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Playing Games Presents New Opportunities for Social Science Research and Education

Welcome to Madland, where all players begin.

While you likely opt out of online, telephone, or paper surveys, you probably play games online, whether it is Battlefield 4 or Solitaire. Imagine playing an online game that is actually a research project to study human behavior. Like other popular online games, this research project has relevant scenery, characters, and incentives for players. This innovative idea in social science research has the potential to gather important information for researchers and provide an open forum to share, replicate and improve research methodology.

The web has revolutionized the way we teach, learn, shop, retrieve information, and play. Now, thanks to Assistant Professor Casper Harteveld and his multidisciplinary team of game designers, computer scientists, and psychologists, the internet is about to add another feather in its cap – game-based experiments to study human behavior. This platform has the potential to add a new twist to social science experiments, research methods education, and more.  The project, called Mad Science, has been in development since 2014 and has involved a mix of professionals, graduates, undergraduates, and postdocs, according to Harteveld. The designers are developing game platforms to be used in a variety of ways from human behavior studies to determine race and gender preferences, for example; to legal case scenarios to help those without a lawyer; to providing students with an abundance of research projects to study and replicate.

In an award-winning paper about the project, “Exploring Digital Games as a Research and Educational Platform for Replicating Experiments,” Harteveld and his collaborators explain, “Mad Science is a digital game where players join the fictitious corporation Mad Science Inc. as one of their new ‘mad’ scientists—people who are intrinsically curious and show that curiosity in every aspect of their behavior. Mad Science Inc.’s mission is to ‘understand why people do what they do.’”

Players are instructed about how to play the game before they begin by learning the “core” rules and how to use available tools to create their “playable” scenarios from a tutorial island called “Madland.” Once players receive a score that shows they understand the game, they can go to Madworld. In Madworld, players can “…design and perform research, participate in research of other players, and share effective strategies for designing research scenarios,” explained the paper’s authors.

This “playful” platform allows “users to participate in and create social experiments to study human behavior,” Harteveld said. The project designers seek to answer two questions, according to Harteveld. First, “How can game-based experiments advance the study of human behavior?” He said that there might be crucial differences between the way people behave in the real world and the virtual world. Incentives provided in the experiments might also affect the way people respond to an experiment. He continued, “Game-based experiments allow for new ways of gathering data.” Game-based experiments might give researchers further insight into certain aspects of human behavior than with traditional paper and pencil or face-to-face interview studies.

A second question, said Harteveld, is, “How can we crowdsource the participation and the creation of game-based social experiments?” The web has been a vital tool for crowdsourcing in areas such as fundraising, and work-related tasks. The Internet has the capability of reaching people around the world. Harteveld believes that crowdsourcing is an advantage for game-based experiments because of its global reach that allows researchers to gather data for a wealth of cultural variables.  In creating gaming platforms for research, game designers need to explore ways to sustain engagement with participants and how to best leverage crowd participation into the creation of experiments. “The project aims to develop user-friendly authoring tools that allow anyone to contribute to experiments. For example, a user can copy an experiment, change a variable, and disseminate this to his or her social network,” he said.

Mad Science was tested by using instructor observations, informal interviews with student users, and surveys capturing student feedback, which, said Harteveld, serve primarily to improve the platform’s usability.

What does the future hold for research platforms like Mad Science?

“Once fully realized, Mad Science has the potential to become a new model for the future of social science research and education by providing evidence and guidelines for using ‘gamification’ for personalizing and crowdsourcing research,” he said.

Harteveld plans to make the platform freely available on the web by early next summer. Future plans might include books such as a “practical how-to book and another that goes more into the ideas behind game-based experiments on a more theoretical level.” He said, “…the work will be presented in conference papers and journal articles in the areas of Human-Computer Interaction, Psychology, Design, Game Studies, and the Learning Sciences.”

The project is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, National Science Foundation, and the Legal Services Corporation. It was initially supported by a seed grant by Northeastern’s College of Arts, Media, and Design.

For more information about Mad Science, visit the project website, or contact Assistant Professor Casper Harteveld at c.harteveld@northeastern.edu .