Understanding Top Down Processing Through Games
Games can be used for more than just education, and awareness. For some very special projects, we’re able to use games to collect information and data for scientific application and research. These research Games are an exciting field of gaming where a game is designed expressly to about learn about the world around us. In this field of gaming we study people, their actions, and how they interact with and process information through game-based environments. For these projects, the games serve as a data-rich environment where we can study how people behave given a defined set of constraints, systems and rewards.
Marco is a recent project we completed as an example of what research games have to offer for the scientific community. Co-designed with neuroscientists Leanne Chukoskie and Patrick Beukema, Marco is a new and cost effective environment for studying Top-Down Processing, the system through which the human brain processes sensory information.
The Underwater Experience
Marco takes place in a visually immersive underwater environment where you’re asked to take on the role of a mother whale, looking for her baby whale across the ocean. In this high tech version of Marco Polo, the baby calls out as the player navigates through the depths, trying to see, hear, or feel where they are. As a game, Marco is a thoroughly interactive experience where the player must engage their senses to navigate obstacles, avoid red herrings, and find their way through the ocean.
To a player, Marco offers a compelling experience where they have a clear goal that they can conquer through focus and skill. Yet, to a researcher this offers even more. Marco is able to become a finely tuned environment where a researcher has control over the sensory inputs of this environment, with the hardware to measure each careful action and reaction the player makes. If the player hears a new sound signaling them to the baby whale, they could collect information like how long it takes the player to respond, and whether they turn their head. How far away do you need to be to recognize the sound of the baby? And what happens if you’re seeing something that contradicts what you hear?
Through its use of physiological inputs, sensory environmental design, and the immersive and interactive approach to a goal, Marco is a core example of how research games like this can benefit scientists and researchers. By using VR with a custom game, we were able to utilize hardware rivaling that of specialized neuroscience toolkits, for just a fraction of the cost. Likewise, having a custom, programmed environment ensures that each trial of the experience is replicable, controlled, and measured with future options for granular data tracking throughout a study.
The Benefit for Researchers
One of the most important, yet often under-recognized benefits for this project was a direct result of the creative design of the project. As many behavioral researchers can attest, one of the toughest barriers to overcome when conducting a study is creating an environment whereby the participant isn’t overwhelmed with the knowledge that they are in fact, being researched. Games are an elegant solution where participants are fully immersed on the task at hand rather than the research process. This suspension of disbelief has the potential provide richer data, and more realistic research outcomes.
Marco offers a small lens into the breadth of possibilities that are available through game-based research. Through the next few years we expect to see this field continue to grow through the collaboration of game designs and researchers, neurosciencers, and medical experts. As this field grows, we hope to continue using our love of games and learning to aid in new ways to build on this research.