April Tyack | Keywords in Play, Episode 17

“Keywords in Play” is an interview series about game research supported by Critical Distance and the Digital Games Research Association.

April Tyack is a postdoctoral researcher at Aalto University and vice-president of DiGRA Australia. April researches player experience and how games facilitate different types of experiences. In this episode, April discusses the paper Off-Peak: An Examination of Ordinary Player Experience (2021), published with Elisa D. Mekler. The paper critiques the focus in game research, culture and development on extraordinary, optimal or peak experiences, and how this focus has shaped the field of HCI in particular. Ordinary player experience is conceptualised as familiar, emotionally moderate, co-attentive, and abstractly memorable, providing a new model for thinking about and researching digital games.

The paper is available here: https://dl.acm.org/doi/abs/10.1145/3411764.3445230

As a joint venture, “Keywords in Play” expands Critical Distance’s commitment to innovative writing and research about games while using a conversational style to bring new and diverse scholarship to a wider audience.

Our goal is to highlight the work of graduate students, early career researchers and scholars from under-represented groups, backgrounds and regions. The primary inspiration comes from sociologist and critic Raymond Williams. In the Preface to his book Keywords: a vocabulary of culture and society, Williams envisaged not a static dictionary but an interactive document, encouraging readers to populate blank pages with their own keywords, notes and amendments. “Keywords in Play” follows Williams in affirming that “The significance is in the selection”, and works towards diversifying the critical terms with which we describe games and game culture.

Please consider supporting Critical Distance at https://www.patreon.com/critdistance

Critical Distance is a community-supported project. Support us on Patreon, and join the discussion on Discord!

Production Team: Darshana Jayemanne, Zoyander Street, Emilie Reed, Bettina Bodi.

Audio Direction and Engineering: Damian Stewart

Double Bass: Aaron Stewart

Transcription: Charly Harbord


Darshana:  You’re listening to Keywords in Play, an interview series about game research supported by Critical Distance and the Digital Games Research Association.

As a joint venture, Keywords in Play expands Critical Distance’s commitment to innovative writing and research about games while using a conversational style to bring new and diverse scholarship to a wider audience.

April Tyack, thanks for being here for this episode of Keywords in Play. Can you introduce yourself in your own words?

April:   I’m April Tyack, a postdoctoral researcher at Aalto University in Finland.  Most of my work at the moment is concerned with understanding player experience in some way and the ways that theory can inform our views about how games can support or facilitate different types of experiences. I’m also the Vice President of DiGRA Australia and write a regular column about Australian game production for Metro Magazine.

Darshana:  Awesome. And can you tell us a little bit about the paper that we’re going to be talking about today and your co-author as well?

April:   So, my co-author, Elisa Mekler, is my supervisor here at Aalto. A lot of her work, actually, is the kinds of stuff that we end up kind of critiquing in this paper. Some of her work is on like, experiences of reflection or meaning with technology use, things like that. But the paper that we’re discussing is called ‘Off-Peak: An Examination of Ordinary Player Experience’. And it’s broadly about the ways that we kind of conceptualize player experience as extraordinary, typically, in human-computer interaction games research, specifically HCI. A lot of the regular kind of daily experiences with games are nothing like these kinds of extreme kind of, well, mostly positive is it’s usually conceptualized as, experiences just like ‘flow’. Most of the time when we sit down to play a game, and it’s really nothing like that, it’s, it’s kind of, I mean, it’s mundane, right? It’s something that people do every day, it’s part of their routine. So that’s kind of what we’re getting at.

Darshana:  Yeah, just digging down a bit more into this reconceptualization of player experience that you’re discussing in the paper, it kind of challenges ideas, as you’ve said, that have been important in quantitative study in fields such as HCI, human-computer interactions, consumer research, and game studies.

April:  Right. So, well as I said, like, most of what we do at the moment in HCI, in particular, which is where I come from, you know, we’re mostly talking about, like, all the different kind of exciting ways that games influence people’s lives and are really important, you know, have massive effects on people, which has never really felt kind of true to my own experiences with games. So, part of what we wanted to do with this work was just to kind of highlight how limited those kinds of perspectives can be. And of course, you know, concepts like ‘flow’, and you know extreme kind of, of positive emotion, joy, whatever, can be useful for games research, right? And have been useful. But focusing only on these kinds of extreme experiences, these peak experiences, makes it harder to explain why people play things like walking simulators, for example, or even, you know, more conventional games like ‘Fortnight’, like if you’re playing the same thing, every day or over a period of weeks, months, or years, in many cases.  A game like ‘Destiny 2’, that kind of relies on these kinds of seasonal updates. Like there’s something there that is not explained by these kinds of extraordinary experiences, you know, and ‘flow’, by definition, for example, is supposed to be this kind of special and unusual kind of experience. So, it’s really incompatible with these long-term service games and things like that. So, in HCI, at least we’ve staked a lot of the value of studying games on concepts like ‘flow’, concepts we’ve imported from other more established fields. And this idea that video games are particularly good at eliciting these experiences, which also affects the ways that we talked about things like Games for Learning, or other kind of more applied areas of games research. So, ‘flow’ or, you know, as I said, just kind of optimal experience is another way of putting it.  It came from a researcher called Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, who started studying in the 1970s, he was a psychologist who kind of looked at different kinds of activities performed by people who were reasonably skilled, things like rock climbing, or I think surgery, you know, like, kind of challenging activities that are, you know, not too challenging. Either, they have good challenge/skill balance, as it were. And there’s a whole heap of other things that are involved in the kind of experience of ‘flow’ like merging of action and awareness. So basically, you don’t necessarily think about what you’re doing, you just kind of, you’re in the moment and you’re doing it. And you’re only really paying attention to the task at hand, and you’re immersed in the activity and self-consciousness kind of falls away. It’s supposed to mostly happen to people who have trained in an activity for relatively long periods of time. And although Csíkszentmihályi never really was interested in video games, he did say that play was one of the things that would kind of reliably elicit ‘flow’. So, games researchers have kind of taken that and run with it, to some extent,

Darshana:  Awesome, okay, so let’s go to the question of methods like, you know, what you did to undertake the studies. So, you discuss a bit of a, what you call a methodological bias. Where studies in HCI, consumer research and game studies that are based around these peak or optimal experiences, they tend to produce measures in which bigger numbers suggest, and I’m using scare quotes here, a better experience? Are there any kind of like constructs or studies that you see as particularly exemplary of this? And how might you suggest that researchers can think about reorienting their study designs, and hypotheses and light of your argument?

April:   So, the funny thing is that it’s not just these kinds of like, optimal experience studies. It’s everything. It’s so pervasive that it’s basically true of every study, and every type of experiential construct that we have to work with.  You know, whether it’s enjoyment or competence, or positive emotion, or negative emotion. And maybe that’s not so obvious, right? But negative emotions tend to be more memorable, and, arguably, potentially, I guess, I’m not sure anyone’s really shown that properly, meaningful. So, it’s not just enjoyment, when this shows up, or ‘flow’ or whatever, right, but because when we compare, especially in HCI, when we compare two games, two prototypes, whatever it is, and we run some statistical analysis, the way we determine which one is better is the one, you know, with the higher self-report ratings generally, right? Like, you know, it’d be pretty unusual for someone to say that, well for a paper to conclude that one prototype was better because participants felt less competent after playing it or something.  You know, like, that’s a pretty contrived example, but like, it kind of gets the point across. And of course, there are times where this kind of bias, what we’ve identified as bias, makes sense, right? Like, if you’re testing variations of ‘Ratchet and Clank’ or something, more enjoyment or positive feelings are probably what you want, right? But I do think it’s a mistake for that to be the default approach to thinking about what good, and now I’m using scare quotes, player experience is.  In terms of how study designs might change there’s a few things. So, some of this might just involve reorienting studies to be more about how player experience changes over time because then you’ve got, like each player is their own control, basically. So, you can just look at changes rather than differences between people necessarily. It might also just involve collecting data other than self-report, like survey measures, right.  So, post-play interviews, behavioural measures, telemetry, observational measures, there’s all sorts of ways that we can get around this issue. And those kinds of measures and you know study designs, I guess, have their own issues and require more effort typically, you know there’s a reason that self-report measures are so prominent in games research, or at least in more HCI based games research. Though, I’ve seen a bit more in game studies recently as well. But measuring at like multiple time points can tell us way more about players’ experience with a game and whether that maps to some intended experience than just a post-play questionnaire.

Darshana:  You’ve made me think that a lot of these measures are probably used in playtesting, in a certain kind of way, as well. So, on the kind of production side, but yeah, that’s getting a bit outside of the realm of the paper to speculate on that kind of stuff. Let’s kind of like walk through the four key aspects of ordinary player experience that you identify in the study. So, familiarity, emotional moderation, co-attention and being abstractly memorable. Let’s go through each of those. So, in terms of like familiarity, what do you mean by that?

April:   Familiarity is kind of the precondition for something becoming more ordinary or mundane. And there are, you know, all sorts of ways that a game can become more familiar.  Whether that’s, you know, playing the game directly or other games in the genre, or looking at how representation can kind of clue us in to how the game world operates. Because, you know, every aspect of design has a basis in the outside world, right? Like everything comes from somewhere else. I also think there’s just kind of an intuition about how games work, in general, that people kind of develop when they play games regularly. A lot of game design, it borrows ideas from other games. You know, it’s unfortunate that kind of, like, general game expertise is kind of hard to measure. I don’t think we have good ways of understanding ‘game knowledge’, for lack of a better term. Moderate emotion is pretty straightforward. I think, there, I should probably clarify the meaning of moderate here is closer to something like mild than average. This was surprisingly hard to name. Just because there aren’t many English words for, like small or slight, or like gentle that don’t have negative connotations. But a lot of the time, less intense emotions are considered a sign of disinterest, right, that they can just as easily relate to a desire for a low-stress environment, right. So moderate emotions developed through familiarity or habituation, I guess becoming accustomed to a particular game or genre, like playing through JRPG, I, you know, I don’t feel any sense of accomplishment when they’re random battle, right? Or if I’m playing a first-person shooter, I guess, you know, after a while, I stopped feeling tense, whenever I see someone run around the corner. Co-attentiveness is kind of meant to highlight that when a game is familiar, people can often play when they’re doing something else. Whether that’s having a conversation or keeping an eye on dinner, or whatever. But it’s not like task switching or multitasking. It’s more that playing the game has become second nature, right? You’ve got the muscle memory, the core loop, you know, staying within your expectations. And so, as a result, you can pay attention to more of the world around you, without kind of losing focus on either the game or whatever else you’re doing. You can do them simultaneously without any reduction of effort. So, it’s, you know, it’s really more than what I would consider like the scene of play, kind of expand to include more of what’s around you, more than kind of task switching. Abstract memory is all about this idea that we can remember parts of our experiences. But we still know that there are gaps in our memory of what happened. So, it’s kind of more like a gloss. And so, this factor kind of follows from work in psychology that relates memory, attention, and emotion. So, when a game requires less mental effort when you’re familiar, and when it doesn’t provoke strong emotions, your memories of the game are less distinct. But I think it would be a mistake to say this is necessarily a bad thing, right? It’s a little bit obscure, but there are some really nice payoffs in ‘Alpha Protocol’, where, you know, in a conversation, they will rely on you having a pretty bad memory of like, what someone has said 5/10 lines before, right, I think some ‘Quantic Dream’ games do this, I vaguely remember ‘Fahrenheit’ doing this, where the game asks you to remember something that was said, either in a previous conversation or in like earlier in the same conversation. And if you were only kind of half paying attention, if your memory of what happened was not very good, but it pays off really well. And you kind of panic a little bit. So, it really is kind of all about taking a broader and ideally, less value-laden view of what good player experience can be.

Darshana:   I think that brings us to the question of like, takeaways for folks outside of academia because obviously the paper is kind of taking aim at a tendency around study design methodology, that might be a bit inside baseball for, you know, academics. But you’ve touched on some of the questions about what these insights might mean for wider audiences, such as developers, players, punters, I guess you could say, like, what do you think the insights that come out of this paper for that wider kind of audience?

April:   Good question. So, I mean, besides academics, like I think the primary audience for this paper is going to be game developers, right? I did have a couple of people, when I tweeted about this paper, say that they, you know, that we kind of described their, their own experiences playing games pretty accurately. So that was, you know, nice to hear. It’s also nice to hear that people had read through the paper and that my writing is not entirely unintelligible to a, like a wider audience. The paper’s also open access, by the way, so anyone could get it. But you know even when I say, like, the main audience, for this paper, besides academics might be developers. That’s tricky, right? Because, you know, I’m, I don’t make games. And it’s kind of hard to gauge sometimes what people are interested in, especially since, you know, COVID, has meant that I haven’t been able to really go to any, you know, social events for developers, whereas that would have been something.  Well I mean, that was something I did a lot more in Australia. But to, I guess, put all that aside, I guess, on a basic level, I think the paper is helpful for prompting, re-evaluation of what people like about games, especially now, where, like live service games are becoming more common and more popular, and more profitable. You know, I think ordinary experience can help explain what people want or why people want it about these games that are being played over long periods of time. And to some extent, the same could be said for service design more broadly. So, for indie studios, I guess without dedicated user experience staff, I think there’s value in drawing attention to more varied experiences and thinking more about the value structures, that kind of structure, the ways that we think and talk about games and design.  Like ‘Unpacking’ just came out not long ago and seems to be doing really well. And I’m glad right. I don’t want to generalize too much based on one game right, but I think there’s more room for different types of games than we might otherwise expect. Like even games that on the face of it seem completely mundane. So, hopefully, the paper is useful for explaining some of that appeal.

Darshana:   Awesome. Thank you so much for being here, April.

April:   Thanks for having me.

Darshana:   We hope you have enjoyed this episode of Keywords in Play.  For more great ideas around games check out criticaldistance.com.  Or take a dive into the DiGRA archives at DiGRA.org.