Games User Research Summit Poster Presentation

This past week, I was fortunate enough to attend the annual Game Developers Conference (GDC) as an Xbox Women in Games ‘Game Changer.’ I was able to connect with a lot of amazing folks in the video games industry, including the various researchers, analysts, and data scientists associated with the field of games user research. Since my own research in academia overlaps with the field, I attended the annual U.S. Games User Research Summit, held on the Tuesday of GDC, where I also presented a research poster showcasing the results of a gameplay experiment.


Me with my poster at the GUR Summit!

I’ve elaborated on the pilot study results in this blog post, which highlights the implications for how female game characters are perceived by female players when the same character is portrayed in sexualized clothing or non-sexualized clothing. In a nutshell, the same character portrayed in sexualized clothing was perceived as more incompetent than her non-sexualized portrayal. This finding was found in an action-horror game where female users played the same level of the same game for 15 minutes each. Using the same game character within the same video game (and game level) helps to minimize any confounding variables introduced by varied gameplay strategies and enemy encounters, which have not always been avoided in other similar studies (e.g. Behm-Morawitz & Mastro, 2009).

The second study outlined in the poster utilized the same female characters (but a different set of female participants) and asked questions about the player’s self-perception following gameplay. Participants completed a 2 x 2 (sexualization x game difficulty) experiment. Before participants arrived to complete the experiment, they were randomly assigned to the sexualized or non-sexualized character attire and a casual or normal game difficulty. In short, no differences were found between any of the four conditions with respect to player’s self-esteem, self-efficacy, and body image. You can view the full findings (in condensed poster format), as well as my thoughts on the study’s implications, in the below PDF version of my poster.



Admittedly, this poster is a condensed form of a research project where I measured additional variables (e.g., user’s self-discrepancy; identification with game characters), yet the additional variables did not change any of the outcomes. As such, I focused on the variables most likely of interest to an audience largely embedded in the video games industry. If you’d like to read the full paper, feel free to get in touch and I can send you a copy.

Since the study produced null findings, I will likely conduct a follow-up study with a different game and different characters to see if I can replicate the results (or not!). Either outcome would be interesting to discover.

If you’re curious as to why I limited the sample to self-identified female players (which I was asked about a couple times at the Summit), that is simply because I’ve been interested in women’s experiences with digital games as part of my broader research agenda as a PhD student.


Behm-Morawitz, E., & Mastro, D. (2009). The effects of the sexualization of female video game characters on gender stereotyping and female self-concept. Sex Roles, 61(11-12), 808-823. doi:10.1007/s11199-009-9683-8

UX Playtesting Analysis: Tori


Several weeks ago – not long after I returned from my first Game Developer’s Conference – I realized something important: I’d like to apply my social scientific research skills and knowledge of media theories towards games user research. I’m fortunate enough to be in an interdisciplinary Media School where I’ve established a good rapport with many of the faculty members in the Game Design program as an Associate Instructor and the Lead Intern for Women in Game Design. After considering that I had certain skills that might be useful to the student game developers in the program, I pitched an idea to Professor of Practice Mike Sellers: his game design students in Workshop I, the first major game development course required for all students pursuing the B.S. in Game Design, could benefit from UX analysis and thorough playtesting feedback. So why not receive a little help from a Ph.D. student eager for more experience in conducting this kind of research?

Prof. Sellers agreed that I could offer useful insights and a collaboration was born!

The first student game project I’ve playtested is Tori, a meditative music exploration game in which players assume the role of a small bird collecting sounds from a stylized environment made up of several small islands. I recently sat down with Joseph Adams, a developer on Team Tori, for my first playtesting session with Tori where I offered some feedback on general usability, discussed below.

Gameplay and Feedback

Currently, the ‘bubbles’ which represent the aura of sounds for different objects in the environment are all colorized the same – a pale yellow color. These sounds can be collected by the player and dropped, in bubble form, to a new location. The collection and re-placement of sound-bubbles is an integral mechanic of the game’s progression system.


Collecting sound bubbles in Tori

I suggested that the different objects, and thus sounds, might be color-coded, so that when player’s drop these sound-bubbles in new locations, they might more readily recall which bubble represents the sound attributed to a rock, bell, lantern, or other unique objects in the world. A color-coding scheme might be integral further into development, as players will be tasked with dropping sounds in new locations in order to replicate a tune provided by a non-playable character, in order to unlock new islands to visit and explore. As is, the placement of bubbles that are all the same color, especially when the player is expected to imitate a tune using the collected sounds, could get a bit confusing. Currently, there is no feedback that identifies what object the sound-bubble represents once it has be removed from the object and placed elsewhere in the environment. Color-coding the sound-bubbles to be unique based on the object of origin could simplify the identification process.


Particle effect on wingtips to signify increased velocity

I also noted that additional audio-feedback might improve player experience. Currently, when players fly downward, the speed of flight increases. This interaction is paired with visual feedback of a particle effect trailing from the tip of the bird’s wings – a ‘speed trail,’ perhaps. It’s pretty and conveys the message, but might be paired with an accompanying sound effect, such as rushing wind, to match the visuals and reinforce the feedback.

This particle effect was misinterpreted by a player during a recent playtest. I took notes, along with student developer Joshua Smith, during a session with university students who played Tori for the first time. We invited the players to voice their thoughts as they played, and a participant misinterpreted the ‘speed trail’ as visual feedback to signify when the bird is carrying a sound bubble. Thus, playing an accompanying sound effect (e.g. rushing wind) might reinforce the visuals as the effect of speed during flight.

All in all, Tori is a simple and beautiful game that shows a lot of promise for its unique aesthetics and features. I look forward to conducting more playtests with new users and discovering new ways to enhance the project’s usability and player experience!

Follow Team Tori on Tumblr & Twitter for more updates. Many thanks to Prof. Mike Sellers and Team Tori for collaborating with this video game researcher.