Forum: here's entertainment

XIII.5 September + October 2006
Page: 22
Digital Citation

Talking about games experiences

Bruce Phillips

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As a user-experience professional working within the video-game industry, I often find myself uncertain about what experiences we are trying to provide our users. Similarly, I often find myself unsure of what users are experiencing when they play our games. I have a secret longing for the confidence in purpose that I imagine my colleagues working on productivity applications must feel. Their goals seem communicable and measurable┬Śmine don't. The video-game industry does not have a broadly accepted, generally agreed upon framework for describing the experiences our products are intended to create.

It is not surprising that this is the case. Relatively speaking, the video-game industry is young, it has been considered worthy of research only recently, and the products it creates are quite different from most others in the productivity space. And while user experience and usability are usually well established on development teams in these other areas, there are only a handful of usability researchers in the entire video-game industry.

It is not only for lack of trying that a good vocabulary for describing game experiences does not exist. It is downright hard to describe video games and the experience of playing them. But this isn't a problem just for video games; there are many other industries and art forms with products that defy easy description.

Consider describing a work of art to someone who hasn't seen it. You could use, as the popular saying goes, a thousand words and still not do justice to the experience of actually seeing the painting. Consider describing the experience of tasting a good wine or listening to Miles Davis. All of these experiences are difficult to put into words. What makes it possible, however, is that people share common reference points. These shared experiences can be drawn upon in the use of metaphor, simile, and analogy for conveying the facets of an experience. When a wine critic appeals to the taste of strawberries or the smell of smoke in their description we can imagine the taste of the wine. But such comparisons are harder to find for multidimensional experiences like playing video games.

The difficulty describing these experiences can be seen in the writing of game reviewers, those whose profession it is to describe games for consumers. Most game reviews (like most game-design documents) typically break down the experience into its component parts, like a recipe. These parts include the story, sound, graphics, and technology. However, on their own, none of these components captures the experience of the whole. We learn about the content and quality of the story in the game, whether the sound is delivered in Dolby Digital, and whether there is bump mapping on the textures, but not what the nature of the experience is like when you put all the elements together.

Our difficulty discussing game experiences is also reflected at a very high level in how the industry classifies its products into genres. Without a descriptive language of their own, games borrow heavily from noninteractive media such as film and books. This genre classification is based very loosely on either the type of game play (i.e., action, real-time strategy) or game content (i.e., extreme sports, fighting), neither of which provides a good description of the game experience.

Our inability to adequately describe video-game experiences makes for development environments that can be quite different from the productivity space. It is not uncommon for members of a game-development team to have different views about the experience they are working to create. This is not because of bad management, but because it is a challenge to talk about this material. Discussions about what it will be like to play the game often end up taking a backseat to meetings about tasks and goals┬Śconcepts that are easier to communicate. For similar reasons, I have never worked on a game that had a production milestone related to progress creating a fun experience.

There have been a few attempts to formalize a language of gaming experiences. None has achieved broad acceptance. Whether a widely accepted language is even possible or useful is still an open question. What is for certain is that this is no longer just a problem for the game industry: There is a trend for those producing productivity and other software applications to be as concerned with the subjective experience of using an application as they are with its usability. How good we can get at being able to identify and describe these experiences is yet to be seen.

Last week a friend who had never played Tetris asked me what the game was like. After struggling with a few descriptions I told him it was like driving down a steep, forested mountain, without breaks. He looked back at me with a confused expression.

I expect this will take some time.

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Bruce Phillips
Microsoft Game Studios

About the Author

Bruce Phillips works as a user research engineer with Microsoft Game Studios. Prior, he worked as a research associate in the computer science department at the University of Victoria. Bruce received his BA in Psychology from Carleton University and his MA in Psych from UVic, where he is currently completing his PhD. Bruce has worked on games such as MechAssault and Voodoo Vince, and his interests include the study of interaction in multiplayer games and social-matchmaking systems.

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