GAMR seeks to understand the relationships between game play and real-life behavior
Video games offer fictional and fantastic worlds to explore, worlds in which our actions are free from concrete real-world consequences. They allow us to direct deep narratives, explore alternate realities, exercise cognitive skills, and experience complex social connections. All of this has made games the ascendant form of mass entertainment for several generations of players.
When we step into the fiction of video games, we choose–consciously and subconsciously–to act out a version of ourselves, or to deviate from and experiment with our identities. But how far can we (or do we) deviate from our real-world selves when we play?
Real-life skills, interests, and abilities might be reasonably expected to transfer into in-game behavior. But one key aspect of in-game behavior–unlike the real world–is that it can be extensively tracked and analyzed. This analysis is used frequently by game developers to understand their players better, seeking to make better games. If such analyses can be coupled with thoughtful analysis of real-world behavior, we can start to understand the relationship between the two.
GAMR (Game and Mind Research), a collaboration between the Playful Systems research group at the MIT Media Lab and the Games group at Tilburg University, is marrying detailed cognitive analysis of players to the deep data provided by their behavior in games like League of Legends, Battlefield, and World of Warcraft. From the way someone plays, is it possible to tell how social, conscientious, or creative they are? GAMR is setting out to find the answer to these questions and many others.
Launched in November 2015, GAMR is an exploratory study to pinpoint what cognitive traits can be determined from game behavior, and how. The study samples the full range of who, why, what, when, and how the player engages with video games, by finding the connections between two separate sets of data: players’ game behavior on the one hand, and their cognitive traits on the other.
Big Games Offer Big Insights
Given the breadth of the field–from Candy Crush to Grand Theft Auto–it would be impossible to sample all video game behaviors for any large group of players. GAMR is therefore focused on collecting data from three major games: League of Legends (LoL), World of Warcraft (WoW), and Battlefield (BF). Each of these represents one of the most popular genres of online video games. They have player bases running into the tens of millions of players, and most importantly, revolve around player-to-player interactions. Each of these three games also represents a distinct genre of gameplay:
- League of Legends is part of the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) genre. Set in a fantasy world, the gameplay consists of competitive, 5-v-5 matches with an emphasis on action and strategy. Skilled players excel through teamwork and strategic insight, bolstered by fast reflexes and accurate hand-eye coordination. The game plays out from a third-person perspective; the player’s perspective is above the avatar, overlooking the game world and the player’s allies and enemies.
- Battlefield is a First-Person Shooter (FPS) game. Like LOL, it has competitive action elements and a match-based structure. Unlike LOL, it’s set in a hyper-realistic world where the players cooperate in teams of up to 32 teammates. The player experiences the world from a first-person view, so good players need strong perceptual skills and the ability to quickly analyze and process imperfect information.
- World of Warcraft is a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing game (MMORPG), and as such deviates from the MOBA and FPS genres by shifting away focus from strategic, action-heavy, competitive game play. By contrast, the player can play cooperatively or competitively, refrain from aggression or indulge in it, explore the game world endlessly or go down the well-trod linear path. The core gameplay of World of Warcraft is not match-based, but instead plays out in a vast, persistent world. Much of what goes on in the game is built around complex social interactions and planning.
These three games (which represent roughly 120 million players globally) cover the bulk of gameplay mechanics and player interactions available in the major online game genres.
Just as it wasn’t feasible to sample all game behavior from all players, it is similarly impractical to sample all cognitive traits as they are currently understood as science. Instead, GAMR focuses on three cognitive traits that broadly describe the players’ personalities, measured using extensively validated psychological tests:
- Who is the player? Personality is determined using the Big Five model of personality. It describes our personality in five main traits: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.
- How does the player perceive and interact with the world? Skills and interests are captured in the broad strokes of the Empathizing and Systematizing Quotients that describe our interest and ability in dealing with systems and people, respectively. It emerged from research on autism which emphasizes the mind-blindness hypothesis of autism.
- Why does the player engage in video game play? As the field of game research lacks a definitive model of gaming motivation, we opted to investigate gaming motivation with a compound test, in terms of all the major factors suggested by the main authors in the field. These factors roughly describe gaming motivation in terms of social, achievement, immersion, arousal, and exploration motivations.
Gaming motivations are reflected back to the participant as one of sixteen gamer types, such as Lone Wolf, Gladiator, and Maverick. If you’re curious about who you really are, and you play LoL, WoW, or BF, this is your chance to find out.
What is Your Gamer Type?
We are actively gathering data for the study, looking for players who are curious themselves, and reaching out to various gamer communities to encourage players to participate. Please share it as you see appropriate with your friends, whether in the real world or in-game.
For now, the question remains: Can game behavior reveal our cognitive traits? What are the interactions between them? GAMR lies at the scientific forefront in understanding individuals based on their behavior as players. What we learn might be used to optimize games to make them better, or assist learning overall, or even to use games to supplement traditional self-report measures of personality testing.
Whatever our findings turn out to be, GAMR will continue to expand our understanding of both games and gamers. It will provide insights into how our minds adapt to these new worlds where we spend our time, and who we are when we arrive in them.
Both as an inquisitive game researcher and avid gamer, Shoshannah Tekofsky looks at what video games can offer us in the present and the future. With a background in psychology, cognitive science, computer science, and artificial intelligence, she is now tackling a PhD program in Player Modeling in Video Games at the Tilburg University, The Netherlands. She specializes in big data projects that seek to discover the connections between our cognitive traits and our behavior in virtual worlds. Read more about her research at psyopsresearch.com and gamrnews.com
Kevin Slavin is assistant professor of media arts and sciences, and founder of the Playful Systems group at the MIT Media Lab. Prior to the Media Lab, he co-founded Area/Code, which pioneered large-scale real-world games using mobile, pervasive, and location-aware technologies. The studio worked with Disney, Nokia, Nike, MTV, and the Knight Foundation before being acquired by Zynga in 2011. His work has been shown at the Museum of Modern Art, the Design Museum of London, and covered in most major journals; his talk “How Algorithms Shape Our World” is one of the more popular TED talks online. He is the vice-chairman of the board of trustees of Cooper Union.