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We're Not Listening: An Open Letter to Academic Game Researchers
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We're Not Listening: An Open Letter to Academic Game Researchers


November 10, 2006 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next
 

Introduction

Academic interest in games has risen quickly over the past decade, but the games industry has never shown a similar interest in academic work. Every year there are books, journals, and conferences dedicated to studying games and how people play them, but most games professionals never read this work nor attend these conferences.

Sure, individual designers, producers, and developers listen, but the industry as a whole has ignored an entire field of study dedicated to studying it. There have been academic panels at industry conferences, but the vast majority of the conference attendees have walked right on past. I’ve sat in these sessions and heard the researchers vent their frustrations: They’re doing wonderful stuff, why won’t the industry just listen?

We have scores of smart, professional academics out there doing great work, learning and thinking new and fascinating things about games every day. This work should be having a huge impact on the games industry, the kind of impact that university researchers in chemistry or computer science have on their own fields. Why aren’t we seeing those sorts of breakthroughs improving our ability to make better games?

I often refer to myself only half-jokingly as a “recovering academic.” I received my Ph.D., did my research, wrote journal articles and grant applications, taught undergraduates, and attended academic conferences so dry that any normal human being would have died of dehydration. However, on the brink of diving into a full-blown academic career, I wrote an article which drew some attention from the industry and I jumped at the chance to impact games directly.

For the past several years I’ve worked as a professional games researcher on major titles such as Halo 2 and Age of Empires III. I’ve been in the trenches, doing applied research on how people play games and then have been working directly with development teams helping them to use the results of that research to make real changes happen in real games.

But honestly, even I walk past most of the academic presentations at industry events. Even I have trouble really getting excited about most of the games research being done out there. From the perspective of someone on the inside, the average piece of academic games research just doesn’t get the job done. It’s not a question of the quality of the research or the intelligence of the researcher or the game makers; it’s a question of bridging the gap between the academic and business cultures.

For the purposes of this article, I’m going to make a couple of assumptions. First, this article is for researchers who want their ideas to be taken to heart and implemented by non-academics in the games industry. Pure research and theory are beautiful things, but they’re outside the scope of this article. I’m not saying that academics have to care about what the industry thinks of them, but for those who do this is the best advice I can give on how to make sure the industry takes your work seriously. Secondly, I’m going to assume that you’ve already done your research and have the findings ready to go. This article is about the final mile, going from finished research to real implementation in a shipped game.

Rule #1: Return On Investment

People in the games industry make games because they love games, but it’s still a business. Every person working on a game can justify their existence on that project in terms of their impact on the final product. This is not necessarily in strictly monetary terms (“If we hire another tester, we’ll up sales by 3%.”) but generally more in terms of final game quality. (“Our testers are stretched too thin, if we hire more we’ll catch more bugs and ship a better game.”) Every employee, every computer, every meeting, every stapler in a game studio is a tool for making the final game better. If games researchers, inside or outside the industry, want to be taken seriously, they have to justify themselves and their work the same way.

When a researcher presents a product team with a set of research findings and recommendations, they are asking the team to invest time and money implementing their proposal. In order to convince the audience to spend that time and money, the researcher has to show clearly how that investment is going to pay off. This needs to be something beyond “this will help players identify more strongly with the main character”.

The researcher must lay out the entire impact of the idea, from the cost of implementing the proposal to the resulting changes in player experience and the metrics for measuring that impact. Getting players to identify with the main character is great, but researchers have to finish the rest of the sentence: “This will help players identify more strongly with the main character which will result in an improvement in measures of overall player satisfaction and an increase in total playing time.”

By the way, if the research doesn’t include specific practical recommendations or a measurable impact on the final product, don’t bother trying to sell it to the industry. From the average industry professional’s perspective, there are only two things of value being said in a research presentation: the recommendations and their predicted effects. Everything else, the background research, the brilliant theoretical breakthrough, the clever development of the ideas, falls on industry ears like the “wah wah” noises made by Charlie Brown’s teacher. I’m not saying that qualitative or theoretical work isn’t worthwhile; I’m just saying that the industry is generally not going to listen.


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