I was following along with a discussion that was started by my old friend Dan Cook over at http://www.lostgarden.com where he was lamenting the quality of critique in game journalism. Actually, I think what he was asking for was slightly different than the title of his post suggested. I think Dan was actually lamenting the lack of useful critique that is aimed at the creation of games. If you read the feedback Dan got in his comments, there were plenty of people who were happy to defend the position that game journalists are not in the business of teaching game designers how to fix their designs.
Essentially I think what Dan was getting at (and I’ve long since felt this way myself), was that game critique has never developed beyond the sort of intuitive criticism you get from game reviews. Ultimately applying the methods of criticism from other media, in particular media studies, fails to capture the nature of games and the design challenges they face. It feels as though game design is essentially being under served by really directly applicable critique. The kind of critique that could serve to educate designers and spot potential design weaknesses at a structural level.
I teach game design part-time at the University of Bolton, one of the things we try and do on the course is to educate the students in methods of critique and analysis. Things like using scientific research methods, metrics, game theory etc allow us to challenge the notion that all design must be intuitive.
An interesting side effect of this education, is that we often get exposed to game design issues that are a little counter-intuitive. I’ll give you an example to explain what I mean.
Every year, we have a number of undergrad student research groups tackle a year long project to do with a fundamental game design problem. Often these problems are informed by the students themselves, or their perceptions. Other times, the problems they investigate are more foundational or are informed by previous studies. Very occasionally we get an experimental result that throws us into a whole new area of investigation.
One of the most interesting results of this current semester, is a side effect of a group failing to prove their hypothesis to any degree of reliability (in effect affirming a null hypothesis). Their hypothesis was that they could create a level of immersion using various techniques and to test it, they had produced a number of artifacts with various distraction methods deliberately placed to take the immersion of the player away. In effect, they made dynamic changes to the environment that grew more obvious and noted when players saw the discontinuities.
What is interesting isn’t the fact that they ended up with a null hypothesis. But that during the course of their tests, players simply never saw any of the changes they were making to the level. Essentially, the players were so engaged with the task at hand in the test environment, they simply didn’t see any changes that were happening. Now this has some pretty profound consequences for level design that bear some thinking about. What they saw was that players do not actually perceive changes in a level (and reasonably big changes, like colour changes, changing models, adding NPC’s that float outside windows etc).
This research has basically thrown up an entirely new design problem for us to investigate. Namely the degree to which the player is paying attention to their environment in a game, how the challenge/task in the environment shapes that perception and just how far we can push the changes employed before players become aware of them. Of course, we will need to do a follow on study that investigates these issues. I can see the new test being based on quantifying different changes in level between different artifacts. So for instance, will a player notice that they were in a house, but somehow ended up on a boat? Will they notice that what originally was a car, is now a truck?
Game design is full of psychological issues that I think would benefit from more critical reflection, organized study and research. I think that is essentially what Dan was asking for. Hopefully over time we can contribute to the knowledge of interaction design as it is distinct from other forms of design. We may also then see an improvement in the actual games we play, which is my prime goal when supervising these research groups.