A Scientific Study in your Hand

Can mobile gaming be used to study complex problems and behavioral science?

Large networks have been used (or proposed) to study a wide variety of problems, from using simulated bee colony algorithms to solve complex combinatorial problems to studying plague dynamics in World of Warcraft.

Another large network that is interesting to me is the network of mobile game players. There are millions of people playing games on their phones, each player solving puzzles and making a wide variety of decisions. What I wonder is, could this be harnessed for scientific research or to study complex problems? Could a game be designed not just for entertainment, but also to study behavioral science?

Players could be presented with a variety of decisions, and their choices recorded to create a decision history. This history could be used to test decision prediction algorithms or investigate how people make choices. This is a very simplistic example, but games could be designed or tweaked to test a very specific hypothesis.

A more complicated game might present a player with puzzles or challenges. The game could record the attempts the player makes and what their final solution is. It would be fascinating to have a record of the iterations, adjustments, and improvements a player makes to investigate human problem solving. Another game might harness the player’s efforts to tackle complex problems. Also, social gaming could be used to study how players interact and collaborate with each other.

Obviously there is scientific research being done and simulations are being used to study complex problems. But, if these studies could be adapted to the mobile gaming platform, the sample size would drastically increase, resulting in a larger quantity of diverse data.

Another consideration is the importance of design. Games would have to be designed not only to study a specific question, but also to be entertaining enough to develop a following. It is a tough challenge but may be worth it to be able to conduct a study with millions of participants!