Coincidences are a regular part life: From everyday occurrences (you think of calling your friend, but they ring you first) to conspiracy theories (the Kennedy assassination and the umbrella man) to scientific advances (the discovery of penicillin). We have argued coincidences are inextricably involved with reasoning about causation: Noticing the co-occurrence of a potential cause and effect leads to causal suspicion before scientific reasoning and experimental evaluation establish whether the suspicion turns out to be accurate Johansen & Osman, 2015). The start of this process is noticing a co-occurrence that is “unlikely by chance”, so the ability to assess the improbability of the co-occurrence is arguably key. Prior research has assessed this relationship between probability judgments and coincidence evaluation for descriptions of real coincidences (Johansen & Osman, 2020). However, the purpose of the present research is to elicit these judgements when people experience coincidences using a methodology of embedding them within experiments in video games.
Like coincidences, video games are part of daily life. They are an escape into altered/virtual reality but also embody life in a microcosm with goals, behaviours, rewards and punishments. (Causation is central to games.) As such assessing in-game behaviour is relevant to psychology both because such virtual behaviours approximate real behaviours but also because so much behaviour is virtual. However, in contrast to the immersive enjoyment of video games, most psychology experiments are not especially enjoyable or immersive. So embedding experiments in video games has benefits in terms of both ecological validity and the ability to evaluation things that are hard to assess in “reality”. For examples, we used a game to establish the presence of a social by-stander effect based on virtual, computer controlled characters (Kozlov & Johansen, 2010); and we used a game to assess aggression in children in a virtual and engaging environment in ways that wouldn’t be possible in a conventional experiment (Hay, Johansen, Daly, Hashmi, Robinson, Collishaw & van Goozen, 2017). In this context, while it is difficult to assess a person while they are experiencing coincidences in the real world, exposing people to coincidences in video games allows real-time assessment of their role in causal reasoning.
The first goal of the present research is to embed coincidences in video games which involve environmental interaction, causal search, learning and goal directed behaviours. In short, the intent is to allow participants to directly experience coincidences and then probe their reasoning about them, particularly in terms of their ability to assess the probability of the events from the perspective of chance. The second, much more ambitious goal is to make a game that is good enough that online gamers will be willing to play the game in exchange for (anonymised) data of their in-game behaviour. This has the potential to generate far richer data sets than psychology research can normally afford.