Last week, my colleague Marieke van Rooij and myself ran and managed a study in the midst of Cinekid’s Medialab. This project turned out to be more ambitious than we had anticipated, but I think we pulled it off quite well. That said, I think a moment of reflection is warranted to go over all the choices and good fortune which facilitated our project’s success. All the materials mentioned here are available for download.
The game: DEEP
DEEP is a virtual reality game developed by Owen Harris (lead designer) and Niki Smit (artist). DEEP transports players to a fantastical underwater world with just one directive: this is your world to explore. Assuming a first-person perspective, the player is engulfed in a deep, calming blue, rays of light penetrate the waters, plankton abounds, schools of fish-like creatures traverse the world leaving streaks of blue light in their wake. DEEP features everything from wide open spaces to claustrophobic canyons, and almost anywhere the player looks, there is something sparkling off in the distance to capture their attention and imagination.
But what makes DEEP truly special – and the reason for our interest in the game as psychological scientists – is that the game utilizes the player’s breathing for how it plays. So in addition to donning an Oculus Rift, players are equipped with a breathing monitor – a band with an elastic center which is fastened around the player’s belly. DEEP wants players to practice deep breathing, breathing in and out of their bellies. So when in DEEP, a deep and sustained inhale which floods the player’s belly with air, stretches the elastic band in the real world, and helps elevate the players within DEEP as if the air boosts their buoyancy. For players who really want to discover DEEP, sustaining a consistent pattern of such deep breathing is essential, because the game exerts a slight force on players which slowly drags them downwards to the ocean floor. So to overcome this force, healthy breathing is paramount.
Our study had two main aims: First, we wanted to investigate whether playing DEEP would make kids more calm, experience more positive affect, and more able to handle challenging cognitive demands. Second, we wanted to investigate whether the extent to which children’s breathing patterns while playing DEEP would be predictive of improvements. In other word, we wanted to know whether DEEP was good for kids, and also whether the reason for DEEP’s effectiveness lay in its breathing mechanic.
To do so, children were recruited for a 40+ minute procedure wherein they answered questions about their mood, and completed a cognitively challenging task (the Stroop Task – info / take the test!) both before and after playing DEEP. We also had children watch a first-person scuba diving film which we overlayed with soothing music so that we could compare the calming effects of DEEP to “watching a calming film.”
The setting: Cinekid’s Medialab
Cinekid is an annual children’s film festival held in Amsterdam. As part of the week-long festival, Cinekid also exhibits a big, varied hodgepodge of interactive media projects. So a retired warehouse in the Westergaafsfabriek is converted into the “Medialab“, a floorspace dedicated to fun and interaction. This year, the Medialab attracted between 1200 and 1500 visitors each day, and it was amidst this beautiful, rambunctious chaos that we ran a tightly controlled psychological study.
- You can never be too prepared. This is an easy one to take for granted. Before arriving at Cinekid, Marieke and I knew very little of what to expect… except, that is, for the erratic energy of a room-full of kids surrounded by toys. Things we did that especially payed off: (a) Arriving early – we came to the festival 2 full days before beginning data collection; (b) Printing information – we brought information sheets for both parents and children; these were all gone at the end of the week; (c) Piloting on-site – in addition to piloting the study procedure before making it to Cinekid, we also devoted nearly a full day to casually testing out our procedure. This was invaluable for determining the real length of time for the procedure and for ironing out our instructions so that they were as clear as possible. Finally, make no assumptions about what your environment will afford you – bring your own extension cords, back everything up on USB’s, and don’t assume you will have internet.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. This study would simply not have been possible without the help of our many volunteers. We sent out requests to our team and people in our network to come down for a half or full day. Our calls were answered by many, and to them we are extremely grateful! At any given time throughout the festival we had between 1 and 2 volunteers helping us, and this was essential. (Another tip: we managed all this with the thanks of VolunteerSpot.com)
- Know your target population. We ran this study on children between 8 and 12 years old. The first thing we noticed from piloting was that children under the age of 8 generally had a hard understanding the real purpose of the game. These children were also noticeably slower with completing the questionnaires, and had difficulties staying focused during the film. Conversely, we noticed that kids above 12 generally seemed to feel like they knew it all. They seemed disinterested in instructions and were generally more flippant to us as researchers.
- Keep control of your study environment. Keeping kids engaged and focused for 40 minutes in the midst of a bubbling environment like the Medialab is no small feat. In general, maintaining a high energy level and expressing your own enthusiasm goes a long way. But we also employed a couple of other tricks that we think are worthwhile: (a) Go with the noise – To prevent kids from being distracted by their environment, we had kids listen to a noise-cancellation track during the questionnaires and cognitive task portions of the study. The track was affect free (so it wasn’t happy or soothing music), and was not abrasive (as white-noise is). This sort of extra layer of more proximal sound helped dampen the rest of the emotive auditory chaos around them. (b) Enclose your participants – When our kids were in the study, we wanted them to really feel like they were in something. To facilitate this psychological barrier, we created a sort of cubicle setup with black screens obscuring the view of the children when they were at the computers. (Again, come early!) (c) Blend in- Yes, research should be taken seriously by your participants. But when running a study amidst a festival, you also have to make sure your tone matches the rest of the environment. So beyond maintaining a cheerful energy and talking about our project with a smile, we also kept true to the Medialab’s playful nature. To do so, at the study ‘s onset all participants were given a colorful diploma which contained five empty boxes, one for each phase of the procedure. As they completed each part of the study, children were granted access to a sticker book where they could choose from a myriad of stickers. The kids positively loved it! The diploma gave them a sense of purpose and helped contextualize their progress. They also relished in the autonomy of being able to choose their own sticker. To facilitate these good feelings, we as experimenters really went with it. For instance, before playing DEEP, participants were asked “do you already have a sticker? … Let me see! :)” and at the end of the study, we gleefully signed their diploma and told them they should be proud of it.
- Know your limits. To be sure, running a study like this is a somewhat grueling endeavor. Balancing the serious control of a study with the playful attitude of the festival is taxing, not to mention spending entire days being on your feet, talking exuberantly, and dealing with all the little problems that inevitably crop up. So it’s important to also know your limits. We arrived at the festival on Thursday, and were there until the following Thursday; on Tuesday we simply decided to ‘take it easy’. We were less ambitious with recruiting participants (we ran about 12 instead of the usual 16-18), and packed up about an hour or so early. This little tap on the brake pedal was absolutely worth it, as we came back on Wednesday and Thursday guns blazing.
There are a number of other tips I have in mind. For example, communication is key, and have trust in the event organizers and your game developers… We could not have pulled this off without the unwavering support of the Cinekid team and DEEP’s devs! But I think I will leave this post as is. This has been a great exercise for me to distill some of the most important research lessons learned at Cinekid; I hope you find this helpful in your work!