Fascination With the Measured

by Charlotte Fisher

What do hardcore surveillance and video games have in common? Jen Whitson knows, and it’s not what you’d expect.

The theme of the first day of MIGS seemed to be all about metrics and monetization. Jen Whitson (postdoctoral fellow at TAG, the Technoculture Art and Games Research Centre at Concordia University) kicked off the business portion of the summit with her talk on How Metrics Impact Your People.

“This is going to sound a bit like a history lesson.” Whitson surprised the audience by beginning her talk with some background on surveillance data gathered by the US during the Vietnam war. Using sophisticated (and expensive) surveillance systems, in less than five minutes the US was able to carry out a plan to kill a man whose urine was detected along the Ho Chi Minh Trail (this was considered highly successful). Not too long after the celebration died out, however, guerillas had learned how to sabotage these surveillance systems; using balloons filled with urine, the Viet Cong were able to divert sloughs of devastation away from the trail and into empty forests and neighbouring villages. When the US learned that the systems were no longer working, something had to change. But it was too late to turn back. Instead, they worked hard to improve the systems, making them bigger and more powerful. They had hoped that this automation would give them an incredible advantage in the war–instead, it became a vast pit of wasted resources, unimaginable casualties and, presumably, much embarrassment.

Using metrics to gather player data is all about counting the occurrences of certain in-game player events. How often did the player take key actions in the game and when did they do it? Metrics, hard numerical data, have been used to help many developers push their games to satisfy more people and make more money. The numbers are analyzed in a way that, hopefully, tell developers what’s working and what’s not. So, like the surveillance technology used along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, game developers are surveying player actions.

We’re in an age right now where many developers are gathering data similarly to how the US gathered their information in Vietnam. Could this lead to total game devastation, comparable to the pock-marked Ho Chi Minh Trail?

It is true that metrics have helped many a company get out of a tight spot. When a game isn’t doing well, analyzing this sort of data has, in many occasions, proved to be helpful in giving players what they want–but there are also many disaster stories.

In using metrics, Whitson says, the emphasis is on autonomy; developers aren’t letting players speak for themselves. Players become a number, a statistic, and, as Mark Twain believed: statistics lie. What is a game dev to do?

Tayber Voyer, Producer and Game Designer at A Thinking Ape believes that metrics only work as a part of a larger system, with other data-gathering methods and components. He explains, in his talk entitled 41 Shades of Troll, that without hearing what the players have to say, the data isn’t contextualized and it’s really easy to misinterpret without that context.

I was fortunate to get a quick interview with Jen Whitson; we talked about Voyer’s statements about the balance of data gathering and the responsibility of analyzing player data.

“I loved his talk,” Whitson agreed with Voyer’s take on interpreting player data from both metrics and direct player feedback.

I asked why more game developers don’t take this approach.

“The problem is,” she explains, “community engagement takes a lot of time, effort and creative energy, which is hard to do when fans are spewing fan talk. It takes special people to handle that and the learning curve is so high already in game development.”

Hiring people with the skill sets required to handle this job takes some extra overhead as well, for which not many developpers have the resources. “Not having human management leads to communication issues; it’s hard to build shared vision, so people have to sacrifice. As Dr. Ray Muzyka [ex-Bioware founder, Founder and CEO of Threshold Impact, who opened the summit with a keynote on leadership and communication] said, you have to balance the scope and quality of the game. This takes time and human resources.” Metrics might just sometimes be the easier, simpler option to go with to gather feedback from players–even if it is one-sided.

This led to another important question. The imagery of war was a strong one to present at the very beginning of the talk and I had to wonder: are metrics, being one-sided, potentially dangerous?

“Yes.”

Whitson explains that as data becomes numbers, players become dollar signs. Some companies can gather information we feel is irrelevant to the gameplay and make assumptions about the player from them. She compares this occurrence with insurance companies. Give them the wrong postal code and you may be refused for coverage.

“They might [flag you as living] in the ghetto and say, ‘we’re not going to serve you’. In non- game spaces, people are more aware of inequalities and digital divides, but in game spaces we tend to fall back on ‘it’s just a game.’ For something people might be playing several hours a week and spending a lot of money on,” she says, “the red-lining that metrics can introduce can be very problematic.”
As is true for other sources of power, it takes some moral responsibility to use it fairly.

But what about the game developers? There were so many talks about how to listen to your players and how to change the game to suit their preferences. Could shaping game design around player feedback be hurting the developers as well? Are metrics a form of selling-out and could they be stifling creativity?

“It depends. Using metrics isn’t selling out; in Tayber’s talk, [he discusses] nuanced data and validating player’s actions through human interactions.” She explains that, if used properly, it’s really just another way of playtesting your game. You wouldn’t ship a game without playtesting, would you? So talk to players and use all the methods that are available to you. If you can balance metrics and volunteered player feedback, not only will you be analyzing data responsibly and ethically, you will also be interpreting it more accurately and a better game will come out of it.

According to Whitson, “metrics won’t go away.” They will continue to be an integral part of the game development process. Just don’t forget about the players–even if they are trolling.

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