A Practical Guide to Using Digital Games as an Experiment Stimulus

Simon Järvelä, Inger Ekman, J. Matias Kivikangas, Niklas Ravaja


Digital games offer rich media content and engaging action, accessible individually or in groups collaborating or competing against each other. This makes them promising for use as a stimulus in research settings. This paper examines the advantages and challenges of using games in experimental research with particular focus on strict stimulus control through the following four areas: (1) matching and regulating task type, (2) data segmentation and event coding, (3) compatibility between participants, and (4) planning and conducting data collection. This contribution provides a breakdown of the steps necessary for using a digital game in experimental studies, along with a checklist for researchers illustrating variables that potentially affect the reliability and validity of experiments. We also offer a study example to illustrate how these considerations apply to practice. The aim is to provide support to researchers planning and conducting empirical experiments involving games, and also to those evaluating the works of others.

Full Text:



Adachi, P.J.C. and T. Willoughby. “The Effect of Video Game Competition and Violence on Aggressive Behavior: Which Characteristic Has the Greatest Influence?” In Psychology of Violence, vol. 1, no. 4 (2011): 259-274.

Avalanche Software & Ritual Entertainment. (2006). 25 to Life. Eidos Interactive.

Ballard, M. and J. Wiest. “Mortal Kombat (tm): The Effects of Violent Videogame Play on Males’ Hostility and Cardiovascular Responding.” In Journal of Applied Social Psychology, vol. 26, no. 8 (1996): 717–730.

Björk, S. and J. Holopainen. Patterns In Game Design. Cengage Learning, 2005.

Bushman, B.J. and C.A. Anderson. “Violent video games and hostile expectations: a test of the general aggression model.” In Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol. 28, no. 12 (2002): 1679-1686.

Cacioppo, J.T., L.G. Tassinary and G.G. Berntson. Handbook of psychophysiology. 3rd ed. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Caillois, R. Man, Play and Games. University of Illinois Press, 2001.

Cowley, B., T. Heikura, and N. Ravaja. “A Study of Learning Effects in a Serious Game Activity.” In Computers & Education, 2012.

Deutsch, M. and R.M. Krauss. “The effect of threat upon interpersonal bargaining.” In Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 61 (1960): 181-189.

Ekman, I., K. Kallinen, and N. Ravaja. “Detection and identification of vibrotactile stimulation in stressful conditions.” In European Workshop on Imagery and Cognition (EWIC2010), Helsinki, Finland, 2010.

Elverdam, C. and E. Aarseth. “Game Classification and Game Design Construction Through Critical Analysis.” In Games and Culture vol. 2 no. 1 (2007): 3–22.

Epic Games & Digital Extremes (2002). Unreal Tournament 2003. Atari Inc.

ESA - Entertainment Software Association. “Essential facts about the computer and video game industry.” 2011.

Fehr, E. and S. Gächter. “Altruistic punishment in humans.” In Nature Vol. 415 (2002): 137-140.

Frey, A., J. Hartig., A. Ketzel, A. Zinkernagel. and H. Moosbrugger. “The use of virtual environments based on a modification of the computer game Quake III Arena in psychological experimenting.” In Computers in Human Behavior vol. 23, no. 4 (2007): 2026-2039.

Jones B., M. Steele, J. Gahagan and J. Tedeschi. “Matrix values and cooperative behavior in the Prisoner's Dilemma game.” In Journal of Personality and Social Psychology vol. 8, no. 2 (1968): 148-53.

Järvelä, S., J.M. Kivikangas, J. Kätsyri, and N. Ravaja. "Physiological linkage of dyadic gaming experience." In Simulation & Gaming (n.d.). Manuscript accepted for publication.

Karvinen, J. and F. Mäyrä, “Pelaajabarometri 2011 – Pelaamisen Muutos.” TRIM Research Reports 6. Tampere, Finland: University of Tampere, 2011.

Kivikangas, J.M., G. Chanel, B. Cowley, I. Ekman, M. Salminen, S. Järvelä. and N. Ravaja. “Review on psychophysiological methods in game research.” In Journal of Gaming and Virtual Worlds, vol. 3, no. 3 (2011): 181-199.

Kosunen, I. “Clustering psychophysiological data with mixtures of generalized linear models.” Master’s thesis, 2011.

Lin, S.-F., “Effect of Opponent Type on Moral Emotions and Responses to Video Game Play.” In Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, vol. 14, no. 11 (2011).

Lindley, C. A. "Game Taxonomies: A High Level Framework for Game Analysis and Design." In Gamasutra, 2003.

Lundgren, S. and S. Björk. “Game Mechanics: Describing Computer-augmented Games in Terms of Interaction.” In Proceedings of TIDSE, 3, 2003.

Manninen, T. “Rich Interaction Model for Game and Virtual Environment Design.” University of Oulu, 2004.

McMahan, R.P., E.D. Ragan, A. Leal, R.J. Beaton and D.A. Bowman. “Considerations for the use of commercial video games in controlled experiments.” In Entertainment Computing (2011).

Milgram, S. “Behavioral Study of Obedience.” In Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology vol. 67 (1963): 371–378.

Mueller, F.F., M.R. Gibbs, and F. Veter. “Taxonomy of Exertion Games.” In Proceedings of the 20th Australasian Conference on Computer-Human Interaction: Designing for Habitus and Habitat, 263–266. OZCHI ’08. New York, NY, USA:ACM 2008.

Pazhitnov, A. Tetris. Spectrum Holobyte, 1985.

Probe Entertainment. Mortal Kombat ™. [Sega Genesis]. Acclaim, 1993.

Ravaja, N., T. Saari, M. Turpeinen, J. Laarni, M. Salminen, and M. Kivikangas. “Spatial presence and emotions during video game playing: Does it matter with whom you play?” In Presence vol. 15 (2006): 381–392.

Ravaja, N., J. Laarni, T. Saari K. Kallinen, M. Salminen, J. Holopainen, and A. Järvinen. ”Spatial presence and emotional responses to success in a video game: A psychophysiological study” in M. Alcañaz Raya and B. Rey Solaz (eds), Proceedings of the PRESENCE 2004 (2004) pp. 112–116. Valencia, Spain: Editorial de la UPV.

Ravaja, N., T. Saari, M. Salminen, J. Laarni and K. Kallinen. “Phasic Emotional Reactions to Video Game Events: A Psychophysiological Investigation.” In Media Psychology, vol. 8 no. 4 (2006): 343-367.

Ravaja, N., M. Turpeinen, T. Saari, S. Puttonen, and L. Keltikangas-Järvinen. “The psychophysiology of James Bond: phasic emotional responses to violent video game events.” In Emotion, vol. 8 no.1 (2008): 114-120.

Schofield, D. “Playing with evidence: Using video games in the courtroom.” In Entertainment Computing, vol. 2, no. 1 (2011): 47-58.

Staude-Müller, F., T. Bliesener, T. and S. Luthman. "Hostile and hardened? An experimental study on (de-) sensitization to violence and suffering through playing video games." In Swiss Journal of Psychology vol. 67 no. 1 (2008): 41–50.

SimBin Development Team AB. GTR 2 – FIA Racing Game [PC] SimBin Development Team AB, 2006.

Slater, M., A. Antley, A. Davison, D. Swapp, C. Guger, C. Barker, N. Pistrang and M.V. Sanchez-Vives. “A Virtual Reprise of the Stanley Milgram Obedience Experiments” PLoS ONE 1, (2003).

Turtle Rock Studios. Left 4 Dead. Valve Corporation, 2008.

Washburn, D. “The games psychologists play (and the data they provide).” In Behavior Research Methods vol. 35 (2003): 185-193.

Whitton, N. Learning with Digital Games: A Practical Guide to Engage Students in Higher Education. Taylor & Francis, 2009.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.26503/todigra.v1i2.16
Published by the Digital Games Research Association.