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Computer Game Can Detect Classroom Bullies

A new computer game has been developed by researchers at the University of Illinois that is able to identify bullies in elementary classrooms and help experts better understand peer aggression, whether it occurs online or in-person.

The game has an advantage over traditional research methods (such as questionnaires), because it is able to observe interactions between youth in real time.

“What we wanted was to have more real-time information and to include advancements in computer science to process the data and get more insights into it so we could understand the problem of bullying better and create interventions,” said Juan F. Mancilla-Caceres, Ph.D., who developed the algorithms for the game while earning his doctorate in computer science at the university.

During the game, the children work in teams and communicate with each other over their classrooms’ computer networks to answer two sets of five trivia questions. During this phase of the game, team members discuss the questions and agree on an answer, which each member then submits electronically.

In the case that team members are unable or unwilling to agree on an answer, they have the opportunity to peek at the correct answer; however, when this happens, one or more team members are penalized some of the digital coins or points they had collected for correct answers.

Next comes the competitive phase of the game in which each of the team members must select a different answer for every question, including one response that is explicitly marked as incorrect. The team member who submits the incorrect answer receives no points, but if nobody on the team submits that answer, every member is penalized.

The researchers tested the game with 97 children in six fifth-grade classrooms who were participating in a bully research group conducted by Dr. Dorothy Espelage, the Gutgsell Endowed Professor of Child development in the College of Education and an expert on youth violence.

The students had been asked several questions about various types of bullying, fighting, leadership and domineering behavior, as well as their attitudes and friends’ perceived attitudes toward victimizing and defending peers. 

Based on students’ self-reports, each student was labeled a “bully”,  “non-bully”, or “victim” prior to playing the game.

Analyses of the 7,800 messages that the students exchanged during the game were compared to the survey data, and the researchers found that the game was effective at evaluating player interactions and detecting bullying.

“Bullies played the game very differently than their classmates who were non-bullies or victims,” Espelage said. “Bullies sent more private messages, peeked at the correct answer more often and sent more negative nominations.”

The game also revealed bullying behavior that had eluded detection by traditional research methods, said Mancilla-Caceres, now an applied researcher with Microsoft Corp.

For example, students were asked to nominate classmates that they wanted or did not want as teammates for the game; however, the researchers put the teams together and only used the nominations to gain insight into each classroom’s social networks.

One player nominated three individuals to be his/her teammates, while each of these students negatively nominated the first child. Analyses of the participants’ chat messages indicated that the three classmates had formed a clique and were bullying the first child, a situation that the self-reports had not been able to detect.

The researchers plan to refine the game, adding new features to enhance player engagement and improve the efficiency of the behavior analyses. The game may be used by other scientists and educators in the near future.

Source: University of Illinois

Computer Game Can Detect Classroom Bullies

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2018). Computer Game Can Detect Classroom Bullies. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 15 Nov 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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