Get to Know Prof. Richard Huskey

Wait, what!? You can study people’s brains while they play video games?

Huskey (Ph.D. University of California, Santa Barbara) is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication, principle investigator in the Cognitive Communication Science Lab, researcher in the Computational Communication Research Lab, researcher at the Center for Mind and Brain, and an officer of the International Communication Association’s Communication Science and Biology interest group. He studies how motivation influences the attitudes people hold, and the behaviors they adopt. He researches these questions using a variety of methodological techniques including: functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), computational methods, and lab-based experiments.

Using Video Games to Study Brains and Behavior

Sometimes we have to do things that require a tremendous amount of effort. A large body of research tells us that the amount of effort we expend will depend on how much reward we expect. That is, we are willing to try hard at something, but only if we expect a big reward. We also know that people tend to do things that minimize effort and maximize reward. This is undoubtedly true, but not always. Researchers are just starting to investigate why, contrary to classic thought, people willfully choose to do something because that something is hard. In fact, sometimes things are even more enjoyable precisely because they are hard. Think about playing a difficult video game, meeting someone for the first time, or watching a TV show with a complex narrative (Game of Thrones anyone?). Sometimes the most difficult things are the most fun.

Surprisingly, we know very little about why this is the case. We know even less about how this works in the brain. Studying this question is important because it can help us to design difficult tasks to make them more rewarding (think about studying for an exam, working in a high stress job, or even making things like video games more fun). But how can we study this?

To solve this problem, Huskey regularly uses video games and other, so-called naturalistic stimuli, in this research. For instance, he has had people play the first person shooter video game Tactical Ops: Assault on Terror while having their brains scanned in order to understand how brain network connectivity depends on the amount of distraction a player is experiencing. More recently, he has developed an open source video game called Asteroid Impact that lets him study how game difficulty influences how much effort players put into the game, how much enjoyment they experience, and how brain network connectivity changes as a function of game difficulty. It turns out that brain network connectivity is the highest, and people feel the most enjoyment, when both task difficulty, and their individual ability are very high. Practically speaking, this means that people should design for experiences that work to balance difficulty with an individual’s abilities (such as making an algorithm that dynamically adjusts how difficult a video game is depending on how well the player is doing).

Open Science and How to Get Involved

Huskey is a strong proponent of open science practices in scientific research. While the definition of open science is rather expansive, in his Cognitive Communication Science Lab it means: making data and code freely available, using open source analysis software such as Python and R, using open source operating systems such as Linux, making software open source, and working to make science more open and inclusive by promoting diversity and inclusivity.

To that end, all new studies in the lab are hosted on GitHub and the Open Science Framework. Moreover, his lab embraces and actively encourages members of different ages, genders, gender or sexual identities or expressions, ethnicities, races, religions, marital or family status, veteran status, socioeconomic status, national origin, political affiliation, ability or disability to consider working in the lab or participating in a research study.

Importantly, you do not already need to know how to code, or to have a degree in neuroscience or computer science to work in Huskey’s lab. He hosts weekly “learn to code” bootcamps and has trained a number of students how to use the fMRI scanner all on their own. He is actively recruiting highly motivated graduate and undergraduate students regardless of past experience.

In His Free Time?

When Huskey isn’t in teaching in the classroom, analyzing data in the lab, or scanning someone’s brain at the Center for Mind and Brain, he enjoys the chance to get outdoors. He is an avid hiker, snowboarder, and surfer. He has backpacked most of the Ansel Adams Wilderness and, this winter, plans a multi-day snowshoe pack around Yosemite’s south rim. He particularly enjoys UC Davis and the surrounding area precisely because it is so close to all the different outdoor activities he loves.

Want to Learn More?

If you’d like to learn more about Huskey or read some of his research on persuasion, morality, or how effort contributes to feelings of enjoyment, check out his lab website Cognitive Communication Science Lab or follow him on Twitter @richardhuskey.