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User research is one of the most scientific sub-disciplines of game design. Rigorously designed studies must measure complex, subjective qualities in players, making sure to remove as much bias as possible in the process. Starting fall 2023, DigiPen students will be able to conduct user research on campus at the same level as professional game studios with the introduction of a new two-room user research lab.

“What we’re setting up is a lot like what the Xbox Game Studios and Bungie labs look like,” says Richard Rowan, chair of DigiPen’s Department of Design. “It’s a very current, industry-standard experience for students that will look quite similar to what they might encounter out in their careers.”

Located on the second floor, the new lab will occupy two adjacent rooms named after historic pioneers in the field of statistical research, Florence Nightingale and William Playfair.

What this gives us is a dedicated testing area with new tools where students will be able to more accurately measure, in a controlled environment, what is actually happening with players in the game.

Nightingale, the main research room, is designed to foster a non-biased, large-scale testing environment. Partitioned testing bays for players will feature headphones, computers, keyboards, and controllers, allowing subjects to experience the game separately without distraction. For student researchers, testing bays will also come equipped with eye-tracking software, synchronized gameplay and facial expression recording, and medical-grade bracelets for measuring nervous system arousal levels — a key metric in determining player engagement. A separate couch play configuration will also be available for multiplayer games meant to be experienced in a shared environment.

“Previously, student testing was very ad hoc, held in busy game production labs on campus,” Rowan says. “What this gives us is a dedicated testing area with new tools where students will be able to more accurately measure, in a controlled environment, what is actually happening with players in the game.”

Playfair, the adjacent room, will serve as a reception, check-in, and waiting area for test subjects. The room will allow students to greatly expand their samples, an important part of collecting truly representative datasets. “Before it was almost entirely fellow students volunteering for tests, but we’re going to be developing a public test volunteer database, so we’ll have people from the larger community we’ll be able to call in,” Rowan says. Through volunteer questionnaires, students will be able to target their test demographics — studying both gamers and non-gamers alike — or focus on fans of specific genres. “We’ll be able to avoid that sample of convenience problem and actually have an audience come in,” Rowan says.

User research and data analytics are becoming more and more important in the game industry.

Playfair will also feature a more typical classroom configuration, enabling students to conduct large focus group studies as well. “We can show a video to a large group there and dial the response,” Rowan says. “We’ll be able to have conversations and communicate through what they’re watching. Why do you like these types of games? What do you think about this kind of feature?”

According to Rowan, the growth of user research as a subject area at DigiPen is a reflection of larger changes in the field. “User research and data analytics are becoming more and more important in the game industry,” Rowan says. “There’s a growing understanding and body of research about its value that has caused it to become very specialized as the industry has also grown. This is an entire career track someone can have, from an entry-level position all the way to a senior role.”

Students taking courses in psychology, a closely related subject that has similarly grown in recent years at DigiPen, will also be able to take advantage of the lab in the near future. “We’re going to be working closely with the psychology department to determine the kinds of tests they might want to run with the established lab configurations, but since this is a DigiPen resource, we definitely want them utilizing it as well,” Rowan says.

The start of the fall 2023 semester will mark the soft opening of Nightingale and Playfair as faculty continue to develop formal lab policies and procedures for students. “That will definitely take time, but there will be a point soon where we can officially welcome students to the lab with answers to all their questions,” Rowan says.