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 cre