva