The Great Brain Experiment: Mobile gaming provides robust scientific results
A team of neuroscientists from the Wellcome Trust Centre of Neuroimaging at UCL used Wellcome Trust funding to create a smartphone app that allows people to play games and contribute to science. With over 60,000 players, The Great Brain Experiment has shown that mobile apps could be a useful source of data collection. Project scientist Dr Peter Zeidman explains their findings…
It’s a big week for us at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging.
A year and half ago, we sat around a table and designed a mobile app that would become The Great Brain Experiment. The idea was to take the psychology experiments we do every day in the lab and turn them into mobile games. By playing the games, people outside our field would be able to get a better idea of what we do, and in exchange we’d be able to receive data from a diverse group of mobile gamers.
A year after its launch our free app has been more popular than we could have imagined, with data sent back to us from more than 60,000 people. This week our initial findings are published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.
Can mobile games be used to conduct psychology experiments?
This is the question we set out to address and we’re pleased to say the answer is “yes”. Psychology experiments generally involve small groups of volunteers coming to the lab and completing tasks in a carefully controlled setting. This approach works brilliantly for lots of research, however we knew it may not be practical for examining variability across large groups of people, for instance seeing how cognitive abilities change across age groups.
Mobile games offered us the possibility to conduct experiments with volunteers of different ages and backgrounds from around the world. We knew that if we could make the games fun, then contributing to scientific research wouldn’t be a chore. We also tried to keep the games snappy – we decided each should take less than five minutes, so they could be played on a train or bus journey without interruption. The ethical use of people’s data was also a vital consideration, and we made sure that our app explains exactly how players’ data is used, with the option to withdraw from the experiment at any time.
Scientifically, our biggest worry of using games for research was a lack of control. When volunteers take part, they could be travelling on a noisy train, standing at a bus stop or sitting quietly at home – we wouldn’t be able to control for these factors and they had the potential to interfere with the results. We hypothesised that with enough players sending us data, these differences would come out in the wash.
Today’s findings: it worked!
It was all worth it. The results published today demonstrate that our games reproduced established laboratory findings of short-term memory, decision-making, inhibition and perception, despite not being conducted in the controlled environment of the laboratory.
We also showed that mobile games can reveal differences across age groups. For instance, one of our games tests players’ ability to remember certain items (the positions of coloured circles on the screen) while ignoring other distracting items. We found that older players had greater difficulty ignoring distractions than younger players, supporting the notion that older people find it harder to filter out distractions.
As scientists, we don’t just want to reproduce scientific results that have gone before, but we want to add new data to the knowledge base. Over coming months we hope to report back with new discoveries coming from the games in The Great Brain Experiment.
In the near future I think we’ll see many more scientific experiments using games to better understand ourselves. Indeed, in a recent project supported by the Wellcome Trust, a game called Axon was developed to investigate skill learning, and they recently published their first results. Another experiment, Hooked On Music, is just getting started at Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry.
On behalf of The Great Brain Experiment team, I want to say a huge thank you to everyone who has played the games so far, you’re all part of something really exciting – please keeping playing!
We still need more people to download the app and play the games – especially the four new ones that we recently added. The app is available for free from our website or via the Apple/Google Play stores. We hope you continue to enjoy playing The Great Brain Experiment as much as we’ve enjoyed creating it.
The Great Brain Experiment is a collaboration between the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London and The Wellcome Trust. It was developed by White Bat Games.