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Video games are sometimes blamed for adversely affecting children’s learning. But a properly designed action game can actually improve attention, reading skills and school results, according to a study published in Nature Human Behaviour by researchers at the University of Trento, the University of Geneva, the University of Paris (LaPsyDÉ, CNRS) and the University of Bolzano.

“Reading relies not only on language abilities but also on other functions, such as working memory, cognitive flexibility and inhibitory control skills” says Angela Pasqualotto, a researcher at the University of Trento and first author of the study. In particular, reading involves the ability to visually extract information from the page, a high control of eye movements, and an attention system that guides the acquisition of the written text. Action video games require quick decisions under time pressure, a great deal of visual attention maintained over time, the ability to switch between different attentional states, and the ability to forecast quickly what will happen immediately after a decision or action. Past studies had shown that action video games can improve reading in children with dyslexia, Pasqualotto says, but the researchers wanted to see whether they can be also benefit children with regular language skills.

The team developed an action game, where the child embarks on simulated ‘missions’ that target key cognitive abilities such as focused and divided attention, object tracking, auditory memory. The game has a modular structure, and an algorithm controls the difficulty level of the individual modules based on each player’s performance, and ‘proposes’ modules that can improve a child’s skill without being excessively difficult.

The game was tested on 151 children in Italy, aged between 8 and 12, with typical reading levels, who were divided in two groups: half of them played the video game developed by the scientists, and the other half (the control group) played Scratch, a popular educational game that is used to teach coding to children. Both groups played for 12 hours over 6 weeks. The researchers used standard tests to measure reading abilities in all the children before training, immediately after training, and six months later. Overall, the children who played the action game improved more than those who played Scratch in terms of attention control, reading speed and accuracy, and the difference was still present six months after the training1.

The scientists also compared the children's grades in mathematics and Italian eighteen months later, and found a significant – although small – improvement in the school results of the experimental group compared to the control one. The researchers are now developing an improved version of the game that will be available in French, German, and English for use on a simple tablet. “The goal will be to provide a video game that can complement school activities,” says Pasqualotto.