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Playing for Keeps

An education researcher turns to the digital realm of video games for a way to identify children’s behavioral problems in the real world.

Research  |  Aug 28, 2018  |  By Kelsey Claus
game controller

In a 2016 TED talk Sue Klebold gave about her son Dylan Klebold, one of the two shooters at Columbine High School, she said, “I’ve learned that no matter how much we want to believe we can, we cannot know or control everything our loved ones think and feel … (and) the stubborn belief that someone we love would never think of hurting themselves or someone else can cause us to miss what’s hidden in plain sight.”

Her words underscore the importance of prevention. For Michael McCreery, assistant professor of interaction and media sciences in UNLV’s College of Education, that involves children at risk of socioemotional and behavioral problems.

“If we can identify children that display violent behavior or aggressive tendencies and get them help, we can change the course of their entire life,” McCreery said.

He believes he’s found a way to do this through means that media pundits often cite as an impetus of violence: video games.

Researchers and educators alike have long argued for the educational value of video games. McCreery said that until very recently, little had been done to use video games as a psychological and educational assessment tool, but he and his colleagues at UNLV’s Interaction and Media Sciences Lab have begun to explore the option.

“We are examining how individual differences, such as aggression, influence within-game behavioral choices,” McCreery said. “This shift in focus from game outcomes (winning or losing) to process (within-game decisions) has opened the door to a new model of assessment, one that allows us to focus specifically on the behavioral choices made across social experiences.”

In recent years, video game designers have borrowed from the Choose Your Own Adventure book format to build what are known as moral-choice, or forced-choice, games. In many video games, consequences are the result of an interaction and implications stretch no further than the moment. Moral-choice game design, however, hinges on the idea that within-game behavioral choices change how the story unfolds. The player’s actions not only impact a specific moment of gameplay but also have future consequences on outcomes in the game that are unknown to the player when the choice is made.

A player’s responses to those in-game experiences enables McCreery and his colleagues to look at triggers, or situations that spark aggressive behavior, as well as how connected situations may lead to escalating outbursts and violence.

To test whether a moral-choice video game could mirror a traditional psychological assessment, the lab team used an existing game, The Deed, and coded in-game choices in relation to answers found in a traditional assessment.

The results were promising; data from the trials illustrated that respondents’ in-game actions replicated psychological assessment findings associated with aggression, opening the possibility for mental health professionals to add technology-based assessments like video games to their tool belts.

“Using this method, we’ve been able to analyze behavior in a social situation as it unfolds and connect those choices to more traditional forms of assessment,” McCreery said. “In doing so, we estimate that when games are purposefully designed with assessment in mind, they may better assist in helping professionals identify children in need of socioemotional help that might otherwise fall through the cracks,” McCreery said.

Previously, the only means for identifying children at risk for aggressive behavior have been teachers, classroom observations, and psychological screenings. While these tools have been helpful, they are limited.

For instance, a variety of factors influence teacher referrals, including their biases, classroom management skills, and general stress—all of which impacts the accuracy of their assessments, according to Richard Abidin and Lina Robinson’s study “Stress, Biases, or Professionalism: What Drives Teachers’ Referral Judgments of Students With Challenging Behaviors?” in the Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders.

Mike Stoolmiller, J. Mark Eddy, and John Reid found that classroom observations don’t produce consistently reliable data—results they shared in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology article “Detecting and Describing Preventive Intervention Effects in a Universal School-based Randomized Trial Targeting Delinquent and Violent Behavior.” They also noted that existing screening tools may focus only on surface concerns or be too time-consuming for teachers to complete.

And assessments require some level of self-awareness and/or the willingness to tell the truth. In the context of violence and aggression, individuals—particularly children—may not recognize socioemotional issues as problems or may feel compelled to suppress more volatile feelings they’re experiencing, making it challenging for even trained professionals to identify concerns.

So even as schools continue to see a year-over-year decline in fatal and nonfatal victimization, many children at risk for aggressive behaviors still slip through the cracks—precisely at the time when the most impact can be made, according to Hill Walker, Elizabeth Ramsey, and Frank Gresham in “Heading Off Disruptive Behavior.” Their article and other studies have shown that recognizing children who may require intervention and assisting them is most impactful prior to third grade, at which age children can better develop essential social skills, including acting in a pro-social manner rather than an aggressive one.

McCreery theorizes that certain types of video games can help address some of the gaps traditional tools can’t bridge. Equipped with a moral-choice video game model for assessing and identifying children at risk for problem aggression, he said, school-based practitioners could track social behaviors across time in a manner that is safe and controllable. Patterns of behavior revealed through gameplay could help provide a framework for intervention. And because the moral-choice model offers a new understanding of the catalysts and connections that arise for children when presented with challenging social situations, a new level of clarity could emerge that’s difficult to achieve solely through observation and self-report.

“Our goal now is to create our own moral-choice game specifically designed to be a stealth assessment tool in conducting psychological assessments,” McCreery said.