Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Studying Learning Using Video Games

Performing well requires exploring many strategies before settling on one.

A subtheme in this blog has been the influence of video game play on people’s behavior. There is an ongoing debate about both the potential negative impact of playing games (such as increases in aggression or lower grades) as well as positive influences (like an increase in prosocial behavior after playing games with positive messages and an increase in speed of decision making).

Video games themselves can also be a great testing ground for theories of learning. That was the approach taken in a fascinating paper in the February, 2014 issue of Psychological Science by Tom Stafford and Michael Dewar.

They were interested in testing a fascinating theory about learning new skills. The idea is that any time you are learning something new, there is a tradeoff between exploiting past knowledge and exploring new strategies. The proposal was that people who succeed best in learning new skills start by exploring a range of strategies. This exploration may cause them to do well when they hit on a potentially good strategy and to do poorly when they try something that does not work well. Then, when people find a good strategy, they should exploit it and keep improving their skill. Those who settle on a strategy too quickly (and so they start exploiting early) may end up picking one that is far from optimal, and so they will do more poorly in the long run.

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They worked with a game designer to create an on-line game called Axon. The game involves making simple selections of targets on a screen. Some of the dots are colored, and the colored dots have different influences. Some colors are better to hit than others. So, there is some strategy, but the strategies are not complex and are mostly focused on which color dots should be selected.

During the data collection period, the game was played over 3.5 million times by over 850,000 players. Most of the analyses were done on the 45,672 individuals who played the game 10 or more times.

Before addressing the key experimental question, it was important for the researchers to make sure that the data gave sensible results. So, they started by verifying that two classic phenomena from learning studies occurred in this data set. The first was the observation that performance improves with practice. Looking at those people who played at least 10 games, it was clear that the more games people played, the better they got. 

Second, it is well known that when people space their practice out over time, their performance is better than when it is concentrated together. There are several reasons for the improvement for practice that is spaced out over time. One is that spaced practice allows information being learned to become associated with many different contexts. The second is that sleep improves skilled performance, and the more times people play and the more time that elapses between attempts, the more likely that people will sleep between attempts at the game.

Consistent with the prior work on this topic, people who concentrated their game play together did worse at the game than those who spread their play out over time.

Because the game yields sensible data, the researchers could look at the more complex question relating early strategies to later performance. The researchers looked at the degree of variability in the scores over the first five games people played. The more variable the scores, the more strategies people were likely to have tried early on. They looked at how this variability was related to the high score people achieved on the next five games they played. 

The more variable people’s scores in the first five games, the higher their best score tended to be in the next five games. That is, exploring a range of initial strategies allowed participants to do better than selecting a single strategy early on and sticking with it. 

There are two interesting things about this project.

First, it is a great example of using the internet to look at learning in a large number of people. Most research studies done at universities involve a small number of participants who perform a small number of trials on a task. This game is still fairly simple, but it allowed a large number of people to play it.

Second, these findings suggest that it is valuable to try a number of different strategies in any task before settling on one. People who did this naturally in the game were more successful than those who did not. An interesting follow up study would explore whether people who are instructed to try different strategies also do better than those who are instructed to select a strategy and stick with it. That would disentangle whether these results reflect that people who are better at video games are those who also try more strategies, or whether anyone can improve by trying more strategies. 

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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