I’ve been working as a full time games user researcher since last year, and have often been asked “how did you get your job?” Games user research is a relatively niche, yet emerging, field, and there are still plenty of opportunities to get involved without having years of experience in the games industry. In this post, I discuss how I broke into the field. Please note that this post reflects my own experience, so your mileage may vary!
I’ve noticed that games user researchers come from a wide range of backgrounds. As an undergraduate I studied History, and worked in an aquarium, which is pretty far from computer games. However, I’d always had a strong interest in games, including having built a mod for Quake 1 back in the day. Keeping up with gaming trends and news was important in being able to perform as a games user researcher – it’s very important to have a wide degree of knowledge about all range of games, as this helps you understand user’s expectations and feedback. It’s no good if players tell you that the mechanic is “not implement as well as it is in Crash Bandicoot”, if you have no idea what they’re talking about. This knowledge can be attained not only through playing games, but through keeping up with gaming websites such as gamasutra and eurogamer.
A strong understanding of games is also important to help sanity check your recommendations. Understanding at least the basics of programming, art and design can ensure that you don’t ask development teams to make impossible changes, which affects the credibility of your findings. Personally I try to follow game development forums (and on reddit), and maintain an understanding of what programming games is like through amateur game development.
A few years ago, I went back to university to study for a Master’s Degree in Human Centred Computing. A lot of job adverts for games user researchers expect some degree of academic experience, and I was very lucky in that I studied under Graham McAllister, founder of Player Research. The course was useful, since it formalised my knowledge of common UX techniques, psychology, and programming. However a HCI degree is unlikely to be necessary to get started in this role, as there are many related fields, such as Psychology or Computing, which can be supplemented by reading academic papers on games user research.
It is however important to understand the academic side of games research in order to keep up with the industry leaders, since the field is relatively new and still moving at a fast pace.
Experience of ‘real life’ games research was perhaps more important than my academic experience. Over the last few years, I approached iOS and indie developers, offering my services for free, in order to practise my skills both as a games user research, and at communicating with and understanding the requirements of developers.
I also worked with Relentless Software, creators of Buzz, to run a research project that would be of practical relevance to them. This research became “Measuring Social Interaction”, and was featured at Develop Liverpool, the Games User Research Summit, Edge Online, and on Gamasutra. By having a real project that was of use to industry, I gained a much greater understanding of the practical side of games user research than would have been possible through a purely academic project. Many companies offer the opportunity to work on master’s projects with them, and even if no-one seems to near you, I’d recommend approaching game developers and suggesting this!
Games User Research is a small field, and hence networking is important. Most researchers are members of the Games User Research Special Interest Group on LinkedIn, and regularly meet or present at conferences. Not only is this important for building a reputation among your contemporaries, but it also means that you’ll hear about job opportunities first!
I found my job through the combination of academic and practical experience, as well as a strong understanding of games. However this may not be the recipe for everyone. In my next update, I’ll share advice from other people in the field on how to break into Games User Research.
edit: I asked some experts their opinion on this, and you can see their answers here: http://www.stevebromley.com/blog/2012/04/25/how-to-break-into-games-user-research-expert-opinions/