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This morning as I was dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s of my ethics submission form, I was talking to Jon about the specifics of my study.  I expressed my worry concerning the fact that packaging the study as a game will inevitably cause participants to form descriptions of maps in such a way that will ensure points and win the game.

This became apparent in some trial runs of my study when the person describing the map formulated their description so their partner could easily distinguish between the 3 maps that were being presented to them.  Instead of just concentrating on the map in front of them the person describing the map was thinking about the fact that their partner has 3 maps with the same extent in front of them, but with a different spatial distribution of points.  They were trying to pinpoint features that would allow for easy comparison of the differences in the maps in order to win the game.

For example when asked to describe this map:

Thematic Map Example

Thematic Map Example

One participant wrote:

« Exactly 2 dots under St. Catherines Rd. »

From the perspective of the game, this is a great description, and their partner knew the answer right away.  They’ve chosen to focus on a small part of the map that, chances are in the three maps their partner is faced with will differ in some way.  From the perspective of the study though, we are trying to extract a meaningful description of one map in general.  If you were given this map and had to describe it to someone who couldn’t see it, would “Exactly 2 dots under St. Catherines Rd.” really give you a good understanding of the spatial distribution of the points in relation to the base map?

Here’s another example…..

Thematic Map Sample

Thematic Map Example

One participant chose to describe this map by writing:

« 2 dots that touch the “y” in label “Cemetery” »

This description gave enough clues to which of the 3 maps were correct, but to use this description on its own would be useless.  How would you know where the label “Cemetery” would even be on the map? The fact that they are near a label is not as meaningful as referencing the actual geographic location is.

In the player’s defense they aren’t doing anything wrong, they are just trying to win the game, I’m afraid though that I’m posing the game in such a way that will result in descriptions that won’t actually be useful.  I would be able to extract common trends and words, but are they common because the players are trying to win the game or because that is actually how they would describe the map to somebody who couldn’t see it?  This got Jon and I talking about how else we could present this as a game, or if it should even be a game at all?

Changing up the design…

Instead of having one partner guess which map out of 3 possible options is the one being described, maybe I should have the person draw the map from the description given by their partner?  In this scenario they wouldn’t actually be drawing the base map, but they would have to distribute the points onto the map.  Their partner would be able to see what they are doing, and thus edit their description in order to address the shortcomings in the map being drawn.  This would result in a sort of drag and drop game; the person responsible for “drawing” the map can drag the points around the map and update it as their partner updates their description.

How would you win this version of the game?  I think that the person describing the map should decide when they think their teams map is similar enough to the original, but I think it should ultimately be the game that checks the map to ensure the points are placed in the correct spot.  But will having the game be responsible for the final check result in having the descriptions target certain areas just to get points and win the game? If so, I’ve just redesigned this game, but still have the same problem.  No matter what, packaging this as a game will result in a certain amount of “gaming” (obviously), but I would just need to mitigate it as best I can.

Why a game at all?

I had thought that a game would encourage participants to think more about their descriptions.  The meaning that is drawn from a map is taken for granted by sighted people.  It is a visual tool that conveys an immense amount of knowledge.  Describing what exactly that knowledge is isn’t something that people usually have to do, and I think it would be difficult for participants to understand why they are being asked to describe it and how exactly to go about doing so. Having a partner and making it a game was supposed to help with this.  But maybe if I take away the game factor, thus taking away the desire come up with strategies to win the game, descriptions would align more with the purpose of the study.