A view From the Bridge

Neuroscience-tinged kids’ app put to the test

Posted on behalf of Hysell Oviedo and Siboney Oviedo-Gray

'Brain Street' in Kizoom's gamified neuroscience learning app, Brainventures.

‘Brain Street’ in Kizoom’s gamified neuroscience learning app, Brainventures.

Kizoom

I have two criteria for a game app for my daughter: it must assuage my guilty conscience when I’m not able to play with her, and contain no ads. Ideally I would want her to learn calculus while we wait at the airport security line (or to discover that lingering boredom can lead to creativity and observation). Realistically, I at least want her to learn something useful.

What that something is varies widely, from the physics puzzles starring candy-eating monster Om Nom in Cut the Rope (ZeptoLab) to the ruthless war strategizing in Supercell’s Clash of Clans, to good old-fashioned addition and spelling. A newish trend is apps that gamify learning, which taps into our reward and motivation systems to incentivize explicit learning (of world history, for example).

One such app is Brainventures from Kizoom, which my seven-and-a-half-year-old, Siboney, was excited to try. She played Kizoom’s Brain Jump when younger, and enjoyed a read-along vignette about neurons from the developers (the founder is a neuroscientist). Like Brain Jump, Brainventures draws heavily on classic psychophysical tasks: reaction time, memory, visual acuity. It connects Brain Jump’s star Ned the Neuron with many friends — including the competitive Pepper, dopey Big Rick, and Ada the focused.  

These neurons mainly teach us about the brain in quirky interactions via speech bubbles (such as,  Here in the brain we are just as busy when Sophie is sleeping,” says Buster. “Brain party all night!” responds another neuron). These speech bubbles risk being skipped by kids eager to get to the games. To illustrate the function of different neurons, the app gets kids to choose virtual children who need help from their neurons in their daily routine: “I like that we do stuff for Sophie,” said Siboney. That “stuff” includes turning cartwheels in a tricky timing task called Move It, catching the most nutritious food in Fuel Up, and Sort and Store.

Memories are made of this

Every task has increasing levels of difficulty. My favourite is Focus Pocus, the hide-and-seek version of a visual working memory task where kids have to remember objects presented briefly and track them in a fishbowl full of distractors. This demands sustained memory and attention, a rare feature in game apps.

Overall, the app makes it clear that neurons have to work together to do “stuff”, but that’s where the level of complexity stops. As a neuroscientist, I would have liked to see the game makers exploit more our vast knowledge of the marvelous anatomical differences between brain areas that perform different functions.

It’s arguable whether the game achieves the cognitive claims stated on Kizoom’s website (such as, “Take on quests to help the child grow brain power”). But the app does introduce the basic idea that an integrated network of neurons that perform different functions powers the brain. The psychophysical games are also well designed: it’s clear what to do but at the same time, they are challenging.

Brainventures satisfies one of the cardinal rules of a kids’ app: they can do it largely without parental help. The downside was that Siboney blasted through the app in about an hour, then started re-doing the levels. She played the game enthusiastically for about a week; then her interest waned. I surmise that Brainventures lacks some key elements of gamification — such as a virtual currency, missions and rewards — which reinforce a kid’s excitement and engagement, drive the desire for mastery and achievement, and hopefully, increase the potential for learning. But my biggest request to the game makers? Please add a pause button. 

Hysell Oviedo is a professor of neuroscience at The City College of New York, and the biology-neuroscience subprogramme at the CUNY Graduate Center. She studies the neural basis of animal communication. Her favourite science outreach project is leading a BioAnimation team of visual arts and biology students who make movies about how the brain works. She tweets at @hysell.

Siboney Oviedo-Gray’s favourite subjects are maths and grammar, her favorite city is Madrid, and she likes drawing, and cooking with mom.

 

For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.

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