The Gamer’s Brain: book review

Book provided by PR

Published two years ago, but only very recently brought to our attention, The Gamer’s Brain: How Neuroscience and UX Can Impact Video Game Design is, in all honesty, a remarkable book. The author is firmly in the “video game” camp of insisting the term is two separate words, sadly, but that’s the only criticism that can be fairly levelled at the work.

Said author is Celia Hodent, a UX (that is, ‘user experience’) expert who’s worked at Ubisoft, Lucasarts, and Epic Games. She has a PhD in psychology, which she used – and continues to use – to help developers make their games as easy to understand and use as possible. If this sounds like a job and a discipline that is completely unnecessary, then that’s just one of several reasons for you to read this book.

Who, then, is The Gamer’s Brain for? This is a question that Hodent directly addresses near the beginning and, in a rare floundering for clarity, in a very roundabout way essentially says ‘anybody that’s interested’. While the book is ostensibly aimed at practicing UX researchers and game developers (and students hoping to become one or the other; reflected in the cost, with a standard price of around £40 for the paperback), the appeal is much wider than that. For one thing, even the term ‘game developer’ is more flexible today than it was 10-15 years ago. You no longer need knowledge of code impenetrable to the general public in order to make your own indie game (interestingly, this is not something Hodent addresses). RPG Maker, LittleBigPlanet, Twine, Dreams; there is now a whole host of friendly game-making software out there, varying in complexity and distribution limitations. Believe it or not, UX has a lot to teach even to those creating games in this way.

Another audience oddly not considered is that interested only (or mainly) in playing games rather than making them. The first half of the book is concerned almost exclusively with cognitive psychology, a fascinating subject for anybody, and one which Hodent discusses with authority and needle-sharp clarity. If you’re familiar with psychology fundamentals such as the work of Skinner, Piaget, and Pavlov, then yes, they are (eventually) mentioned. Generally speaking however it’s more recent work that is referenced, sometimes quite specific to videogames. Endlessly interesting as it is, devoting roughly half a book about game UX to cognitive psychology might seem odd – but it makes perfect sense.

The second half of the book is concerned with the practical application of this psychology to game design. Again thinking of those with little to no interest in making their own games, this half could potentially hold even more interest than the first, and even demonstrates the value of UX in game development. Have you ever returned to a game after a long break, and found that you struggle to remember the controls and/or where you are and what you’re doing in the campaign? Perhaps you’ve played a shooter that darkens or partially obscures the display when you’re near death, and you really wish it didn’t? Maybe you keep coming back to a loot-centred RPG or shooter, but you’re not quite sure why? How many games have you played with impressively effective (or disastrously ineffective) tutorials? Hodent explains the hows and whys of these and much, much more in a logical and eye-opening fashion. You’ll almost certainly think to yourself “yeah, I hate it when games do that!” or “so that’s why I love/hate that!” at least a few times, and gain a deeper understanding of why in the process.

Accessible yet never patronising, authoritative yet never arrogant, Hodent’s style smoothly explains and discusses some extremely complex issues. While there are arguably not enough specific examples of UX done right and wrong – especially as those examples present help illustrate and strengthen her points – you’re never left in any doubt that wider acceptance and use of UX specialists will benefit developers and players alike. Inadvertently perhaps, the book also helps explain how and why games that have major changes thrust upon them at a late stage develop some of the problems that they do.

Don’t come here for a detailed behind-the-scenes overview of game development, as that’s not what The Gamer’s Brain sets out to do. What you get instead is a compelling peek into one corner of the ever-evolving world of psychology, and a solid understanding of the fact that making a game user friendly is incredibly important – and not nearly as simple as you may have thought. It’s not cheap enough to justify a purchase for those with only a casual interest, but this book is a worthwhile investment for anybody seeking to understand the importance of psychology in game design, no matter their reasons.

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Written by Luke K

Luke plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. Chances are, if you pick up a copy of the latest Official PlayStation Magazine or GamesMaster, you'll find something he's written in there. Luke doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

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