Using action video games to improve reading skills

Tuesday, 18 January, 2022

Using action video games to improve reading skills

A new study from Université de Genève (UNIGE) and the University of Trento has found that playing action video games could actually help to enhance reading skills for children.

Scientists tested an action video game designed for children, with results demonstrating improved reading abilities after just 12 hours of training.

Notably, these gains persist over time, to the point that language school grades are seen to improve more than a year after the end of training.

“Reading calls upon several other essential mechanisms that we don’t necessarily think about, such as knowing how to move our eyes on the page or how to use our working memory to link words together in a coherent sentence,” said Daphné Bavelier, a professor in the Psychology Section of the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences (FPSE) at the UNIGE.

“These other skills, such as vision, the deployment of attention, working memory and cognitive flexibility, are known to be improved by action video games,” said Angela Pasqualotto, first author of this study, from the University of Trento.

A child-friendly action video game to support learning

With this in mind, a video game was designed that combines action video games with mini games that train different executive functions, such as working memory, inhibition and cognitive flexibility — functions that are called upon during reading.

“The universe of this game is an alternative world in which the child, accompanied by his Raku, a flying creature, must carry out different missions to save planets and progress in the game,” said Pasqualotto.

The idea is to reproduce the components of an action game without incorporating violence, so that it is suitable for young children.

“For example, the Raku flies through a meteor shower, moving around to avoid those or aiming at them to weaken their impact, while collecting useful resources for the rest of the game, a bit like what you find in action video games,” Pasqualotto said.

The scientists then worked with 150 Italian schoolchildren aged eight to 12, divided into two groups: the first group played the video game developed by the team and the second group played Scratch, a game that teaches children how to code. Both games require attentional control and executive functions, but in different manners. The action video game requires children to perform tasks within a time limit, such as remembering a sequence of symbols or responding only when the Raku makes a specific sound, while increasing the difficulty of these tasks according to the child’s performance. Scratch, the control game, requires planning, reasoning and problem-solving. Children must manipulate objects and logical structures to establish the desired programming sequence.

“First, we tested the children’s ability to read words, non-words and paragraphs, and also we conducted an attention test that measures the child’s attentional control, a capacity we know is trained by action video games,” said Bavelier.

The children then followed the training with either the action video game or the control game, for two hours a week for six weeks under supervision at school. Children were tested at school by clinicians of the Laboratory of Observation Diagnosis and Education (UNITN).

Long-term improvement in reading skills

Shortly after the end of the training, the scientists repeated the tests on both groups of children.

“We found a seven-fold improvement in attentional control in the children who played the action video game compared to the control group,” said Pasqualotto.

Even more remarkably, the research team observed a clear enhancement in reading — not only in terms of reading speed, but also in accuracy — whereas no improvement was noted for the control group. This improvement in literacy occurs even though the action video game does not require any reading activity.

“What is particularly interesting about this study is that we carried out three further assessment tests at six months, 12 months and 18 months after training. On each occasion, the trained children performed better than the control group, which proves that these improvements were sustained,” Pasqualotto said.

Moreover, the grades in Italian of the trained children became significantly better over time, showing a virtuous improvement in learning ability.

“The effects are thus long term, in line with the action video game strengthening the ability to learn how to learn,” said Bavelier.

Within the framework of the NCCR Evolving Language and in collaboration with Irene Altarelli (co-author of the article and researcher at LaPsyDE, University of Paris), the game will be adapted into German, French and English.

Image credit: ©

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