How serious gaming improves low-literacy levels



For many people, it comes as a surprise when they read that about one in six Dutch people over the age of 16 are low-literate. This means that they have difficulty with reading, writing and/or arithmetic. Most of the learning material for low-literates is aimed at children. And there is a great deal of shame surrounding low literacy among adults, even though they do need help. Serious gaming enables people who are low-literate to improve their reading and writing skills in an accessible way.

When someone has difficulties with reading and writing, there is a greater chance that he or she will have difficulty participating in society. This manifests itself, for example, in understanding important matters such as taxes, bills, and other administrative matters. Those with low literacy skills are also less likely to find a job and are less socially active (source).

This concerns 2.5 million people in the Netherlands aged 16 or older. But the fact that they have trouble reading or writing is not their only problem. There is a social stigma attached to low literacy among adults. Additional problems experienced by low-literates are:

  • They think they are alone.
  • They feel ashamed when they have difficulty reading or writing.
  • They experience feelings of fear of losing their job, for example, and therefore often keep the problem a secret.
  • The teaching material on reading and writing is often aimed at children.
  • Signing up for a language course is too big a threshold for the target group.

In short: there is too big a gap between low-literates and accessible teaching material. Low-literates find it difficult to open up and get involved, while the teaching materials simply do not appeal to the target group.

Serious game ‘Vreemde Tekens’ for low-literacy

t The library North Fryslân, Grendel Games, and ROC Friesland College decided to develop a serious game for low-literate people from 16 to 40 years old. The game aims to offer a fun, accessible way to improve reading and writing skills, to reduce the taboo surrounding low-literacy, and most importantly, to increase the number of low-literacy students enrolling in language courses.

The serious game “Vreemde Tekens” is a mix of a role-playing game and a puzzle game for smartphones and tablets. The game starts with a short animation in which the main character ends up in a ‘real world’ and loses all kinds of things. His socks, keys, pens, and even bills and letters disappear. All these items are sucked through tiny cracks from the real world into a parallel world. While the main character is searching for his belongings, he is sucked through the cracks too.  He finds a mysterious stone with an unreadable sign on it. The player then gains control of the character in a parallel world. To get back to the real world, the player must decipher the mysterious sign on the stone.

Lift the stigma around low literacy playfully

As soon as the game adventure starts, the player goes looking for help and has to talk with all kinds of in-game characters. These characters are people who are also low-literate. Experiencing these situations gives the player a sense of belonging: suddenly he is not alone. There are many more people who are low-literate and are eager to help you. And the player sees that it is possible to become better at reading and writing. Because these situations take place in a game, the threshold for a low-literate person to engage in conversation with others is greatly reduced. Whereas in real life he or she might not be so quick to talk to other low-literates or experts who want to help. Everything now happens in a safe environment.

Inspire low-literates to take a language course

As the player becomes more comfortable with the serious game, other characters, who have successfully completed a language course, also come along. Think of a grandfather who reads stories to his grandchildren in the game, while he never could before. Thanks to the language course this is now possible. It shows the player that it is possible for everyone to improve their writing and reading skills and that a language course contributes positively to this.

In order to actually invite the player to participate in a language course as soon as he or she is ready to do so, employees of a language center can start a conversation with the player. This is to remove the last doubts from the player and to offer professional help.

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Serious gaming successfully used for low-literacy

Serious games can be used for various purposes. To transfer knowledge, change behavior, motivate people or help organizations reach their target group. The Vreemde Tekens game fulfils several of these purposes. While low-literate people play the game on their smartphones, they are unconsciously already reading the language. The target group is inspired by the stories of the characters in the game and gets an intrinsic motivation to become better at reading and writing themselves. Eventually, during the game, the player comes into contact with an expert who will help the player to sign up for the language course.  The target group enjoys playing a game on a smartphone from the comfort of their living room.


Want to know more about serious games, the game Vreemd Tekens or how serious gaming can be used for your organization? Please contact Tim Laning to discuss it:

Tim Laning

Business developer

Do you want to know more about the possibilities of serious games? Let’s discuss what serious games can do for you.


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