SMU’s puzzle-solving smartphone app selected as one of eight to move to next round in $7M Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE competition

For Corey Clark, deputy director for research in the SMU Guildhall game development program, adult literacy became a personal challenge the moment he learned of its scope. “There are about 600,000 adults in Dallas who have less than a third-grade reading level,” he says. “If we could help 10 percent of those people, that’s 60,000 people who could learn to read proficiently. That makes a difference in a lot of people’s lives.”

This challenge is at the heart of a partnership between Southern Methodist University and Literacy Instruction for Texas (LIFT), and their work has been recognized with a semifinalist position in the $7 million Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE presented by Dollar General Literacy Foundation competition.

The team, People ForWords, includes collaborators from SMU Guildhall, SMU Simmons School of Education and Human Development, and LIFT. People ForWords is one of eight teams chosen for the semifinals out of 109 entrants, and the only Texas team to make the cut.

In this global competition, teams develop mobile applications, compatible with smart phone devices, that have the potential to increase literacy skills among adult learners. The solutions discovered through the applications will help reveal and overcome roadblocks in improving adult literacy through providing access, retention, and a scalable product to the public.

As development lead of People ForWords, Clark recruited a cadre of Guildhall-trained artists, programmers and producers via the program’s alumni career portal. The development team came together in March 2016. By October, they had created a beta version of Codex: The Lost Words of Atlantis.

As participants in a globe-trotting adventure, English-language learners play as enterprising archaeologists and work to decipher the forgotten language of a lost civilization. As the players solve the puzzles of the Atlantean runes, audible prompts for each letter and sound help them learn the look and feel of written English<, developing and strengthening their own reading skills. Developed for English- and Spanish-speaking adults, but safe for all ages, the game also provides history lessons as it visits real locations around the world. Needs of adult literacy learners very different from other gamers
Codex: The Lost Words of Atlantis supports English literacy learners in both English and Spanish. Egypt is the first destination in a planned five-region journey across the globe; in future versions, People ForWords plans to develop additional regions with new gameplay, new characters, and new literacy skills.

An important step in the game design process came with playtesting at LIFT Academy and Dallas’ Jubilee Park community center — where the designers could reach their game’s target audience. They quickly figured out that the needs of adult literacy learners were very different from those of other gamers.

“This was the first time some participants had used a desktop computer,” Clark says. “How do you make a game that’s fun and interactive, yet simple and intuitive enough to be a first experience with technology?”

To find out, Clark collected and analyzed data on game elements such as how long players stuck with a task, how many times they repeated moves, how quickly they progressed, and whether performing the game actions translated into the desired learning outcomes. “First, games have to be fun,” he says. “From story to characters, you want to engage people enough to play over and over again. And this happens to be the exact same process that reinforces learning.”

And as Clark points out, at its core, every game is about learning. “Whether it’s a map, a system or a skill, you learn something new with every move you make,” he says. “And games are safe environments to do that, because they allow you to fail in ways that aren’t overwhelming. They let you keep trying until you succeed.”

Illiteracy plays a factor in poverty
In North Texas, the XPRIZE is more than a competition. According to LIFT, one in five adults in North Texas cannot read, a key factor in poverty. Dallas has the fourth highest concentration of poverty in the nation, with a 41 percent increase from 2000 to 2014.

“This is a dedicated effort by our team to tackle the growing issue of low literacy and poverty in our communities,” according to a People ForWords statement. “Each organization involved in the collaboration brings their expertise to the competition: knowledge in education, adult literacy, and game development. Together these skills have allowed our team to build a functional, fun application that helps improve adult literacy through sharpening reading and writing skills.”

“The faculty at SMU Guildhall bridge the gap between serious academic research and commercial video games,” says Guildhall Director Gary Brubaker. “This environment has allowed our research and development team to yield a product for the XPRIZE adult literacy competition that brings together the creative, entertaining nature of games with the impactful literacy lessons being taught.”

Research plays a large role at SMU Guildhall. Not only are large-scale research endeavors such as the XPRIZE taking place year-round, but research is also incorporated into the curriculum. Independent studies such as student theses explore a vast range of interests within video game development and its global implications and uses. Both current students and alumni are able to put their analytical and research skills to good use by participating as funded research assistants on a myriad of Guildhall’s “games for good” projects.

“Our students greatly benefit from breaking ground with new gaming technologies and expanding their usage into other fields,” said Elizabeth Stringer, Deputy Director of Academics at SMU Guildhall. “Many of our graduates continue to use their game development skills to aid society and further causes for which they are passionate.”

Testing of the eight semifinalists’ literacy software begins in mid-July with 12,000 adults who read English at a third grade level or lower. Selection of up to five finalists will depend on results of post-game testing to evaluate literacy gains among test subjects. Finalists will be named in May 2018, and the winner will be selected in 2019. — Kathleen Tibbetts, SMU