We're Not Listening: An Open Letter to Academic Game Researchers

On Gamasutra, John Hopson says academics should not bother trying to get game designers to listen to any research that doesn’t translate into more money for game companies.

When a researcher presents a product team with a set of research findings and recommendations, they are asking the team to invest time and money implementing their proposal. In order to convince the audience to spend that time and money, the researcher has to show clearly how that investment is going to pay off. This needs to be something beyond “this will help players identify more strongly with the main character”.

The researcher must lay out the entire impact of the idea, from the cost of implementing the proposal to the resulting changes in player experience and the metrics for measuring that impact. Getting players to identify with the main character is great, but researchers have to finish the rest of the sentence: “This will help players identify more strongly with the main character which will result in an improvement in measures of overall player satisfaction and an increase in total playing time.”

By the way, if the research doesn’t include specific practical recommendations or a measurable impact on the final product, don’t bother trying to sell it to the industry. From the average industry professional’s perspective, there are only two things of value being said in a research presentation: the recommendations and their predicted effects. Everything else, the background research, the brilliant theoretical breakthrough, the clever development of the ideas, falls on industry ears like the “wah wah” noises made by Charlie Brown’s teacher.

This is, of course, very practical. Game developers have to explain to their bosses why they should attend your academic talk on the history and social value of computer games instead of the one across the hall that tests a new formula for pixel shading or introduces a new technique for creating the reflections of flickering torchlight in fountains of blood gushing from an enemy’s skin. (Okay, I’m exaggerating — but not by much.) 

In the humanities, small groups of people (often grad students who are trying to find a footing for themselves) will organize a regional conference on a particular subject, and they will do it for the practical experience of learning how to run such a conference; they will do it in order to make a name for themselves in a small, emerging field; or they will do it to call attention to a subject they themselves are passionate about.  But industry conferences are, like industry itself, about money. I don’t mean that in a pejorative way. I learn quite a bit when I attend industry conferences  but I confess when I walk into an interesting session and find only a sales pitch for a product or company, I’m very disappointed. In my line of work, I most value the theory and background and insights, exactly what Hopson dismisses as “Wah wah.”

Early on, when I was trying to find a venue for the research I recently
published on Colossal Cave Adventure, I got some very nice rejection
letters from conference organizers who said they themselves would love
to attend a session on a foundational game, but that conference
attendees wouldn’t be able to justify attending such a session. I don’t
do games research because I want to create my own games, just as when I
do literary research I have no intention of publishing a manual on how
to write a best-selling novel or how to produce the next Broadway
sensation. Hopson is writing to a very specific audience, those
researchers who want to get the attention of the games industry —
perhaps because they *do* want to make the transition, as Hopson did,
from academic researcher to industry insider.

I found this article via Torill,
who, after quoting a passage in which Hopson recommends that games
researchers take examples from best-sellers, rather than analyze
obscure games, responds thus:

This basically says: It’s all about making more money, not about making
better games, so if a game is better but isn’t a huge bestseller, the
developers aren’t interested. “Good = huge selling game, screw all
other analysis.” And with that I think game researchers can just pack
up and go back to our departments, as nothing innovative will ever
reach the ears of developers. I’ll not even start bashing the other
advice on that page. It’s all about turning your thesis into a 5 line
ad. Sure, if that’s what you want to do, please listen to Hopson. If
you had hoped to communicating a complex understanding or a new idea,
well, your odds look very short.

She concludes by noting that researchers like Hopson, who have worked
both inside and outside industry, are the only ones who have the dual
skills necessary to make their research of interest to both groups. If
you are hoping to convert an academic career into an industry career,
Hopson’s article contains useful warnings against jargon and choice of
research topic; but his article offers little of value to the
researcher who simply wants to do better academic research. 

Industry would love it if universities churned out graduates who could
walk right into an industry position, without any additional
preparation. And there are pre-professional programs that are designed
specifically to produce a kind of worker — a school teacher, nurse,
physician assistant, etc.  But in a field as varied and intricate as
game development, which draws on content traditionally covered in
several different academic departments (computer science, graphic arts,
narrative and storytelling, psychology, usability and human-computer
interaction), few college graduates are ready to walk off the campus
and into an industry job.  Internships are of course one important way
of bridging that gap.

Every field has room for popularizers and connectors, who can unpack
dense language and translate for the benefit of nonspecialists. Hopson
has the qualifications, but this article seem designed so that games
industry insiders will be able to commiserate and cluck their tongues
over all the boring academics who try to keep pointing their noses
towards the theoretical and exploratory crap that they thought they had
escaped when they fled the quad and settled into their cubicle.  (Matt Barton
is a good example of a games researcher who regularly writes for a
popular audience, but I would be crushed if he dropped his interest in
retrogaming simply because Microsoft can’t figure out how to squeeze
more money out of the genre.)

But there is some knowledge that is worth having, even
though it doesn’t translate to putting dollars in a sponsor’s bank
account. For those cases, I say hurrah for abstraction, hurrah for
theory, and — due to the added efficiency and precision that a
specialized, common language offers to communication between subject
matter experts, — hurrah for