Psychologist Tim Nichols, PhD, loved video games as child. "Like any red-blooded American kid, I was playing on my Nintendo back in the 1980s and was a Sega guy in the '90s," he remembers. Now he gets paid to play.
As "user research lead" at Microsoft Studios, Nichols is one of a growing number of psychologists in the video game industry. With the number of games and platforms exploding, companies that design and develop video games are increasingly turning to psychologists for help analyzing data and making sure their products are as effective as they can be. Some psychologists are even launching consulting businesses to assist game manufacturers or creating games of their own.
Why It's Hot
Video games are more than just fun; they're big business. The research firm Gartner predicts that video game sales will top $74 billion worldwide this year and reach $112 billion by 2015.
Part of what's driving that growth are the ever-expanding ways to play games. The rise of smartphones, iPads and similar devices has made mobile gaming the fastest-growing segment of the market. Sims creator Will Wright has dubbed the phenomenon the "Gambrian Explosion."
"It's like the Cambrian Explosion when the variety of life forms proliferated," explains psychologist Amy Jo Kim, PhD, chief executive officer of a Burlingame, Calif., game design studio called Shufflebrain. "We're in a period now where games are everywhere, and everyone's a gamer."
In addition to traditional, console-based video games, there are now mobile games such as "Angry Birds," social games on Facebook and even game-like experiences on sites such as Foursquare, she says. At the same time, other industries, such as eBay and credit card companies, are incorporating game design elements — techniques such as challenges between users, bars depicting progress toward a goal and virtual currency — as a way of engaging consumers.
Even the government is getting into the act, adds psychologist Ariella Lehrer, PhD, president and chief executive officer of the Los Angeles-based game company Legacy Interactive. While the market for educational games for kids and brain-boosting games for adults has pretty much dried up, she says, the market for so-called "serious games" is booming. The military, the FBI and local police departments, for instance, are hiring companies to produce games to help train personnel to drive tanks, protect computer networks and even handle prison riots. Lehrer's own company is developing a Department of Homeland Security-sponsored game called "Disaster Hero" to teach kids how to react in a disaster.
There are also new opportunities for women, adds Lehrer, who has been in the industry since earning a doctorate in cognitive psychology nearly three decades ago.
"Up until five years ago, all the effort went toward producing games targeted to what we call the core gamer — invariably a teenage boy or 20-something young man," says Lehrer, a middle-aged woman who says she used to feel like a "second-class citizen" at gaming conferences. "The world has totally changed in terms of who's consuming these products." With many more women playing games, she says, there's a demand for women producers — and not enough qualified women to fill positions.
What You Can Do
The proliferation of games and gaming platforms also means more opportunities for psychologists.
"More and more companies are starting to see the value in hiring psychologists or folks with a background in psychology," says Mike Ambinder, PhD, an experimental psychologist at a Bellevue, Wash., game design company called Valve. "The application of psychological principles to game design is still in its infancy, so the opportunity is present to be at the forefront of a new discipline."
The most common — and most well-established — role for psychologists is user research, which largely entails testing whether players experience games the way companies intended, say Ambinder and others. User researchers work with the production team to understand their goals for a game, then translate those goals into testable questions. The team might want to make sure a certain level of a game gives players a sense of excitement or anxiety, for example. To find out, a psychologist might bring people from the target audience into a lab, get them playing and then administer surveys or observe them through a one-way mirror.
Such studies offer a fascinating means for psychologists to apply their understanding of human behavior, says Nichols. After all, video games are all about engagement, motivation, reinforcement, attention and other topics dear to psychologists, he says. Plus, they get paid for playing games themselves. "We have to know the game inside and out," says Nichols.
Psychologists can also help video game companies make business decisions. Ambinder, for example, describes himself as a sort of "in-house consultant" who spends his days doing research and analyzing data, whether that means reviewing financial information or exploring biofeedback as a means of user testing.
"We try to make good decisions based on valid data, so we will track anything of interest that will aid us in our efforts," he says.
Would-be entrepreneurs can also thrive in the video game industry. Some, such as Shufflebrain's Kim, launch consulting firms to help game producers and other clients improve their products. Others, such as Lehrer, have game-production studios of their own.
The video game field pays well, says Ambinder. "A psychologist with a PhD could look to start somewhere between $70,000 to $80,000," he says. Many companies cap compensation at $150,000, adds Kim, although such employees may receive cash bonuses or stock options.
How to Get There
Psychologists who want to work in the video game field must be passionate about games — both playing them and trying to understand why they work.
"But you also have to be super-passionate about answering questions about human behavior and really skilled at answering them," says Nichols. Doctoral training in an applied branch of psychology, such as experimental, engineering or human factors, is useful, he says. Cognitive, developmental and educational psychology can be ideal for psychologists working on educational games, adds Lehrer.
A doctoral degree in psychology isn't enough, however. While not required, having a strong technology background will make you a more desirable candidate, says Kim, who put herself through a behavioral neuroscience grad program working as a computer programmer.
Psychologists can learn such skills through classes or even specialized programs, such as the game design program at the University of Southern California, where Kim is an adjunct professor. Or they can get on-the-job experience via an internship at gaming company Electronic Arts or a similar company.
Networking is also key. Consider visiting the Game Developers Conference, where attendees can meet with representatives from major gaming companies at a career fair, for instance. Attending the career fair paid off for Ambinder: A representative from Valve invited him in for a daylong consulting gig. At day's end, he had a job offer.
Pros and Cons
Working on games isn't always fun. The hours can be long — especially in the run-up to the holiday season, when new games are typically released. There's also a lot of job insecurity in the field, since many companies lay off employees after new games ship, Kim says.
The work is also fast-paced, she adds, and that can be a shock to academics accustomed to conducting research slowly and carefully. Instead, she says, the researchers in the games industry work as quickly as possible, with the aim of putting results into immediate action to improve games.
"If you really enjoy academics, don't go into game design," she warns. "Nobody cares about your smart idea; they care about whether something is going to help the game sell a lot."
Plus, says Kim, working in this industry "can take some of the fun out of games, because you're always studying them." There's a lot of unpaid time spent just staying up to date playing new games, she points out.
The reward for the long hours: Seeing your findings applied rapidly and concretely, she says.
"I talk to friends of mine at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or Medtronic, and they're doing some very cool stuff that's probably saving lives," says Nichols. "But I get to go into stores and see games I worked very hard on that are being played by millions of people and bringing them the happiness and excitement that I remember as a kid."