Straying from the Virtual Path: What Video Games Are Teaching Us About the Psychology of Navigation

Getting lost in your local supermarket every weekend, trying to find the butter? Playing video games could help improve your sense of direction.

Apr 11 2016, 5:05pm

Vault 101 might be home for the Lone Wanderer of 'Fallout 3,' but to some it was a maddening maze

To what extent can we truly refer to modern video games as "escapism"? As developers continuously seek to create more authentically emulate realistic spaces, it seems that real-world anxieties are increasingly infiltrating our digital worlds.

A sense of moral quandary, of genuine cause-and-effect, is the most prominent example, with thoughtful developers making us ponder that maybe—just maybe—gunning down hundreds of human beings, or even just being a bit of a dick to someone, shouldn't be a decision taken lightly.

But for me, and others, the principal anxiety in modern games is something altogether simpler, and usually unintentional on the developer's part: getting lost.

When I first stated playing games, that wasn't an issue. You'd run from left to right, jump around a bit, and job's a good'un. But in more recent years, that navigational deficiency—which had previously only haunted me in town centers or in particularly labyrinthine buildings—began making games more difficult for me.

I got a PlayStation 2, and the comforting linearity of Crash Bandicoot was replaced with the comparably bustling hub world of Jak and Daxter. Suddenly, it was perfectly possible for me to get hopelessly lost from the comfort of my own sofa. Thanks, video games.

Of course, I always knew that not everyone struggled in the same way. So incredulous were my friends when I referred to Fallout 3's Vault 101 as "a maze," for instance, that it became something of an in-joke among our group. It was funny, and I played up to it, but I was still left wondering why I'd found it so challenging while others had seemingly breezed past without difficulty.

The idea of getting lost in virtual worlds may seem like an odd one to some, but video games have long been of interest to psychologists studying navigation.

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Take this study from Marchette, Bakker, and Shelton for example, which endeavors to explain differing approaches to navigational conundrums by exposing the "underlying neural mechanisms" in different participants. To analyze their subjects, these respected academics used—and I shit you not—a custom-made Duke Nukem 3D map.

Games, then—even those in which the player character is a meathead caricature with a Megadeth theme song—are evidently seen as a worthy substitute for the real world by experts in the psychology field, eliciting largely the same neural responses as if we were to attempt to tackle a maze in the physical realm.

Dr. Amy Shelton of Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University, expert in cognitive psychology and one of those who carried out the study, tells me that the only real variable is in "body-sense"—that elusive feeling of genuine movement and body position.

Knowing your way around the world of 'Grand Theft Auto V' could help your real-life navigational skills.

"Virtual environments are not identical to real environments," she says. "They do seem to share a lot of properties, and people perform similarly on most measures across the two types, but there have been some differences. In many cases, we cannot give people the same [body-sense cues] in virtual environments. Although this has not resulted in dramatically different behaviors, it is likely that reduced cues will have some impact."

In the study, 128 adults were each put into the Nukem-powered maze and tasked with finding certain target objects dotted around, aided only by a 62-second-long video tour that always followed the same route. Some would follow the video's route to a tee, while others took initiative in finding their own shortcuts.

One of the most significant findings came from a smaller group of 20 whose brain activity was scanned while they were given their video tours of the map. And while there's plenty of jargon most of us won't understand, the takeaway was that two parts of the brain were seemingly dictating the subjects' maze strategy: hippocampal activation predicting shortcuts, while those with higher caudate readings largely opted to follow instruction.

Isn't this all out of our hands, then? You can't control how your brain reacts to things, can you? Well, it's unconfirmed in terms of navigation right now, but Shelton reckons it's a distinct possibility.

"This is a question that many people are trying to ask in research," she tells me. "The short answer is that many spatial skills are trainable, and there is no reason to assume that one could not change with the right experiences. We assume that these abilities and biases stem from a combination of genetics (hard wiring) and experience."

Therefore, in theory, people like me could actually be improving our navigational skills by playing video games. But then we're always following directions, very rarely developing shortcuts. Maps, radars, and the all-important gaming staple that is Earpiece Man Who Tells You What to Do Next all prevent frustration, but they're not allowing us the satisfaction of having overcome something.

Shelton is keen to emphasize that there's no right or wrong method implicit in her study. Shortcuts are not inherently better if everyone's getting to their destination.

"I should point out that people all along the spectrum of performance—using shortcuts, using familiar paths, and so on—are successful," she says. "We don't assume that one solution is better than another—being good may be a matter of knowing your own strengths and weaknesses in navigation."

Imagery from 'Persona Q'

She can say this all she likes, however, but most of us know how we'd rather fulfill our objective in a gaming context. Gamers love the idea of having completed something more quickly and efficiently than everyone else, and the idea of a game in which you simply follow instructions is becoming increasingly insufficient for modern tastes. We want the potential to be better, and to get better—even if we're ill equipped to do so.

This is why an unlikely recent favorite of mine is Persona Q, a fusion of the Persona games and Etrian Odyssey that has you filling in grid-based maps across labyrinthine worlds using the Nintendo 3DS's touchscreen, your stylus acting as Theseus' thread.

Within these limits I understood—relished, even—that misty-eyed joy of "drawing your own maps" that people older than myself are always banging on about. I was forced to grapple with my directions and, temporarily at least, win.

I've always instinctively avoided anything that looks like it will tax my directional ability too much, simply because there's only one way that will end up: with me wasting my limited gaming time effectively running around in circles, before giving up and playing Geometry Wars. But, if science is to believed, maybe all that running around in circles is slowly but surely honing me into the human sat-nav I always had the potential to be. And who am I to argue with that?

Follow Matt Suckley on Twitter.