There's a lot that goes into making a great video game. This includes making sure people have a great time playing it. That's where human psychology comes into the picture—to get inside players' heads and figure out how a game will make them think and feel. Celia Hodent, PhD is an expert in fostering the ideal user experience (UX), and she's here to tell us how it's done.
Celia chatted with GDC over the phone about her upcoming virtual GDC Masterclass—Psychology and Game UX, which takes place on December 9 and December 10, 2021 from 8:00 am to 12:00 pm PT (11:00 am to 3:00 pm ET). She discussed why human psychology is a key part of game development, whether some games need it more than others, and how UX even helps the creative process.
Below is an edited, condensed version of our interview.
GDC Staff: What role does human psychology play in video game development nowadays?
Celia Hodent, PhD: It's a very important role, because when you play a video game the experience you have from the game happens in your mind. If we want to offer the best experience possible to people, we have to understand a little bit of how the mind works. Cognitive psychology is all about understanding mental processes—like perception, attention, memory, understanding motivation and how emotions work—to make a game.
GDC Staff: Would you say there are any notable differences between video games and movies or television, because games are something you interact with? Does that change the role of human psychology?
Celia: Not fundamentally, but a little bit still. In video games, you are interacting with the system. That is not the case with movies, books, or a lot of other art forms. In a video game, if you don't do the right things, your input is not correct, or if you don't understand the objectives, then the game is not unfolding. Whereas in a movie, even if you don't understand the plot, or you forget who is this character, the movie still keeps going. With video games, it's more important because of player input. You want to make sure that players are going to have the full experience of the game, and they're going to come back, be interested, and have fun.
GDC Staff: Is there any type of video game that relies more on this type of UX understanding?
Celia: No, it's actually going to be important for any game—it's important for any product, for that matter. It's going to be important for any game, because again, they are all experiences in people's minds. Now, depending on the game, you have different challenges: What you want players to feel, if you want to challenge their wits or if you want to challenge their reflexes. That's going to be a different situation and you're going to look for different game solutions. Because for video games, there's no one recipe to make successful games, but we have ingredients.
GDC Staff: So, let’s say I’m making a game I wouldn’t consider very “narrative." No dialogue trees, no interactive NPCs. Like car racing, or a Fortnite-type battle game. Why would I need to understand human psychology for my game?
Celia: Players still need to remember the stuff that you teach them about the game! They need to understand the objectives, they need to understand the mechanics, they need to remember the controls. Even if you're not making a narrative game, you still need to understand mental processes. Because if you don't mind the limitations of the brain—in terms of perception, in terms of attention, in terms of memory—you might end up shipping a game that has a lot of issues that impact the game very negatively. That will be hard to fix after the game is out.
If you wait until you're in beta, and you say, "Let's test the game and see what's going on." Then you see a lot of people don't understand it or they leave and don't come back and you don't understand why, it might be too late to figure stuff out. And so, for any game, it's a much better practice to have a good UX strategy as you start developing your game.
GDC Staff: Would you say creating the ideal UX is more of a reactive process (taking feedback to improve the game) or proactive (working to provide what they want before they even know it)?
Celia: Ideally it should be proactive. UX is a mindset. It's not a step in the process, like you do your game and you "UX it" with your magic wand. It's not at all what it means. UX is about considering what experience your players are going to have in the end. It's really a mindset where you shift from your own perspective about the game you're making to take the perspective of your players. We put them at the center of what we do.
It has to be a strategy and it has to be proactive. Sure, we can patch a few things here and there, if you're just reactive, using UX practices. But it's never going to be as powerful as having a strong UX mindset from the beginning.
GDC Staff: Have you gotten any notable feedback from previous Masterclass attendees, about what it was like taking your course and putting it to practice?
Celia: A lot of people told me it actually created a shift in their perspective. They understood better what UX meant, and how to tackle it. It made people understand that, yes, it means that you're probably going to put some investment into hiring some new profiles, or doing more playtest sessions. But that's a huge return on investment.
Even for indie developers! They told me that, through playtests, the feedback that players told them actually gave them a new idea for the game. It was not only helping them solve some issues, making the game more usable and engaging, but it also helped their creativity. It's really there to help you out. Whether you're making a AAA, AA, a small indie game. It's going to give you the recipes and the tools to help you overcome the challenges of making a video game, and make it compelling and as successful as possible. It's not going to provide you with answers, but it's going to provide you with the right way to approach problems.
GDC Staff: Your background is in psychology, which is such a big field. You can take it anywhere! Why go into the field of video games?
Celia: I didn't expect to bring anything to the field, I just love video games! I love the creativity that you see in the video game industry. It's a great place to work because you have artists, you have designers, you have engineers, you have producers. There are so many different people working together. I was always interested in working in video games. But back then, UX was not a thing in the industry. It was later that I realized, "Wait a minute. With my background, this is actually what I could do!"
I want to make sure we have better games, that they offer better experiences. But with UX also comes ethics. We care about the experience of the people who are playing the game. It's also thinking about making sure that games are going to be accessible, making sure we're inclusive, making sure we have ethical practices. So that we can be accessible, and provide the best experience possible to players in a safe environment.
Be sure to head to GDC Masterclass to register for Celia's Psychology and Game UX course, which runs December 9 and December 10, 2021 from 8:00 am to 12:00 pm PT (11:00 am to 3:00 pm ET). Keep in mind the course is happening virtually, not in person.
GDC returns in-person to San Francisco, March 21-25, 2022—registration is now open! For more information on GDC 2022, be sure to visit our website and follow the #GDC22 hashtag on social media.
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