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How games can make behavioural science better

Wordle, Minecraft and Scrabble are played online by millions. Gamifying experiments can make behavioural research more inclusive, rigorous and reproducible — if it’s done right.

By Billye BobPublished 15 days ago 4 min read
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When US cognitive scientist Joshua Hartshorne was investigating how people around the world learn English, he needed to get tens of thousands of people to take a language test. He designed ‘Which English?’, a grammar game that presented a series of tough word problems and then guessed where in the world the player learnt the language. Participants shared their results — whether accurate or not — on social media, creating a snowball effect for recruitment. The findings, based on data from almost 670,000 people, revealed that there is a ‘critical period’ for second-language learning that extends into adolescence1.

This sort of ‘gamification’ is becoming a powerful research tool across fields that study humans, including psychology, neuroscience, economics and behavioural economics. By making research fun, the approach can help experiments to reach thousands or millions of participants. For instance, experiments embedded in a video game demonstrated that the layout of the city where a child lives shapes their future navigational ability2. Data from a digital word search showed that people who are skilled at the game do not necessarily give better advice to those trying to learn it3. And a dilemma game involving millions of people revealed that most individuals have reliable moral intuition4.

Gamification can help to avoid the pitfalls of conventional laboratory-based experiments by allowing researchers to study diverse populations, to conduct more-sophisticated experiments and to observe human behaviour in naturalistic environments. It can improve statistical power and reproducibility, making research more robust. Technical advances are making gamification cheaper and more straightforward, and the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many labs to move their human experiments online. But despite these changes, most have not yet embraced the opportunities gamification affords.

To reach the full potential of this approach, researchers must dispel misconceptions, develop new gamification technologies, improve access to existing ones and apply the methods to productive research questions. We are researchers in psychology, linguistics, developmental science, data science and music who have run our own gamified experiments. We think it’s time for science to get serious about games.

Games theory

Gamification motivates people to participate in experiments by incorporating point-scoring, competition, feedback about performance and the opportunity to learn about oneself through play (see ‘Take part in gamified research’). In early forays in 2005 and 2008, cognitive neuropsychologist Laura Germine, now at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, adapted psychological assessments and placed them on her citizen-science website, TestMyBrain.org. Her work showed that self-selected samples can produce high-quality data even when participants are unsupervised and unpaid5. As gamification has developed, it has united developmental psychology with computer science, web development and user-experience research to create exciting, immersive encounters for participants. Gamification can include transforming experiments into bespoke games, embedding experiments in existing games and extracting data from ongoing ones. The popular game Wordle — in a sense, the world’s largest psycholinguistics experiment — has already inspired investigations on topics such as optimization problems in active learning6 and the contexts in which people cheat7. Participants in conventional lab-based studies of human behaviour are often few in number and WEIRD (that is, from Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic societies). This leads to results that are statistically imprecise or irreproducible, or that cannot be generalized to other groups.

The massive data sets enabled by gamified science can help to address questions about reproducibility and generalizability. For example, small studies had shown that a person’s experience of speaking a tonal language — one that uses pitch, or tones, to distinguish between words, as in Mandarin — alters their ability to perceive musical pitch. However, such work had been conducted largely in Mandarin or Cantonese. To explore tonal languages that are less commonly studied, Jingxuan Liu, now a graduate student at Columbia University in New York City, and one of us (S.A.M.) used data from a popular web-based quiz, ‘Test your Musical IQ’, to replicate these findings in half a million speakers of such languages, including Ewe, spoken in West Africa, and Burmese, used in Myanmar8.

Issues of reproducibility and generalizability are particularly acute for scientists who work with hard-to-reach study populations, such as children. Gamified experiments have the potential to encourage participation from children in settings such as schools or museums, rather than requiring a special trip to a lab, which only some families have the time for or interest in doing. For example, one of us (B.L.) installed a ‘Let’s Draw!’ kiosk at the Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose in California. Children visiting the museum were asked to draw various things — such as a watch or a tiger — and then play games trying to recognize each other’s drawings. Over the next 18 months, the kiosk collected more than 37,000 drawings from some 8,000 children aged between 2 and 10, creating the world’s largest corpus of children’s drawings and showing how object recognition changes with age9.

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About the Creator

Billye Bob

Writing is a distraction for me. It takes me to places unknown that fulfill my need for intellectual stimulus, emotional release, and a soothing of the breaks and bruises of the day.

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