Professor O’Dea comments on use of interactive technologies in behavioral research

Avanti Khare, Sci-Tech Editor

The use of video games and related immersive technologies is becoming a powerful research tool across fields that study humans, including psychology, and neuroscience. Gamification can help avoid the pitfalls of conventional laboratory-based experiments by allowing researchers to study diverse populations, to conduct more sophisticated experiments and to observe human behavior in more naturalistic settings, according to Nature News.

Professor Conor O’Dea, Visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology, became interested in using virtual reality to study aggression and discrimination when he peer reviewed a paper a few years ago that used virtual reality. He “was so excited by this method of safely presenting [his] stimuli to participants that [he] immediately wrote a grant to get [his] hands on equipment to do this type of research.” He stressed that virtual reality is particularly useful when studying aggression because it is often difficult to find ways to safely have participants view aggressive interactions in realistic ways. He previously had to rely on short stories and vignettes to communicate the situations he was interested in studying, but virtual reality “gives researchers the unique ability to allow participants to fully immerse themselves in the video in a much more realistic way.”

Interactive virtual experiments have the potential to encourage participation from special interest groups such as children in settings such as schools or museums, rather than requiring a special trip to a lab, which some families are not comfortable with or able to accommodate. According to O’Dea, “the strengths [of virtual reality] include being able to fully immerse participants in a video in a way that allows them firsthand experience with the social interaction they are witnessing.”

Many scientists are used to having total control over lab environments where they can observe participants’ behavior directly during experiments and verify people’s identities. Criticisms of gamified research center around a worry that people will not engage fully with the tests or will skew results by faking their identities, either completing games multiple times or participating maliciously using internet bots. According to O’Dea, “the weaknesses [of virtual reality] are primarily involved in the setup of the study. First, a video camera that shoots in 360 degrees is needed, then video editing is a bit of a nightmare that requires a lot of reading and learning, a high powered computer to handle the size of the video files and graphics, and fairly expensive software. The headsets themselves also take a bit of time to get used to using so we have to train our researchers as well as each participant. All in all, I do think that the strengths outweigh the weaknesses, but they are definitely still a bit of work to get set up.”