Playing to Learn Teaching User Research to Game Design Students by Heather Desurvire

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  • 1. 26 User Experience, Volume 10, Issue 4, 4thQuarter 2011, www.UsabilityProfessionals.orgI have seen even the most resistant gamedesigners become the biggest fans of usabilitytesting after they watch the process. A certaintype of magic occurs when they see prospectiveusers interacting with their product in a safeenvironment. Also, many larger publishersand developers have changed their position onuser research. It has become part of the designprocess of many smaller game studios as well.So if user research of video games providessuch a great benefit to all interested parties,why on Earth isn’t it more widespread? Theanswer, it turns out, may lie in reaching gamedesigners before they start their careers.Looking Toward the FutureThe University of Southern California’s busi-ness schools and film programs are amongthe highest-ranked in the country. USC alsoboasts the top game studies program in thecountry (voted number one by the PrincetonReview), and accepts only the most promis-ing future game designers and game companyexecutives. What the USC film school hasdone for the film industry, we believe that theInteractive Media Department will do for thegame industry. The department has alreadygraduated several students who are runningtheir own successful development studios.The current chair of the program, TracyFullerton (also the director of the USC GameInnovation Lab), has helped instill in her studentsthe process of performing user research andthe goal of educating students in the value andnecessity of performing user research.Game designers typically think theyunderstand their users, but the end users—youngchildren or stay-at-home moms, for instance—are frequently not like the game designers intoday’s marketplace. When game designers seewould-be players struggling with their game in alaboratory setting, they usually become believersin the power of research, and begin to look forways to make their game better.The program developed at USC isdesigned to give game studies students first-hand experience with the power, value, andnecessity of user experience research. Studentshave begun incorporating research in theirdevelopment of games and also when theyare out in the industry. In school, they gain“achievement points” on the department’s blogwhen they perform usability testing on theirgames. We have used the obvious improvementof their games’ player experience, but also ourown knowledge of game rewards, to encouragestudent game designers to do research.Step-by-StepTeaching the power of game user researchmethods is a multi-step process that focuses onusing research in an iterative design process.The Game Player Experience course consists ofdemonstrating methods of research, then allowingthe students to practice these principles on otherstudents’ games in development in the program.The students are able to see how the user researchcan improve the games, and how subsequent userresearch sessions can be increasingly valuable.Throughout the course students are taughtthe principles of good user experience design,usability, and accessibility. The students aregiven a good foundation for objectively analyzinggames. The course makes use of challengesand rewards, including improving their fellowstudents’ games and gaining recognition forcontributing to that improvement. The classpartners with a course on Intermediate GameDesign so that as students develop a game, theyare required to go through two iterations of userresearch over the course of a semester.The game-research students work with thegame-design students to facilitate improvementsto the game. The design students must alsopresent their experiences with the game testing.So the students present the results to both classesat the end of the semester.A great deal of focus is placed on usingconstructive criticism rooted in the user researchfindings to facilitate balanced feedback andimprove the students’ confidence in both givingand receiving feedback. Comments are not alwaystaken well; students learn through trial and errorPlaying toLearnTeaching User Research toGame Design StudentsBy Heather DesurvireUntil recently, many game publishers and game studios still showed someresistance to user research, particularly usability testing, as opposed to focus groupresearch. Most game developers resisted user research primarily because they werejust too close to their own products. But resistance to user research typically disap-pears when developers witness the process.“The class on game playability/usabilityresearch showed me how important userresearch is to the player’s experience in avideo game through various class discussions,funny videos, and interactive examples.”—Graduate student in Computer Science
  • 2. User Experience, Volume 10, Issue 4, 4thQuarter 2011, 27how to give constructive feedback that is helpfuland not ego bruising.We play a lot of games in class, givingconstructive criticism on the user experienceof popular and not-so-popular games. One ofthe most memorable classes I taught presenteda challenge to the students’ diplomacy. I hadfound a game in the bargain bin of a big-boxretailer. In it, gameplay involved participatingin a simulated real-world, boring activity inreal time. Not only was the gameplay dull, butthe interface was nothing short of impossibleto use. Studying this game did a fantastic jobof reinforcing good design principles, and alsoprovided a challenging exercise on how to beconstructive when suggesting changes.In the class, I focus a lot on Game AccessibilityPrinciples (GAP) and Playability Principles(PLAY). GAP gives game designers a set of usefulguidelines for creating better tutorials and initiallevels of play in their games. For example, “Thegame should provide the player with opportunitiesto practice new skills in order to help commit themto memory.” This is particularly useful for thecasual gamer, who may have the desire to play,but not necessarily the follow-through. PLAY is achecklist of principles for increasing playability. Anexample of PLAY is, “The player is not penalizedrepetitively for the same failure in a game.”GAP and PLAY work well together as afoundation that influences and motivates designdecisions. Using specific principles like theseis invaluable in teaching the concepts of userresearch quickly, and in an accessible manner. Inthe Game Play Experience course, we often takea look at real games as examples of good or poorplayer experiences, the “why” of which can oftenbe explained using the GAP and PLAY principles.In addition to employing industry-acceptedprinciples in the lessons, I often bring in videogame industry veterans to talk about the usefulnessof user research and its implementations inindividual games. It brings legitimacy to the classand emphasizes the important aspects of userresearch in the real world.This is the fourth year this course has beentaught, and we continue to make changes. I’veused an iterative design approach to improve itafter each semester, based on student evaluationsand my own review of what is working. I’mconstantly tweaking the course to improve itseffectiveness and its entertainment value.SummaryWas this as hard as we thought it would be? Werewe able to create this paradigm shift? I think we’rebeginning to. In fact, many of the students fromthe game design course who partnered with mystudents in the Game Player Experience course (aswell as the students in my course), insist on playertesting for their subsequent games.We do not expect, nor want to encourage,the idea that one course can create a goodresearcher; it takes knowledge and experiencein cognitive psychology, social scienceresearch, human factors, and much more tobecome a good user researcher. In addition,to become a good game researcher, one mustplay a lot of games. By learning good gameuser experience principles, though, and seeingthose principles implemented in good gamedesign, students learn their value first hand.UXAbout the AuthorHeather Desurvire, principal ofBehavioristics, is a consultant andspecialist in video game usability andplayability whose clients include topdevelopers and publishers, such asDisney, THQ Publishers, Electronic Arts,LucasArts, Blizzard, Sega, and others. She is onthe faculty at University of Southern California’sgame studies program.Figure 1. (left) Game-user research students preparing constructive feedback. Figure 2. (right) Studentpresenting game-user research results.