Madeline Wagar ’16, Assistant Editor with Works & Days, interviewed John Hopson ’97, User Research Lead at Bungie Studios, a video game company based in Washington state.
Describe a typical day in your work.
There aren’t really typical days. Game development is a very cyclic industry. The early stages of coming up with ideas are very different from the final run up to ship a game. There is a whole cycle to development. Right now, we’re in the final crunch to ship Destiny (an intricate, interactive first-person shooter). We have people coming in to play the game in lab multiple times a week, and we are running data analysis on the statistics we gather every day. We just finished public alpha testing, so we had 500,000 people plugged in playing the game from home. We have lots of data from that. We surveyed several thousand participants to get their subjective opinions, and we will be analyzing that.
Over winter break, I was an extern at the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience under Dr. Sharon Thompson-Schill at University of Pennsylvania. My co-extern and I spent our days at Sharon’s lab talking to her and other researchers about their research.
One of the topics that Sharon is interested in is cognitive control. This refers to the executive control of the prefrontal cortex on cognitive processes such as rational thought, task flexibility, and working memory. Interestingly, when the human brain is developing, the prefrontal cortex grows much slower than the rest of it—as a result children exhibit the traits of someone with a damaged prefrontal cortex for many years. This quality has inspired much research into ways to accelerate the prefrontal growth of children, to make them “mature” faster.
However, Sharon points out that there are some important tasks that children are better at than adults, like learning and creativity. Their prefrontal immaturity may actually aid in these tasks and the cognitive control that adults have inhibits them. I observed a tDCS experiment in the lab that either increased or decreased prefrontal activity in participants while they performed tasks that require learning and attention to see if their performance was affected by the changes in prefrontal activity. The idea was that participants with decreased prefrontal activity were more like children and would do better on the tasks without the control of the prefrontal cortex in action. Therefore, it may be inadvisable to hasten the prefrontal growth of children without fully understanding the benefits of slower growth. Perhaps it is most efficient for children to have underdeveloped prefrontal cortices to learn more fully and to develop flexible learning and rational thinking later as adults.
I participated in an externship with Moira Tofanelli. Moira is a School Psychologist at Creative Sciences School in Portland. She was very accommodating and tailored the experience to my interests. I learned that a School Psychologist spends their time focusing on the kids who are not doing very well in school, either academically or behaviorally, and try to determine if they need special educations services. I was intrigued that this was not an exact science; there are many circumstances making it it unclear what is causing the issues for the child and what steps should be taken to help correct the problem. This was highlighted for me when I did a case study of a sixth grader who was undergoing an evaluation to determine eligibility for special education services. Overall, my externship was a very rewarding and interesting experience.