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The psychology of gaming with Celia Hodent

Discover the process of user experience and the psychology behind play with academic, author, and cognitive psychologist Celia Hodent

Critiques of the gaming industry are made pretty regularly. How many times have you heard a moral panic generated by a computer game?! You know, people talking about how games are the cause of youth violence or making kids lazy. Speaking to Celia Hodent, an expert in game UX and cognitive psychology and acclaimed author behind The Psychology of Video Games, debunks some of these myths. As she tells me, one of the biggest surprises for her was the amount of money invested in exploring the negative impact of gaming but much less on the positives generated through this form of play.

RH: Hey Celia - could you introduce yourself and explain what you do?

CH: My name is Celia Hodent; I have a Ph.D. in psychology and specialize in cognitive development. I started to work on educational games, and toys for children. Then, I moved to the game industry. So that was 12 years ago, I started to work at Ubisoft HQ and friends. Then, I worked at Ubisoft in Montreal, then I worked at LucasArts and San Francisco. In 2013, I moved to Epic Games in North Carolina and I became the director of user experience. I worked on a lot of different projects, including Fortnite at Epic, and in October 2017 became an independent consultant. Ever since then, I specialized in user experience strategy. So, what does this mean? The user experience means when you build a product, when you create something, so whether it is a park, an object, a service assistant, a website, or a video game, you put in the end-user. Namely, you place the person who is going to use the system at the center of what you do. You think about what they're going to feel, about what their experience is going to be, and the interests of the product. You are looking to offer the best experience to people so you need to take into account the limitations of people's minds because an experience is what happened in your mind.

When you watch a movie, when you play a game, the way you experience, that all circulates through your mind. But, we have limitations in our mind; our perception is subjective. Our attention resources are scarce - we cannot scan everything on screen at once and our memory is fallible. That is the reason why we need to edit when you make a movie, you need to make sure people can follow the story. We do this with any product and video games are no different. We think about the user’s best interests and we care about topics like ethics, inclusion, and accessibility.

RH: How did you get into gaming?

CH: I am a gamer myself and I have always loved games and playing overall. Playing is very important for child development, but also for adults to stay sharp. In my family, we've always loved playing. As soon as video games came out, my parents bought consoles and we played together. My Ph.D. is about how to acquire knowledge and how that knowledge grows. I did not want to stay in academia. So, I started to think about what I could do and where I could apply this knowledge. I've worked in educational games for years, trying to make sure that the toys and the games for kids are going to really teach them about numbers or letters. Around this time, I also became aware that parents were afraid of video games. To be honest, that was a surprise to me because my parents were all into it. Out of curiosity, I started to look into the research in psychology and social sciences about video games. I wanted to see if there was any research that was done about the impact of video games. People were talking about violence and people were talking about isolation and addiction. So, this is why I started to look into the research and I started to write articles in French to explain why people didn’t need to be afraid of games. Of course, children shouldn’t be playing video games all day long. But beyond that, there is no reason to fear them. After being invited to some conferences to discuss these topics, I started to think that it could be interesting for me to work in the videogame industry, especially back then it was in the mid-2000s. There were a lot of video game developers that were interested in “serious” gaming. This means educational gaming or games that teach you something else. Ubisoft was interested in getting more people that understood neuroscience, cognitive science, and how our mental processes work. This was also interesting to me and that is how I started working with Ubisoft. At the time, it was more about how we can make sure those games had another intention rather than just mere entertainment. My goal was to consider how we could design the game to enhance learning. From there it grew, a game is a learning experience even if it isn’t an educational game - you need to learn about the rules of the game and understand how to work the controls or what you need to do. This is when I started actually teaching the team about cognitive science and all the designers. Through that, I realized that this is what user experience is about.

RH: I wanted to touch on what you mentioned about the fear of gaming. Could you share where you think this concern comes from?

CH: Every time there's a new technology or new art form, there's always fear associated with that. When the press arrived and books were created, they said that fictional books would harm women and infect them with stupid ideas! We had that with radio, new music styles - you know, saying that Rock and Roll was the music of the devil! So, that's always happened. But, for video games, the surprising thing is that it's been lingering around. Video games have entered people's homes and we are in a world with a lot of technology. It could be because of the fear of technology and worrying that we will lose ourselves. I found it weird that we still have all those fears about video games, but it's been certainly fed. However, the stories about those fears are gonna be more successful and once that myth is there it is really hard to dispel. As I was saying, there is always suspicion and concern around new technology which is magnified by the fact that we carry around our phones in our pockets. So, it feels like they are invading our lives. On top of that, we have an estimated nearly 2.8 billion people playing games which represents over a third of the world’s population and a lot of kids are playing them. If you look into the resources, there's been a lot of budget that has been given to research to explore the potential negative impact of video games. Often, this is related to violence. Now, people have started looking into whether gaming has a negative impact on wellbeing but there is not much conclusive evidence that it does any of that. To further this, there is much less research looking into the positive impacts of video games. Conversely, there is a lot of stronger evidence that they can be good. For example, there is research that shows that games can be good for teaching perseverance or improving spatial cognition. A recent study from the Oxford Internet Institute, looking at players who play games like Animal Crossing, correlated with better wellbeing. So, it isn’t to say that it's because you play Animal Crossing that you feel better in your life. But, there's a positive relationship between the two. In other words, we cannot say that playing a video game is going to make you feel less good. It is very similar to social media. There are a lot of people saying that social media is making kids feel anxious but when you look at the data, you don’t really find this link nor do we have really strong evidence to say it makes kids miserable. Naturally, this isn’t to say that there aren’t caveats as everything is about balance. If you only play video games and you don't go out and you don't exercise, there will be a problem. But, today, kids can’t go out with their friends during the pandemic and there aren’t parks everywhere - it is harder for kids to connect. So, a virtual space, as a video game is a way to do that.

RH: If you had to give someone tips on how to maximize the user experience for an online platform or a game, what suggestions would you give?

CH: A lot of people want to either create their first game or gamify their service. The first tip is to be careful because just because some games are engaging, it doesn't mean that all games are going to be engaging! Actually, it is pretty difficult to make them engaging. To do that, you need to understand, at least a little bit, the user experience and your target user’s mindsets. Essentially, you have to shift from your own perspective and adopt the perspective of your user. When we create something, we have a very good mental model and a mental representation of what it's going to look like. For example, when you make a movie, you have a very good picture of its style and you have a storyboard. This is so you have an idea of the plan and what you want to express. But, you can never be sure that people will have the same experience. Are they going to feel the things that you are trying to express? When we make a game, it is even more complex because it is an interactive art form. We need the inputs of the user; that is even more complicated because people need to understand what is going on. They need to know this every step of the way whilst playing so they can react accordingly. Due to this, we need the input of the user and we need to understand what the goal of the human interaction is and how people are going to understand the elements of a system. Namely, if you see an exclamation mark, does that make the user understand that you need to do something there? A lot of users aren't going to understand a certain set of conventions depending on what system they're using and their prior knowledge. If you use Tinder, you are very familiar with the swipe left and swipe right interactions. So, first and foremost, you need to understand who your user is. Who are the people playing your game? What are they used to in regards to gaming conventions? Are you making a game that is pretty niche? Or is it a game open to a lot of people? All of these sorts of questions will affect your design decisions. After this, we need to also think about what it is you want your users to feel. Do you want them to learn about something? Do you want them to learn something about empathy in another situation? This should define entirely how you're going to make your game. Once you decide what your pillars or principles are then you need to understand how the human brain works. For instance, you need to understand things like extrinsic motivation. Why do people do the things they do? And intrinsic motivation such as people needing to feel that they have a level of competence and autonomy. If you made them play a game and they don't feel competent, because they don't really understand how it works, they're going to quit your game or if they don't feel a strong sense of autonomy. Another thing that works well in gaming is to create something people can collaborate on. All of the above are things to take into account. But, at the crux of it, you need to shift from your own perspective and your knowledge of the game. As you know the game well, you know what you are trying to accomplish. We’d call this the curse of knowledge. If you want to make sure you are offering the best experience to people, you need to shift from your perspective to someone else’s who's coming to the game with fresh eyes.

RH: While you have been working in the gaming industry, have you noticed more positive moves towards diversity and inclusion?

CH: Right now, only 20% of the workforce are women in the gaming industry. I’ve been in companies where it is much less than that - we have a big problem! Because we don't have diversity and inclusion within the game industry, the games themselves tend to not be super inclusive. There's some effort made towards that, but we're coming from so far away. Sure, it's exciting to see that, hey, we have some women characters in here, we have a Black person or Caribbean characters - it's exciting. But then you look at how many of them we have, compared to many of the classical, white male heroes that we have - it's really rare and there's still so much to do. In my opinion, it is more important for diverse people to be making the games rather than trying to make diverse content if it is the same people behind the content. Now, what I find exciting is that the tools are getting easier to use. So, it is easier to make games if you don’t have loads of money. Whilst that is different from making a good game and being able to market it, you can make a small game for your own personal practice. But, if you are making a small game, how do you compete with the other games out there? And, naturally, the bigger the company the more money you have for marketing. More often than not, it is the big companies that are not diverse. If you look at the board of the big companies in the US and Europe, it is mainly cis-gender white men. So, yeah, we are talking about it now but it hasn’t changed it and there are some efforts to diversify the content but we have a lot of work to do especially to make the game industry itself more inclusive.

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