Engaging children’s learning of reading through challenge and rewards (Ronimus et al., 2014)

The education field has a longstanding interest in videogames and I believe its educational potential is one of its earliest recognized benefits. James Paul Gee (Arizona State University) is one of the most notable academic advocates. Education scholars publish studies as many as psychological researchers do. I have not covered much because it’s outside of my field. Therefore, I randomly picked an education-related study peeking what they are doing.

This is a study published in Computers & Education from Miia Ronimus, Janne Kujala, Asko Tolvanen, and Heikki Lyytinen (University of Jyväskylä) from their education videogame, GraphoGame.


This study investigated the effects of two game features (the level of challenge and the reward system) on first and second graders’ engagement during digital game-based learning of reading. We were particularly interested in determining how well these features managed to maintain children’s engagement over the 8-week training period. The children (N = 138) used GraphoGame, a web-based game training letter–sound connections, at home under the supervision of parents. Data regarding the children’s gaming and engagement were stored on the GraphoGame online server. A 2 × 2 factorial design was used to investigate the effects of the level of challenge (high challenge vs. high success) and the presence of the reward system (present vs. absent). Children’s engagement was measured by session frequency and duration and through an in-game self-report survey that was presented at the end of the each session. According to the results, the children enjoyed GraphoGame but used it less frequently than expected. The reward system seemed to encourage the children to play longer sessions at the beginning of the training period, but this effect vanished after a few sessions. The level of challenge had no significant effect on children’s engagement. The results suggest a need to investigate further the effectiveness of various game features in maintaining learner’s engagement until the goals set for learning are achieved.

I’m already feeling exhausted and we’ve just started the semester.

The authors approached engagement with videogames through a theoretical model called GameFlow (Sweetser & Wyeth, 2005). This model posits that several criteria must be met for a videogame to be engaging with players, in particular in achieving a flow experience. Some of these criteria include concentration, challenge, control, clear goals, feedback, immersion, and social interaction. The author sought to examine two of these criteria, reward and challenge on their research platform game, GraphoGame.

Here is one of their videos:

The authors designed the reward system where a game token is earned when the child completes a set of 20 letter-sound connection tasks. When the child earned 5 tokens, they can use them to play a reward level. The numbers of reward levels are small, but increases as playing time increases. Thus, the more time spent on GraphoGame, the greater the number of choices they are given. The reward levels teach the same content, except in a different format and context, for example playing with a spaceship. The authors argued that adding incentives would undermine motivation, but the elements of choice and fantasy may be beneficial.

The challenge system is the second element the authors examined. GraphoGame employs adaptive algorithm where the difficulty changes according to the child’s success and failure. They set two difficulty versions for this study. The high challenge version is set in that it started at the medium difficulty (say level 43) and if the child answers correctly, the game jumps the difficulty ( level 66). The high success version started at a low difficulty (level 5) and if the child answers correctly, the game pushes the difficulty slightly (level 16).


Participants: 138 Finnish children, average age is 7.36 years old, 82 boys and 56 girls and they had previous experience with the game because the authors sent out an email to registered GraphoGame users about the study and obtained consent from parents. As the game can be played online, game data is stored in the GraphoGame server. The children were randomly assigned to one of four conditions: Reward vs. no reward & high challenge vs. high success.

The children were expected to play the game for 8 weeks, at least twice per week. On the first week, the children were asked questions, in the game, about their reading-related activities. During these weeks, the game asked the children about how much they enjoyed the game on a 5-point smiley face scale. At 8 weeks, the children were again asked questions about their reading-related activities and the parents were sent an online questionnaire about their children’s motivation and concentration in playing the game.


There were no changes in enjoyment from start to end. The average total playing time is 179.6 minutes, there were no effects on playing time from challenge or reward. The authors analyzed further and found that those in the reward condition initially played a lot longer, but subsequently dropped to levels similar to the no reward condition. Reading performance was improved from start to end, but challenge and reward were not significant factors.

The parents in the reward condition reported that their children were better concentrated in the game than parents in the no-reward condition. Children reported interest in reading showed no changes from the start to end.


The authors observed that 3 hours of play time over 8 weeks is very low. They received feedback from parents in that some children dropped out because they learned to read or they got bored with the game.

The authors discussed some points that may explain the declining play time. There were only 7 reward levels which may not be enough. The children were required to successfully play through levels in order to obtain tokens to access these reward levels which may feel constricting to the children. Second, there were no clear and long-term goals for the children, certainly those in the reward condition had a goal to unlock the reward levels, but once accomplished there were no additional goals. Third, no feedback to the children about their progress or their skill level. Fourth, the game was designed for the child to play so the parents could not participate in the game.


Ronimus, M., Kujala, J., Tolvanen, A., & Lyytinen, H. (2014). Children’s engagement during digital game-based learning of reading: The effects of time, rewards, and challenge. Computers & Education, 71 , 237-246. DOI:10.1016/j.compedu.2013.10.008


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