Five young Cambodian software engineering students are innovating the educational gaming space as part of their mission to revolutionize the way children learn the Khmer language.
Rean & Play Studio helps Cambodian children to learn while having fun, integrating the mindset of "learning is fun'' in youngsters during their early stages of life.
On September 2, the Rean & Play Studio team won $5,000 of funding to support the startup, which develops games that combine fun and education, from SmartSpark+ Incubation Program Final Pitch. This was followed by additional post-program support from Impact Hub Phnom Penh & Smart Axiata.
Rean & Play is an educational gaming startup dedicated to revolutionizing the way children learn the Khmer language, as well as exploring Cambodia's rich cultural heritage. Its main mission is to make learning engaging, interactive and fun, while preserving and promoting the Khmer language and culture.
Oeng Eavheang, co-founder of Rean & Play Studio, is currently a Year One student majoring in Software Engineering at Kirirom Institute of Technology. He said Rean & Play Studio aims to combine learning and play for young people.
“Rean & Play Studio is a game studio created for the purpose of being a game that focuses on education and entertainment. We think that nowadays we play games but we don’t learn to read,” the 18-year-old founder said.
The seeds for Rean & Play Studio were first planted when Eavheang and two friends were in Grade 9 at the New Generation School of Preah Sisowath High School (NGS).
As part of their studies, they had the opportunity to learn coding to create a program in the mobile development study club. This sparked the idea to design a gaming program together as they shared an interest in gaming and hoped to create a game that was not only fun but was of benefit to its players.
“At NGS, I started to know that we can create games because when I was studying at primary school, I didn’t know the technology existed. When I joined the information and communications technology (ICT) learning program, I started to have an interest in it and until now I pursue my studies in software engineering [degree] with the purpose to become a program makers,” Eavheang said.
The trio’s first game concept, RB-Adventure, was established during that time. In the game, players had to embark on an adventure and overcome obstacles and objects by hitting the Khmer alphabet. The game is navigated by the player instructing the character to jump, hitting letters of the Khmer alphabet.
Each letter hit is pronounced, so players hear the sound of Khmer consonants as they play the game. RB-Adventure can be played on the Rean & Play Studio website for free.
In March 2023, the friends tried to find two teammates to join the SmartSpark+ Incubation Program. They were selected as one of the top 10 teams and were given the chance to take part in a series of training sessions and masterclasses to further develop their startup.
They then embarked on developing another version of the game that takes players to the next level of learning Khmer consonants. In the updated version, players can also learn to write Khmer consonants and vowels, and the alphabet when they move from one level to the next. This is called “Letter Hunter”.
Sopheak Rithmunny, 18, a game artist at Rean & Play Studio, is a Year One student majoring in Software Engineering at Kirirom Institute of Technology. He said that the storyline of the game will attract children to play and gain knowledge of the Khmer language.
“Our game focuses on the storyline of characters. In each level, we include why the game has happened and why the characters begin in that place. So, when they listen to the story, they can do more research in the game.”
“Kids always want to know new things and we try to include new unique things in the game that can capture their imaginations,” he added.
As a game artist at Rean & Play Studio, Rithmunny believes the power of innovative technology can take the learning development and intellect of the next generation to a whole new level over traditional learning.
“Nowadays, technology reaches to 4.0, so innovation is needed for children from the new generation onward. Therefore, we created this game to make their thinking and IQ work faster and in a different way,” he said.
“Even though they are learning at school, some kids only learn and don’t explore things. So, our game will encourage them to explore more innovative ideas.”
Rean & Play Studio targets children between the ages of four and 10 as they are at the first stage with spelling Khmer words.
“As we know, some games are played just for fun and we cannot learn anything from them. Therefore, we want to change the mindset of people that playing games also benefits their studies,” Eavheang emphasized.
For the next step, Rean & Play Studio plans to integrate the game into the school curriculum in STEM education at his previous highschool.
“We plan to create more games based on STEM education. Since our previous highschool has a STEM education system, we plan to include the game for students to learn more,” he added.
Challenges of Learning the Khmer Language
Rithmunny noticed that today Cambodian kids have issues speaking Khmer fluently despite it being their first language. Meanwhile, parents are busy at work and allow their children to stay connected on phones and electronic devices most of the time.
He also saw that kids only learn foreign languages, such as English, through videos and other content, especially through games where English is heard a lot of the time.
“Frequently, when parents are busy with their work, they allow their kids to use phones and iPads or watch YouTube. Most of the time, English online learning tools, like learning how to write ABC are available but there is a lack of កខ,” he said.
“Most children don’t really like learning Khmer words. We want to raise the value of the Khmer language by letting people learn to love it from an early age.”
The founder said coding to create the game and designing its interface are challenging as they are in their freshman year of software engineering.
“We created the app from March until May and we had to redo it again and again to test whether it is good enough to attract kids to play it,” he said.
The games are designed in the form of pixel arts as the team believes that kids like art that is not complicated for them to understand.
In terms of protecting children’s health and well-being, Rean & Play Studio decided to create a parental control, managing the time that they are able to play games. A primer subscription for $2 per month allows parents to limit how many hours their kids can access the game.
How Games Improve Learning
A study of nearly 2,000 children found that those who played video games for three hours or more a day performed better on cognitive skills tests involving impulse control and working memory compared to children who had never played video games, according to the National Institutes of Health news release.
"Video gaming may be associated with better cognitive performance in children," it said.
The results of brain imaging studies showed that kids who played video games for three or more hours each day had more activity in their attention- and memory-related brain regions than those who never played.
Additionally, children who played video games for at least three hours a day had less activity in the visual regions of the brain and more activity in the frontal brain areas, which are linked to higher cognitive demands.
“From what I see, some kids cannot catch up with their lessons. They seem to enjoy having fun. In my generation, we liked to play sports. Nowadays, they prefer playing on smartphones,” said Rithmunny.
“I think the education system is not changing that much, and while it can be good for some students, the majority like to be more playful and it might be difficult for them. So, we should have more innovation in learning for them.”
San Panhavuth, a game designer at Rean & Play Studio, sees the potential of how innovative technological apps for entertainment and learning are key to unlocking the issue for kids who find traditional teaching methods tough but are able to learn through play.