Duane Watson and Yolanda J. McDonald, two faculty members of Vanderbilt Peabody College of education and human development, recently published articles in Nature and Nature Water, respectively. McDonald’s article is in the inaugural issue of Nature Water, which was published in January.
Watson, Frank W. Mayborn Chair and professor of psychology and human development, wrote the commentary piece, “How games can make behavioural science better,” in collaboration with experts in linguistics, developmental science, data science, and music. Watson and his colleagues argue that gamifying behavioral research experiments can make them more inclusive, rigorous, and reproducible, under the right conditions.
By conducting experiments through video games and games played on smartphone apps and computers, researchers can study diverse populations, including on a global scale, breaking the traditional Western-centric mold of behavioral research. As games go viral across social media, researchers can access much larger datasets than they may otherwise obtain from traditional lab experiments. These experiments also allow researchers to observe test subjects in naturalistic environments, without laboratory environments affecting behavior.
Watson and his colleagues recognize weaknesses and potential pitfalls to gamified experiments. Protecting the privacy of participants is an obvious concern. The authors suggest researchers “avoid collecting person-related data, such as IP addresses or other identifying information.” They address other concerns, too, arguing that the resources and expertise to address them already exist, but the scientific community needs to collaborate on establishing best practices that ensure the credibility and value of gamified experiments.
In her News & Views article for Nature Water, “Uneven benefits of infrastructure spending among ethnoracial groups,” McDonald provides context and draws attention to research findings in an article by J. Tom Mueller (University of Oklahoma) and Stephen Gasteyer (Michigan State University) also appearing in the January issue. Their article confirms hypotheses that rural infrastructure investments in drinking and wastewater lead to increased economic development but that the benefits are unevenly distributed among ethnoracial groups.
As an assistant professor of human and organizational development and lead investigator of the Vanderbilt University Drinking Water Justice Lab, McDonald stresses the urgency of investing in drinking water and wastewater infrastructure for all communities. She cites a 2021 C- rating assigned to America’s drinking water infrastructure by the American Society of Civil Engineers. McDonald highlights that rural communities are particularly at risk due to shrinking populations, resulting in a declining tax base. She emphasizes that the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act needs to support “technical assistance for rural communities to prepare applications to obtain local, state, and federal funds to improve water infrastructure.” In addition to the economic benefits of improved infrastructure, McDonald also argues that “the potential population health improvements cannot be overlooked.”