By Abigail Flynn

A simple, colorful and addictive puzzle game that swept nations in the 1980s and 1990s, Tetris is known today in households from Moscow to Mexico City and is among the most played games of all time in the World Video Game Hall of Fame. Organizing falling blocks into complete lines, the game can quickly jump from relaxing to panic-inducing in a matter of seconds. Entertaining as that may be, Tetris can also provide us with more than just temporary bursts of adrenaline.

Jacquelyn Berry, assistant professor in AUC’s Department of Psychology, is exploring the ways that humans learn through Tetris in hopes of understanding how people learn to do complex tasks and improve their performance over time — an important component of human cognition.

“My goal is to change how people learn through what is called ‘reinforcement learning,’” Berry explains. “By providing live feedback to people while they do complex, multifaceted tasks, in this case Tetris, I can track how their performance improves. I hope this will help us understand how complex skill learning works.”

So how does it work? Berry’s research design uses artificial intelligence to provide live feedback to the player, which informs them if the move they just chose was good or bad. If the participant sees a green light, that means they made a good move; if the light is red, they chose poorly. The level of feedback varies: Some participants receive only results-based feedback, while others receive live AI feedback for each move they make. Some receive both AI feedback and general feedback. By comparing these three learning conditions, Berry is able to see which level of feedback is teaching people to perform the best.

“There are a ton of things we could use this information for — virtual reality, medical surgery, robots.”

Berry’s preliminary findings show that live AI feedback improves performance, particularly when paired with results- based feedback, but the research is still in progress. She hopes that the eventual results can be applied to many fields.

“There are a ton of things we could use this information for — virtual reality, medical surgery, robots — basically any complex task that includes a human using a computer to interact with their environment,” she says.

But Why Tetris?

“Why not Tetris?” Berry responds. “First, the game is very popular with hundreds of millions of players. It’s also perfect because a participant’s native language won’t affect their ability to play and anyone can easily learn to play, which makes it much more accessible.”

According to Berry, accessibility is an important consideration in any research project. She explains that the field of psychology has had a long history of “convenience sampling,” or choosing participants who are easy to locate. Since most psychology research is conducted at universities, much of the findings are skewed toward the demographic of psychology college students who join a study for class credit. It’s also heavily Western-centric, she says.

“While the data from these types of studies is still valuable, conducting research with this limited demographic makes it more difficult to generalize findings to the rest of the world’s population,” Berry explains. “As a researcher in Egypt, I hope to remove some bias from research by including individuals outside traditional educational circles, going beyond a student population to represent people from different socioeconomic backgrounds.”

Adding to accessibility, Berry’s research can be conducted with the tap of a smartphone using a research app. Since participants do not need to come into the lab, she can reach players from all over, allowing more diversity among participants than she would have studying AUC psychology students alone. From this, she gains a more comprehensive understanding of human learning.

While Berry’s goal is to examine populations beyond AUC, the University is still an integral part of her research process. Berry began her research in Egypt as a Fulbright U.S. Scholar in 2019 and developed her Tetris study after COVID-19.

“Working at AUC has given me the opportunity to make the Tetris AI tool a reality,” she says. “Cognitive psychology is fairly new to this region, so there is a lot of growth potential. I’m excited to see what the future holds.”

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