Class Act

Video game

When you consider the creative genius behind today's richly detailed video games, psychologists may not be the first people who come to mind. Yet the computer scientists and graphic artists who create these games are increasingly turning to scientists such as Veronica Zammitto, a Simon Fraser University cognitive psychology graduate student, to help make games easier to navigate and enjoy.

Through a Canadian government program that funds connections between academia and industry, Zammitto works part time for Electronic Arts, one of the world's largest video game developers. Zammitto measures, for example, gamers' emotional states as they play to see how and when their stress or enthusiasm spikes. Those data can help game designers determine whether specific sections of a game might cause someone to lose interest or get so overwhelmed that they'll shut it off. Using eye-tracking technology, she measures where people look as they play — data that help game designers determine where to put navigation clues and other game elements that move play along.

Zammitto's research is as fast-paced as the high-speed games she evaluates, which have included NBA Live, FIFA Soccer, Fight Night and Madden NFL. She often has to submit her findings to her employer within a few weeks of running a study, and designers incorporate her recommendations within days. The Argentine-born Zammitto admits she's already hooked on that type of instant gratification and plans to pursue a job in the gaming industry once she earns her doctorate.

"These companies understand they need people well trained to understand the consumer," says Zammitto. "Psychologists are in the best position to do this because gamers are people, and we know who people are, what they like and how they behave."

Two worlds collide

Zammitto got hooked on video gaming as an undergraduate psychology student at the University of Belgrano in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Specically, she was a whiz at strategy games, such as StarCraft, in which three species vie for control of an uncolonized section of a distant galaxy.

She started to see connections between psychology and gaming as she expanded her skills in both areas, and she became curious about how perception and memory affect game performance. The idea of a possible research career started to take shape.

"I thought, 'This is pretty neat; I could play games and apply my knowledge of psychology,'" she recalls. To explore her options, Zammitto joined the Argentine Game Developers Association, started doing research on gamer preferences and looked around for a graduate program that would suit her interests. She found what she was looking for while presenting a paper on how color affects game play at the Digital Games Research Association's annual conference in 2005, held in Vancouver, British Columbia. There, she met researchers from Simon Fraser's School of Interactive Arts and Technology, an interdisciplinary program that includes cognitive psychology, computer science, art, filmmaking and other fields. She started the master's program there in 2006, completed it last spring and is now in her first year of its doctoral program.

Zammitto is likely to be bombarded with job offers once she graduates in a few years, says her adviser, Magy Seif El-Nasr, PhD. Job opportunities for psychologists in the video game industry are growing rapidly, she says. Plus, Zammitto has already built an impressive resume that includes speaking at major gaming and computer science conferences, including meetings in London and China, not to mention her part-time job at Electronic Arts.

"Not a lot of researchers ever get a chance to work with industry that closely," says Seif El-Nasr. "She knows exactly what she wants to do."

More fun and games

Zammitto's gaming isn't exclusively video. She is a "keen amateur" player of the board game "go" — an ancient Chinese strategy game that involves placing black and white "stones" on a grid. Zammitto traveled to Beijing in 2008 to compete at go for Argentina's team in the first World Mind Sports Games competition, where it came in seventh out of a group of 12 teams. "I never expected to win," says Zammitto, "but I consider myself lucky that I got to play against professionals."

Go is a game that has long stumped computer programmers, who are still working toward a computer version as successful at beating expert players as chess programs are. One theory on why that's been so challenging is that go requires a certain amount of intuition, or a "feel" for its patterns and moves.

"As an old proverb says, 'Go is like life,'" says Zammitto. "It highlights the capability of humans to make connections and decisions, the fact that we can be banging our heads against a problem but we can then raise our gaze and assess the big picture."

Despite her knack for games, Zammitto doesn't spend all her time leaning over a console or game board. She and her husband regularly sail, windsurf and hike. Zammitto is also an avid scuba diver. She dives regularly in Vancouver, dove in Belize last year and has a trip planned to Cuba at the end of the year.

"The sensation of scuba diving is incomparable," she says. "Being able to breathe in an environment where you are not meant to be breathing, with fish swimming around you like birds in the sky, is just incredible."

She's also working with computer scientists at SFU on developing software that would make her research more efficient and potentially reduce her long hours. The software would allow her to synchronize her physiological and eye-tracking data.

"Those data are collected with different software that don't talk to each other at all," she says. "Making that automated could speed up my work a lot, and I wouldn't have to jump from one software program to another."

More time for conquering distant galaxies, and swimming from one cove to another.