How games can make behavioural science better

Article by Bria Long et al: “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 adolescence.

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 ability. 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 it. And a dilemma game involving millions of people revealed that most individuals have reliable moral intuition.

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…(More)”.