Competence, autonomy, relatedness: Celia Hodent on games design

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Celia Hodent on UX and the gamer’s brain

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Gerry Gaffney

This is Gerry Gaffney with the User Experience podcast. My guest today has worked at Ubisoft, LucasArts and Epic Games and on multiple games including Paragon, SpyJinx and Fortnite.

She has a PhD in Psychology. She has spoken, written, presented and run tutorials on the subject of UX in games design. Her recent and I must say excellent book is The Gamer’s Brain: How Neuroscience and UX can Impact Video Game Design.

And I should also say thanks to James Hunter for telling me about this book, which I hadn’t come across previously.

Celia Hodent, welcome to the User Experience podcast.

Celia Hodent

Hi Gerry. Thanks for having me.

Gerry

Do you think it’s surprising that UX seems to have come somewhat late to games design?

Celia

Yeah. It’s quite interesting ’cause UX is a term that was coined by Donald Norman in the 90’s and, yeah, it took quite a while for UX to really enter the game industry. I reckon it really happened when we started to do games as a service and live games more and more because if you want to make any money with this type of games you really need to think about how you’re going to engage your players on the long term. And so it’s probably when more and more people tried to figure out how to engage players and how does this work and the psychology behind it, human factors, ergonomics and all these, uh, framework that we didn’t have in the industry before or more anecdotally. We had playtests for a quite a bit. Uh, like big companies like Microsoft or Ubisoft or EA were doing playtests but there was no real process or real strategy UX strategy in the studio and is just starting to, um, to get there. So it’s, it’s quite exciting right now.

Gerry

I was a little bit surprised reading the book that the, if you like traditional usability heuristics going back to a Nielsen Norman or Nielsen Molich, I guess, um, translate pretty well to the world of games design.

Celia

Yeah. Well this, I mean games are an interactive platform anyway. So most of these heuristics are, are the same, you know, we need to understand what you can do in the system and when you interact with the system you need to have a feedback on what you do. So the heuristics are really really useful, the only thing is in the game industry you don’t use the same vocabulary. So my job was mainly trying to adjust the vocabulary used by Jacob Nielsen with his ten usability heuristics into the world of the game design so that I could actually eat my own dog food and make and make principals game UX accessible to game developers. So I changed the vocabulary a little bit. So it was, it was more understandable for game developers.

Gerry

Yeah. But you didn’t change it as much as one might expect, as I might’ve expected for example.

Celia

They’re pretty reliable and strong and there’s a lot of research that builds all these heurisitics up. So there’s no reason to change them. Just the, the main difference is… A video game is, again, you know, it’s an interactive platform that the main difference with a website or a software is that video games is an autotelic activity. So you engage with the video game just for the pleasure of engaging with them is not to accomplish a separate task. And so because of that, there’s just some specific things that, for example, you don’t, you don’t necessarily want to have a manual, you want to make sure that people know what to do, but you want more. You want to make sure that it can learn by doing and that you remove some of the friction, but you also want to have some, frictions that are by design because when you play video game you you want some challenge so you are going to add some elements of what you’d call friction, like moments of, of little frustrations, uh, when they are by design so that players can try to overcome these challenges. So that’s the main difference. But I mean the rest is pretty much the same. You know, we need, players need to understand what’s going on, what they can do, they cannot be too much overwhelmed and you’ll have to make sure that you prevent errors. And it’s just the same basic concepts like for any interactive platform.

Gerry

Yeah, I know you’ve got a lot of very, very practical advice and examples in the book about, you know, the fact that a player may come to the game and then not come back again for a couple of weeks and when it’s appropriate to teach them something and when you might need to re-teach them. And what methods to use to teach them and so on. And so it’s, it’s very much a, despite being, you know, quite a quite big on theory, it’s also very, very big on practice. I guess that was a deliberate strategy on your part.

Celia

Oh yeah, absolutely. Yeah. I mean, I’m interested in the human factors theory in HCI, human computer interaction theories for sure. But I’ve been working with development teams for quite numerous new years now and so, and I know that they need practical advice and knowledge. Theory is interesting, but at the end of the day, you need to know what to do. And even though there’s no one recipe to do that, we now have ingredients and a ways to apply them. So I really tried to make sure that the ingredients that I’m talking about, whether it’s usability or engageability, how to make sure to engage buyers on the long term, uh, to give a lot of examples that can apply to various games. I mean, the principles are the same whatever game you’re making, whatever platform and whatever type of game you’re making but of course you’re going to apply these elements differently depending on what challenges the players have and what sort of platform. You were talking about, um, when you stopped playing for a little while and then come back. There’s a bunch of stuff that players are going to forget because of the forgetting curve. There’s an exponential nature of forgetting. And so if you polish your onboarding, making sure that players learn very well, all the mechanics of the game at the beginning of the game, then they come back two weeks later and they’ve forgot probably like 70% of what they saw two weeks earlier then it’s a big problem because the game system doesn’t necessarily take that into account. And this can be a discrepancy between where the game is at a certain level of difficulty and where the player is now because they might have lost a lot of information in between then and now. So all these elements, they have to be taken into account and, and whether you’re doing a free to play game on mobile or big game, like triple-A game on console, these elements don’t have necessarily the same weight. We still have the same challenges and issues we need to tackle for all the games, but they don’t necessarily have the same weight or we don’t have the same urgency or criticality.

Gerry

You’ve really kind of touched on it already, but the, there was at one stage I think a little bit of a misconception that UX would distort games by making them too easy, but you’re distinguishing quite clearly between the difficulty of the game play and the difficulty of the UI and the interaction.

Celia

Yeah, absolutely. And that’s a big misconception. And it’s quite understandable because UX is such a, a new discipline in the game industry and, and so game developers sometimes fear that it’s only if you make the game more usable it’s only going to make the game easier and, and then we’re not going to have complex games like Dark Souls anymore. But it’s really a misconception because whatever intentions the game developers have, this is what we’re going to help them create. So if you intend to have a lot of challenges for the players, if you want to make a game that is going to be really hard to beat, we’re totally gonna help you do that. But it’s not because you’d want to make a game that’s hard to beat, that you want to make your icons confusing or the menus hard to navigate. It’s two different things. And we have to discriminate between the frictions that are not by design, from the frictions and frustrations that are by design, that we’re trying to create for the flyer. But that’s a very important distinction.

Gerry

Yeah. You’ve got a lovely examples in the book too about, you know, good and bad heads-up displays and things like icons and navigational schemes and so on and why one is better than the other. So that I thought that worked really, really well. I guess on a somewhat related topic… the topic of accessibility, I was reading an article, New York Times, just yesterday or the day before talking about Microsoft’s involvement in making the Xbox console accessible. So that’s a whole interesting area, isn’t it?

Celia

Absolutely. And it’s time that we do that. Yeah, the Xbox controller and accessible controller is really awesome. And Bryce Johnson that worked on it is a friend of mine has done a terrific job on it with a lot of other people, of course, including disabled people. And that’s really important because, I mean, gaming is for everyone and everyone can game. And there’s no reason why we add some barriers in the games because in the end of the day, you know, people have disabilities, they are disabled because of the environment. So if you’re in a wheelchair and you can’t get to a place because of the staircase, it’s the staircase that makes you disabled. And in games there’s, I mean, we can completely transform all the environment, so there’s no reason to not do it. And there’s way more people with disabilities that we think and they are playing games. And so it’s really important that, uh, we designed for, inclusivity and making sure that we break all these barriers so that everyone can enjoy games.

Gerry

Indeed. I guess somewhat related to accessibility is a, I think a new feature in Apex Legend, the enhanced ping ability that lets people communicate without a mic or a headset and, therefore without having to speak or hear. And it also breaks the language barrier. Have you had a look at that? Have you had any thoughts on that?

Celia

Not yet, but this is actually all these are features that allow players to communicate without having to talk a is good for accessibility. It’s also good to tackle toxicity because as soon as you can talk through the game, well, some, not a big percentage but still, there are some, a small percentage of people are going to use this voice to harass other players. And so anytime we can make sure that players can communicate and accomplish their goals without having to talk it’s a very good way to tackle several different problems at the same time. But I mean, it’s been a while that’s a lot of games are experiencing with that. I remember Journey that’s now it’s been released a few years ago, where the whole premise of the game was to be able to communicate with someone else and playing with someone else without being able to communicate verbally. And so you had to find ways to express what you wanted to express to that you can collaborate with the other player. So all these elements are really cool. They are cool for accessibility reasons, they are good to tackle toxicity. But it’s also interesting to find different ways to communicate just in terms of game plan for the experience that you want to own to offer. So it’s a big one on, on many different aspects.

Gerry

Yeah. I’d like to come back to the toxicity thing. But one thing just before we move away from the whole accessibility thing is the issue of age is interesting. Until a few years ago, I think gamers were considered to be, I don’t know, certainly under the age of 35 and then perhaps around the time that Nintendo Wii came out there was a realization that hey, the audience for gaming is a hell of a lot bigger than maybe the industry had thought.

Celia

Yeah, I know. And also then the kids that were playing the games when the first consoles… I was a kid of the Intellivision and consoles like these, now we are in our 40’s or sometimes 50’s. So we also, uh, that generation is also getting older. But sure. I mean, just like anything, as soon as you remove some barriers, video games, it’s just a medium. And so with that new game you can do whatever you can offer, whatever experience do you want to offer. Just like just like movies or just like a book. You can have movies that are for a certain audience, like, um, very mass market movies. And then you can have more movies like more niche and then you can have documentaries and then you have a romantic movies and you have action movies. Same thing for video games. You can have a lot of different games and different people are going to play different games. And if you want to try to reach an untapped audience, then you just need to have more diversity in the games that you’re proposing and to do that and you need to have more diversity within the game studios that’s going to help put down these barriers that don’t need to be there. So yeah, there’s a different content for different people and the more usable and accessible the games are, the bigger the audience.

Gerry

Are the studios addressing the issue of diversity within their own teams?

Celia

I think they’re starting to talk about the problem. Now it’s a big issue and there were a few scandals a here and there and then, so I think now that the studios are really trying to think about it more specifically, but it’s, it’s still, it’s still a young, um, train of thought I would say. I think people want to tackle it and they don’t necessarily know how to tackle it. And, um, there’s a lot of misconceptions about this too, like saying, well, women are not interested in making games or we don’t have a, there’s not enough people of colour who are engineers, so therefore we can’t hire them. So there’s a lot of misconception with that. And there’s also a lot of unconscious biases that we need to fight or at least that go around because we can’t really, it’s hard to [fight our] biases. So that’s also the reason why I’m starting to do some workshops around unconscious biases and how these are, how you need to understand these. If you want to make sure that your studio is going to be more diverse and inclusive, because it’s not, it’s not that easy. Even if you believe in diversity is not that easy to hire and to promote minorities. It’s just like anything, just like UX, you need to understand a little bit how the brain works and why are we here and why is this happening to be able to tackle it properly. So again, it’s gonna, just like UX, it’s starting. But it’s gonna take some more time before more systematic processes are put in place to make that happen.

Gerry

The first half of the book more or less is about how the brain works and the implications for games design. Some of it’s a bit dark. For example, the material on variable rewards really explicitly calls out the deliberately addictive practices of slot machine design for example and indeed many social media elements. It is kind of a dark area, isn’t it?

Celia

I mean it’s, it’s dark, depending on your intention behind it. So addiction is actually a disorder and we usually try to avoid talking about addiction, unless we’re really talking about the disorder which exists, but it’s only like about less than a 1% of all the gamers that are becoming addicted to games. So it’s more about making an activity more engaging. And we know since the experiments that Skinner did… the Skinner Box with a pigeon, we do know that when the reward is given on a variable schedule so you don’t necessarily have it every time, every time you press the lever you don’t get your pellet of food. So same thing if you open loot boxes, sometimes you get something super cool that sometimes you don’t really get something cool.

We know then when it’s variable we are more engaged with the activity than if we get the reward every time. So we know that and this is what casinos are doing, but it’s engaging like, and any game that use dice, use that too. So it’s, it’s not necessarily bad by itself. It’s always fun to throw dice and you have, “Oh cool, double six,” and you play chutes and ladder and you’ll, you also have, there’s this variable schedule of reinforcement of reward. But when you do that, now it can be a bit dark if you use that to make money. So loot boxes or casinos and that’s the reason why in casinos it’s not a allowed if you’re a minor. And so for video games it can be a bit tricky when you think about that. First of all loot boxes are still allowed for everybody, except, like it was Belgium, the Belgian commission that is a banning loot boxes now in video games, but it’s harder to ID our players. So what can we allow and, and why, and you know, in casinos you can have real life gains, whereas in video games that usually is not real life gains, it’s a reward from inside the game. But then you also have second markets where whereby players can exchange with a gain or sometimes make money out of it. So it’s still a gray area and we need to talk about it. But it’s not, I mean it’s not dark by itself. It’s more the, the intentions that’s behind and is it, is it to make the activity more engaging? Just like, whenever like RNG is used like in any RPG, role playing game, that sometimes you have a critical hit and you’re going to destroy the monster in just one hit. And that’s also a random variable schedule of reinforcements. So it’s not, it’s not the design by itself that is a problem. It’s how you use it and for what intent.

Gerry

Sure. Yep. And I promise not to focus on dark things, but I have one more…

Celia

It’s okay, we need to talk about the dark things too.

Gerry

The dark side… How can you design a game in such a way that you minimize toxic behaviour because that can be a real problem, can’t it? And how can you deal with that behaviour when it does occur?

Celia

Yeah, it’s a very good question. When toxic behaviour occurs and, and it’s really the same principle as we just talked about, behavioural psychology with the variable schedule of reinforcement, when if you want to see a behaviour decrease such as toxicity, you also use behavioural psychology. And so usually if you want to a behaviour to decrease, you need to punish that behaviour. So by punishment I don’t mean physical punishment, I just mean that for example if you’re harassing someone on Twitter or in a game, well the punishment will be that people can say that you’re, you know, harassing them and then Twitter or the studio are going to look into the claims. And if you did do something that was against the code of conduct, then you’re banned from using the platform for a certain amount of time.

So it’s really important to put in place these things, have a code of conduct, in your game, your platform or whatever it is, and apply it, which is the difficult part and not shy away from punishing. And, again, punishment doesn’t mean something terrible, but make sure that people understand that there are limits and there are boundaries, and this is not tolerated and therefore we will not tolerate it. So that’s one aspect. The other aspect is also thinking about how to design, how do you get to design the game to promote social behaviour and discourage antisocial behaviour. Say if you have a game, like a lot of MOBAs have that feature. Like a Battle Arena type of game where usually it’s the last hit, you have to kill enemies, it’s the person who does the last hit that gets the experience points.

Well, when you have a design like that it can promote players who try to troll you and wait for you to, you know, you’re going to spend all your manna, you tax yourself to destroy an enemy and you’re just coming around and waiting for the last hit and then you get the last set. So you didn’t use any of your manna or whatever. But you are going to get the XPs. So when you have that sort of design, it is going to reward players who troll. So you have to think about a way of rewarding, uh, cooperation and discouraging of trolling or such behaviour. So it’s, it’s complicated. You have to think about, you know, what’s in your game and are these features and encouraging or discouraging a certain behaviour and to tweak them accordingly.

So, uh, you make it better. I’m going to take another example from Journey to make it clearer. Jenova Chen, the designer from the game, wanted to have an experience where people collaborate even though they don’t speak the same language. And so what did, the first playtest with the game, he saw players interacting with each other and he initially had collision between the characters so you could push the other person playing with you. And what he saw is that having this was rewarding behaviour of pushing each other and pushing someone off a cliff because it’s not because people are evil by nature. It’s because you, you, you have a game, you like to experience things and so you’re going to try a few things, and one of the things that we can push someone and that person’s going to fall off the cliff and die. And that’s something that, something’s happening. And so he didn’t want that to be rewarding. So he removed collision in the game. So you can’t, if you get closer to another character, then you don’t push that character, it just goes through the other player and by doing so and then he had some of the things that when you close to that person, something happens and you can fly higher. He found ways to reward collaboration and to avoid reward trolling. And that’s what we need to do to tackle toxicity and make sure we have a code of conduct, enforce it and make sure that we punish toxic behaviour, but also make sure that we can reward collaborative behaviour and not encourage, and not absolutely not reward toxic or trolling behaviour.

Gerry

There’s been a lot of talk about gamification within all sorts of organizations, telcos and banks and churches and whatnot, trying to introduce game-like elements to increase engagement. You’re not a big fan of the term gamification, I think…

Celia

Yeah, because usually when we talk about gamification what we mean is adding badges and progression bars. And these are really about extrinsic motivation. So you do something and you’re going to get something for doing that. So extrinsic motivation is certainly important in games and we talked about rewards earlier. The rewards are definitely important in games, but it’s a small part of all the things that happen in a game. And, and in my book, I describe all the usability part and I also describe all the engage-ability part. So to engage players you need to care about human motivation. You need to care about emotion, you need to care about game flow and in the motivation part, sure you need to make sure that people have extreme rewards for what they’re doing. But you still care about intrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation is about why would you do an activity for the sake of doing it.

And we have a very strong theory to explain intrinsic motivation called SDT for self determination theory and it explains that activities that satisfy your need for competence, autonomy and relatedness are the most engaging activities. And so we focus a lot on that end games to make sure that people can become competent and know how to use the tools in the game and become more competent in the game and more badass. But also we give them tools to be autonomous, to be creative, to express themselves. If you look at dance moves in Fortnite, this is all about autonomy and how you portray or express yourself. And relatedness, well, make sure that there’s a lot of meaningful ways to cooperate with others, etc, etc. So when we talk about gamification and gamifying whatever platform or software or training session or whatever, and you’re only thinking about adding badges, it’s not really understanding what games are all about and why good games are so engaging.

So that’s the reason why I don’t like the term because it’s really missing out on what is truly a powerful in games

Gerry

It’s a bit shallow?

Celia

Absolutely. Yeah.

Gerry

I’m keeping an eye on the time here, I’m very conscious that we’re running out.

You’re very clear that anyone aspiring to get into games UX needs to apply a certain rigour. Do you have any advice for anybody who’s working, perhaps starting off in UX and very interested in getting into games or maybe in games and wanting to add a bit of UX to their capability, what should they do?

Celia

That’s a good question. So first of all, people who are in games or want to add a little bit of UX as you say, UX is the concern of everyone on the team. So they should, everybody should be concerned about user experience and how to make sure that we can offer the experience we want to the audience that we have… It can be just reading about human factors or, I mean it’s, I feel a bit corny to say that, but my book is a good entry level to talk about these elements and also make sure that you understand that perception is subjective and because you believe that that feature is going to be good for your game that your audience is going to feel the same way, it’s humbling in the sense that you, you understand better that the reality is not what matters is the perception of reality. And we all have different perceptions.

But then if people coming from UX, human factors or research want to get in the game industry, they need to understand game design a little bit. So it’s not just playing games. Playing games is really important. It’s also about understanding how it works. Because it’s quite complex to make games and there’s a lot of different people and disciplines that are collaborating to make games. So you have designers, you have engineers, you have artists, musicians, sound designers and all that. So you need to understand a little bit how it works and what are the constraints on making games to make sure that whatever methodology you’ve applied in the past, how you can translate it into this industry.

And as for the people who want to get into UX, there’s two main things, two main paths, either you do UX design, so these people are designers and they design the interaction, they design the information architecture. And so for that you need to learn a little bit about HCI, human computer interaction, but also understand about design and create a lot of the systems and do a lot of mock ups to train yourself and to get better at it. And then you have UX research. So that’s more about how to test the design and how to the system to ensure that it’s, it’s offering the experience that we wanted to the audience. So to do research, you really have to understand the scientific method and preferentially experience in conducting experiments. So it’s usually people coming from either human factor psychology or experimental psychology who know how to design an experimental protocol and run it and remove as much as possible the biases that we can induce when we conduct the research.

Gerry

Celia’s book, which really is fantastic… When James told me about it, he said, read the first half, but I read the whole thing. [Laughter.]

think it really is a superb book and I’m not, and I’m not particularly interested in games to be honest, but if I were, I would definitely have this at the top of my list, but even from a pure UX perspective, it’s definitely one to read. The book is called The Gamer’s Brain: How Neuroscience and UX can Impact Video Game Design.

Celia Hodent, thanks so much for joining me today on the User Experience podcast.

Celia

Yeah, no wuckers! You’re very welcome.

Gerry GaffneyCompetence, autonomy, relatedness: Celia Hodent on games design

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