PhD project: Why do we play games?

Why do we play games exactly? Are we playing Candy Crush for the same reason as Call of Duty? And what about The Sims? An answer such as “because it’s fun” is too simple. What is “fun” exactly, and are we playing all games for the same type of “fun”? Understanding the different appealing aspects of videogames is the main topic of the PhD research I’ve started. The project originates from a research proposal I wrote in 2015 which was selected in the Graduate Program Game Research at Utrecht University.

In four years I will investigate what makes games appealing to play. Much research has already been done to answer this question, but I see some large knowledge gaps. My hope is that the knowledge I generate will be useful in many areas. I will focus on making it useful for game designers. I started by making a detailed plan, and figuring out what I am going to do exactly. Here’s roughly what I will do:

What do we actually know?

There is a lot of research investigating why games are appealing. This question is usually not addressed directly, but disguised as research into player motivation, different types of fun, or emotions generated by games, for example. All these different perspectives have produced similar results, but also striking differences. It is my hypothesis that all this research is addressing the same underlying question: what makes games appealing? However, these different perspectives can each highlight some aspects while other aspects are missed. (And some approaches may include an additional focus.)

So this generates the current situation: there are a lot of theories about sort of the same topic, but with a different perspective. This makes it very difficult to compare and combine the knowledge. Figuring out what the combined existing knowledge is on this topic is my first research goal.

How can we use that knowledge?

I see a lot of potential to use the combined knowledge on why games are appealing. It can be used in game design to understand better what the appealing parts are of the game and how to improve those appeals in that specific game. It can be used to find for which specific appealing factors it is relatively unknown how they work. And subsequently, it can be used to better study a specific appeal in isolation because the other factors can be ruled out with more certainty. And there are many more applications for the knowledge on why games are appealing! Applying the knowledge is the second part of my PhD project.

Wow! This can be really interesting, don’t you think? I will be posting regular updates on this blog with results, food for thought, and other progress. If you are interested, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, via RSS, or subscribe to receive updates via email.

Pitching my research project at DiGRA NL
Pitching my research project at DiGRA NL

Thesis prize!

My thesis “Real-Time Dynamic Radiosity for High Quality Global Illumination” has won the Science Faculty’s thesis prize. This encourages me to pursue publication, even though I’ve already been shifting my research focus. Also, my thesis was nominated as one of the three candidates for the even more prestigious general Utrecht University thesis prize.

The laudatio can be found in the Utrecht University news item. (The page is in Dutch, but the laudatio is in English.)

More info on my thesis can be found here.

Thesis prize ceremony

Debate on game education

In June I represented Utrecht University in a debate on game education. It wasn’t so much as a debate but more of a discussion, and in my case mainly giving a long overdue introduction to the game education at the Utrecht University.

It turns out there is quite a lot of confusion about the difference between university level students and applied higher education students. I was surprised by the gap: the audience didn’t seem to know much about the university, while in my background at the university I have never seen an explanation what makes the university different from applied higher education. It was very challenging to bridge this gap in one evening, and I think I succeeded only partially.

Another major source of confusion lies in the role of university internships. Where higher level education internships are usually about the intern joining the regular working process, university level internships are about doing research. Research seems to be interpreted as doing fundamental theoretical research which is only usable in companies working on state of the art technology. Understandably, this interpretation scares away a lot of companies from university level internships. In reality, university internships are often about applied research. If a game studio has a technical problem or question, this is usually sufficient for a university level internship. Most game studios have yet to recognize these technical problems and questions as university internship opportunities.

The debate can be viewed online here.

Marries at Control Gamelab

Lecturer position at Utrecht University

As of January 2014, I started as half-time lecturer at Utrecht University within the Virtual Worlds division of the Department of Information and Computing Sciences. The other half of my time I’m an experimental game developer. One of the reasons I was asked for this position was the good evaluation of the Advanced Graphics course which I created and taught in 2013.

The first major project I did as lecturer was recreating and lecturing the Game Design course from January to May. The course is primarily for Game Technology bachelor students and it is the only game design course in their technology-oriented curriculum. By recreating the entire course I was able to give it a more academic theoretical basis and include recent developments in game design theory. The new course largely reflects my current view on game design. You can visit the Game Design course website here, which contains all course material.

What I particularly like about my position as lecturer is the positive influence it has on my activities as experimental game developer. This positive influence also works the other way around as my lecturer role benefits greatly from my experimental game developer adventures.

And finally a fuzzy picture showing my game design students:

Game Design students