Children exposed to virtual interactive characters in educational games learned more quickly


U.S. children lag behind their international peers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills, which has led to calls for an integrated math curriculum for 3- to 6-year-olds.

A new study examined whether young children’s verbal engagement with an onscreen interactive media character could boost their math skills.

The study concluded that children’s parasocial (that is, one-sided) emotional relationships with the intelligent character and their parasocial interactions (in this case, talking about math with the character) led to quicker, more accurate math responses during virtual game play.

The findings are from research conducted at Georgetown University. They appear in Child Development.

“Our study suggests that children’s relationships and interactions with intelligent characters can provide new pathways for 21st century education, with popular media characters bridging traditional boundaries between home and school settings,” says Sandra L. Calvert, professor of psychology and director of the Children’s Digital Media Center at Georgetown University, who led the study.

Researchers studied 217 children ages 3 to 6 years, most of whom were European American and from college-educated families.

They examined the children’s math learning from a game featuring a prototype of an intelligent character based on the media character Dora from the animated series, Dora the Explorer, who responded to children with spoken language.

In three studies, each of which took place over about a year, researchers initially asked if children could learn from the intelligent character.

Then they examined the role of children’s parasocial relationships by including or not including a character in the virtual game.

And then they examined the role of social contingency, with some children’s talk about math receiving corrective feedback from the character and other children’s talk not receiving the feedback.

Children were taught the add-1 rule–that adding 1 to a number increases the total sum by a single unit–which is one of the most basic and earliest math concepts children learn.

Researchers examined whether the children could learn this rule from an intelligent character in a virtual game, and how that learning was influenced by the children’s feelings for the character and their talk with the character.

They also examined whether the children’s learning in a screen-based context would transfer to learning with physical objects, such as crayons.

They also examined whether the children’s learning in a screen-based context would transfer to learning with physical objects, such as crayons.

Children who had stronger emotional feelings for the character and who talked more to the character about math had quicker, more accurate math responses during their virtual game play, the study found.

Children also transferred what they had learned from the virtual game to physical objects more successfully when the game included an embodied virtual character (as opposed to a noncharacter female voiceover of what was said) and when the character used socially contingent replies to children’s talk about math.

The findings suggest that children’s emotionally tinged parasocial relationships and parasocial talk about math with virtual characters increased their mastery of early math skills.

“Our work sheds light on how children’s connection to a character and interactions with them through math talk can improve learning of basic early math skills, a lesson that may be extended to other academic and social areas,” explains Evan Barba, associate professor of communication, culture, and technology at Georgetown University, who coauthored the study.

“The implication of our findings is that media characters that are children’s friends and playmates can also be children’s trusted peers and teachers in math and other subjects,” concludes Calvert.

Funding: The study was supported by the United States National Science Foundation.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is an atypical neurodevelopmental disease characterized by impairments in social communication, interaction, competences, and language, as well as the maintenance of restricted and repetitive behaviors, interests, and activities [1,2]. Clinical heterogeneity of this disease is well known, and the children affected show other symptomatology such as hyperactivity or lack of attention that could be related to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) [3].

From its first known use in 1987, many different definitions for virtual reality (VR) are available in the literature. An interesting recent definition [4] defines VR as “an artificial environment which is experienced through sensory stimuli (such as sights and sounds) provided by a computer and in which one’s actions partially determine what happens in the environment”. In a broader sense, VR includes some interactive video gaming, virtual environments, and, commonly, a multisensory experience. VR uses many different technologies: monoscopic or stereoscopic displays, user tracking technologies, augmented reality (AR) to merge real and virtual worlds, etc.

VR has emerged as an effective new treatment approach in different areas of the health field, such as rehabilitation [5,6], promotion of emotional wellbeing in inpatients [7,8], diagnosis [9,10], surgery training [11,12] and mental health treatment. With regard to mental health treatment, VR is used in the treatment of a wide range of disorders: Phobias, post-traumatic stress disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and, of course, ASD. Specifically, in this intervention area, VR has shown some advantages, allowing ASD patients to be trained in a realistic environment that could be manipulated and adapted to the characteristics and capabilities of the subject. It has been related to the ecological validity of treatments of this type in a controlled environment [13].

In the last few years (since 2015), previous reviews concerning ASD and VR have made some contributions to the exploration of these topics. Mishkind et al. [14] provide a review of VR treatment in psychiatry. However, this review is specially focused on other disorders (i.e., post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and phobias, chronic pain, rehabilitation, and addictions), and they do not review most of the recent studies concerning ASD and VR. In 2017, Liu et al. [15] published a comprehensive review of technology-facilitated diagnosis and treatment of ASD. This study is different to our study in many aspects, but the main difference is that they focus their review on the engineering perspective of autism studies. In 2017, van Bennekom et al. [16] carried out a literature review in which they evaluated the assessment of psychiatric disorders by means of a VR environment. However, they were not focused on ASD and they excluded studies if VR was used for therapeutic purposes.

A systematic review was published in 2017 by Provoost et al. [17]. In this contribution, the authors provide an overview of embodied conversational agents (ECAs) for the delivery of automated human support factors. ECAs are computer-generated characters that are used for human face-to-face conversation simulations. Thus, this review does not cover studies that involve VR if they do not also include ECAs. Lau et al. [18] published a systematic review that partially matches the aim of this contribution. The main difference is that their review analyzes the use of serious games for mental health disorders. However, some serious games cannot be considered VR systems, and, also, some VR systems cannot be considered serious games. Sarah Parsons contributed a very interesting review [19], but it was not systematic. Instead, she carried out a conceptual review, raising questions about the assumption of veridicality of VR for autism. In 2015, den Brok and Sterkenburg [20] contributed a systematic review that examined the studies that applied self-controlled technologies to support skill attainment. However, they did not consider some interesting studies concerning VR and ASD, and they included other studies that focused on people with intellectual disability.

Our contribution also has an important added value: Most of the systematic reviews have carried out a comprehensive literature search in PubMed, Embase, and/or Psycinfo. These indexes are focused on clinical and biomedical literature. In our contribution, we include clinical indexes, but we also include the Web of Science (WoS) index and the Scimago Journal & Country Rank (SJR) from the Scopus database. WoS and SJR are interdisciplinary indexes that include contributions from different areas. With all of these indexes, our contribution covers a wider range of publications, offering a very complete review.

Media Contacts:
Jessica Efstathiou – SRCD
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Closed access
“Young Children’s Mathematical Learning From Intelligent Characters”. Sandra L. Calvert, Marisa M. Putnam, Naomi R. Aguiar, Rebecca M. Ryan, Charlotte A. Wright, Yi Hui Angella Liu, Evan Barba.
Child Development doi:10.1111/cdev.13341.


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