Finding your way through play

Student researchers, from left, Tiffany Eichler, Grace Waldfogle, Mason McGuire, Jacob Benedict, and Kameron Landers.

Student researchers, from left, Tiffany Eichler, Grace Waldfogle, Mason McGuire, Jacob Benedict, and Kameron Landers.

Credit: Penn State Behrend

When was the last time you used a paper road map or asked for directions? There is little doubt that GPS-enabled mobile devices have changed the way we navigate the world. But have these technical advances come at the expense of the cognitive skills that have evolved to help us learn and live in our surrounding environment?

Five Psychology students working with Dr. Heather Lum, assistant professor of psychology, and Dr. Dawn Blasko, associate professor of psychology, set out to answer that question by designing and implementing an innovative research study using the wildly popular mobile game, Pokémon Go.

“We wanted to understand the mental mapping skills of players, how they might differ between experienced and novice players, and if there would be a gender difference,” said Grace Waldfogle, who along with fellow students Jacob Benedict, Tiffany Eichler, Kameron Landers, and Mason McGuire, received an undergraduate research grant to study spatial intelligence.

“Pokémon Go offered a unique opportunity to look at this because the game uses a real-world platform and augmented reality,” Lum said. “The real world and the game world share many of the same roads, paths, landmarks, and buildings.”

The team recruited sixty participants for the study, students as well as staff, faculty, and community members. The mean age of the pool was 23, and it was nearly evenly split between genders and between novice and experienced players.

Participants were tested on their mental rotation and spatial perception skills using online tools. Then they each were given a blank campus map and instructed to draw in the buildings. After being sent outside to play Pokémon Go around campus for twenty minutes, they repeated the map project, but this time they were also asked to draw in the Pokéstops.

“This allowed us to gauge whether playing the game helped them remember where they had been on campus,” Waldfogle said. “Did playing improve their mapping skills?”

According to the study’s results, it did for male players, who did significantly better than females on the campus map task. In particular, males were able to correctly identify more Pokéstops on the post-play map drawing.

Does that mean males are better at mental mapping? Lum said that question requires more study.

“More of the males were ‘experts’ at the game and did better on the initial mental rotation task,” she said. “Does that mean men are inherently better or did the game make them better? Alternatively, are those with better spatial skills drawn to these types of games?”

It’s all fodder for future study and opportunity for psychology students to do real research with faculty members. It could even bring students a little cash—this year’s Pokémon Go research team won the poster contest at the college’s annual Sigma Xi Undergraduate Research and Creative Accomplishment Conference, taking home $100 each.

Lum points out that there could be a real-world application for this research.

“If we find this is a viable way to improve mental mapping, maybe Admissions could work with the School of Engineering to develop an augmented reality game as a way for new students to learn their way around campus,” she said. “It would be much more fun, and possibly more effective, than a paper map.”