Category Archives: York College Summer Research Program

Introduction to the Summer Projects: “Warped”

biasMost games developed in our lab are self-contained and completed within one year. However, one project is too large for any one student to complete, and thus several students will develop the game in stages over a period of years.

The game is designed to introduce students to cognitive biases and then eventually develop simulators that train students to avoid their own bias. There are over 100 recognized cognitive biases in the psychology literature. Most of the biases fit neatly into one of several categories (e.g., social biases, memory biases, and decision making biases). The first iteration of our game was designed to introduce students to a small number of biases. Students observed two non-player characters in conversation and then decided which cognitive bias was made during the conversation. Students performed well, but the game was visually primitive and felt like a multiple-choice test.

Our initial success with the cognitive bias game motivated us to expand our learning objectives. We wanted students to go beyond mere exposure and actually practice making unbiased judgments. To meet this objective, it was clear that we were going to have to develop an immersive 3D environment. We wanted to place students in a more realistic social environment where they get to choose which friends to keep based on the nature of their conversations. Players are rewarded for keeping friends who make statements that are free from bias. Simultaneously, keeping a biased friend makes it difficult to complete tasks in the game because they are constantly feeding you misinformation.

Correctly identifying cognitive biases will lead to fewer obstacles for the player and a clear path toward completing game objectives.

We also wanted to establish a relationship between the game environment and player performance. If players perform poorly, the environment will become visually skewed and warped, making it more difficult to complete game objectives. Correctly identifying cognitive biases will lead to fewer obstacles for the player and a clear path toward completing game objectives. The project abstract follows:

“A vast amount of information bombards our senses, and selective attention must be used to filter out information that is not behaviorally relevant. Similarly, heuristics are cognitive short cuts that allow us to make decisions quickly. Heuristics prevent us from being mired in deliberations that would halt everyday progress. However, the use of such short cuts is automatic and comes at a price. Cognitive Biases are untoward effects created by using heuristics. Cognitive psychologists have identified over 100 such biases. For example, the “confirmation bias” occurs when an observer forms opinions based only on affirmations of their schema, as opposed to evidence that falsifies their schema. College freshmen are at-risk for making poor decisions that could impact their academic careers as well as their professional careers. Consequently, we set out to create a game where students could learn about cognitive biases and practice avoiding errors in decision making. Game-based learning is particularly effective when students need to practice a skill again and again. Our game allows students to practice making judgments in the presence of false statements. Players observe non-player characters (NPCs) interacting in a game world. Several of the NPCs engage in conversation, and one of the characters makes statements that reveal a cognitive bias. The player must identify the NPC making the error and label the cognitive bias in order to win valuable resources. Performance on a post-game assessment of decision making is predicted to be better for students who played our game relative to those who learned about cognitive biases from text-based sources.”

Introduction to the Summer Projects: “iSketch”

artlyWhile game-based learning is now accepted as legitimate pedagogy in education, game-based therapy is on the fringe of acknowledgement in the medical community. Despite major organizations like Games for Health, the knowledge that positive affect speeds recovery for several major illnesses, and the fact that mental health can be improved by shaping behaviors, you’d be hard pressed to find a doctor who would prescribe a course of games for depression or anxiety. Can you imagine an insurance company paying for an Xbox 360?

There is a general lack of awareness among students about therapy, social support, social services, institutional support, and how unmitigated stressors can lead to anxiety and depression.

The truth, however, is that many freshmen who enter college could benefit from play, which is known to relieve stress and provide practice for future adult behaviors. Freshmen enter college with more questions than answers. They come from highly structured high school environments, where they are told which classes to take and when to take them. Stress occurs when freshmen are suddenly asked to make several important life decisions while also being bombarded by new concepts and practices from professors and administrators. In addition to these stressors, many students are working full time, supporting their own families, or contributing to the income of their parents’ family. At York College, these non-traditional students are typically the first in their families to go to college, which implies that they have little guidance in the process.

Freshmen entering college are also unaware of the mental health challenges they face. Apart from students in the health sciences, few students receive formal training on anxiety and depression. There is a general lack of awareness among students about therapy, social support, social services, institutional support, and how unmitigated stressors can lead to anxiety and depression. According to several models of depression and anxiety, self-esteem is critical to sustaining mental health. A student who is overly pessimistic, blames themselves for external frustrations, or lacks the ability to self-sooth will be at risk for depression.

Consequently, we developed a game to help improve the self-esteem of students on a difficult artistic task. Most people feel they lack artistic talent, and that it would be difficult or impossible to develop artistic talent. Yet, many artists report that artistic talent is the result of training and practice. The goal of “iSketch” is to use art therapy to improve self-esteem in students that are “at-risk” for depression. We predict that students with low self-esteem or low confidence in their ability to draw will have higher reports of self-esteem after learning to draw with the game. It is our hope that this improved confidence will generalize to other domains.

There are some difficult challenges in conducting this experiment. First, without the supervision of a licensed therapist, it would be unethical to use this game to expose students to specific stressors that provoke anxiety. The game is not meant to be a post-traumatic therapy for anxiety or depression. Rather, the game is designed to foster confidence before serious stressors are presented. Second, we can’t objectively measure the quality of the art produced by the subjects, and thus we can only provide feedback on self-reports of quality. The game can directly affect self-esteem but not absolute drawing ability, which is satisfactory considering our goal is to improve esteem. The remaining details are provided in the project abstract:

 “Art Therapy is a variation of psychotherapy used to promote self-expression and self-confidence through drawing, sculpture, or painting. When used in conjunction with traditional therapies, it may alleviate pain associated with various pathologies or painful treatments like chemotherapy. While there is a paucity of research on the subject, art therapy appears to be more effective for subjects when used as a method for distraction. College freshmen are known to be at-risk for depression. Learned helplessness and pessimism are thought to contribute to this depression, and thus therapies that bolster self-esteem are known to help. Consequently, we developed a game where college freshmen learn to draw as preemptive therapy. We seek to improve self-esteem by demonstrating that difficult drawings can be accomplished with practice. It is predicted that reports of self-esteem will be enhanced because our drawing game can adapt to user performance in real time. Volunteers from the York College Research Subjects Pool will play a game where they have to complete several drawings in response to photographs or creative challenges. Upon completion, subjects will rate the success of their attempt. The self-reports of quality will be used to adjust task difficulty in succeeding trials using psychophysical staircase procedure. If this program is successful, we will consider developing a method to include exposure therapy in a game. Under proper supervision, a therapist might use our game as a safe way of introducing potentially stressful content to a patient. The therapist can use the game to regulate exposure therapy in a quantitative manner.”

Introduction to the Summer Projects: Lerpz Behaves

lerpz_jumpNearly all of the undergrads working in my lab this summer have completed a design for their game, tested the game mechanics using paper prototypes, and are heading into digital production. The first of these games is what actually pushed our lab into coding digital games. From day one, this student expressed a desire to learn programming, and the temporal dynamics of her game made it difficult to implement as a board game. A digital game was a logical choice, but we were concerned about the amount of time it would take to produce the game. To keep the project from stalling, we decided to modify an existing tutorial for the Unity3d game engine “Lerpz Escapes.” The creation of visual assets and animations is extremely time consuming and involves specialized artistic skills. Consequently, “modding” an existing game is a great way of saving time. The original game from the Unity tutorial is a 3D platformer where the main character, Lerpz, needs to collect 20 fuel cells to unlock a spaceship to escape his captors. Our student designer wanted to develop a game to teach people about operant conditioning. Consequently, we will mod the game to provide opportunities for the user to shape the behavior of the main character as he completes various tasks in the virtual world. The project abstract and attached poster provide a more detailed view of the project:

Inexperienced parents may have difficulty encouraging desirable behaviors in their children. Even though applied behavioral analysis (ABA) is widely used in education and healthcare to shape the behaviors of healthy and developmentally challenged children, many young parents are not offered formal training in ABA. Parents of children with autism spectrum disorders, who are generally knowledgeable about ABA, also have problems encouraging verbal expression in their children because the child’s internal desire to communicate is difficult to identify. Game-based learning is known to be effective for teaching lessons that require practice. Consequently, we developed a game where potential parents could learn and practice ABA. Relative to text-based methods of teaching ABA, it is predicted that game-based methods will result in better retention of core ABA concepts. Volunteers from the York College Research Subjects Pool will play a video game presented in a web browser. In the game, players will apply ABA to a character that needs to complete tasks in the game world. The character will display desirable and undesirable behaviors along the way. Players will be required to shape the character’s behavior to complete the tasks. Game mechanics will be used to promote player engagement, sustain attention, and facilitate learning. Control subjects will spend an equivalent time with the core concepts of ABA in a web browser, but with no game mechanics. If game mechanics demonstrate improved learning relative text-based methods, we will broadly distribute the game to universities across the country.