What do *you* look at when you play Tetris?

Well, if you're an expert player it's almost certainly different than what novice players pay attention to, and that's exactly what the psychological literature on expertise would predict. Researchers looking at everything from athletes to burglars have found that the information they use to make decisions varies substantially between beginners and experts. And not only do exerts use different information, it seems that the common-sense view that experts should be able to integrate more information than novices is actually false. The idea is that being an expert often means learning how to pick out just the few bits of really important information in a particular decision-making context. Take the burglar example from above; If you take novice "burglars" (which in the literatures typically are perfectly law-abiding undergraduate research participants) and ask them to evaluate a photograph of a house to determine if it's a good target for burglary, they'll usually try to examine as much information as they can about the scene, taking a long time to make a (likely incorrect) judgment. Ask an expert burglar to do the same, however, and he'll immediately home in on a single relevant cue as to whether or not the house is a good target. I leave it to you to learn more about what those cues are if you're really that interested.

But now let's get back to Tetris.

Hanging out at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin recently, I had the chance to meet John Lindstedt, a cognitive science graduate student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. He's interested in understanding precisely what it is expert Tetris players pay attention to during gameplay, and has been analyzing eye-tracking data from champion Tetris players, with some interesting conclusions. Looking at data logging where the players fixated their eyes during a game of Tetris, Lindstedt has been able to analyze the proportion of time players spend looking at different elements of the game environment (the currently falling piece, the upcoming piece, or the destination of the piece). Now, while these proportions are presumably different in experts as compared to novices, the intriguing thing Lindstedt has found is that they are also different between expert players. That's to say, as players gain expertise in Tetris, they don't necessarily learn to pay attention to the same cues, which could indicate that there is no fixed set of the "best" cues to attend to if you want to be a pro Tetris-er.

This is still early work, and so there are many open questions (one of my own: Do differing distributions of attention necessarily indicate different play strategies?), but it's certainly an interesting research direction that could eventually help us understand what make the best players (of Tetris or other games) so good. If you're interested in learning more, check out John's website and learn more about what he's working on.

What do *you* look at when you play Tetris? by Jared Lorince, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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