Why do gamers invert their controls? How one question launched a thousand volunteers

Test-driving the Guardian WordPress plug-in. What better article to do it with than the follow-up to my last related post? 🙂

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Why do gamers invert their controls? How one question launched a thousand volunteers” was written by Keith Stuart, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 8th December 2020 12.39 UTC

It is fair to say that no one was anticipating this. When the Guardian ran my article on the Visual Perception and Attention Lab at Brunel University London and how it planned to investigate why some gamers invert their controls, I expected a modicum of interest among seasoned readers of the Games section. When I placed an appeal at the end of the article asking for volunteers to take part in a series of virtual research experiments, I thought we’d maybe get a few dozen responses. That’s not what happened. At the time of writing this, more than 1,250,000 have read the article.

“The moment the article went live, our phone notifications went crazy,” says Dr Jennifer Corbett who is leading the study with her colleague Dr Jaap Munneke. “In less than a few hours, we had more than 100 participants, and by the end of the day, more than 500. We have more than 1,000 volunteers now and we’re so grateful.” According to Corbett, the lab currently has the resources to test around 100 participants in the first exploratory study, but they are working on ways to support follow-up studies so that every eligible volunteer can be tested. “There are so many questions we can pursue – we just need to find the time and money to keep going!”

As emails rolled in, Corbett says that it became clear respondents were very invested in the subject. “We received hundreds of personal emails with very interesting stories,” she says. “People are excited and personally invested in the issue – gamers and non-gamers alike. Inversion extends to everything, from how you look at Google Maps to power wheelchair controls. We have noted a phenomenon where people inverted when younger then suddenly switched to non-inverted in their 30s. And yes, we know … playing Flight Simulator has had an impact for many. There’s an ever-growing list of questions we would love to explore in follow-up studies!”

It’s not just gamers who responded to the story. Corbett and her team have also been contacted by academics and research organisations around the world who are also investigating gaming and digital interface design. There has been interest from the games industry too, with inquiries from developers and console manufacturers. “We are still a bit in shock at the response to what we thought would be a Covid side project turning into a major line of research literally overnight,” says Corbett.

The hope now is that the increased output from such a vast cohort of volunteers will mean the lab’s ambitions can be extended from publishing a theoretical paper to discovering direct, real-world applications. “At the end of the day, what we really want to know about is human behaviour,” says Corbett. “By having players complete simple introductory tasks that measure the sort of perceptual abilities we study, it may be possible to fine-tune the controls and displays in a given game to best suit the user’s unique sensory profile.”

Traditionally, Corbett argues, there is a line between academia and industry, and it’s difficult for research and researchers to cross between them, making it complicated to transition explorative studies to real-world applications. But with more projects like this, where researchers engage with the public and industries, and with easier staff transitions between the academic and industrial sectors, great things could be achieved. “This experience has opened our eyes to the potential for well-trained research scientists to help revolutionise the gaming and AI industries,” says Corbett. “We just need the time, money, and professional freedom to pursue these passions – which is easier said than done.”

For now, the lab is busy bringing in more researchers and working out how to process 1,000 applications where usually a handful would be a success.

“There are maybe 100 people in the world who would normally care about our research – and that’s because they do the same research,” says Corbett. “In our field, highly trained cognitive and perceptual scientists work passionately to answer complex questions with tightly controlled experiments, then argue about what this means with a handful of peers in an editorial process that can last years. From all this effort, an article is published that perhaps that pool of 100 people will read – maybe a few thousand more if you’re ‘famous’.

“Having over a million people across the world read about our research in just a few days feels like winning the lottery.”

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