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Wednesday, September 22, 2004
Body and brain of gamers probed


Scientists are attempting to inject some real science into video games development to accurately measure the effects games have on minds and bodies.

University of Hull researchers said the games industry needs a scientific boost instead of just anecdotal evidence.

Scientific testing of physiological and psychological responses, or "mood profiling", could help developers robustly plan which games will be hits.

The research is being presented at a games conference in London.

"We think there is very little in the way of good science being done," Dr Jeremy Thornton, lead researcher on the project told BBC News Online.

The video games industry is an expensive one, and is the fastest-growing entertainment media sector, according to analysts.

Hit and miss

Sophisticated, graphics-intensive titles - characteristic of multiplayer online games such as first-person-shooters Unreal Tournament and Halo - can cost millions and that is set to rise.

Getting the right recipe for success for developers who want to make games that stimulate players, and investors who want a return, can be hit and miss.

The testing process the industry has in place at the moment is "broken", said Dr Thornton. What he proposes is more or less testing the blood, sweat and tears of gamers and seeing what it says about the games.

"The current way of developing games is through a portfolio where a publisher will have proposals for games and maybe two will get to market," he explained.

"It is very unlikely that any of those will reach the top 10 and those are the ones that generate millions."

Many games are dropped by developers before they have a chance to make it onto the market.

Although they are designed to generate emotion in a player, according to Dr Thornton, there is no evidence of how this happens on which to rely.

"Often, they rely on in-house industry wisdom and so it needs the application of some science."

Dr Thornton, a practicing GP, said medical techniques such as pain management can translate well to games.

"The question is," he said, "can you detail out from successful games what it does to humans, profile it and make sure future games can generate that response."

Mood and spit

Microsoft's UK research arm, Microsoft Research Cambridge (MSRC), is part funding the three-year project, and has recently set up its own Interactive Systems group to specifically work on this area.

But past research on gaming and its impacts has focused on violence and children, said Dr Thornton.

Pioneering work by Dr Paul Lynch from the University of Oklahoma in 1999 measured hormonal levels in game players, and Microsoft's Bill Fulton lead the software firm's push to test games.

Dr Thornton's research with Dr Jon Purdy involves measuring mood with psychological questionnaires, and using computer software, they can monitor alertness and cognitive function.

"We are also measuring heart rate to look at how games activate human bodies and analysing spit for hormones", said Dr Thornton.

"We are hoping to be able to compare that with sportsmen and women playing physical games."

Although the work is in its pilot stages in which the testing methods are being formalised, the team have had some interesting early results.

Some of them may seem obvious to hardcore gamers, but very little evidence of this sort has been formally collected before.

"Playing a game does not make you happy if you lose. A game does alert and activate you though," said Dr Thornton.

"In cognitive function tests with the small test group, it was found that with 100% of subjects the speed of completion went up."

But people who are conscious of rules feel guilty when they finish a game because they see it as too much fun, he added.

The stress hormone, cortisol, also shot up in the group of 16 men, doubling that of an average person. In a control group where they sat passively watching a video of a game, they fell.

Based on this, the researchers have hypothesised so far that the psycho-physiological impacts are similar to physical sports.

"It is much like playing football or rugby. If you lose, you feel rubbish but still elated."

Using a skull cap with 12 sensor nodes on it, they also monitored theta brain wave patterns, usually associated with "an altered state".

"Playing a game puts you into an altered state. It's like a runner's high, where sports athletes are aware they are doing well.

"They not sure what they are doing, but they know they are functioning at their peak."

So far, 600 people have been questioned about video game imagery, 20 have taken part in the personality study on mood, and 16 have been involved with the ECG study.

The vision is to provide the techniques and tools to do this on a larger scale, internationally, and across gender, age and culture.

In order to scale-up the tests globally, the researchers are developing ways of delivering questionnaires and record ECGs, in real-time, over the net.

Thousands of games developers and analysts have converged in London for two major trade shows and conferences to discuss future challenges for the industry.

The research is being presented at the Game Developers' Conference Europe.

From BBC News



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