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Bringing It Home – The Saint Rose Blog

How Hard Should Your Video Games Be? Business Professor Asks in Published Research


Featured Faculty: Joseph Westlin, assistant professor of management, Huether School of Business

Saint Rose professors teach their students without relying on teaching assistants. They lead small classes and make themselves available to support their students individually. Many of our faculty members across the disciplines also actively pursue their own scholarly work.

Students benefit by attending professional conferences alongside their professor-mentors or by learning first-hand about verifiable methods. They sometimes assist with a professor’s experiments, or collaborate through guided summer research grants. Some leave Saint Rose as co-authors of published papers.

Here is a look at one professor’s current work:

Joseph Westlin, assistant professor of management; Ph.D., Industrial organization, University of Oklahoma

Joined Saint Rose faculty: 2019

Teaches: undergraduate and graduate human resource management

Research specialty: industrial/organizational psychology (psychology applied to business;) studies the effectiveness of computer-based learning materials, including those used to train employees in industry, medicine, and higher education.

Latest paper: “Learner-Controlled Practice Difficulty and Task Exploration in an Active-Learning Gaming Environment;” Journal of Simulation & Gaming, December 2019, with Eric Anthony Day and Michael G. Hughes

The study:  Given his background, people are often surprised Professor Westlin teaches in a school of business.

“I’m not finance, I’m not economics, I’m not accounting,” he said. “My field is psychology. Instead of the feelings and emotions part, I am interested in the applied use of psychology. What are the implications of the nuts and bolts of psychology?”

In his current paper, he and his colleagues at other institutions put human behavior to the test by seeing how well we do when asked to play first-person shooter computer games at an easy, moderate, and really difficult level.

The question isn’t fun and games. Heavy-equipment operators, college students, and even doctors, Westlin notes, increasingly rely on computer-based materials to acquire knowledge and skills. Assessing what level of difficulty is challenging enough to engage participants without overwhelming them is crucial.

“When you’re learning to play tennis, do you want to start off playing against Serena Williams? No one does. You’re not going to learn anything,” he explained

“A lot of theories say difficulty is always a good thing. But if you’re put into an environment where something is too difficult, you check out. If we’re setting up computer-based programs to train employees,  we want to make sure they’re engaged and proceed to the next step.”

His study asked 120 students at the University of Oklahoma to play a computer video game that strives for maximum kills and minimal losses of their own character. The game is fast-moving and requires memorization, manual dexterity, and strategy.

First, they played at medium difficulty, before moving on to varying skill levels, some they were not expected to meet.

The results showed a fall off of engagement when the game became too challenging.

“This research speaks to the potential of encouraging learners to practice under difficult conditions without undermining their learning,” the article said.

Though the findings were expected, Westlin said the data can now be applied to a deeper examination of how to engage learners, including those in the workplace. He plans to share the study with his Saint Rose students.

“This is a new way of learning, and it’s important to find ways to make sure people get to the next step,” he said. “Computers are taking over a lot of human-based training, but obviously, we need humans to develop the materials to begin with.”

How students benefit from the work: Seeing this paper, the students get to see what a professor is studying, and how I am applying what I am teaching them.

What do you think?

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