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Harnessing psychological theory for better video games

Assistant Professor Elisa Mekler aims to help both video game researchers and practitioners better understand and apply theories from psychology
Elisa Mekler
Assistant Professor Elisa Mekler leads the project called Theorycraft which has just received funding of approximately 1,5 million from the European Research Council. Image: Matti Ahlgren

Psychological theories on motivation hold great promise for video game development and for understanding how games impact people, but only little is known about how these theories actually are used in the games industry. A major new research project at Aalto University will shed light on this, as well as develop new ways to adapt these theories for the use of game designers and researchers alike.

Assistant Professor Elisa Mekler from the department of computer science leads the project called Theorycraft which has just received funding of approximately 1,5 million from the European Research Council.

How theory can inform design is a foundational challenge in human-computer interaction research. It is also a very real question that games practitioners ask themselves. 

‘We know that game developers really love psychological theories; we see it in their textbooks and hear it in their conferences. Interestingly, though, a lot of the academic research is not very useful for game designers - they consider it too abstract, too trivial. I see this as a missed opportunity’.

Mekler, a psychologist turned human-computer interaction researcher, believes video game developers could benefit from psychological theories more throughout the game development cycle, whether in coming up with new game ideas, designing more motivating gameplay and rewards, or evaluating whether the game is sufficiently engaging and successful at retaining players. She hopes that her project will help developers take full advantage of these theories.

In addition to games practitioners, the project also aims to develop tools that help other games researchers conduct more impactful work.

‘A lot of human-computer interaction and games research draws from psychological theories. Oftentimes, though, these are applied in a cursory, or even plain-out wrong, way, which leads to not very rigorous or simply bad research,’ Mekler explains (read more about this in a previous paper).

What Mekler sets out to do, then, is theory translation, an idea that originates from medical research where findings from biology need to be repurposed for clinical studies and ultimately adapted into everyday work at a medical practice.

‘The idea is that we cannot simply take a theory from psychology and throw it on games research and practice. At best this is not very useful, and at worst it can have misleading results’, Mekler explains.

What is needed is an extra step where theories from the original field are adapted for their new purpose in a way that is accessible but leaves their original explanatory power intact.

Once Mekler has developed a good understanding of current practices in the games industry, she aims to develop tools and theories that are useful to games researchers, developers and designers. These will be shared openly on platforms used by games practitioners. A final result, Mekler envisions, will be a how-to-guide for theory translation.

‘This would be something like a cookbook, a meta-tool that outlines the steps that can be chosen for doing theory translations in all kinds of theories and domains.’

The European Research Council grant of 1,47 million will cover the research for five years. The work will begin this spring.

Listen to recent Kahvit Näppikselle podcast with Elisa Mekler.

Department of Computer Science

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