Interesting Careers

An Interesting Career in Psychological Science: Video Game User Researcher

By Tim Nichols


PhD (2006) - Engineering Psychology
Georgia Institute of Technology

User Researcher
Microsoft Game Studios
Redmond, Washington

When I tell most people that I work in video games and that I have a doctorate in research psychology, they wait for the punchline. But anyone with a passing interest in behavioral research knows that games represent a unique opportunity to observe, measure, analyze, and interpret human behavior. Video games are interactive systems in which users observe and interact with rule-based stimuli until the patterns are learned and the game is “won” (multi-player games are a bit different). Hmmm, this description sounds a bit tedious, perhaps too similar to the visual search experiment your advisor keeps telling you to finish up so that you can graduate. But while I don’t recall any of my disertation participants begging to run through my search tasks a second time, a good game has people coming back for more, even if (especially if) they “fail” the first time. This is one of the most interesting research questions about video games – what is it about the game that makes us keep coming back? What makes these systems engaging, exciting, compelling, fun? Flipping the question on its head, what makes a video game not fun? Perhaps usability issues are blocking players from realizing the designers’ vision for the game? If we remove those blockers, might we uncover a fundamental problem with the players’ understanding of the interaction model?

In grad school, I split my time between thinking about the psychology of attention and implicit learning (my dissertation research) and more applied problems like telemedicine system design and the design of warnings for older users. Although I knew I didn’t want to stay in academia, I soon realized that, for me, there were two awesome things about academic research. One, I loved turning common language questions into testable research hypotheses, and two, I loved poring over data to see whether those hypotheses held up. I figured the best plan was to find a career that let me focus on these two activities, and I happened to find that career at an academic conference while I was finishing up my dissertation. I met a representative from the Games User Research group (Microsoft Game Studios) who asked me in an impromptu interview, “So, what makes games fun?” That is not an easy question (e-mail me if you have the answer), but I believe the answer starts with human psychology and includes lovely psychology words like “motivation” and “engagement” and “attention.” As a behavioral researcher, I enjoy thinking about why people behave the way they do and then trying to measure that behavior. Distant galaxies, exotic creatures, and ninjas are icing. Totally sweet icing.

When a game is under development, the game designer has an idea about how players should experience the game. But game design is an organic process; the design shifts and changes and evolves over time, and with the game designer firmly entrenched in the long development process, it’s difficult for him or her to objectively perceive exactly how players will play the game. One of my simplest yet most effective strategies with designers is to piece together video footage highlight reels of users playing a game the wrong way, often in ways the designer had never imagined. I often act in a grounding function for the development team. They need to be reminded how differently real players play the game, compared to themselves.

Broadly speaking, as a game user researcher, I want to accomplish two things – 1) I want to help the development team make the game accessible (easy to understand and start playing), and 2) I want to help make the game fun from beginning to end. For the first goal, I may conduct usability tests and provide expert feedback to ensure that users of the product can successfully and easily complete the tasks they want to complete. A player should be able to easily create a character in a role-playing game. A player should be able to immediately understand how to maneuver a tank. There shouldn’t be any challenge to using systems like these, just like there shouldn’t be any challenge to creating a new document in Microsoft Word or queuing up the next track on your iPod.

Then there’s the goal of “fun,” and, sometimes, I find myself identifying points in the game where there should be more challenges, more things that block the player from being successful. I want people to struggle and then succeed. In games, 100% success can be boring; immediately knowing the answer to every puzzle can be boring. If a sniper rifle is too accurate, players will assuredly exploit that accuracy and stop playing the game the way the game designer envisioned. I want to identify and remove “bad” unintended challenges (the sort of challenges that might be termed “usability issues”) and ensure that the good, designed challenges are fun, engaging, and ultimately solvable.

Video games offer an ever-expanding range of interaction models and user behaviors, which means I’ll never run out of interesting research questions, and our group is constantly developing new and better ways for answering these research questions. Because almost everyone in the Games User Research group has a background in graduate level behavioral research (including engineering, social, and developmental psychology), our core methods are grounded in experimental psychology. We administer surveys to measure users’ opinions as they play our games, often pairing this with behavioral data taken from the play sessions to help us understand why, for example, a game doesn’t feel fun. I’ve conducted experiments comparing different gameplay designs, visited homes to understand the ecology of family gaming, and conducted research on games running in a barebones, blockout environment.

In September 2009, total U.S. videogame sales were up compared to the comparable period in 2008, no small feat in today’s challenging economic environment. In addition to the Games User Research group at Microsoft Game Studios (formed in the summer of 2000), other major publishers in the industry have also begun to look at the positive impact that psychological research methods can have on their games. User research consulting firms that specifically focus on video games have appeared as well, including Bill Fulton’s Ronin User Experience and Jason Schklar’s Initial Experience Consulting. This industry growth means more game players, more games, and more opportunities for behavioral research psychologists like myself (and, perhaps, like you) to positively impact the gaming experience for millions of gamers around the world.