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Placebo effect present in video games, say UK researchers

Professor Paul Cairns, who teaches human-computer interaction at the UK's University of York, has tested whether the placebo effect can alter the way players perceive video games.

Professor Paul Cairns, who teaches human-computer interaction at the UK's University of York, has tested whether the placebo effect can alter the way players perceive video games. 

According to the New Scientist, Cairns became curious about the phenomenon - which sees a fake stimuli significantly alter the performance of a person, usually an athlete or patient - after learning about how a sugar pill had managed to significantly boost the performance of a cyclist. 

To see how, or even if, the effect would translate to video games, Cairns and his colleague Alena Denisova asked 21 people to play two separate rounds of the Burton-esque survival sim, Don't Starve.

In the first round, the group were told that the map would be randomly generated as they progressed, while in the second they explained that the map would be the product of an "adaptive AI", which would implement changes based on their behavior and apparent skill level. 

As anyone who's familiar with the game will know, the maps in Don't Starve are always random. After being fed the false information, however, some players revealed they thought the AI controlled maps made the game more immersive and engaging. 

Others believed the game was easier when the maps were randomly generated, while there were those who thought the AI deliberately made the world safer. Not one of the 21 participants thought the game played the same both times. 

After confirming their findings using a different experimental design that involved 40 players split into two control groups, the research was presented at London's CHI PLAY conference. 

Walter Boot, a psychologist at Florida State University who studies video games, then offered his own interpretation, adding that the effect won't necessarily be reliant on very specific features, such as AI, and could work as long as players believe the game they're playing has been updated in any way.

“The expectation is that something new must be better than the thing before,” said Boot, "maybe that’s why people go with a new iPhone every few years.”

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