Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Playability in Action Videogames: A Qualitative Design Model - Carlo Fabricatore, Miguel Nussbaum, Ricardo Rosas

I liked this article. I liked this article so much that I actually don't even have much to say about it, that's just how much I liked it. It's like when an English teacher gives you back a paper; if it's covered in red ink you did a bad job, but if the page is blank and pristine you did a good job.

What Was It About?

Let's see, well, let me give you a basic synopsis of this article before I tell you why it was so awesome. It was published here as I believe part of a PHD Thesis, in 2002, in Human Computer Interaction (Copyright 2002, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.)

It's written by two computer scientists, one in Italy and on in Chile, and a psychologist in Chile. Most of the research appears to have been conducted in Chile. The authors explain in their abstract that the purpose of their work was to provide a game design reference. They wanted it to stick closely to real player preferences, and they used a qualitative but empirically rooted research process to find out what those preferences were. Since the scope was so broad, the article limited itself to studying the playability of a wide variety of action games; due to the dearth of female participants, their sample was entirely male.

Why Did I Love It?

It was well written. The writing was smooth, natural, and moved from point to point effortlessly. Each point was contained within a paragraph for easy reading. The paper was phenomenally structured. It was unambiguously clear. At no moment in time was I ever forced to reread a single sentence. A table of contents, an excellent abstract and conclusion, and various diagrams kept the scope, purpose, and point of each page, each paragraph, each sentence clear. This paper was a PHD research paper for goodness sake, and weighing in at a whopping 54 pages. Research papers can be some of the driest, most convoluted, jargon-filled, painful things in the world to read. This paper was smooth, pleasurable, and informative sailing.

One thing I hate about some academic papers is the way they meander around in a cesspool of opinions and implied subtitles. They're not clear. They feel like you just stepped into a room in the middle of a conversation. Without a full knowledge of their context, each text can deliver a multitude of widely divergent readings (Like, for example, did you realize I was using the art-historical definition of 'text' and 'reading' right there? No? Oh sorry then, you just walked in on the context of my life, but I'm writing an academic paper so I can be all coy and you can totally miss my point and that's your fault because you should be more informed on this subject before I'm willing to communicate ideas with you. ... Ya know or I could just briefly mention that Roland Barthes "From Work to Text" was required reading in my Art History Course and I thought his ideas were needlessly vague, in-the-clouds, and inapplicable, especially when read back-to-back with Foucault, who wrote pretty clearly and powerfully on power theory (which you may have seen referenced when discussing class, race, or feminism), but I digress!)

These kinds of papers are potentially useful (Oh my god I'm about to whip out HCI terminology) but they are very low in terms of usability, because they are not orchestrated/designed/written in such a way as to be easily used by the audience that wants to/needs to/could/should/would read them. They are more like fragments of an infinitely long Facebook conversation, and heaven forbid you not have access to the context ahead of time.

But Playability, the article I'm blogging on? Playability was clear as crystal. In the words of my English teacher (who was surely quoting someone else, and whom I regularly ignore), all papers should begin with an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. In the introduction, you tell them what you're going to tell them. In the body, you tell them. In the conclusion, you tell them what you just told them. Playability followed this convention. It sat down and laid out all of its cards. It explained its purpose, its motivation, its layout, its limitations. It laid bare its entire internal structure. On thorough examination, I found that its internal structure was so thoroughly and beautifully logical, that it could have only come from the magnificent union of a computer guy, a psychologist, and a dedicated editor. I might as well have been reading the physical manifestation of Object Oriented Programming;  Each section, each paragraph, was beautifully concise, encapsulated, functional, easy.

The argument as a whole was sound. The paper outlined a problem, explained its purpose, justified its means, described its process, proffered its findings, and enumerated its own shortcomings. Few to no faults were to be found (and I scoured, I'm a perfectionist like that.)

Furthermore, the authors did something phenomenal. Every time they sought to bring in theories, frameworks, or other cite-able information to support their case, they provided a brief and concise explanation of where that information had come from (like importing in a .h file as an interface! Ho-ho my comp sci metaphors are all over the place today! I can't help it, my more artsy metaphors aren't as useful in such rigid and structured papers!). This immediately set it leagues above other papers in my estimation, as I was never forced to pause in my reading to research other people, or try to decide which of their multitudinous theories the author was referencing at any given point in time. I could always check them out later, if I were interested.

What Was It's Structure?
The paper began with an abstract, a description of its authors, and a table of contents. The table of contents were organized down to three tiers. The upper most tier read: Introduction, Method, Results, Conclusions.

The Introduction was split into a description of the problem, preexisting information on the topic, and scoping the research that the paper was now offering.

The Method was split into a description of the framework, an explanation of data collection, and then a break down of the data analysis based on the framework (and it want point by point, in excruciatingly precise and elegant detail)

The Results were divided according to main and sub categories of findings. When I turned to look at the results, I found that the authors had organized their findings according to a categorical tree. For every given sub-category, the authors had supplied a diagram to illustratively describe the current page's place in the grand scheme of the research. It was a beautiful technique for helping the reader to visualize, track, remember, and parse their enormous quantity of data. Their entire paper could have been broken apart and accessed as part of a tree, with each section belonging to a node of that tree. T'was glorious.

The Conclusion was divided into the relevance of the work, and the boundaries of the research and perspectives for future studies. The paper made no bones about its own limitations, but offered itself as-nevertheless- one of the best and only tools available for its purpose.

What Was It's Content?
The authors briefly touched on existing design theories. Some of these theories had been offered forward by theorists working in edutainment (Malone was mentioned, I'm going to shelve his name for future reference since he appeared twice in such rapid succession :D), and others had been offered by entertainment industry professionals (They used Rouse- not because he was the most enlightening, but because he summarized everyone else the best ;) I always found Rouse a little dry).

The paper then suggested that the data in the first category was flawed due to it being too-specific and not representative of mainstream video games. The second category was flawed due to lack of empirical methodology. This is important! You could argue all day, either that industry professionals have a better sense of the truth than detached theorists due to personal experience, or that theorists have a better sense of the truth due to a better sense of perspective-> This paper resolves the conflict between the approaches by merging them. Walla. Lovely!

The authors described and justified their methodology in excruciating detail. They left nothing vague. They diagrammed samples of the exact and highly detailed and structural way they had broken down qualitative data, conducted their analysis, formed categories- even the way they broke down any given sentence or determined the relevance of each noun and verb to the overall game- was covered in thorough detail. They made sure that not only was their research repeatable, but that it could be used again in other contexts, or to extend the original research forward, with absolutely no ambiguity or confusion. Perfect. Perfectissimo.

Then the authors described their findings. Their findings seem absolutely obvious to a tried-and-true gamer (the author's concluding sentences even suggested that the work had more value in teaching design, academia, and communicating with non-game-professionals, than in boosting the performance of professionals) and yet at the same time seeing them laid out in detail provided structure to what game designers could always sense, but never before explicitly justify. The paper provided a list of prescriptions and recommendations for ensuring the play-ability of an action game, which could then be used by a designer as a mental checklist (not an exhaustive checklist, but more of a bare-bones, "Did I overlook anything really important and easy to miss?" sort of thing.), or to argue a case with non-gamers about why certain features were crucial to a game's success.

Their results, as a compilation, are an exhaustive resource on the narrow subject they cover. They could be used for an exhaustive playability analysis of almost any action game on the market- then or now- and be used as a reference point for understanding a game's successes and failures.

What I Got Out of It
The game I'm designing is a bit of a hybrid; It's not exactly an action game, but it should pave the way for casual gamers to migrate into the action genre. Reading these recommendations not only helped me think about what to do in my game, but also to think about my game in the context of the action genre. More importantly, as I'm going to be expected to carry out a lot of research in the near future, the paper was absolutely wonderful about taking a methodology framework and applying it to games for the purposes of research. I can use this paper as a reference, an inspiration- heck, even a guideline (if I wanted)- for how to conduct my own research. Previous to reading it, I was very hesitant about how to go about collecting my own qualitative data concerning video games. Now I have a much better idea of where to start, and where to go.

I Give This Paper an A++. Well done, Authors. Well Done.
(I could have given them an A#, but it wouldn't have been as trite/clever/whatever.) They are better writers than I have read in many a moon! They're certainly better at technical writing than I am- I wander all over the place! Good Job, Authors. I enjoyed this reading.

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