It's no secret that every product on every shelf in every store is subjected to a wealth of market research and end-user evaluation, but a little digging around in the Microsoft Game Studios earth uncovered an entire department of engineers and - what's more unexpected - psychologists, all dedicated to quantifying the appeal and fixing the flaws in the human element of videogames.
Daniel Gunn is a User Researcher at Microsoft's Games User Research Group, who tells me about the underlying function of his profession. "I'm trained in Human Factors Psychology," he says. "When most people think of psychologists, they typically think of clinical psychologists who treat people's phobias, personality disorders, depression and so on.
"Human factors psychologists, on the other hand, deal with how humans interact with the environment, tools, technology, information, etc. We strive to ensure that systems are safe, intuitive, productive and easy to use for the user; we focus design on the human factor. Most human factors psychologists have extensive training in human cognition, memory and perception. In addition, we typically have very strong backgrounds in experimental design and statistics."
Despite being trained for such a multifarious profession, it seems a little hard to figure how someone like Dan fits into the grand scheme of making videogames fun and playable. His colleague, and another User Researcher in the Group, Tim Nichols shed some light on an engineering psychologist's role in game development.
"Engineering psychologists are interested in the capabilities and limitations of users, and how best to design for those capabilities and limitations," he begins. "Designers are always curious about how gamers interpret the game. Do they solve the puzzle the way they're supposed to, do they get lost in the city, do they use the right weapon against the boss, do they notice the box of unlit torches in the dark cave (looking in your direction, Oblivion tutorial!)?" laughs Tim, clearly someone who is not only an integral member of the industry, but also a dedicated gamer. He continues:
"At Microsoft Game Studios, game designers can turn to the Games User Research Group to help answer these questions. Folks in my group have extensive training in how people perceive, how they interpret what they perceive and how they make decisions based on these interpretations. Combine that with our passion for gaming, and, basically, we're very good at measuring how gamers react to games."
Speaking to Dan and Tim has made me wonder about my own introduction to Microsoft's current console. I can honestly say the Xbox 360, the PlayStation 3 nor the new Nintendo machine (whose name we shall not speak) held any interest for me. Eventually succumbing to a few test games in a local videogame store prompted an unexpected impulse purchase, one I didn't relish having to explain to my accountant (who is also my wife).
After a few hours of obligatory resentment, she reluctantly gave the new console half her attention and has since worn away her fingerprints on the controller. Not only that, but my house has since become populated with exactly the kind of people you wouldn't expect to be spending their time on videogames; my father, my wife's friends, the nutcase kids from next door - none of them have ever been interested in this form of entertainment before. So why now?
I had to wonder how much of this unsolicited fascination was the result of a psychological prowess infused into a game's early development.