Multitasker, Part 1

In this post, I’ll describe the progress we’ve made on a second game for the York College summer research program. We only have six weeks to design the games, collect data, and present our results at a local conference. There might be time to shower and eat.

Sometimes you just get lucky. A student comes to you with an interest that turns into a pithy concept that’s easy to implement as a game. One of my students expressed an interest in multitasking. This issue has received a lot of attention in recent years due to the rapid proliferation of the Internet and mobile technology. Most people, particularly my college students who text during lectures, operate under the illusion that they can multitask. The illusion of multitasking is convincing because they we can accomplish more than one goal at a time by rapidly switching between tasks. People who operate under this illusion are not entirely misguided. We have an enormous capacity to process large amounts of sensory information from various modalities (e.g., sight and hearing) at the same time. And we have the ability to execute multiple motor commands at the same time (e.g., walking and chewing gum). However, we are particularly terrible at making more than one decision at a time. In attention research, this phenomenon is referred to as a “bottleneck.” As a demonstration, try to read a book while listening to the news. At some point, if you are absorbing the reading, you will miss some critical information on the news. Hal Pashler’s laboratory at UCSD has done revealing experiments on multitasking. They found that when subjects were attending to a stimulus, decisions made in response to a second stimulus were delayed until after a decision about the first stimulus was made. Our educational objective for Multitasker was to demonstrate to students that performance suffers when you attempt to multitask. We predicted that students who played the game would have a different opinion of multitasking relative to students who did not play the game.

Because we have very little time to make this game, we opted to make a board game. Another advantage of making a board game is that players can be challenged with very physical tasks, which we hope will make the lesson more evident. The core mechanic of the game revolves around trying to complete up to four tasks at the same time. A timer will be used to insure players perform each task for a sufficient period of time. We decided to adopt a few of the mini-games in Cranium (i.e., drawing and sculpting). However, some of the tasks will be modified so they can be performed simultaneously. Additionally, we might have to find tasks where the fail state is obvious. For example, it’s obvious when you drop a ball during juggling, but it might not be obvious when a person stops drawing or sculpting. Also, we are still looking for two tasks that can be accomplished with either a foot or using the voice.

To insure that players will not be overwhelmed immediately by performing four tasks at once, the number of possible tasks on any given round of play will be determined in advance in a series of levels. In level 1, the role of a four-sided die will be used to assign the one of the tasks to the player. In level 2, the role of the die, even or odd, will be used to pick two tasks. In level 3, the role of the die will be used to pick two tasks, but the player can choose the third task. In level 4, all four tasks must be performed. If a player successfully performs three challenges in a row, then they advance a level. However, if the player fails a given trial, they are moved back a level. Thus, flow is maintained by introducing and removing tasks. It’s worth noting that this method of using a 3-up/1-down staircase is standard in psychophysics. The object of the game is to be the first to complete Level 4, performing all four tasks three times in a row.

While the core mechanic of the game, objective, and reward/punishment schemes are designed, we are still looking for a fun method of providing feedback. In a previous post, I provided arguments for starting the design process with an educational objective and a game mechanic before designing the user interface. However, as I also mentioned, you can get surprising results from developing the three in parallel. Even though there are still details to complete for the game mechanic, my students also designing a toy that will serve as the centerpiece of the game. They toy will have several functions: (1) It will act as a repository for the game materials; (2) It will act as a method of keeping score and ranking the players; (3) And it will hopefully convey a message about student life. Raph Koster and Jessie Schell both indicate that user interface should be a fun toy. It’s an invitation to play, and I’m hoping my students can come up with some fun ideas that go beyond the traditional game board (a.k.a. “Game Bored”).

Leave a Reply