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Apr 13, 2017

How We Write the Stories in Contextual, Our New Reading Comprehension Game

Dr. Seuss, Toni Morrison, Niccolò Paganini, Jean-Paul Sartre: these are just a few visionaries you might learn about in Contextual, one of our new language games that challenges reading comprehension. In Contextual, users are presented with a short narrative and asked to identify and replace any words that have been misused, based on the story’s context. Because the game depends on reading the text closely, we knew each story needed to be interesting, with broad appeal, to keep players engaged.

Originally, when our Games team was first prototyping Contextual, the Games Engineers would write the necessary texts themselves. Those first stories worked in a pinch, but were read with lukewarm interest at best. For Contextual to be truly successful, we needed writers dedicated to creating content specifically — and regularly — for the game.

That’s where Matt Keefer, our first Narrative Designer, comes in. For the past year, he’s provided editorial direction across the Language category, as well as spearheaded the rapid development of new content for these games. Because Contextual is uniquely content-heavy compared to other Lumosity games, much of Matt’s time was dedicated to crafting new reading comprehension texts.

He explained, “When I started working on Contextual, I had two priorities: to grow the amount of content and also to figure out what types of narratives really appeal to Lumosity users.”

Over the past year, Matt has tested Contextual stories through three different channels: in-person user playtesting, feedback from players who’ve shared comments over email, and internal testing with Lumosity employees. The first batch of content he tested was based on the narratives the engineers had written, which Matt described as “mostly fact-oriented, kind of dry, without any real characters or plot developments. These tested ok with people, but obviously ok isn’t good enough.”

Matt’s next attempt at creating Contextual content was a four-part series called The Trials of Dr. Uberstein. The story followed a mad scientist who discovers a way to clone tacos, and it was about as polarizing as you might expect: “Some people found it hilarious, and others really didn’t. One of the big complaints was that the story didn’t feel like what people expect from Lumosity, that it didn’t feel like we were taking their training seriously.”

Plus, Matt suspected that fiction might not work for Contextual given the game’s demands. With a protagonist as fantastical as a taco-cloning mad scientist, the story lacked what Matt called “the grounding element of reality.” Because the story exists outside our shared reality, who can confidently say which words are being misused? Perhaps in Dr. Uberstein’s world, people do have masticating shoes as opposed to matching?

“At that point, I took a step back and really tried to understand our users, what they’d like to read,” Matt said. “So I asked myself, ‘who are our users?’ and ‘why would they want to play Contextual in the first place?’ I realized that it doesn’t really matter who Lumosity users are right this second, it’s who they want to become. People play Lumosity for a lot of different reasons, but generally they’re motivated by a shared desire to grow and challenge themselves.”

This realization set the tone for the next batch of stories Matt wrote: stories all about visionaries and geniuses, with a specific focus on their — often difficult — journeys. Matt thought these stories would resonate with Lumosity users, and he was right.

“We saw a huge improvement across all our feedback channels,” he said. “It was great to have my hunch validated, and people also liked that by reading the stories they weren’t just practicing reading comprehension, they were also learning some new facts about, say, Dr. Seuss to share with friends.”

Contextual now has 117 stories and counting. Matt’s favorite story to date?

“The story about Archimedes and the origins of ‘Eureka!’. It really captures the spirit of the game: you practice reading comprehension while identifying with Archimedes on the journey to his big epiphany, on top of which you’re deepening your understanding of the actual word ‘eureka.’ And deepening your understanding of and facility with vocabulary is what the Language category is all about, so this story really works across all levels.”

Have you met Archimedes while playing Contextual yet? What about Toni Morrison or Jean-Paul Sartre? Learn more about these visionaries — and brush up on your reading comprehension — by finding Contextual in the new Language category at lumosity.com and on our mobile apps.

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