User Researchers, Partitions of Mattering, and the Development of Videogames

On Zoom 

Abstract: User researchers in the videogame industry accept an apparently straightforward responsibility: share unfinished versions of videogames with players, collect and analyze their feedback, and report that feedback to game developers in the hopes of helping them to improve their products. In practice, this work is far more complicated than it initially appears. Games, for example, can be unfinished and weeks away from release or unfinished and in the earliest stages of prototyping. Assessing what a game needs in its unfinished condition is a crucial component of how researchers collect and interpret feedback. Similarly, before researchers can share games with players, those players must be identified and recruited. Researchers must select them according to the criteria they decide are relevant—are they interested in veteran players or new ones? Players who are familiar with a particular genre or players with no relevant expertise at all? Men or women?  

In order to make sense of these complexities, I argue in this talk that games user researchers are tasked with drawing some of the most important, and most easily overlooked, “partitions of mattering” in the videogame industry. They do not hire and fire employees or decide what games will be made, but they do play a vital role in deciding which audiences of games will matter (in their recruitment of players), what player feedback should be acted upon by developers, and whether or not identity categories like race, gender, sexuality, and disability will receive consideration in a game’s development. Despite the importance of these drawn partitions to the making of games, that importance is very easily effaced by the development process itself. Games will go through many iterations, in response to many rounds of player feedback, and the changes brought by researchers are rendered all but invisible as they are assimilated into the game’s evolving shape. Working against this tendency, this talk seeks to unearth these partitions of mattering and highlight their politics and impact. It is based on over four years of research, including 80 ethnographic interviews with researchers and developers as well as participant-observation research conducted with two independent videogame studios.

Speaker bio: Joshua D. Rubin received his Ph.D. in Sociocultural Anthropology from Yale University in 2013. He currently teaches in Bates College’s Department of Anthropology, and he is also a member of the program committee for Africana (formerly African American Studies). His research examines intersubjective autonomous worlds — social worlds that appear to obey their own rules, separate from the rules of everyday life — and how the politics of everyday life play out in, and get complicated by, those worlds. His scholarship to date has centered on two ubiquitous autonomous worlds, the worlds of sporting fields and the worlds of videogames, but his research and teaching interests extend to other autonomous worlds as well, particularly to artistic works.

Oxford Digital Ethnography Group (OxDEG) seminar, Michaelmas 2023

Mondays of Weeks 2, 4, 6 and 8, 3.30-5pm, online (hybrid in Week 4)

Convened by David Zeitlyn, William Kelly, Rebecca Eynon, Lily Rodell