The Human Element of Games: Lessons from the Game UX Summit

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn

Do you remember your first hobby? The one that you’d stay up late doing, or that made you feel like you belonged? I want you to imagine if you couldn’t do that hobby. Let's say you couldn't participate in it because you can't move your body a certain way or see/hear as well as other people. To make it easier for you would cost more money and time for the people who make your hobby possible. How would you feel?

Now imagine if someone said that if you were bad at this hobby you were somehow less of a person… or that you should kill yourself for how bad you are at it. How does that make you feel?

This is the reality for quite a few people who play digital games.

Games have been around since some of the earliest known civilizations, and video games are one of the most popular forms of entertainment today. But for something that's so fundamentally human they can often be exclusive, from the in-game content shown to the culture around gaming itself.

Incorporating the human element into products is a challenge that user experience (UX) designers tackle regularly - our job is centered around finding the humanity in and advocating for users (or players). We do research to understand who the users for a product are and what kinds of challenges they face with the tools they use in order to build better products and experiences. 

So how can UX design be applied to games?

I spent the first week of October attending the Games UX Summit in Toronto, which tackles this question and other design challenges in the video games industry. This is the second time the conference has been held, hosted this year by Ubisoft Toronto. Around three hundred and fifty people from around the world - Finland, Brazil, Russia, and more - came to Toronto to learn more about games UX over two days. Each day had a general theme that designers from all parts of the games industry shared about: the first centered around toxicity in games, a topic that’s been at the forefront in the industry recently; the second on accessibility, one that can be looked over at times. 

Here’s what I learned:

Players make mistakes too.

Are there players who enjoy being cruel to other players? Yes. Are they the majority? No, and as UX designers we can use design thinking to find ways to make sure that players are rewarded for making gaming a positive shared experience. 

Toxicity has been a hot topic with Gamergate exposing the harassment female players and creators experience online, but it’s a problem that is way more complex than I first thought. For one, I assumed that the players who say nasty things to others online do it all the time and are just not nice people. 

But according to Riot Games’ Kam Fung though, it’s often just a one off moment. When he asked the audience to raise their hands if they’d ever said something rude in the heat of a moment in a game, a large number of people sheepishly raised their hands. Kam pointed out that we are biased to see the bad in others more easily than in ourselves, which leads us to believe other people are the problem. He proposed a different way of tackling the design challenge of community interactions: 

How do we reward players for good behavior and allow them to reform for bad behavior?

That’s the million dollar question, one the entire games industry is committed to finding solutions to. At Twitch for example, data scientist Ruth Toner combines data science metrics with UX thinking to analyze points where abusive behavior occurs and build tools that help streamers and moderators manage channel comments without it becoming overwhelming. There was inspiration from sources outside of games: Ben Lewis-Evans from Epic Games used lessons from his time in road safety to effectively reinforce positive community behavior through what he called the Three E’s: Education, Enforcement, and Engineering.

Looking beyond games, reduce toxic behavior is a design challenge that many brands and industries will face as they grow their communities and build brand loyalty. Thinking about how to reward positive behavior will reach the larger audience who behave within community standards and create more success rather than tackling negative reinforcement only.

Accessibility is a requirement, not a feature.

At the start of her talk, Alex Neonakis from Naughty Dog told us about when she approached the development team to add more accessibility features to Uncharted 4. They told her “this is too much work, maybe next time.”

It wasn’t said with malice - making games is a business after all - but it still broke my heart. I’ll admit that accessibility isn’t one of the first experiential goals that comes to mind when I design. But after hearing the stories that several speakers shared, it’s something that I think I and many other people will find much easier to include in our processes. 

Bryce Johnson, Microsoft

For one thing, designing for accessibility isn’t designing just for a specific group. One of the principles of Microsoft's Inclusive Design Toolkit is “solve for one, extend for many”, a principle that designer Bryce Johnson demonstrated. He asked us to imagine designing for someone with just one arm; the design could enable someone who is temporarily disabled (someone with a broken arm) or in a situation where they can’t use both hands (a parent holding a baby) to be able to play as well. 

A real life example? Closed captioning is a feature that supports hard of hearing players but is very commonly used by others. I use them myself because I often have to play with the sound turned down to not disturb other people and sometimes have difficulty with characters’ accents. There are a multitude of scenarios that are solved with closed captioning, and all it took was solving for one. 

There are also steps that designers can take when designing their interfaces, from adding visual indicators to pair with audio cues to replacing button mashes to holds for fine motor control considerations. Some may not be the prettiest of fixes but can make all the difference in a person’s experience, like adding a reticle in the center of a screen to reduce motion sickness. As someone who gets motion sick at the drop of a hat, I think it would be really nice to play games without needing motion sickness medication or a bucket on hand. 

Blind gamer Steve Saylor said during a panel on inclusivity and accessibility that if he sees accessibility features in a game, he feels they’re made for him and he will become that game’s biggest advocate. If games can access an audience with this much passion, then accessibility needs to become a key experiential goal and deliberately integrated into design and development processes moving forward.

Yes we still need to talk about inclusion and diversity.

Accessibility is just one factor to consider when designing for inclusivity. Diversity and inclusion is an ongoing discussion in games, but a lot of what people are writing about is about being in the industry. We also need to consider it in the players we design for, and there is a lot of opportunity to apply UX processes to encourage this in game development. 

Let's start with looking at our users: the game players. Players often identify or get sorted into two categories: “hardcore” and “casual”. Each term carries a weight to it, and this can lead to people being excluded from games based on the way that they identify can often lead to them, or even self-excluding.

During her keynote, Kongregate CEO and co-founder Emily Greer talked about how platforms were perceived in the late 90’s/early 2000’s as being targeted to certain genders. 

Emily Greer, Kongregate

The platforms on the left are considered to be ‘hardcore’, the ones on the right ‘casual’.

You can see where I’m leading with this right? But in a study done in 2016, about 41% of gamers identify as female across the board - that’s not accounting for differences across game genres, which was studied by a separate group. Categorizing gamers into “hardcore” or “casual” creates labels that can be inaccurate, prejudicial, and harmful.

To move away from this, Emily proposed different classifications: novelty seekers, one-game hobbyists, true casual, and game omnivores.

    Emily Greer's proposed classifications of gamer types

    What I really love about these terms is they feel much more human and take into account more nuances than the current system does. These shouldn’t be used as personas, but instead offer a different approach that I think should encourage us to retire the ‘hardcore’/‘casual’ classification.

    In addition to changing the conversation about how we view players, we need to make games themselves more diverse. One of the opportunities available is to make more diverse characters, something that Mitu Khandaker is tackling using artificial intelligence at her startup Spirit AI. She said “character creation screens show how we define/categorize people. Think carefully about how we expose models of [them].”

    Advocating for users is a core piece of user experience, and that means advocating for everyone - I'll now be evaluating my work to see if anyone is being excluded from participating in the experience at all stages of development. There are far more benefits to doing so, including solving for edge cases that may not have considered initially. In doing so, there could be an opportunity for delighting users or extending use of a product/experience. 

    UX may be the new kid, but designers want to be part of the team

    Games UX is a pretty new field, and designers in every studio are facing the challenge of being included in the game development process. Designers have to build trust and respect with our teams so that we can be included in the process, but this is a change we can’t enact on our own - we hope that other teams will advocate for us too. But to get there, UX has to do a lot of the initial legwork to build the relationships and investment needed.

    Almost everyone who gave a talk emphasized how important it was to communicate with development teams in order to generate ideas from diverse sources and get stakeholders from every discipline to buy in. But the first step to getting there is to demonstrate the value of design, and getting a seat at the table is often an uphill battle. David Candland from Bungie showed us a few things he was asked during his career:

      David Candland, Bungie

      Sound familiar? Everyone in attendance thought so - the entire audience groaned or chuckled at these quotes. Designers know that UX isn’t just a gate that needs to be passed or a service to be added, but we need to prove that.

      How do we combat this? Creative solutions and communication.

      When he was working on Destiny, David didn’t want to talk down to players. He instead relied on visual cues and animations to teach features rather than text so that the players wouldn’t feel like they would have to face another hurdle in order to continue to play. Reducing the UI elements in Destiny led to much cleaner interfaces while still conveying the necessary information, and this came about through continued conversations with stakeholders to get buy in on design decisions. 

      Pointers on how to get UX a seat at the table from Kabam's Ellie Moon 

      So what does that process look like? It depends from studio to studio - Ellie Moon and her team created a new process at Kabam as they designed Marvel: Contest of Champions and offered some great pointers for how to build that process elsewhere (shown on the right).

      Although it’s still an uphill battle to get UX a seat at the table, many places are starting to recognize the value and are forming their own design practices. Some game studios lean heavily on their player communities for input on design, while others are refining their processes to include UX upfront.

      Regardless of company or industry, it’s important to find ways to build trust between UX and development teams so that the organization can maximize the benefit of what UX brings to the table. 

      There is no “us” and “them"

      That’s the biggest lesson I learned from these two days: whether we play or make a game, the passion we all share is the same. The challenges presented during the Games UX Summit are ones that will not be solved overnight, but UX designers have an opportunity to use design methodologies to think about in how games are made and experienced. The future for games UX is bright, and I'm excited to see what's next.