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New research is underway into the relationship between games, developers, academics, and wider society. The first result might not be very surprising: games developers don't research papers. If you did find that surprising, you are probably a researcher.

Mata HaggisBurridge, Blogger

March 27, 2017

6 Min Read

Over the next year, the Gaming Horizons project will be releasing the results of new research into the value of video games, and a big step forwards was taken at GDC 2017.

Academia and games have a rough relationship. At GDC 2017, Thomas Buijtenweg and I conducted interviews with a variety of figures from across a spectrum of the games industry to find out how developers feel about topics that commonly occupy researchers looking at video games.

Ten developers kindly spared their time to be involved in the interviews, ranging from indies to AAA, and from industry veterans to people with under a year of hands-on development time. In the half-hour conversations, each developer shared some of their personal experiences and the ethos that drives them to create games in the ways that they do.

What drives a creator?

The Gaming Horizons project has a broad remit, but one of the goals is to understand the interests that build games developer’s relationship between their work and society. Do developers think games have an impact on players? Do developers design with these kinds of impacts in mind? To what extent to developers think about audience reception when they release a game, and how much does this affect the way that they shape the experience?

A final, and crucially important question for the researchers, was also asked:

Has your professional working career been influenced by (academic or non-academic) research?


No, games developers do not interact with academic theories. This was the resounding agreement between nearly all of the developers. Only those developers with past or present links to academia said there had been academic research that helped them develop as a creator.

It was expected that this would be the result (both Thomas and myself have experience with games development), but many of our purely-academic colleagues will be surprised to hear the certainty of the response from professionals.

Why don’t games developers commonly work with academics or read the results of studies? There will be many answers to this, and we will be sharing more of the results over the course of the year, but for many it stems from two directions: accessibility and relevance.

Research doesn’t end up in front of games developers

Many universities are judged based on the publication history of their researchers, fitting into systems such as the UK’s ‘REF’ (Research Excellence Framework). These systems evaluate a piece of academic output and score them based on several criteria, such as number of times it has been cited by other academics in their work. In this kind of system, an open information sharing website such as Gamasutra will not commonly score highly, but in our research Gamasutra was one of the few sources of research information cited by more than one person. Unfortunately, because it scores low in academic status, researchers are discouraged from sharing their work there and instead focus their efforts on academic peer-reviewed journals. These journals typically score highly, but games developers don’t buy them.

Some developers may have heard of the Bartle Test, or know about the MDA model. Others might know about The Big Five and its applications to understanding player choice… But how many can remember reading these, or took further time to read more, or even apply them in their work? Our sample of interviewees was small, but we suspect that we would have found similarly small results from a larger study.

Research isn’t seen as relevant to developers

Among academics this will be a controversial statement, but the view of games developers (both those we interviewed and from informal and off-the-record conversations) was that the quality and relevance of academic research to everyday games development was very low.

The market driven nature of most games development (with the possible exception of auteur indies) is that at some point a game or interactive experience needs to be released. All activities along the way are either beneficial for that process (by making development faster, higher quality, or more efficient) or are a distraction (slowing development in one way or another).

Do in-depth studies of player violence (or the lack thereof) help developers of entertainment-focused games create better experiences? Or do the studies into the educational benefits of playing games help developers work more effectively? ‘No,’ was the answer from the interviewees.

These are among the most popular topics for academic studies, but they rarely contain insights that will assist the average games development company in maintaining profitability in a huge and highly competitive industry.

The future: taking the results to research funders…

The Gaming Horizons project is funded by the Horizon 2020 EU program and brings together researchers from the UK, Italy, and ourselves from the Netherlands. The EU is funding the research to critique its own research grants systems, to make sure that it matches the needs of the industry.

The outcomes of the research will help shape future EU funding calls, to make them more relevant to the needs of the video game industry. The research interviews from GDC 2017 will be part of the larger Gaming Horizons study that places entertainment-focused games into the wider social context that the EU already supports with research funding, and that it wishes to grow.

The results will also be here, for you.

We will create short videos to make sure you get to see the best bits of the interviews, so that you can see some of the ways that entertainment is being framed by researchers, hopefully in a way that is both accessible and relevant.

We want the games industry to succeed for players, for the developers, and for the researchers that study it. If research is going to support the industry more in the future than it does now, this year’s work will be a part of laying the foundation for that.

Keep checking on here for more updates about the Gaming Horizons project, where we will share the short videos from the interviews and articles about our work. Thanks for reading!


About the author:

Dr. Mata Haggis is the Professor of Creative and Entertainment Games at NHTV University in the Netherlands, and the game & narrative designer on Fragments of Him, which released last year on Steam and Xbox One, and will be coming to PlayStation 4 this year.

Alongside his professorship, he is the owner of Copper Stone Sea where he provides consultancy and training in narrative design and game design for development teams.

NHTV University’s game development course ‘IGAD’ is highly rated and taught entirely in English. If you are looking for an intense and practical Bachelor- or Master-level study then take a look: https://www.nhtv.nl/ENG/bachelors/creative-media-and-game-technologies/startpage.html

You can read more about the Gaming Horizons research project here, which we will be regularly updating with new articles throughout 2017: http://www.gaminghorizons.eu/

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme under Grant Agreement No 732332.

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