Game Research Advice, High School Edition

I recently spoke to a group of secondary school students about game design. They had some great questions about games, but they were also really interested in my game research career. (Who knew?) I didn’t have time to answer all their questions about my job during their talk, so I thought I’d write up a few thoughts to share with them – and, Faithful Reader, with you.

So, you want to have my job someday?

First of all, good for you. My job is a lot of fun! But it’s probably a good idea to know a bit about what I actually do all day.

Like I said in the talk, my job combines game design, research and teaching. Right now I am a game researcher, and I’m going to be a professor soon.

My work generally starts with research. I read textbooks and scholarly papers, looking for interesting questions. These questions might be questions that I think I can answer by designing a game, or they might be questions about how games and play work. I try to read as many different kinds of things as I can, because it helps me come up with cooler questions. For example, I read about game design, psychology, biology, computer science, history and sociology … and that’s just in the last month!

Once I find an interesting question, I turn to design. First comes research design. I have to figure out how to answer the question I’ve picked – what information I’ll need to collect, what games I want to use, who I want to get to participate, and why I think anyone should believe me when I say I’ve got an answer. I didn’t think I would enjoy this part of my job, but it’s actually one of my favorites.

Sometimes my research design means I have to create my own game. I’m a programmer, designer and writer, so I can do a lot of the work myself. However, I also work with an artist and sound designer to help me with the parts I’m not much good at! I do a lot of testing, which sometimes just means watching people play. If I’m going to use a game in my research, I need to know that it’s fun, but also that it actually helps me answer the questions I want it to answer.

Next I go back to research. I get people to play my game, or take the tests I’ve created, or watch them play a game of their choice, and I collect data. Sometimes my data is just numbers – for example, how many people got a particular question right? – and sometimes it’s more complicated, like a video of somebody playing. My job is to turn this information into something meaningful. It means I have to know enough statistics to analyze the numerical data, and that I have to have enough patience to watch a LOT of video and make notes, among other things. Some people specialize in just one kind of data, but I like the freedom to ask lots of different kinds of questions.

Finally, I have to write about the whole experience. I have to take the reader through my whole thought process – from why I thought the question was a good one, to what I did to try to answer it, to what I found out.

You’ll notice I’m doing a lot of reading, writing and research – not just designing games. If you just want to design games all day, my job is probably not for you. But if you want to learn about new things, ask cool questions, and design games to help answer them – this job could be perfect!

There are two other important parts of my job.

I spend a lot of time playing games, because I have to know what’s happening in the field. I especially need to understand what interesting new games are being created, and to figure out how to become a better game designer by playing them. You can’t be a good writer without reading a lot of books, and you can’t be a good game designer without playing lots of games!

I also teach game design, which is one of my favorite things to do. (I think I like it even more than playing games!) Being a good teacher is really hard, and I’m always trying to get better at it. It means figuring out what my students need to learn, and creating assignments that will help them practice making games. It means leading class discussions that include both student ideas and my own. It means figuring out how to give feedback that actually helps my students become better designers and isn’t just a grade. Fortunately I have had some great teachers myself, who have helped me learn how to do all those things!

The biggest challenge of my job is balancing all these different kinds of work. For example, sometimes I have to do work that I’m not in the mood for – and yes, it’s possible not to be in the mood to play games! It also means I have to find people to help me with the things I’m not good at. Sometimes I can get better, but sometimes it makes more sense for me to collaborate with somebody who’s good at different things. For example, I’ll never be an artist, but I know some good ones!

So, are you still interested in doing what I do? If so, you’re probably wondering how you get this kind of job. You can’t start this job until after college, but there are things you can start doing now to be prepared for an awesome job like mine!

First, get curious. The most important thing you can do to be a games researcher is to have really interesting questions to ask. This means reading as much as you can in a lot of different areas, and playing a lot of games, including ones you don’t like, because that will give you lots of different ideas and experiences to put together. You also need to figure out what makes a question interesting. There isn’t just one right answer, so you have to ask lots of different people about what makes a good question and to think carefully about what they tell you.

Second, take notes. If you read a lot, and play a lot of games, and think about what you read and play, there’s no way you’ll remember all the cool things you come up with! I have dozens of old notebooks full of ideas. Most of them will never see the light of day, which is totally fine. The goal is to capture as many ideas as possible, good and bad, so that you have more ideas to choose from when you’re figuring out what you want to do.

Finally, make games. You are learning how to read and write and even ask interesting questions in school, but you’ll have many fewer opportunities to get good at making games. That means practicing on your own time. I always tell my students that they should start by making non-digital games, because you can make them faster, and that means you can make more of them. You should also make sure to test the games you make, because you want to make sure your games keep getting better. If you make the same game over and over, you’re not really learning anything. You can ask friends, family and teachers to play your games to start out. Once you’re a bit older, you can look into joining a student game design club (lots of colleges have them!) or joining the student group of the International Game Developers Association.

When it’s time to start thinking about college, you’ll want to make sure of two things. First, you should choose a program that will help you get skills you need but don’t have yet. For example, I learned to program in college and it’s been really helpful for me to build my own games! But second, you should choose a program that doesn’t JUST teach you skills – you want to make sure you get to keep asking interesting questions. You might end up doing a course that doesn’t have “games” in the name, which is more than fine. As long as it does the two things I’ve mentioned, it’s a good step toward getting my job. Your college advisor can help you figure out which program is right for you.

I wish you all the best of luck as game designers!

3 comments

  1. […] been thinking a lot, recently, about what makes a good question. In my post advising high school students about game research, I tried to introduce students to the idea of disciplinary thinking – that people with […]

  2. Chris says:

    Important info:-
    Age = 15
    Education = preparing to take on five higher subjects next year in high school. Theses are Computing Studies, Maths, English, Physics and Chemistry.
    Occupation = Student
    Location = UK, Scotland

    Hello,
    My name is Chris and i am a big fan of the games. I am really interested in game designing and hope to one day work for companies on the frontline of the game industry like Treyarch or Ea. I was wondering how i could become a game designer. I have decided to apply for Abertay university which is international know for good game designing courses but from there onwards I’m lost. I know i need to get a few years in game designing under my belt before i can even think of applying for one of these major businesses but what is the best way into do so. I’m hard working and take my education serious so i have no problem in working for it, I’m just looking an good and effective way in which to get in to the gaming industry and do the thing i have a burning passion for. If you could help me out i would be very helpful.
    Many thanks,
    Chris

    • Jess says:

      Hey Chris,

      As I suggest in the post, you should start by designing some non-digital games. Have you invented any card games, board games, sports, role-playing games, or any other game that doesn’t need a computer? That is an easy way to start establishing credibility.

      Once you’ve made a game or two, you can start creating a portfolio site to showcase the games you’ve made, too. Best of all, you can use the site to write about what you’re learning as you test your game with your friends and family. One of the most important (and underrated!) skills for a game designer is the ability to observe carefully and learn from feedback. If you can show that you can make good games – AND make them better by testing them – that will help you stand out from the crowd.

      If you aren’t sure how to start designing non-digital games, I highly recommend the book Challenges for Game Designers, by Brenda Brathwaite and Ian Schreiber. They have lots of great exercises for you.

      Good luck to you, and definitely send me a link to your site when you’ve created one!

      –Jess

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