‘Games are more complex to create than most people think’

Celia Hodent in conversation with Linda Kaye, around the psychology of video games.

The Psychology of Video Games, by Dr Celia Hodent (pictured), is part of Routledge’s Psychology of Everything series. Celia is an independent consultant, providing guidance on the topics of game user experience (UX), ethics, and inclusion. She has over 10 years' experience working with game studios, including Ubisoft, LucasArts, and Epic Games (Fortnite).

Dr Linda Kaye (Edge Hill University) is Chair of the British Psychological Society’s Cyberpsychology Section. She asked Celia some questions. 

How would you summarise your book?

It's a short book targeted to a broad audience and intended to explore two main areas in a very approachable way: how human factors psychology (and human-computer interaction more specifically) is used to make games, and what academic research currently tells us about the impact of playing games. The first part explains how psychology and cognitive science is used to improve games: this is what we call having a user experience (UX) mindset, whereby game developers (and product developers in general) shift from their own perspective when they develop a game to adopt the perspective of the end users (players), so that they can offer then the best experience possible (both usable and fun), keeping players' best interest in mind. The second part digests the current research on video games, both in terms of the potential negative impact and positive impact of games, depending on the type of game and the context in which they are played. The book ends with a reflection on ethics in the video game industry.

What was your main motivation for writing the book?

Routledge contacted me, looking for new authors for their book series ‘The Psychology of Everything’. They asked me if I would be interested in writing the opus on video games, and since I’m quite passionate about cognitive psychology and games in general, I said yes! It was a great opportunity for me to explain to a broad audience how psychology is used to make games (i.e. human factors psychology and human-computer interaction), what having a ‘UX mindset’ is about (i.e. minding the experience that users will have), and what we currently know about the potential (positive or negative) impact of playing video games.

You have had a lot of experience of working in industry and applying your academic insights there. What has been the greatest challenge for you in drawing together insights across education/research and industry sectors?

The biggest challenge was probably adjusting to the game industry pacing and speaking the same language as game developers. Coming from academia, I was used to a slow pace and an extremely rigorous methodology, which makes sense because the main goal of academic research is to discover or refine reliable knowledge about human behavior in our environment. In the game industry, the goal is to improve games for players in the relatively small amount of time we have to develop a game (which can still be a few years, admittedly). So we apply ‘good enough’ research and academic knowledge to serve as heuristics (shortcuts) to guide the countless decisions that need to be made in game development. 

This is why I found that my greatest challenge was to make cognitive science knowledge approachable to game developers who weren’t trained as researchers and weren't familiar with UX methodologies (e.g. human-computer interaction principles), and to adjust my research practice to accommodate a fast turnaround. It was then very important for me to provide reliable information (e.g. ‘humans cannot efficiently multitask before of our limited attentional resources overall’) as well as practical learnings and actionables from this information (e.g. ‘do not display important information while players’ attention is directed to something else’). Games are more complex to create than most people think, and require the coordination of many different profiles (artists, designers, programmers, producers...). 

You give a nice overview of what UX researchers do and the phases of testing which can take place. Do you feel that psychology graduates would have sufficient training to do UX researcher jobs effectively, or would additional training be needed? If so, what would this training consist of?

Psychology graduates who have been trained to conduct research (posing hypotheses, designing an experimental protocol, gathering and analysing data, all of which are conducted in a standardised way to minimise biases) should be well-equipped to do a UX research job. However, as I’ve mentioned, they need to adjust to the game industry pace, a ‘good enough science’ approach, and translate findings into clear applicable solutions for the team. This entails, again, learning to speak the same language as game developers and having a good understanding of their constraints and challenges. I give in this long blog post some tips on how  to enter the game industry but, again, psychology graduates need to have a good knowledge about applied cognitive science (i.e. human factors psychology and human-computer interaction), and how UX research is conducted (common methodologies and challenges). Lastly, they need to have a good overall knowledge about video games and to learn about game development (i.e. game design and production cycles).

You make some good points about UX and ethics, and note that a UX mindset is one which is around human-centred technology not a business-centred one, which is respectful for users. What good examples do you see in the games industry who align with these principles? 

That’s a great question! It’s also a tricky one. Just like novels or movies, games need to be engaging, otherwise there is absolutely no point to playing them. But then the question raised is: are some games engaging for their gameplay alone (it’s a fun game) or are they using ‘tricks’ to encourage players to pay or play more for reasons that serve the business model of the game more than its gameplay (e.g. we connect to the game because of a unique event we do not want to miss out, not really because we wanted to play at that moment)? Maximising profits over simply offering a fun and balanced player experience can always be very tempting, especially in our capitalist economy rewarding profits above pretty much anything else. And some business models (such as free-to-play games) can increase the risks of falling into ‘dark patterns’ (designs that are intentionally deceiving users, at their expense, to benefit the company) because it requires game developers to ensure that players will stay engaged with a game for a long time to have a chance to ‘monetise’ them (make them buy something in the game). Games that you pay upfront once can be problematic as well because they are not affordable for everyone (they can be quite expensive) and some advertising techniques can ‘oversell’ the quality of a game to influence people to buy yet leave players disappointed. 

And do developers have these considerations in mind?

The large majority of game developers I’ve worked with are passionate about video games and care most about offering the best game experience possible to players. Games made by independent developers can often be more ethical for players than games made by big corporations who also have to satisfy shareholders. That being said, the ethical line is quite blurry in most cases. Take the use of lootboxes for example (i.e. loot, such as a chest, that offers unpredictable rewards, in the manner of Panini card packs). Are they all unethical just because they rely on the use of variable (unpredictable) rewards, like in gambling, which we know since Skinner’s experiments can oftentimes be more engaging than predictable rewards? Randomness is actually a key aspect of most games (except in games like chess or Go). Any games using a draw of cards or a throw of dice use unpredictable rewards. In MarioKart game for example, you have ‘lootboxes’ in the form of (mostly) unpredictable bonuses that players can collect during the kart race, but this is not raising eyebrows from parents or policymakers. What can start to raise ethical concerns are variable rewards used, not to enhance the gameplay, but to increase players’ engagement with the business model (i.e. monetisation). This is what most people refer to when they use the term lootbox: a variable reward that players buy with in-game currency, which in turn can be bought with real money. But even then, it might not be necessarily a problem. Even if lootboxes are not strictly the same as gambling, gambling still is currently morally acceptable as long as the gambler is an adult (children and adolescents having more difficulty controlling their impulses). Banning all lootboxes in games might therefore not be a good solution. We need to be more nuanced about what type of lootboxes can create an issue (i.e. those that are designed to engage players with monetisation rather than the gameplay itself), in what context, and what population. This is why we need a more nuanced public discourse around these topics if we really want to improve the ethics of video games. 

The same reasoning goes with other practices that navigate gray areas, such as the use of FOMO (fear of missing out) to bring back players to the game, for example when there is an event with unique rewards happening only once, and if you miss it you’ll never get another chance to participate again. Events have some gameplay purposes, because it’s about sharing something new and unique with other players, but it becomes more problematic when players are too controlled by the game; when they need to connect at a very specific time or for a very specific duration. And again, this is going to be more problematic when it’s used on a population of teenagers, who have a much stronger need to feel part of a group than adults who can usually manage their FOMO a bit better (although some adults still feel the need to buy an expensive ticket to attend a once-in-a-lifetime concert, or binge-watch the last season of their favourite TV show as soon as it’s available).

All in all, there is often no clear answer of good or bad exemples in terms of ethics in the game industry, but a good practice is to start asking ourselves these questions. Sadly, this is not something that is much discussed in the game industry yet (or other industries for that matter), which is why I started the initiative ethicalgames.org with colleagues in the game industry and academia. The hope is to develop a code of ethics for the game industry, or at least to get game developers (and policymakers alike) to start asking themselves the important questions to make us all progress in the right direction.

You talk about ‘engage-ability’ and three pillars of this – motivation, emotion and flow. In relation to motivation (SDT), the relatedness one is interesting. You note about relatedness in games being derived ‘either through competition or cooperation’. Are these the only two ways that relatedness can be derived through games and/or gaming?

The Self-Determination Theory (SDT) tells us that humans are generally more intrinsically motivated to do an activity when this activity satisfies our needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. We are a social species, so relatedness is often very important in games. Traditionally, relatedness is often satisfied through cooperation and/or competition, just like in sports. While competition and cooperation are what have been more thoroughly explored in games so far, they are not the only way to satisfy relatedness. Having a meaningful connection with others is what’s important and today we actually see more games allowing for this without having to accomplish a specific task with teammates. For example, games like Fortnite or Roblox offer a social space where players can just hang out, chat, create together, have a dance party, or even watch a movie or a concert together.

In relation to flow – to what extent do you think this can occur at a group level rather than being solely an individual experience? Previous work on the notion of ‘group flow’ or ‘shared flow’ or ‘networked flow’ would seem to apply here to gaming… something I have researched before, coincidentally! What are the ways which game designers can facilitate this between players?

The concept of flow (the state of being fully concentrated in an activity, whether it’s work, playing music, or playing a video game), is quite important for games, and we name it ‘game flow’. We typically try to avoid ‘flow breakers’ that will prevent players from having the feeling of being completely focused on the game (instead of, say, struggling with the controls). Ensuring a good onboarding allowing players to understand how the game works is an example of that. Fine-tuning the level of challenge in a game so that it’s neither too easy nor too difficult, is another example. But the notion of group flow has not really yet been formally explored in games. I’m guessing highly trained esports teams could experience group flow because they know how to communicate very efficiently through intense practice and have their tactics ready, but experiencing group flow with other players you do not know at all or don’t play often with sounds tricky. But you surely know much more about group flow than I do!

Thus it’s hard for me to answer your question but I would assume that games offering great usability for players to easily communicate with one another as they are working together to accomplish a common goal is a must have. Which is why having a game UX mindset is so important!

One of the game designers who has explicitly explored the concept of flow is Jenova Chen, and his most recent games with Thatgamecompany, Journey and Sky: Children of the Light, are exploring flow with a social aspect. So it might be interesting to ask him this question!

You mention about games being for everyone and that UX is a concern of everyone on the team. Are there any good examples of organisations who are making progress on this and if so, what ways are they adapting? 

Enjoying games should be accessible and inclusive to everyone! This is why it’s important to detect and remove all unnecessary barriers to the enjoyment of a game (such as using colors only to convey information, which then will make the game non-accessible to colorblind players). Having a UX mindset means considering the experience that the end users – humans – will have with a product or service, at every stage of the development process. This is why it should be the concern of everyone on a team or at a company. It also means placing the humans at the centre of what we do and prioritising their needs over the company’s needs (although we do care about the product to be successful of course – game developers need to be paid for their hard work and passion!). This entails having a human-first approach instead of a business-first approach. Offering the best experience to all players, while having their best interest in mind, should be the concern of everyone on the game team and studio. This is truly what it means to have a ‘UX mindset’. 

While some game studios are more advanced than others regarding their UX maturity, it’s still too new overall in our industry. The greatest progress we have seen so far is regarding UX research (big studios such as Ubisoft or EA all have  their own user research labs to test their games in development) and accessibility, with studios like Naughty Dog raising the bar to make games accessible to players with disabilities. But there’s still a lot of progress to be made to advance the UX mindset in the game industry overall.

And finally, an issue close to my heart! There is ongoing concern about the quality of research on the psychology of games and gaming. What role do you see gaming companies having in supporting researchers to do good research and what practical considerations may be needed here?

It is true that we sadly see a lot of research on games that are not the most rigorous or well-designed. And they are often feeding the current ‘moral panic’ about video games that we see in the public discourse today. I believe it’s important to have reliable data about the impact of playing games so that parents and policymakers can be appropriately informed, and so that the about 2.7 billion of gamers in the world today (over one third of the world population!) aren’t stigmatised, or their fun times pathologised. 

That’s what I’m aiming to do with this short book; summarising the current research on video games in an approachable yet nuanced way as much as possible. I would say that it’s becoming important for game studios to start collaborating with academic researchers. They more specifically need to give them access to the gameplay data they are collecting. Only then will we have reliable-enough data on actual player behaviour (rather than relying on self-reported play behavior, which we know is not reliable given the fallibility nature of our memory). The recent groundbreaking study by Johannes and colleagues did just that, using data from Animal Crossing: New Horizon and Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville, and they found a positive correlation between playtime and psychological well-being. This research wouldn’t have been possible without the collaboration of Nintendo America and Electronic Arts. It’s more than time for game studios to share their data with academic researchers so that we can progress on the questions of the impact of video game play in a more reliable and nuanced way. 

- Find out more about the book. You can read lots more about gaming in our archive.

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