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An Interview with Alicia Sanchez

By Jane Bozarth / September 2011

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One of the most popular presentations at GameTech11 was "Top 10 Research Findings in Games," presented by Dr. Alicia Sanchez, the Serious Games Czar for Defense Acquisitions University, and Dr. Clint Bowers, professor of psychology from the University of Central Florida. Dr. Sanchez sat down with me to provide an overview of the session. Here she describes several of the research articles, distills the essential findings, and discusses why she felt they were especially important. Please note that the presentation audience was comprised primarily of those designing games for use by military personnel, who—like those in law enforcement and medical professions —must often take in enormous amounts of data and quickly make life-or-death decisions. Sanchez notes, "With a military audience we see unusual focus on issues of relevance and motivation: The military is extremely motivated and attentive learner group. If they don't pay attention, they're going to die. There is no more supreme motivational architecture." Therefore, Sanchez explains, for another audience, her choice of "top 10" might have been slightly different.

Finding: Video game experiences are associated with cognitive flexibility tasks such as task switching

Source: Colzato, L. S., van Leeuwen, P. J. A., van den Wildenberg, W. P. M., and Hommel, B. (2010). DOOM'd to switch: Superior cognitive flexibility in players of first person shooters. Frontiers in Psychology 1, 8 (2010), 1-4.

Sanchez: I think it's interesting, because that particular study's findings was that by incorporating these complex situations—not just visual systems, but situations—they were able to demonstrate that users in this particular study became more adept at switching tasks. Most of the pieces we chose for this presentation are especially relevant to the military. Now there are so many reduced manning initiatives, folks joining the military nowadays are asked to fill so many roles and so many positions; the ability to switch quickly between tasks is a huge issue. They have people who constantly have to stop, reset, and interpret information that is relevant and sort out important cues; this is a more traditional cognitive approach for people who don't have this really interesting task flexibility.

Finding: Popular "brain trainers" only improve performance on practiced tasks.

Source: Owen, A. M., Hampshire, A., Grahn, J. A., Stenton, R., Dajani, S., Burns, A. S., Howard, R. J., and Ballard, C. G. Putting Brain Training to the test. Nature 465, 10 (2010), 775-778.

Sanchez: What was interesting about this study, and why we incorporated it, is that we were seeing some interest from the military in doing some brain training. This was mostly with upper-level leadership, because they wanted to stay cognitively flexible and agile. That seemed to be the common perception of what people thought they would gain from the use of brain trainers. However, what the research indicated was that people did improve their ability to do the tasks, but only the tasks that you were actually practicing. It was a one-to-one with no transfer ability when you tried to extrapolate that into other things, even when they were very similar. Unfortunately, what you're really training your brain to do is this one task, and you're not actually increasing your ability to think in a more agile way about other types of problems. This was a bummer—we were hoping there'd be different findings.

Finding: Action games elicit enhanced visual attention (ability to select important visual cues and suppress non important cues).

Source: Hubert-Wallender, B., Green, C. S., and Bavelier, D. Stretching the limits of visual attention: The case of action video games. WIREs Cognitive Science 2, 2 (2011).

Sanchez: When we think about the military we think about people who are looking at sonars and radars, and having to decide whether a cue is important enough to pay attention to or if they can disregard it. I guess that's true with ATC [air traffic controllers] too. This stems from some of the large scale accidents that we've seen in the military, like the Iranian airbus that was shot down because it was misinterpreted as an enemy target. The finding was that video games helped people to very quickly identify visual information and determine, quickly, whether additional cognitive resources were required. So it was a selective attention issue. When things come into view you need to decide "OK, I need to pay attention to that or I don't." The types of games we were talking about were things like Halo and Call of Duty, where you have to quickly identify: "Is this an enemy, or not? Did I just see something move in the corner, or not? Do I need to look over there, or not?" So the finding was interesting because we hadn't really seen much research that indicated that there was an ability to really quickly profile a nuance in your visual field and either decide to pay attention to it or not.

Finding: Training using games can reduce the gender gap in spatial ability.

Source: Spence, I. and Feng, J. (2010). Video Games and Spatial Cognition. Review of General Psychology 14, 2 (2010), 92-104.

Sanchez: This was one of the most important pieces we presented. When we think about STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and the ability for women to be successful, a lot of it in the research is attributed to women being able to be very successful with special tasks, like spatial rotation. A lot of the theories hint—it's not definitive, but they hint—that this is why women shy away from them. Of course you want to do things that you're good at, and when confronted with these problems day in and day out, and you realize, "I'm not getting any better at this, I'm not great at this," which can lead to a [low] attrition rate within STEM. This finding indicated that there was the ability to increase ability to succeed at spatial tasks. It started to close the gap between men and women in this regard. It didn't close it completely, but in practice with complex video games that had a physics approach, what they did find was that women were able to be more successful. This could be extrapolated to "with the use of these systems they could become more comfortable, they might be more successful in STEM careers." But the more interesting finding with that particular study was you could make a difference using this, and that could be a stepping stone to finding a way to increase proficiency.

Finding: Violence doesn't motivate gameplay—appeals more to players who are disproportionately aggressive but just barely. Aggressive post-game behavior most often linked with frustrating play based on a basic needs satisfaction model.

Source: Przbylski, A. K., Rigby, C. S., and Ryan, R. M. Motivational Model of Engagement. Review of General Psychology 14, 2 (2010), 154-166.

Sanchez: Usually I disregard violence literature, but this is not your typical violence study. What was extremely interesting about this one is that it attributed violent and/or nonsocial behavior to frustration with the user interface. It wasn't about there being shooting or killing during the game, and the violence used in the video game wasn't seen as an attractive or positive element by the player. When they did demonstrate violent behaviors or frustration afterward, it was due to the user interface. How many times have we all seen that? It was interesting that they were able to reduce this down to the fundamentals, to a user interface that was understandable, that people could have successes in games. When you don't, then people get mad.

The full presentation is available for download.


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