There’s a major problem with the tools used to measure attention in research labs: they’re incredibly boring.
Typically, a person will sit in front of a computer screen and wait for targets to appear, just like in the little demo below. In this case, the target is an arrow, and the participant responds by indicating whether it’s pointing left or right. Sometimes, you get hints as to when or where the target will appear, and sometimes the target has other distracting arrows around it, but that’s about it. And you do this over and over for between 30 minutes and 1.5 hours.
As someone who runs participants in these tasks, I can say firsthand that people typically leave the lab looking tired and uninterested. However, a lot of what we know about human attention has been generated through participants coming in and doing these tasks. One of the main tasks within the field, the Attention Network Test (or the ANT for short), is used on tens of thousands of participants each year, and that’s just counting the participants in published studies.
This is where gamification comes in handy.
Gamification is when game-like elements are added to a ‘non-game’ to increase motivation, engagement, and sometimes usability. This is not unique just to research labs: gamification has been implemented in almost every facet of life, from education (earning ‘points’ or ‘badges’ for meeting learning objectives) to exercise (the exercise app ‘Strava’ allows you to compete with other runners who have done your same route).
The Klein Lab, where I am currently completing my Ph.D., has gamified the ANT, and given it the flashy new name: ‘AttentionTrip’. Instead of responding to arrows, participants steer a spaceship through a wormhole and shoot at invaders as they surround the ship. Even though AttentionTrip and the ANT feel worlds apart, AttentionTrip is reliably measuring the same measures of attention from participants.
We have published a number of different studies showing AttentionTrip is a suitable replacement for the ANT. On measures of engagement and enjoyment, AttentionTrip consistently beats out the ANT. Additionally, we have successfully used it with different specialty populations, including children as young as eight and individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder. AttentionTrip may be especially useful with these groups, as it is sometimes difficult to have them sit down to complete a long and boring computer task like the ANT.
There are limits to gamification, though. Some may remember “Lumosity”, the company that promised to help keep your brain sharp and fight off Alzheimers just by playing games on your computer or phone. This company overreached on their claims without research to back them up and ended up paying for it with a $2 million-dollar lawsuit for deceptive advertising. This is why it’s important to take the time to validate claims with science!
Gamification is a great method for improving a user’s experience with technology, and there is still a lot of potential for development in the measurement of cognition and beyond. Who doesn’t want a little more fun built into their lives?