It’s a Monday afternoon. I’m playing an iPhone game at my desk instead of working–and for once, I don’t feel bad about it. Unlike Candy Crush, Vocabulary.com’s new app, available as of today, isn’t a mindless-borderline-embarrassing way to occupy yourself while commuting. Yes, it’s a time suck. But like reading the newspaper or watching documentaries, it’s the kind that makes you feel okay about your life choices, because it helps build vocabulary. As a writer, I can even professionally justify tapping away on my phone.
The app works a lot like many smartphone games: complete a task, get points. But, instead of answering trivia questions or connecting dots, players define words. There are seven different question types, including straightforward definition questions and fill-in-the-blank sentences, some of which come from news articles. Like this question, which uses a line from a Guardian article, for example: “Wheeler, the former keeper of entomology at the Natural History Museum in London, has helped _________ the word ‘cybertaxonomy’ to describe new uses of computer science and engineering in programmes of taxonomic research.” The app presents four choices: compromise, glimpse, coin, and marvel. You have to get the right one, which in this case was “coin.”
While it might sound like a simple virtual flashcard app, the technology is much more complex than a digital notecard. The system is adaptive, asking definitions for words of varying levels as it assesses your level.
Getting a single question right does not mean you will never see that word again. Because, as any teacher knows, memorizing and/or guessing do not a big vocabulary make. As you play, the game learns how big your mental word bank really is, tailoring the questions to your level. Each player’s game is tailored to his or her ability level, which Vocabulary.com secretly assigns based on how long it took to get previous words, which question types were answered correctly, and which words users missed. “We try to predict how you’re going to do based on our questions,” Marc Tinkler, Vocabulary.com’s Chief Technology Officer, explained to Fast Company. “What’s interesting about that is we can tune that pretty finely so that it essentially has the effect of making the game more addicting.”
Once the app figures out where you fit in on its continuum of wordsmiths, it can serve the right mixture of easy and difficult questions to keep you hooked. If the game is too easy, then players will get bored. If it’s too hard, users will feel dejected and quit. Tinkler and his team found that people feel like they’re making progress if they’re getting about 70% of the questions right.
The game also borrowed some tricks from other gaming apps to keep people hooked. It offers a mix of “achievements” and “badges,” some of which are relatively easy to attain, others of which take lots of game play, which appeals both to newcomers and experienced players. There are also various leaderboards that “take advantage of the competitive nature of people,” explained Tinkler.
Normally, all this baked in game-play psychology would come off as nefarious. And the app is indeed addictive, especially for a boring old educational tool. Every time I reach for my phone to “check something” I click through a few more definitions. On the website, which works much like the app, if someone answers at least one question, the average time spent playing is 27 minutes, according to Vocabulary.com’s internal stats. “We have some people who play, it seems like, over 10 hours a day,” said Tinkler. “It’s crazy.”
But Vocabulary.com exists (for $2.99 a pop) to teach, which makes its engineering more ingenious than evil. The software incorporates the science of memory, attempting to separate learning from memorization. For each of the 12,000+ possible words available to play, the app remembers if you got it right, when, and how long it took to answer. “We can determine based on your play a good idea of how well you know it, and we try to predict when you’re going to forget it,” explained Tinkler. At that moment, it asks again, and then again when you’re about to forget it, until the game thinks you understand the word.
The hope is that method, plus the variations of question types, along with robust definitions, offers a more enticing and more useful experience than flipping through flash cards. “We’re incorporating all sorts of things that are available to give people the best handle on words and their meanings and understanding how they work in the world,” Ben Zimmer, a trained linguist and executive producer of Vocabulary.com explained to Fast Company. The app’s dictionary offers more than just standard Merriam-Webster style entries, with graphics showing a “word family” and usage examples from real-world sources, for example.
Turning education into a game kids enjoy takes more than compelling software, of course. But the desktop version is already a very popular tool for students and teachers: 6.5 million people have visited the Vocabulary.com website. More than half a million of those are registered users. The app also includes teaching specific lists, such as SAT words and popular literary terms so that educators can incorporate it as an official teaching tool. Students who sign up can also link their accounts to their school and participate in school-wide competitions. “We’re more focused on the learning aspects of things,” said Tinkler. “We’re trying to use the gamification idea to get people to be more excited about it.”