Games as Research Tools: Introduction

With the increasing dynamics of today’s digital services and technologies, both gaming for entertainment and gaming for utility purposes have become highly popular in everyday life. 

Given the social and economic impact of games across the globe, it’s no surprise that games and simulations are becoming essential tools in research.

Game research is a multidisciplinary area, which is highly valued in medical, educational, and management settings, allowing researchers to study both game design and player experiences. 

Interestingly, the study of games – known as ludology – examines not only gamification and the act of playing but the role of play in child development and the cultures surrounding play. Game studies encompass a wide variety of areas, such as board games, imaginary play, puzzles, sports, and video games. 

The study of video games, in particular, is the most popular field of research, which engages approaches from anthropology, sociology, psychology, and engineering.

Despite the importance of play and games, we should note that the study of games as a scientific discipline gained popularity at the end of the 20th century. 

With the establishment of the Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA) in 2002-2003 and the Game Research Lab at the University of Tampere, researchers from multiple fields started promoting game research training and exploring fields, such as gamer creativity, role-play, live-action playing, the concept of the magic circle, and game research methods (Mayra et al., 2012).

The Importance of Play and Gaming

Play is vital to help people acquire various cognitive and social skills. According to Piaget’s theory of cognitive development (1962), play is the foundation of a person’s cognitive and emotional development. 

Moreover, gaming – either for entertainment or for utility purposes – has been employed in a wide range of areas, such as marketing, management, politics, and science. As mentioned above, game researchers can focus on the game itself or the people playing it.

With challenging goals, social interactions, and specific rules, games provide unique stimulation, act as a form of exercise, and help players develop different skills. Research shows that games have numerous benefits in real-life settings:

  • Gaming for entertainment can help players reduce stress and anxiety, particularly when engaging with single-player games, puzzles, and cards.
  • Playing games can improve a player’s cognitive skills, visual contrast sensitivity, spatial awareness, attention span, and functioning speed. Furthermore, research shows that hand-eye coordination can benefit from playing video games and operating video game consoles.
  • Playing can also foster social skills, especially in online multiplayer games and forums where players have to communicate and collaborate to achieve a given goal.
  • Games can be educational as they require problem-solving and strategic skills, even in non-games settings. Additionally, the gamification of learning and the use of simulations in classrooms and industries have become valuable tools to enhance knowledge acquisition. Here we should note that game-based courses can even improve the learning experiences of students with learning disabilities (Ahmad, Akhir & Azmee, 2010).

Game Research Methods and Benefits of Game Research

Games, however, are valuable research tools only when the researcher team can exercise methodological control over the game and the units of analysis, as well as between-subjects differences. 

Note that there are various research methods, with units of analysis varying between player experiences to game design. Researchers can employ qualitative, quantitative, or mixed methods to study games (Lankoski, 2015). 

Qualitative methods to study games focus on both the game and its design; the game itself is under scrutiny, and players are seen only in terms of the actions they perform. 

Other qualitative approaches, however, can focus on studying play and player experiences, including across online game forums. Quantitative approaches, on the other hand, help researchers study games as stimuli for psychophysiological studies and allow them to visualize game data.

Despite the mixed findings surrounding game research, experts agree that some of the main applications of games as research tools include:

  • Increasing engagement in research: By creating game-based interactive tools (e.g., surveys, apps), researchers can increase participants’ motivation and engagement in research. Moreover, games can foster creative insights, which can help subjects provide feedback to improve research design and user experience.
  • Studying reasoning, social skills, and emotional well-being: As explained above, play is essential for healthy development. With a wide range of benefits, game research can engage with research topics, such as memory, practice, attention, collaboration, emotion-driven choices, decision-making, and mental health.
  • Improving learning experience: Games and simulations can be used as instructional tools to improve learning, attention, risk-taking, and collaboration in learning. Simulations, for example, can be used to help participants resolve a specific problem or improve their leadership and negotiation skills.
  • Optimizing game design: Game research also aims to optimize the game design to make games more appealing and beneficial. When it comes to video games, researchers may adopt various industrial and engineering methods to explore aspects, such as artificial intelligence, creative narratives, computer graphics, and social media. Music effects, for instance, can be used to evoke and study emotions in participants.

Video Games Research and Age Differences

Video game research is among the most popular fields of game research. Donchin (1995) argues that to be successfully implemented in research, video games should be systematically multidimensional. 

Furthermore, he explains that the label “game” can be used every time a subject is assigned a task in which their performance is scored and rewarded. Note that competition can be against the computer or other subjects. 

Tasks that require participants to track targets, while recording their brain waves, identify tones, or react to strings of characters are also called “games.”

Individual differences affect gaming. Interestingly, although playing video games is often associated with young players, researchers are highly interested in using games to improve the health outcomes of aging participants. 

Anguera et al. (2013) designed a 3-D video game (NeuroRacer) sensitive to age-related cognitive decline. To improve participants’ performance and cognitive abilities across the lifespan, the research team created an adaptive version with a multitasking training mode. 

Results showed that custom-designed games could be used not only to assess cognitive performance and the underlying neural mechanisms, but also to improve cognitive performance, attention, and working memory in older adults (60-85 years).

Gender Differences: The Game Industry vs. Research Data

Games can be used to explore gaming cultures across the world, as well as gender differences and play (Richard, 2013). Interestingly, data shows that the gender gap in gaming is not significant in contemporary societies. 

Here we should note that game development has moved from the so-called “pink” games based on sex stereotypes to “purple” games based on social realities relevant to females. 

Previously, designing games for women relied on the belief that gender is static, enhancing stereotypical female preferences and favoring males.

In fact, game researchers claim that boys are encouraged more often to play with games, while girls are presented with production-oriented software. Fron et al. (2007) explained this hegemony of play. 

While board games and other forms of entertainment allow players to create their own rules, video games dictate rules through software and force players to become game consumers playing with a machine. 

These software programs often depict masculine universes created by male developers, with 88.5% of developers being male and 83.3% White.

Game Studies and Simulation-Based Learning

Simulation games are another valuable asset in research, with strong evidence-based benefits. Simulations are highly used in educational, science, medical, aviation, management, and military settings. 

Note that simulations are defined as artificial realms to help users achieve certain goals through experiential learning. In medicine, for example, simulation-based medical education aims to replicate real-life scenarios where students can gain skills through practice, without putting a patient’s safety at risk (Al-Elq, 2010).

Simulation games are also suitable for active and “sensing” learners. Simulation games include a time-line, which helps learners evaluate their decisions and improve their choices (Hussein, 2007). 

Consequently, game researchers have started studying the benefits of computer-based simulation games for management (including the Babel Tower and Bridge the Gap), placing these games into two categories: 

1) functional simulation games; 

2) leadership simulation games. 

Interestingly, Hussein developed a competitive game called BoBs Building, in which students pretended to be project members. Results showed that the BoBs Building game improved knowledge acquisition, risk assessment, and collaborative learning.

Game Design in Research

Game design is an essential part of video game development, encompassing creative writing, programming, digital editing, and graphic design. 

Design elements, such as competition, discovery, graphics, and rewards, are essential to keep players engaged. Interestingly, not everyone who plays video games will enjoy developing or researching them, and vice versa.

Note that existing technology plays a crucial role in game design (Donchin, 1995). While technology constrained game development in the past, today’s fast-developing digital era makes it difficult for researchers to establish optimal research methods. 

To provide an example, penny arcade video games were replaced by networked consoles, mobile gaming, and mass-market strategies.

Game Research Ethics and Children

Just like with any other scientific field, game research should follow strict ethics. Potential benefits must outweigh potential risks as patients’ safety should always come first. Establishing high standards and giving credits to all involved in the research process is good research practice (Lankoski, 2015)

Ethical considerations are particularly important when participants are children. Data shows that children under 18 years constitute approximately 32% of the gaming demographic. 

Here we should note that some games are not suitable for children, and exposing young subjects to violent content can be unethical. Video games that involve violence, adult content, and graphic scenes have triggered numerous research and public debates. 

Some researchers believe that violent games can be used as a cathartic method to channel aggression, while others claim that violent content leads to aggressive behaviors in real life.

Virtual Reality and Mental Health Research

Virtual reality games and apps are also valuable research tools. They can be used in helping people with mental or neurological problems. 

Research shows that virtual reality via head-mounted displays can be used to treat phobias, treat post-traumatic stress disorder, and reduce depression. To provide an example, virtual reality can be a highly successful method of exposure treatment in claustrophobia. 

Virtual and augmented environments can also help professionals understand the biological factors of certain disorders and improve treatment protocols. 

Note that virtual reality is defined as an artificial simulation that helps users experience the simulated scenario firsthand, while augmented reality is a computer-generated component on top of existing reality (e.g., tools implemented in apps).

Additionally, virtual reality interventions can be used in emergency settings. Sikka et al. (2019) showed that virtual reality could reduce anger, anxiety, and pain after 20 minutes of using virtual reality applications. 

Results showed that virtual reality tools are feasible for patients, with outcomes depending on the type of complaint, education, individual differences, and overall quality of life.

Games as Research Tools: Conclusion

As both gaming for entertainment and gaming for utility purposes are highly popular in real life, games are becoming valuable tools in research and emergency settings. 

While the study of games or ludology is a relatively new discipline, game research is a multidisciplinary field, combining anthropology, psychology, engineering, and marketing approaches. 

Major areas of game research include gamer creativity, game design, role play, aggression, gender roles, age differences, and mental health. 

When researchers exercise methodological control over the game and the units of analysis, games, simulations, and virtual reality can become highly beneficial research tools in medical, educational, and management environments.

From sports to video games, there’s no doubt that play is vital. Games boost child development, help people acquire new cognitive skills, and reduce stress, anxiety, and pain. Games are also valuable research tools, which can benefit scientific knowledge and collaboration across the world.


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