Legge et al., PLoS ONE 7, 5 (2012)

Two worlds. Screenshot of the real (left) and virtual (right) rooms used in the experiments.

Hide-and-Seek Goes Virtual

Hide-and-seek isn't just for kids anymore. For the first time, scientists have used virtual reality to analyze how adults conceal and find objects. The researchers were surprised to discover that people tend not to search in places where they might normally hide something, findings that could lead to better ways to suss out where terrorists and criminals have hidden bombs or contraband.

Comparative psychologist Eric Legge of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, and colleagues started their experiment with 102 volunteers in a real room fitted with couches, tables, pictures, and other furnishings, as well as a dark corner to the left of the entrance and a window facing the outside in the corner opposite the entryway. Participants, who each entered the room alone, had 2 minutes to hide three index cards under more than 70 tiles around the room, and they had 2 minutes to find cards hidden by others in the same room.

The volunteers used different strategies for hiding and seeking, even though the same people took part in both tasks. For instance, participants preferred hiding objects in the middle of the room, yet they tended to search for hidden items in the corners of the room. That's a surprising finding, says Legge, as one might expect people to look for items in the kinds of places where they recently hid objects.

The psychologists also created a replica of the room in virtual reality, allowing them to manipulate the position of furniture, doors, and windows. Here, too, the volunteers hid and searched in different locations. The team also noticed something perhaps not as surprising: Volunteers tended to search for objects in the darkest areas of the room, and they avoided locations close to windows when hiding objects.

Why people do not typically search places where they might hide items remains a mystery. One explanation could be that different parts of our brain control hiding and seeking behaviors, says experimental psychologist Bradley Sturz of Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, who did not participate in this study. Brain-scanning studies of participants engaging in hide-and-seek in virtual reality could test this idea, he adds.

Although some of the findings might be intuitive, they show that when it comes to hiding and seeking, people don't make a distinction between the real and the virtual world. That means that scientists can design more complex virtual environments to see where objects get hidden, notes comparative psychologist Brett Gibson of the University of New Hampshire, Durham, who did not take part in the research. For example, such virtual environments could be used to determine where terrorists might hide bombs in the battlefields of Iraq or Afghanistan. "If we could understand the patterns of behavior that lead people to hide these devices in particular areas and under particular circumstances," adds Legge, "then we could ideally be able to develop scanning systems that would pinpoint these areas of high risk and thus prevent much of the damage and of loss of life from such explosives."

Legge also sees more mundane applications of the research. "Many [video] games rely on players searching for hidden items," he says. "Currently, game development relies on a lot of play-testing to determine where to place these types of items, and such play-testing doesn't always get things right."