Friday, May 18, 2007

Where would I fit in the games development cycle?

Last week, there were several lectures and panels that I found interesting. One in particular at the OGDC stood out because it's near and dear to me: User Research.

In this panel, they talked about the interaction between User Researchers and the Users, but also the internal dynamics of the group,which includes ethnographers, social psychologists, and usability engineers. I really enjoy hearing about this type of interdisciplinary collaboration, as it closely resembles what I experienced through a "social science research cluster" interacting with other clusters while working at the New Media Innovation Centre (NewMIC) before I started graduate school. However, like many beautiful utopian creatures born out of the dotcom boom, that creature went bust--but I've been looking for places which encourage that spirit of collaboration ever since. It's encouraging to see tech companies like Microsoft see the pragmatic value in ethnographic praxis. Along with Intel and IBM, they sponsor conferences like EPIC.

The expression of an ethnographer's utility in the games development cycle was interesting to me because I have expressed similar principles in my own industry work. Reminds me of SAD (Systems Analysis and Design) projects I did way back when...

The development cycle can be thought of like this:
  1. Concept
  2. Prototyping
  3. Production
  4. Polish (Beta)
  5. Post-release
Typically, ethnographers like myself have been consulted (if at all) during the last stage (Post-release) and given insights that may be incorporated into future designs.
The trend that some teams are going towards though, is bringing in ethnography to inspire at the first concept stage... and increasingly at even the fourth polishing beta stage. Involving cultural insights through ethnographic narrative at more stages of the process stands to benefit the company a LOT. I mean, bottom line kind of stuff. Imagine making a million (or more) dollar mistake, all to find it could have been avoided if someone had been on the ground. It's happened before.

Anthropologists have been studying games and play for a long time... before the world became flat, before it became digitized. While there are certain universals, game play is something that is so culturally subjective and interesting--using an ethnographer just makes cultural (and financial!) sense.

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