In this interview, Jo Evershed talks to us about some of the exciting research that has been made possible using gamification in Gorilla and shares with us her vision for the future of the field.
There is a growing trend for researchers in the field of psychology to use games in their experiments. This interview is part of a series interviewing pioneers in the field of gamified research who have used Gorilla to develop their experimental designs.
What First Got You Interested in the Idea of Using Games for Research?
We play quite a lot of games at work. We’ve been playing Among Us recently, and Among Us is basically a riff of Werewolf, and Werewolf is a riff of what used to be called Mafia, and Mafia was originally a psychology task. There’s quite a lot of board games out there that actually riff off the psychological literature. Really well-designed board games often take one narrow type of reasoning and turn it into an interesting game that’s nice to exploit and optimize. And people pay good money to buy these games to play on their own and with friends. With this in mind, surely there’s space to gamify psychology tasks and make them fun for participants without compromising data quality?
At the moment, researchers mostly pay participants to take part in their experiments, but an alternative approach is to make the experiments fun, so that participants take part for free.
As an example, using Sea Hero Quest, researchers have recorded data from 4.3 million players, who have played for a total of over 117 years. Collecting 117 years’ worth of data via a recruitment service such as Prolific (117 participants, 525600 minutes each at £7.50 per hour) would cost you over £10.7 million. It’s highly unlikely that a grant would have funded that. By applying for money to create a game instead of participant fees, the researchers have collected their data at a fraction of the cost.
The more participant hours you need, the more ‘budget’ you have for game development. For some experiments, it’s cheaper to pay participants for their time, but for others, it’s a better investment to create a fun-to-play game.
Game developers who also understand behavioural sciences are a niche within a niche, and so hard and/or expensive to find. Consequently, creating games has been sufficiently costly that it was rarely a good investment of research funds unless an extremely high number of participant hours are needed. This could either be driven by needing a huge number of participants, or a smaller number of participants tested or trained at several time points.
But if we could reduce the cost of game development, by providing tools that enable researchers to create their own games, then gamified tasks could become mainstream for online psychology experiments. This is what we’re aiming to achieve with the Gorilla Game Builder. Unsurprisingly, researchers care about their participants’ experience of taking part in research. We want them to have a good enough time so that they are happy to come back and take part in other research.
Where Can Gamification Have the Most Impact?
Games are already used in a few specialist areas of research. One such scenario is for longitudinal research. If you need to test someone five times a week for eight weeks, it’s going to be hard if the task is boring.
There’s no amount of money you could pay me to do a Go/No-Go task every day for 30 days, but if you design a fun and interesting game then maybe I’d take part. My feeling isn’t unique, lots of participants feel the same way! Consequently, training studies create a research requirement that has justified the budget for games. If you can get good enough data quality and retention of participants in your longitudinal study, then the value of that data is so extraordinarily high that it’s worth that additional investment.
A second place where games have already been used is working with children. If you try and get a child to do a dull, repetitive, ugly task it’s both hard to explain to them what to do and you’ll lose their attention. Children won’t take part for the good of science. If they aren’t enjoying themselves, they’ll simply stop participating and you won’t get your data. But kids will enjoy and be motivated by quite a basic level of gamification. It doesn’t need to be a sophisticated game. It just needs to be visually appealing; pretty and sparkly and rewarding.
A third place where games come into their own is for developing educational interventions. Gamifying learning motivates students to keep trying, where a standard training task might lose their attention. Games are a great environment for giving students practice at exactly the right level of difficulty to promote learning. Not too hard that they fail, but not too easy either. We’ve worked on a couple of games with researchers; one was a game to teach deaf children how to speech-read, another was teaching addition and subtraction to primary-aged students. There is huge scope here for developing interventions that stick, keeping users engaged and learning for longer, while simultaneously collecting high-quality research data about cognitive development.
What Research Is Needed on Gamification?
An interesting basic study that should be done in games is to find out what impact different features have on the psychological experience, including performance, attention, motivation, attrition, enjoyment. There are obvious things like graphics, but also within the game you have reward features like particles and sound effects. How important are those?
Also you have the visual “skin” as we call it. With Call of Duty for example it’s all tough man, dark greens, military and grungy with slightly ominous music in the background. You could do exactly the same game in bright neons with kids in T‑shirts and water balloons or water guns, with all the benefits of attentional control and mental rotation. We actually have a design for a version of a first-person shooter where you can manipulate the music, artwork, narrative, and other dimensions of gameplay, to investigate the impact of each dimension separately.
Parents across the globe worry about the impact of games on their children’s developing brains. It would be great if there was more evidence of the impact playing games has on people’s psyche, and even the option to customise the look and feel of a game for different age groups based on evidence, not ideology!
One interesting dimension is emotional arousal. Researchers have found that they see more transfer to other tasks with people who play first-person shooter games than from people who play games like Tetris, which don’t have as much emotional arousal. An armchair speculation — that I think could be interesting to test — is whether a sense of threat leads to greater task transfer. If you feel that your “life” depends on getting better, maybe your brain responds to learning differently than when the experience is more like chewing gum for the mind?
What Do You Think the Next Big Developments Will Be in Gamified Research?
Technical complexity and cost are big barriers to innovation in any industry. But, if we can reduce the cost and technical complexity of creating research games, then — given the gains above — I believe more researchers will want to use them. This is our aim with the Game Builder. In a nutshell, by making it cheaper and easier for researchers, we hope to open up gamification to many more researchers.
What happens after that will be fascinating! In my experience, removing technical barriers and therefore empowering and liberating researchers to follow their curiosity and fulfil their research ambitions has a big impact. Five years ago, online behavioural research was still pretty niche. But easy-to-use and powerful tools like Gorilla helped it become mainstream. Perhaps the same thing will happen with games?
As we’ve seen, games have the capacity to answer questions that were previously too difficult to investigate. In particular, the ease with which training and educational interventions can be designed and tested is extraordinary. If games become a mainstream research tool used in educational research, then we’re going to discover so much more about general and individual development of cognitive processes. Furthermore, the knowledge and games created will bring researchers much closer to creating interventions that can have a positive impact on people’s lives at scale.
We might also see an impact on career progression. At the moment, Ph.D. students tend to consider academic research or university teaching as their main options. This is unsurprising, as Ph.D. students have exposure to these careers, but fewer are exposed to opportunities in industry.
However, roles for behavioural scientists are proliferating in industry. Yet, many roles involve leaving behind your subject matter expertise and applying experimentation and data analysis skills more broadly, which can feel disheartening. A career progression that makes use of their specialist knowledge might provide a more fulfilling alternative. Experience with gamified research may create a natural progression for Ph.D. students at universities into EdTech, FinTech, HealthTech, ResTech, or in fact a wide range of SaaS (Software as a Service) start-ups.
We’d still have the teaching, research, and general industry tracks, but now there’s another option, which is to take the actual subject and topic of your study into industry and see whether you can turn that into a product that offers some value to the world.
Of course, that will all need to be handled carefully to make sure that people aren’t creating snake oil. But I certainly think there’s a better hope of having good, evidence-based products if they’re being developed by people who spent three years studying the core science and working with those ideas. We’ve seen evidence of these products in Health Tech. There are now many habit-forming apps helping users stop drinking or smoking, exercise or meditate more, and even lose or gain weight. I’d love to see the same amount of evidence-based innovation reaching EdTech.
So, while we’re initially focused on providing the tools to set people free to do research, our hope is to enable scientists to create the evidence-based products and services of the future that improve people’s lives.