Category Archives: Psychology

Transmedia London July: Part 1

The other night I attended a sort of mini-conference on transmedia at BAFTA. I’d walked by the venue several times in the past (it’s on Piccadilly) – it’s rather unassuming, but inside it’s got a plush theatre with things like “endowed by Sir Elton John” inscribed on the back of seats. Anyways, I’ve been a big fan of transmedia ever since playing some of the first ARGs that popped up in the early 2000s, and I’m always interested to see what’s going on in the field.

The first speaker was Andrea Phillips (live from New York via a flawless video chat!), talking about the recently completed Facebook game-for-change America 2049. Set in a dystopian future United States, players are agents of the Council for American Heritage and are tasked with tracking down a troublemaking terrorist. The game is sponsored by a human rights organization that wanted to raise public awareness of various issues like human trafficking and reproductive rights. I played for three weeks before losing interest/having to do other stuff. The basic game mechanic of clicking on squares and getting letter-number pairs to solve substitution codes wore thin very quickly, but it was the anvilicious video (especially the grating hosts of Good Day Every Day) that got to me.

That said, the game had some fantastic design elements that I want to see used again. Major problems (or perhaps “goals”) with ARGs are replayability and audience reach – when something takes place over a number of months and involves rather a lot of stuff going on, it’s hard to jump in any time after the beginning. It’s easy for people to miss out entirely. Having been the chronicler of every event in an ARG in the past, I can say without reservation that keeping up with events can be enormously, time-consumingly difficult. While this kind of time-exclusivity may serve to add to the mystique of ARGs, if you’re trying to reach as wide an audience as possible you want something that people can start at any time.  However, part of the appeal of the experience is precisely that real-time feel. We do love waiting for a countdown timer to reach 0:0:0 and something awesome and one-of-a-kind to happen, and players can come to look forward to regular content updates. It gives a sense of progress and flux and so adds to the reality of the experience.

America 2049 takes a very clever approach to this issue by tying content updates to the player’s progress in the Facebook game. If they’re in week three of the game, the websites have week-three content. It’s absolutely brilliant, and means you can start at any time you’d like. To be honest, I’m incredibly surprised that it hasn’t been done before – has anyone who played Majestic or Missing: Since January recall if they had progress-indexed content?

Another trick with persistent ARGs (like the for-pay ones just mentioned) is that people will write about them. When a player googles something from the game, they may discover that the top link is actually an Unfiction forum thread, hints & tips guide or review rather than the in-game website they were hoping to find. America 2049 handily side-steps this issue by having an in-game search engine (Zooglio) that filters the results to keep in-game content at the top and blatantly out-of-game sites out of view. Of further excellence is the fact that it’s perfectly sensible for a new search engine to be popular that far in the future (and the fact that it works by filtering content is especially amusing given the nature of the dystopia in which it is used).

But I digress from the topic at hand! Andrea didn’t spend much time on these design elements, in favour of an explanation of how the game was created and what went into it. A highlight was her revealing that the celebrities featured in the game (Margaret Cho, Victor Garber, Harold Perrineau and others!) all donated their time because they are interested in the rights issues promoted by the game. Good tip for big-budget looks on smaller-budget funding!
The next speaker (he and all the rest were there in person) was Noam Sohachevsky talking about what he’d learned in trying to make Picklive work. Picklive is a game in which players pick football players, pick actions they might perform during a match, and then set the laptop near the telly so they can watch their picks rack up points as the match goes out live.  Adrian Hon (who co-organized the event) said that it was “trying to hijack football”. Noam framed the talk around “designing for split attention” – I got out my notebook immediately, as I am always interested in how people outside of cognitive psychology think about attention. To my surprise and enormously geeky delight, he immediately quoted William James, specifically:

 It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others

As rather a lot of research into inattentional blindness has shown, we can miss obvious events if we are paying attention to something else. A useful way to think of it is that attention is a limited resource, and our cognitive systems are always working on allocating it efficiently to ourselves and our environments.  If you allocate most of your attention to counting basketball passes between players, you have little left for other things, and so might miss something else. In the case of Picklive, allocating attention between the game on the computer and the live match proved frustrating for players.

Another point Noam made was that we like patterns. In some ways, that’s precisely what we –do- as human beings; we notice patterns around us, give them meaning and understand them and try to manipulate them to our advantage. If we pick a good forward and bet he’ll score goals, it’s pleasant to see that player’s icon go “ping! +1” at regular intervals, and for the rest of the icons to ping at the appropriate times in line with some recognizable pattern. However, the real world is noisy. Patterns are difficult to suss out from raw data, and once again it’s frustrating when nothing you do seems to matter.

This aspect somewhat surprised me, as research into the illusion of control suggests that gamblers, when given the opportunity to make choices about truly random outcomes, will feel that they have some influence over the outcome. There’s a reason slot machines give you so many options about which rows, columns, and diagonals to count and to be able to stop. However, perhaps in the case of Picklive the outcomes being determined by real people and the splitting of attention are interacting to minimize the illusion of control and making the situation difficult to deal with.

Noam brought up a similar, mobile app from Heineken called Star Player, where you are asked at certain points of the game questions like “will he make this free kick?”. The advantage of this approach is that the player’s attention is called for at a time of low activity during the match. This would allow the attentional system to allocate its resources appropriately and with no conflict. There are several theories of attention which revolve around the fact that a “high load” (ie; there’s a lot of distraction, or you’re trying to do something tricky simultaneously) makes attentional processing difficult. If you want a live game to not cause attentional difficulties, it pays to index use input to moments of low load – to fit the pattern of highs and lows and work in the spaces between the noise of real live data. As Noam put it in his talk, “match with the beats”.

Some real puzzles come out of this view: how do you capture real-time data? The Picklive company worked with a service that provided data on what was happening in matches, but needed to comb the data and figure out how to read it and use it. I imagine if they could construct a pattern out of that noise, the game could pick opportune moments to query for user input! That’s not a trivial problem, of course. Never mind how to do it: what kind of patterns of activity would work? People also like to have real-time feedback for their actions – if you wait for low activity to ask for a choice, how long would players have to wait to find out if it worked?

I scribbled rather a lot in my notebook, and this blog post is already rather unwieldy. I shall sum up the last two talks (Alexis Kennedy talking about EchoBazaar and Varytale, and a presentation on BBC2’s upcoming math show/puzzle challenge The Code) in an upcoming part 2.


Spies and Mannequins

In late December 2010, I went down to Spitalfields market with some other psychologists from UCL to help replicate a variation on Dan Simons’ famous change blindness study for a History Channel documentary about bizarre war tactics.

mannequin preperation

The mannequin in question

Apparently, there was an American spy during the cold war who defected to Russia (and indeed was the first spy to successfully do so). During his escape from the states, he managed to evade the authorities by swapping himself out for a mannequin. So, to illustrate the possibility of swapping someone out for someone else without people noticing, we spent the day fooling passers-by under the guise of looking for directions.

There’s video of it on YouTube (our bit starts three minutes in), and hopefully the History Channel will put it on their website soon.

Do you think you’d notice the change?

The Lying Brain: Video!

Hello again!

The lovely folks at New Bright Lights have carefully and gently edited video of my Lying Brain lecture and posted it up to YouTube in four parts! Here’s the first video.

In my zeal to entertain and inform, I may have uttered a few factual errors. Please feel free to comment here or on YouTube, but do check my sources first.

So: what do you think?

The Return of the LYING BRAAAAIN

Hello again! Today I gave an updated version of the lying brain talk to a receptive audience at the Rio Theatre for the first nights of the New Bright Lights lecture series.  The first speaker was Lon Mandrake, a magician/science educator. The second was Rob Hadley, a hypnotist/hypnotherapist (who also riled a couple of skeptics in the audience with his defense of homeopathy). And then there was me, a psychologist/geek who was super-excited to be there!  I know the talks were all being recorded, so I’ll update this post once the videos are up online.  For now, I’ll put up links to all the sources I had in my talk:

Slides: it’s a .odf, hosted on Google Docs. you’ll need open office or a plugin to view it.

Opening: again .odf on Google Docs. I changed what I said during the talk, but the basics are all there. This is part on which I spent the most time and is the most personal, so please credit me if you use it.

Sources & Citations:

I tried to link to publicly available full text articles when possible, and good summaries of them when not.  If you have any questions, please email me or leave a comment!  Thanks again to everyone who came. Now I’m going to collapse into a heap and sleep til Monday.

POV Redux

A post I made in September of last year, in which I discuss a flyer I saw for something called “Psychology of Vision” has a very active commentary going on right now.  Do have a look!

Something the commenters may not be aware of is that I made a followup post after Julian Edward, the Spezzano’s online publisher, had a chat with me on Twitter.  It bears another look, but the important part is that he just about admits that it’s not based on evidence, to the point of saying

I’d say that a good half of people who attend the groups think it’s nonsense too but they use the tools and love it for that.

even Chuck himself says that his Psychology if a hoax. But he’s not interested in people believing it. Only in the results.

That cinches it for me – there’s nothing to POV, even if it is harmless (and whether it is depends on if you think spending money on something that isn’t what it pretends to be is a waste).  The exhortations in the comments that people need to try it for themselves before judging may sound legitimate on the face of it, but what would result?  People would spend money on something that at best only has anecdotal evidence supporting it, and at worst is an admitted fraud.  The people who -do- try it merely end up either thinking it was a waste of money, or providing more anecdotal evidence!  Based on my examination of the website, I concluded that it wasn’t based on evidence, and my chat with Julian Edward confirmed it for me.  However, one more thing really tips the balance towards BS:

The major issue I take with POV and other such products/workshops/etc is the use of scientific terminology to sell something entirely unrelated to the proper, accepted use of that terminology.  This is a massively popular tactic used to legitimize otherwise unimpressive and possibly useless products.  See Deepak Chopra hawking quantum consciousness, for example – or really, any random beauty product sold in TV commercials.  I -study- the psychology of vision.  When I see those words being used to encourage people to pay for something that the -publisher- doesn’t think works, I get crazy irritated.

I feel the need to do something about this practice, so I promote science literacy and explain to people what psychology really is, and do what I can to teach people to think critically about these kinds of claims.  I don’t have the time, money, or other resources to prove they’re fraudulent or report them to the police or a consumer advocate.  I don’t get mad enough tear down the posters or vandalize them, like I did with psychic ads when I was in my first year of university.  I will, however, scan ads I see around town and tell people what I think about them based on what I know about science and skepticism – and sometimes, I don’t need to pay for it and try it myself to find out that it doesn’t work.

That’s all I have to say about POV.  Let me know what you think in the comments.

Now You See It…

This weekend I’m heading off with the rest of the BARLab to Bellingham for the NOWCAM (NOrthWest Cognition And Memory) conference.  I’ll be presenting a poster summarizing some of the research I’ve been doing.  Here it is:

now you don't!
NOWCAM Poster (click for a bigger, readable version)

You may be aware that I am a magic nerd.  I can’t help but work that into my research.  Basically, magicians do one thing really well: manipulate attention.  It stands to reason that cognitive scientists might learn a thing or two if they study magic.  (I’m not the first person to have this idea)

In this particular research, we’re looking at the effects of asking a question, as well as differences between live and pre-recorded performances of a trick.

Actually, choosing the trick proved rather, well, tricky.  I needed to use something that was simple, short, and crucially: would work as well on video as it would live.  For those interested, we went with the hoary old Princess Card Trick, which some of you may remember from the early days of the internet.

But I digress.  Have a look at the poster, leave any comments you might have – and wish me luck!

The Lying Brain

The talk went well!  It was bizarre, being the one in front of the crowd and being able to answer all the questions.  Of course, much of the time the answer was “I don’t know, but let me speculate based on this study I kind of remember” – but still, it was a lot of fun!

For those of you who couldn’t make it, here’s a list of sources, and a link to the slides, as well as the opening monologue that I typed up.  Someone also took video – when I get in touch with them, I’ll put it up here. I’ll probably clean up this post several times, but I wanted all of this info up so people could look at it and read sources for themselves.

Slides: (it’s a .odf, hosted on Google Docs. you’ll need open office to see it until I convert it to .ppt and put that up – soon!)

Opening: (again .odf on Google Docs. I changed what I said during the talk, but the good stuff is all there.)

Sources & Explanations:

If you’re interested in more, I recommend picking up Quirkology (by Richard Wiseman) and Mistakes Were Made: But Not By Me (by Carol Tavris & Elliot Aronson).

If you have any questions, by the way, please leave them in the comments or email me!