Evaluating User Experience in Games – Book Review

Regina Bernhaupt presents an academic guide to the application of user experience principles to games, as part of a series by Springer Books on HCI, and claims to represent the ‘coming of age’ of video games as a medium. The book is essentially a collection of academic papers, largely from recent conferences, and draws upon the talents of a wide range of authors, including Brighton based Graham McAllister and Gareth White, Katherine Isbister (Editor of Game Usability) and Emily Brown of SCEE. Although largely academic, the book does provide an insight into the cutting edge of this exciting field.

Early chapters in the book try to define what the field of user experience is, and what it means in relation to games. There is a degree of confliction here, with each chapter giving a slightly different interpretation, but they often settle on themes such as immersion, fun, presence, involvement, engagement, flow and playability.

Captain Planet

Also wind, fire and heart!

The book gets more exciting when it presents a range of methods for evaluating user experience in games, with a variety of models appropriate for various stages of game development, from prototyping to post-production. This encompasses many custom models for different situations, such as a model for inexperienced gamers, or one for fitness games.  The book also presents studies of the usability of game controllers, and the development of heuristics, which is particularly interesting in the last chapter which aims to collate and amalgamate previously created gaming heuristic.

All this content is interesting; however, a liberal spreading of maths means it often comes across as extremely academic (particularly in comparison to Isbister’s book). This can largely be accounted to the background of the various authors, largely coming from academic institutions, compared to the real world perspective of Game Usability.

Where the book excels is the divergence from this academic interpretation, notably in the papers by Vertical Slice and Emily Brown. Vertical Slice cover the current state of user experience evaluation across three Brighton game companies, and give an insight into the methods used through case studies, from the expert evaluation found in the earliest stages of production, through to the user testing close to the end of a project.

Brown gives a comprehensive overview of the range of tools currently in use, and shows optimism for the future, since she recognises only a “lack of knowledge” as a hindrance to the extension of user testing into gaming, rather than opposition to the methods. This conclusion is reinforced by the case studies by McCallister and White, who show game developers are looking to extend their application of user experience testing in the future.

Robot

Which will be the same as today, but with more robots

Unlike Remote Research or Game Usability, this book is not a practical how-to guide. Instead it presents the state of user experience in games, and where the cutting edge of research is. Personally I have found it very useful for developing my own research.  However the book would be unlikely to be a ‘one stop shop’ for a developer looking to start user experience research at their company.

It will be useful to see how the wide range of interesting ideas found within this book can be integrated into practical solutions for companies to use when producing games. This move from the theoretical to the practical will greatly assist the field of user experience in games, and will truly see the ‘coming of age’ of video game usability.

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