Sunday, February 20, 2011

Games are Publications

I was just asked an interesting question by a Ph.D. candidate: "how would I, as an academic researcher, contribute to the field of video game design?"

This is interesting because it seems so straightforward and obvious, but really thinking about it led me to a series of conclusions that really show both the similarities and differences between academia and industry.

Here's the "obvious" answer (well, obvious to anyone in industry): you don't. Industry largely ignores academic research. This isn't because game designers are a bunch of haters, it's for purely pragmatic reasons:
  • Academic papers tend to be "rigorous" which is a nice way of saying that they take forever to read before you get to the useful parts;
  • Even if we did have time, there's a dearth of peer-reviewed academic journals that specifically address game design, so we would have to hunt through all kinds of unrelated journals just to find something that's even relevant to the field;
  • A lot of academics have no understanding or experience of industry, and therefore publish research that is useless to practitioners, so you have to read through multiple game design papers just to get one that you can use at all.
All of these things mean that finding useful academic research takes an awful lot of time, and time is the one thing game developers never have. We're working on a game, for Pete's sake, and it has to ship yesterday. Who has time to read through journals? We'll read Game Developer Magazine and maybe some articles on Gamasutra, but that's the most we can hope for. And publishing there won't get an academic researcher promotions or tenure, so forget it. Hence, researchers shouldn't bother, the majority of the time.

But wait -- does that mean that the field of game design is stagnating, if there is no way to push cutting-edge research to the field? Quite the contrary; we see innovative and iterative designs all the time. So how does the field build on itself, if there's no research? Thinking about this uncovers a flaw in the original question: it is built on some assumptions about the function and form of academic research.

In the sciences, at least, here's how it works. Suppose you're a research faculty. You do some research. You publish your results in a peer-reviewed refereed journal. Professional R&D folks in industry follow at least the top-tier journals to stay current on cutting-edge techniques and technology. The academic journal represents a primary source of knowledge that builds on itself over time. The original question assumes that game design works like this too. It doesn't.

Here is how professional game designers do research: they play games. Unlike other parts of a video game, the design is laid bare whenever you play. By playing you can explore the mechanics that were designed. Any mechanics that are hidden from you, such as combat formulas or enemy stats, can be found in a published hint guide (which is the closest thing we have to a public design document, most of the time). This allows us to analyze and study games directly. We ask questions like "how do these mechanics create a positive or negative player experience?" and "why did the designer choose to implement that feature in this particular way?" and "what are the weak points of this game, and how would we fix it?"

It is really a wonderful form of "publication"; imagine if scientists did not merely publish the results of their experiments, but also made their petri dishes and cell lines and laboratory equipment and whatnot available, and these were included in each journal so that the reader could precisely replicate their experiments at home! This is what published games are for game designers. Play is the game design equivalent of reading an academic journal. (Oh, how I love this field.)

So, this brings us to the non-obvious answer to the original question: to contribute to the field of knowledge that is game design, make a game and release it. If your game does something interesting, game designers will play it, analyze it, pick it apart, learn from it, and incorporate its lessons into their future designs.

It also means that all game designers, whether in academia or industry, are doing cutting-edge research, and every published game is peer-reviewed.


skysenshi said...

Hehe. I'm taking my PhD...and I play games (worked in a game company too, and running a video game website). So yeah...I do understand that research papers tend to get redundant. Although there are schools that do not accept proposals that go beyond 50 pages.

Also, instead of handing out academically strict research journals to game designers, PhD holders can also simplify their content so they can be published as layman friendly books. No need to include review of related literature, methodologies and such. They can simply write about the meat of their research.

I do plan to go back to designing game features...but as you've implied, it's quite difficult to work on your PhD and design games at the same time. I went through a lot of paradigm shifts. Maybe someday, I can reconcile the differences.

Nathan said...

I couldn't agree more, but I know many professors who are unwilling spend the time it takes to go from an abstract idea to a concrete game, and the attention to detail it takes to get the rest of the design working.

Sanghee said...

It's more realistic to provide a network hub for academic researchers and (student) game designers within university.

I'm pursuing my MFA in game design, but my former background is theory. It's nearly impossible to pursue both ends on master's level, yet there are times I feel that I need to reach outside for new ideas and inspirations. It's easy to be somewhat narrow-minded if one's sole focus is on designing games.

And it's not that students never reach out. I am producing a game for another student who needed an entomology expert last semester, and we had to search on our own for a while until we found someone at another university. It would be nice to meet Ph.D students in other fields who are interested in participating as advisers, but then there is no place to connect people for it...

Azimn said...

I am also going for my Masters although mine is in Game production and management and I had to fight tooth and nail in order to do a game for a thesis. My school just didn't want to allow me to actually do something I thought was the most practical solution, after all wouldn't producing and managing a game be the best test to see if I learned game production and management?

I felt like even in a game school they had trouble letting go of the academic mindset. Unfortunately I still have to write out a thesis but at least I am making a game. Now if I can finally convince them to accept my paper.. baby steps I guess.

Lewis Pulsipher said...

Add to your comments that academic research, like a lot of other things, conforms to Sturgeon's Law. The weaker form of that is "90% of everything is shit". (The stronger form is 99%.) A lot of academic research (not just in games, in most fields) is done primarily to get tenure, not to provide real contributions to knowledge.

Add the assumption, which I think sometimes affects game researchers as well as others in universities, that games are for kids. There's a fundamental contempt for games that affects research.

Ian Schreiber said...

@Skyenshi: good point about publishing a book, and I did think of that (having written half of one myself). However, I haven't encountered very many books like this. If you look at the textbooks I've reviewed here, most of them are useless. Also, the delay to market is an issue; if you've really discovered something at the cutting edge, the time it takes to turn that into a laypersons book and then get it printed and distributed and sold is going to delay you at least a year, making it hard to write about topical issues since the industry moves so fast anyway. And anyway, the thinking goes, if your theories on game design are so great then you should have no trouble using them to make a great game as proof of the theory (and you can push the game out there much faster than a book). If you can't, then you're rather like a scientist who has a theory but hasn't done the experiment to prove their theory... a bit premature to write a book then, isn't it?

@Sanghee: Absolutely agree that game designers should be open to learning from other fields, and did not mean to imply otherwise. However, if a researcher is specifically interested in contributing to the field of game design and they want the industry to make use of the fruits of their research... that's more the problem I'm writing about here.

@Azimn: I don't think there's anything wrong with writing a thesis as a companion document describing what you did with the game (especially for an MFA -- those thesis statements are pretty short, look at Jenova Chen's "flOw" as an example of this). But in order to consider this as really contributing to the field, there should be a playable game somewhere in there, I'd hope.

@Lewis: I think the "games are for kids" perception is slowly changing, as evidenced by the fact that people are doing their thesis projects on games, and asking questions specifically about how to contribute to the field. It would seem we are headed towards a golden age :)

carol greene said...

I think this is one of the biggest problems with industry - that there are so many inefficiencies due to the fact that no one has a chance to step back and look at the big picture because they're all too worried about their own tasks. Academia is the opposite, but just as bad. Everyone's so concerned about the big picture, they never know what the reality of the situation is. This is why there need to be more partnerships between small/med business and academia. So that bothgame design and academia can work to their own comparative advantage.

Salvador said...

I’m doing a doctorate too, and yes, I agree. It seems that the academia and the video games field are different worlds.
Often, as academics, we tend to disconnect to the real world. We focus all our energy on getting a tenior position and on getting new grants. We forget that the original goal of a higher education institution is to prepare students to be integrated in the society. But, that’s a different story.
If we really care about contributing something to this field, I agree, we have to play, to make, and to understand games. But also, we have to learn how to communicate. If we have something to say, well… we have to find a way to be listened. If we know that game designers won’t read our journals, so, we should begin to write more often in the Game Developer Magazine – and to write straight to the point. But, we know that all of this implies fewer publications, and therefore, the tenior position becomes just a dream.
That’s when we have to take a decision. Do we do research because we want to get a tenior position? Do we do research because we want to contribute to the real world? Are we academics because we want to teach and help future students to integrate in the society? Are we academics because our main goal is to get a grant? Are we academics because we want to contribute to the academia? – Every person has her own answer. I don’t know mine yet… sometimes I’m afraid that I’m just a dreamer.

Lee Zhi Fei (JakeL168) said...

TGC's "Flow" was sorta cool, but up until now I still haven't finish the first page of his "Flow in game" thesis XD