Why we need more scientific study of games design

I will admit to you right now that I am part-academic and part-developer. As such, I am probably quite a strange beast, in that I see the value and failings in both sides. Academics simply fail to grasp the fundamental pain involved in developing games. Game developers fail to notice when academia has something to offer them about understanding their own work.

So lets agree to put that aside for now and lets talk about something more productive. The need for a scientific method of studying games design.

Now I’ll be clear, there are already people (myself included) who study game design academically. There are even conferences and journals and the like (although sadly they tend to be more of the “media studies” variety and often make me incandescent with rage). But the issue is that pro-rata with almost every other area of creative endeavour, games are underserved academically. Not only that, but the narrowness of the academic study that is going on is typically self-serving and not really pushing EVERYBODY’s understanding of games forward.

So let me ask you an easy starter question: How can you tell if someone is immersed with your game?

Easy to answer? Not really. What exactly defines immersion? How do you actually measure it? What if there are different types of immersion, how do you differentiate how far the player is immersed in the different types?

Currently, I’ve got a bunch of undergraduate students looking at various aspects of immersion, but this is only one tiny sample of the work that needs doing. There are so many aspects of the game design space (lets not even start on the programming/modelling/simulation science) that could be studied. And yet how many labs are actually being funded to do core research in this exciting and growing industry? The sad fact of the matter, is that the games industry doesn’t care for academia. It doesnt tend to fund much research, work to form many labs, offer much in the way of useful feedback or promote the use of academic material within games. It’s an understandable picture, given the shocking lack of awareness presented by many academics. I’ve seriously talked to academics about game AI where they thought we still all worked with state machines!!!

We should be studying players, games and game design

The core of the problem is of course a generational one. Frankly, the people in charge of research budgets do NOT get games. They don’t like them, don’t play them and honestly regard them as subversive and pointless. I’ve come across so many colleagues in academia that have this attitude, or a very thinly veiled version of it. So I can understand that there is animosity there. Likewise when I speak to game developers about academic work, its rare that they have delved very deeply into the well of academic literature on their chosen subject. Although to be fair, I think this isn’t the case with the more senior members of game development I’ve come across, who all seem to be highly academically qualified and/or similarly informed. So maybe its just the young blood who are still getting used to the concept of actually learning that you don’t know it all and that maybe you better go out and read about your chosen subject a bit more. I suppose you could view that as a reverse of the academic problem. Maybe where academics are too old, game developers are too young.

But I want to make the case right now, that we (and by we, I mean both academia and game developers) have a huge amount more to learn about games and interactivity. Real concrete game design issues, such as player perception of characters and wether the experience of playing on a screen alters the ability to percieve emotion from them abound. Every semester (twice a year) I have no problem in thinking of fundamental game design research to throw at our undergraduate groups. We have so much to study, in terms of the fundamentals, that it almost feels like an impossible mountain to climb. So why aren’t there more labs studying games? Why are there more people studying the effect of games on players than there are studying how that effect might be used to create deeper experiences? Why are there not more people studying what games could be?

I will stress that there ARE useful studies being done. A few people at a few labs really do great work. But for an industry that has huge potential both commercially and culturally it feels to me like the scientific study of game design is still languishing in the ghetto. Which is very strange, considering that other areas of academic study have informed games very well over the years. Graphics research for instance has been applied quite nicely in games for generations now. But for some reason it is always something that is not directly *games* that we learn from.

So my appeal is to you as fellow developers to go out and find some academics to befriend. After all, you guys are probably going to be in the driving seat as academics are encouraged to work with you. Give them guidance on what you want, be firm but fair in telling them when they are going down the wrong path. For sure there is a disconnect and some academics are merely working from self interest, but you can quickly get past those and find the people who really care about the medium. Form a strong relationship with academia, not just out of your own self interest (lets face it recruiting people who understand what you want is generally a good thing) but out of the interests of your craft. You will definitely learn something about your own understanding of something by trying to help someone form theirs.

Let us all work to become better informed about game creation, be that technical or design. Eventually we will gather our respective knowledge into a more coherent body of work and will form a method of critque that offers really useful, truthful and insightful thinking about our chosen medium. Ultimately we will make better games more often. Which has the added bonus of a more profitable industry.

We should be studying players, games and game design