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Human Factors Psychologists at Microsoft Games November 28, 2006

Posted by Johan in Cognitive Ergonomics.
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If you’ve got even the slightest case of teh Nerd, you may enjoy online gaming magazine The Escapist, which is like PCGamer, except written for people with brains. In today’s issue, there is a story on the Human Factors Psychologists that Microsoft employs in their Gaming division. On this side of the pond, “Human Factors” is known as Cognitive Ergonomics, and it’s one of those terribly dry and applied fields of Psychology that I would never normally consider. To sum it up, Human Factors Psychologists are the guys who have the task of designing the emergency evacuation guidelines that you find in the seat pocket when flying. Note that this is not simple, and it’s clear that there are plenty of reasons other than the fact that these guys aren’t trained artists that make these things look like they do: basically, anyone deemed fit to fly has to be able to grok what to do in the event of an emergency by following these guidelines. So you can’t use words, you can’t use colours that protopagnosiacs or other colour-blind individuals can’t discriminate between, and above all, you can’t freak anyone out, even though you have to draw people crawling out of a burning airplane. That’s not going to be easy.

Anyhow, respect for the profession aside, it just doesn’t seem terribly exciting. Enter the previously linked article, and that picture changes. The need for Psychologists in game development may not be obvious, but it’s definitely there: in the end, beyond the bells and whistles of HDR lighting and Pixel Shaders, the ultimate goal of a game is to entertain the player. So it might be handy to employ someone who knows a lot about what people generally like and dislike.

A long quote from the article illustrates what kind of work these guys do:

“The development team worked hard to make the game consistently fun throughout (no small task in such a huge, free-roaming game), though it turned out to only be fun if the users played as the designers intended. Which, of course, they didn’t.

The Group’s solution to this problem deviated from normal error counts and pass/fail criteria by bringing the actual game developers into the procedure to simply observe the tactics employed by users. The game had been designed with the assumption that players would be combating enemies in close quarters, but the shrewd users immediately discovered the targeting system allowed them to remain at a distance and pick off the enemies from long range.

Not only did this circumnavigate the deliberately designed “fun” aspects the developers had worked so hard to create, it also left the players bored and frustrated as they never actually saw the combat and felt their weapons were highly inaccurate from being used at such a long distance.

This time around, it was effectively the developers who were undergoing evaluation as they observed an unquestioned usability group. Their task became finding ways to encourage users to play as intended without forcing decisions upon them. This was achieved by adjusting enemy intelligence to dodge shots taken from long range and by advancing on the player to a position within the intended “fun zone.” The targeting

system was also adjusted to have a range limitation, thereby influencing users to discover the enjoyment of close-quarters combat.”

Pretty cool, but don’t give up on that career in Cognitive Neuroscience yet… A final quote gives away the catch:

“I have friends with similar educational backgrounds who are testing how users interact with copiers or microwaves”

It’s kind of like how people study Architecture with the hope of designing the Burj-Al-Arab, but find themselves drawing communal restrooms instead.