Learning what brings players to your game and what makes them keep coming back for more can be a tricky task, but a source of valuable knowledge for game development if done right. This is just one of the key aspects that drive the interest of professionals and scholars toward the Games User Research (GUR) field. Being just as cross-disciplinary as game development, GUR draws insights and techniques from Interaction Design, Computer Science, User Experience Design, Human Factors and Ergonomics, Psychology and many other areas. In short, it's all about an attempt to look at the many times unpredictable reality of the player-game relationship in order to bring out intelligible accounts of what triggers certain behaviors and what keeps others from emerging during a gameplay, for instance.

For a better insight into how this field works, we had a quick chat with Nicolaas VanMeerten, Senior Programs Director and Co-Founder at GLITCH.

A player of Stellaris and League of Legends, Nicolaas is also a third-year Ph.D. student in the Educational Psychology program at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Most of his time is spent as a researcher, either conducting studies, analyzing data, or generating reports. His research focuses on learning behaviors in video game environments. Take a look below at what he has to say about his experience with GUR.

Nicolaas VanMeerten

Senior Programs Director and Co-Founder at GLITCH

IndieWAtch: How did you end up researching the player experience/behavior and how and when did this field come into existence?

Nicolaas: I have really enjoyed research ever since I ran my first study during my undergraduate studies at the University of Minnesota. I didn’t start doing research on player behavior until I was inspired by a panel I attended at PAX Prime about four years ago. The panel’s topic was “Managing toxic communities online” and the speakers all had advanced degrees in Psychology or a related field. I had no idea that these types of jobs existed until I went to that panel, so immediately after that I started to change my career path.

According to the Games User Research (GUR) Special Interest Group (SIG) this type of work was pioneered by Atari in the 1970’s. The community of scholars and professionals studying player behavior in games has grown immensely since then with a high demand in the games industry for people with research experience.

IndieWAtch: Is GUR it a subcategory of game studies or a field that stands on its own?

Nicolaas: I believe that there are most likely commonalities, but I would say that GUR stands on its own since it is a very applied type of research and less theoretical than game studies.

IndieWAtch: Which books, articles, papers do you recommend reading to learn more about this field?

Nicolaas:  I would suggest getting involved with the GUR SIG as soon as possible before you even start reading. They have a Youtube channel with videos of the presentations from all of their previous summits which are a great place to start. If you have more specific questions, feel free to find me online and message me.

IndieWAtch: What's the current state of this field and how can indie game developers benefit from it?

Nicolaas: The jobs in this field are predominantly available at the larger game development companies, but there is definitely a lot of room for freelance researchers as well. Indie game developers can easily find someone with research experience to do some testing for them to get some objective feedback on their game and more quickly understand their players.

IndieWAtch: Where to work in the US or in the world after becoming a professional in this field?

Nicolaas: You can find a job in GUR in most parts of the world, but the jobs at major companies tend to be focused on the coasts of the US, in Canada, or in Europe. Here is a job board with many of the open positions within GUR.

IndieWAtch: Can you comment of any games, real life examples in which this field make a difference for game development?
Nicolaas: This field can make an impact on the development of any game by providing game makers with insight about the player experience, instead of having to guess about what the player would enjoy or not enjoy. For example, this talk by Jennifer Ash from Bungie provides a lot of information about how the research team helped Destiny become a great game.

As an example, for my Master’s Thesis, I investigated the behaviors of middle school students during their participation in an AR game called Play the Past. The findings of this study show that engagement differed during discrete activities in the game environment and that there was a relationship between the roles that students were assigned and their engagement.