I’ve been reading Jesse Schell’s book The Art of Game Design, a book that is practically worshiped in influential gaming circles. As an information scientist, I’m trained to think about the user at all times, whether it’s a library patron checking out a book or a gamer in a boss fight. So, naturally, I was really interested in Schell’s chapters on designing games with their potential players in mind.
I must admit, I was on board with everything in his book until I reached chapter 8, “The game is made for a player.” As I began the chapter, I was expecting to read a review of the principles in user-centered design – such as involving users at all stages of the product’s development, performing usability testing, and so on… especially given the game industry’s tendency to involve players in widespread beta testing. Instead, Schell presented me with psychological theories such as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, among others, as well as designing by generalized demographics. This generalization section is where I seriously objected.
If you’ve been reading this blog for long, you might remember from my previous posts such as “Boy gamers, girl gamers… or just plain gamers?” and “Girls and sex (and games): An unnatural order of things?” that I’ve never been your “average” girl – whatever average means. So when I read in Schell’s section on designing by demographics that “when making games for large audiences, generalizations are useful” (p. 103), I woke up and read on.
Age: in my age bracket of Schell’s (35-50; I’m at the lower end, so watch your comments) he focuses on the fact that people in this bracket are busy with raising a family and may not have as much time for games and “look for game playing opportunities the whole family can enjoy together.” I don’t have a family. I don’t have as much time for games as I’d like because I have a demanding career, but I don’t have to worry about what the little munchkins think of my passion for PvP.
/stops to save post draft obsessively due to thunderstorm passing through town
Gender: this is the section that made me want a drink. Apparently, men like mastery, competition, destruction, spatial puzzles, and trial and error in games… ok, sure. I’m not a man and I don’t want to generalize men based on the men I know/game with, but this isn’t every quality I observe in my male gamer friends.
Apparently, women like to see the following in games:
– Emotion. As support, he says that women like “emotional” romance novels, and men like “physical” porn. I have never read an “emotional” romance novel, unless I was making fun of one, which may have happened during less productive times in my high school and university days. I’ll never admit to it.
– Real world. Females apparently like to do things that mimic RL, like taking care of dolls. The dolls I owned as a girl stayed in the closet, while I ran the video games nonstop. He mentions Barbie games in this section. Not so much. Anytime I’ve ever discussed Barbie games with a female friend, she has a similar disgusted reaction; we go to the restroom and and throw up together (because, of course, ladies always use the bathroom in pairs).
– Nurturing. “Females enjoy nurturing. Girls enjoy taking care of baby dolls, toy pets, and children younger than themselves” (p. 104). I guess this is why I told my parents at a young age that I didn’t want any brothers or sisters, and I thankfully remained an only child? Oh, wait. Never mind.
– Dialog and virtual puzzles. OK, this is one point I agree with: my spatial skills are not nearly as good as my verbal skills. I get laughed at all the time in game for my inability to find things, but I can carry on 5 whisper conversations while reading guild and general chat without thinking twice. But the spatial/verbal thing is different because that’s based on biology; the other things might be due to socially created gender expectations.
– Learning by example. “They [females] have a strong appreciation for clear tutorials that lead you carefully, step by step, so that when it is time to attempt a task, the player knows what she is supposed to do” (p, 105). Oh, GOD, no. Just give me the game and let me screw around with it. I learn things so much better when I get in and screw them up. Of course, I’ve never had the problem that I’ve encountered with some people who think the computer is going to blow up if you do the wrong thing.
– Also, he states that girls don’t like blowing up things in game (he’s never seen me play on an evening after a tense committee meeting at work, obviously) and that women, as mothers, don’t care much about having fun as long as their family is having fun. I know several mothers who game, and they can blow things up for their personal enjoyment as much as any man; in fact, it’s an outlet for them so they have something to do outside of their kids’ needs. But I guess they are in the 1% too.
So, back to information science research: one of my favorite professors in information science school, Dr. Linda Schamber, used to tell us that if it wasn’t about people, we shouldn’t include it in our papers for her class. I took three classes from her, and even in her Information Organization class, she remained stoically user-centric. At a time when the games industry is fragmented in interesting ways, from the “non-gamers” who are playing CityVille and Angry Birds all day, to the hardcore types who are somewhat bored with the options, it is certainly the case that designers must understand their future players’ needs, and design accordingly. But, what is the best way to do this? It’s a difficult question because you can’t characterize gamers any one way – or, if you do, you have to look at many facets, as @Gameronomist and I uncovered in Gamer Classification Week on this blog.
We do lots of research in IS on things like “the information needs of X group.” Unfortunately, these groups are frequently operationalized by the university students that the researchers can easily collect; this is not authentic user needs research. Sure, students game, but so do many other “types” of people, including women who never played with dolls and men who like to socialize while they level. Game designers and information scientists need to work together in meaningful ways to actually base game design on real input from real potential players, and think about ways to make game features flexible based on a range of real human desires and preferences, not on the ideas that boys like this, girls like this, young people are this way, and so on. We can do it. We haven’t yet, but we can.
Game design should take into account a number of factors, including evidence-based user studies. Information scientists can help with this. Also, I’m in the 1%, but strangely enough, I’m not voting for Romney.
Ding! You’ve leveled up! Please see your local librarian for training.