Video games as research tools in psychology

Being a researcher interested in the user experience of interactive technologies, I have always been following how video games are employed as a platform to explore certain topics and practices, especially in social sciences/psychology. The use of such kind of platform has already been discussed in the human computer interaction field for a long time. In psychology, especially, you have papers from 1995 about "Video games as research tools" by Donchin or some statements by HCI researchers (like Holmquist in "The right kind of challenge").

Several scholars have stressed the interest of using virtual environments like video games as research tool for psychological investigation by citing three major reasons.

First, computer games are motivating and fun, and successful experimentation is easily achieved. Maintaining one’s undivided attention in video games is certainly easier than in other experimental environments. The use of a game metaphor has the advantage that it allows the presentation of complex problem solving tasks in an enjoyable environment, thus maintaining a high level of motivation amongst subjects. Besides, recent developments in augmented reality described by Nilsen have highlighted the motivational value of using game in HCI. Second, a game, especially a mobile computing one, involves participants in a context with a certain ecological validity. A game in public space indeed creates a certain kind of complexity with passers-by or real-world features. Another useful aspect is the fact that they attract “participation by individuals across many demographic boundaries such as, age, gender, ethnicity, educational status and even species” (quoted by Kowalski). We thus expected participants to have a higher level of involvement in a game than in another kind of complex task. However, these statements only hold for subjects that find such games enjoyable, those with little interest in games can fail to engage with the game, finding both the task and the interface difficult and confusing. Therefore, we chose to design simple games to avoid failures and misunderstandings.

What is intriguing is that psychologists often use virtual environments as a way to study phenomenon in physical space that can be difficult to explore. Virtual environments are then used as a substitute, which draws questions concerning the transfer of results from virtual environments to the physical. As described in a paper by Yvonne Slangen de Kort, this is not trivial:

"Whether research in VEs will – to a smaller or larger degree – substitute for research in the real world remains to be seen and will definitely require significant progress in technology and a more thorough understanding of the human factors issues involved. However, the fact that VR-technology has already been embraced by large numbers of professionals in design, urgently calls for research to increase our understanding of person-environment transactions in virtual worlds. The need for more research that addresses applications of perceptual simulations in general and related questions of validity and reliability has been stressed ever since the emergence of environmental simulation as a research paradigm."

Comments on Video games as research tools in psychology:

Peder Burgaard says:

The quote by Kowalski is so true for online games where 12 year olds can lead a party of college students and people of all ages and demographics without anyone having second guesses as long as they do the job right.

But is the same true for future cross-platform games i.e. a PC, mobile & physical devices attached into a game storyline where you will come face to face with the person behind the avatar?

Posted Oct 4, 2007 3:45:10 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

I had an MSc student 3 or 4 years ago whose project was a "choose your own adventure" game, the end result of which was to guess at your Myers-Briggs type. It was very good on 2 of the categories, good on another, but no better than random on the last. Given that this wasn't actually a very well-written project yet it still managed to do this, I'm sure that using games for psychology experiments has a future.

Ironically, it was originally supposed to be about market research, but the student wasn't up to programming that...


Posted Oct 4, 2007 4:53:10 AM | link

greglas says:

Dan's "Hakkar's Blood" post was about similar issues, I think, but I think the conclusions of the Slangen de Kort paper offer some good reasons to give VE experiments more credit. As I read it, they're concluding that VE experiments offer a significant improvement over other spatial substitute experimental models (charts, pictures) but that the experience of VE space is in some significant ways different from the experience of real space.

I hadn't thought previously about virtual environments in this way -- i.e. as *better* spatial substitutes for activities (psych experiments) already conducted by means of spatial substitutes. That's interesting. Thanks.

p.s. Unfortunately, the Nilsen paper link seems to be down -- I guess that's why you pointed to your blog which has the abstract.

Posted Oct 4, 2007 6:30:51 AM | link

nicolas says:

I fixed the url for the Nilsen paper, they changed it.

Posted Oct 4, 2007 9:25:25 AM | link

greglas says:

Thanks! -- looks like a very interesting paper.

Posted Oct 4, 2007 9:35:56 AM | link

Dmitri Williams says:

Yeah, see the post I just put up in the PoHB thread.

Posted Oct 4, 2007 3:37:48 PM | link

Katie Paries says:

Hi. I am a total noob in terms of my interest in this topic, so forgive my naivete in asking this question.

I understand that video games can be deeply engaging and users are highly motivated to work through complex problems because they enjoy the process and rewards... but wouldn't a game have to be very sophisticated to engage technically-savvy people used to high-end game experiences? And if so, how would any research or educational institution have the funding necessary to develop a video game that could get users into the state of flow necessary for true learning or complex problem solving? Again, sorry if this question has been answered many times over or I am missing a point. I just started playing Halo3 and am thinking about how much money went into the development of the game. It seems to me that the cost of producing good video games makes the application in an eductional or research environment financially prohibitive. I wish it were not the case... please tell me I am wrong.

Posted Oct 5, 2007 6:24:00 PM | link

Dippi says:

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Posted Oct 17, 2007 12:58:53 AM | link