Game on! How big data and game design are rocking your world

game design big data
Image credit: Inspiring /

In 2019, it’s a good time to be a game designer – and not just for the reasons you might think. Certainly the gaming industry is already massive, generating close to $135 billion in revenues last year, and the rise of eSports promises to take gaming to new levels of popularity and revenue.

But gaming has become a disruptive force in itself as game design techniques filter into everyday communications apps, and emerging technologies like big data and AI will make gamification even more disruptive – and potentially unethical if we’re not careful.

The Hong Kong campus of SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) offers interactive design and game development programs that teach students not only the skillsets necessary to design games, but also to apply those gamification skillsets to all sorts of apps, from social media sites like Facebook (think of collecting “likes” as the same thing as scoring reward points) to work orientation videos and educational tools that turn things like learning calculus or how to repair an escalator into a game.

The common thread is engagement, says Professor Wan Chiu, a game designer who teaches interactive design and game development at SCAD Hong Kong, which in this case is a form of psychology. “Game designers are like psychologists – our job is to engage the user and make them participate in certain things that we design.”

Design as you play

Chiu says that while the basic structure of how games are made hasn’t drastically changed in the last 30 years, new technologies like big data analytics are providing powerful tools that alter the design process by allowing game designers to put the game online before it’s even finished, and continue designing the game on the fly as users play it.

“As a game designer, a lot of times these days, we don’t just design a game and wait for the player to react to it – we can actually make half of a game, put it on the market, charge half price for it, and see how it goes,” Chiu says. “So every second when you playing, we can receive data based on what you’re doing – are you clicking the button we want you to click? If not, why? Is the experience actually engaging so that people will keep coming back? We don’t have to wait for anybody to tell us – we can look at our analytics in real time. That’s why big data is such a revolutionary force for games.”

SCAD Hong Kong’s Associate Dean of Academics Derek Black adds that game design is shifting to an iterative design approach where developers can make small changes very rapidly and test them. There are already examples of this outside of the gaming apps sector, he adds.

“In the US, there’s a company called Intuit that create a software called Turbo Tax. And historically speaking, they would only roll out a new product every year on a yearly basis,” Black explains. “Today, they’re rolling out 100 different changes within the tax season, and they’re able to test to see which ones are working, and make those changes based upon that big data. So what they’ve done is that, in essence, all of their designers are ‘entrepreneurial designers’ looking at what are the best features to add into that. So it’s taking all that user-experience data being pulled together and starting to find tune those interactions and experiences.”

game design big data SCAD
From left: Derek Black, Associate Dean of Academics, and Wan Chiu, Professor of Interactive Design and Game Development, at SCAD Hong Kong

Chiu points to recent gaming sensation FortNite as a live example of successful iterative game design in action.

“FortNite is such a big powerful force because of the way they’re able to use the data and make iterative changes – even the placement of a button or the size of the font can impact whether the user is going to click that button or not, or the way they write the copywriting,” he says. “FortNite is so successful that during every second you’re playing, you’re totally engaged.”

Chiu adds that engagement doesn’t necessarily mean constant action – designers can come up with games that proceed at a much more relaxed pace. “For example, there’s a very successful game called Monument Valley – it is not about fast action, it’s about how you can let other users keep playing at a certain level at their own pace for a long, long time.”

Even relatively simpler games like the New York Times crossword puzzle app can harness user data to tailor the experience by providing easier puzzles for players who struggle to complete puzzles beyond a certain level of difficulty, Chiu says.

Inevitably, artificial intelligence and machine learning are also being integrated into game design, particularly for things such as making non-player characters in RPGs like Final Fantasy more realistic, conversational and interactive.

One challenge with AI and ML as a design tool is ensuring that it can be trusted to run on its own without producing unintended results. Chiu says that’s why it’s important to train AI with the right data to ensure it produces accurate results and responses. He cites an example of a public hospital in California where a company is helping the oncology department train AI to look at slides and detect which ones show cancer.

“After about 10,000 slides, the machine knows how to look at a slide and very high accuracy rate,” he says.

In fact, he notes, even the AI training process can be gamified. “For example, to train AI to recognize cancer, you could get doctors worldwide to help in a way that makes it fun and rewarding to verify the right answer.”

Design ethics: the game!

The combination of big data and gamification in the name of higher engagement does raise ethical issues for interactive designers, Chiu cautions, citing Facebook as an obvious example.

“With big data we can see who is playing in this country or that country, and in what region – that’s why Facebook is such a powerful force, because Facebook can tell you not only where the person is, but also that this person is actually a 12 year old Caucasian female at home,” he says. “In a few years it can probably tell you which room in the house they’re in.”

That’s why ethics are a key component of SCAD game design and interactive design courses, Chiu says.

“In my game design class I tell them, ‘You guys are wielding unlimited amount of power – you didn’t know that! You have power over people’s life and death’,” he says citing examples of people who stage dangerous stunts on social media sites like YouTube and Instagram just to get more clicks and likes – sometimes with tragic results. “I tell them about how people actually lose their lives because of this, so you have to be responsible for what you’re doing.”

At the end of the day, game designers are challenged with the delicate task of making games or other apps and services as engaging as possible without pushing users into full-blown tech addiction, which is already emerging as a very real social problem for many people.

Chiu doesn’t dismiss the issue of tech addiction, but says that parents’ concerns about kids spending too much time online is the modern version of parents of previous generations who worried about the negative impact of television, movie violence, rock music and home video game consoles.

“I think this is a call for a big discussion on how can people of all walks of life can incorporate this,” he says. “That’s a discussion we should have, but we cannot push it away – we cannot go back to before the internet age.”

Meanwhile, SCAD’s Derek Black notes that we’re already seeing device makers respond with software tools that can help people to restrict their own usage – for example, by making it easier to switch off instant notifications. As for how to get fully engaged users to actually use those features – well, even that can be gamified, he says.

“We could gamify our existence with technology in the real world so that you get these rewards for not playing games, or unlock features,” Black says. “We could gamify parental interaction within any digital or communication device – so you get rewarded for sending communications between your grandparents and grandchildren. That’s what the software is capable of, so there’s no reason why we can’t build these positive elements into this gamification interaction response.”

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