Speaker Spotlights

Want to know more about our #gamesUR speakers? Each week we’ll be hearing from two of our of talented #gamesUR US speaker for a brief glimpse into their experience, insight, and upcoming session in San Francisco. Tickets are available now via the conference website.

Click on a spotlight listed below to expand it!

Laura Levy is a Research Scientist II at the Interactive Media Technology Center at Georgia Tech working as a human-factors psychologist and specializing in games user research. Levy applies a behavioral approach towards the design and evaluation of games meant to instill benefit in the player. She expects to receive her PhD from Georgia Tech in Psychology in 2020.

Together with Nikki Crenshaw from Blizzard, Elizabeth Zelle from id Software, and Bradlyn Walker from Georgia Institute of Technology, you four will be on a panel giving your perspectives as female-identifying researchers. Would you like to tell us more about this talk?

The games user researcher (GUR) community is a diverse one, with about 34% of it identifying as female. However, the majority of recruited participants in GUR studies are men. We have little understanding for how gender dynamics between researcher and participant gender impact the data we collect and use in games user research, but there is some evidence that this is an effect our GUR should be discussing. Women in GUR working with a mostly male participant pool are presented unique challenges their male counterparts may not face. We identify three categories presenting additional challenges to women in GUR: 1) maintaining a sense of authority over research sessions, 2) establishing appropriate rapport with participants, and 3) adapting methodologies “on the fly” to produce the most valid and reliable data. In this panel we will discuss gender-specific challenges in GUR, focusing on successful strategies that can be used by anyone to ensure effective research sessions. Topics will include extant literature, adapted playtesting methods, context-dependent methodologies, and a conversation on gender dynamics between researchers and participants in the GUR domain.

How did you get into the games user research domain?

Completely by accident! Strangely, I am not the only one on this panel that has a background in marine biology. I spent the early part of my career working in dolphin cognition and studying shark attack behavior. Through an odd and complex turn of events, I found myself applying the same observational behavioral analyses I used in marine animals to older adults playing video games for a National Science Foundation-funded study. That first project led to me becoming a games user researcher and pursuing this research in academia.

What would you consider the biggest challenge(s) that Games User Research faces today?

Transdisciplinary communication and collaboration. Though we consider this one GUR community, there are many different expertise required for us to successfully produce good research. Professionals representing everything from statistics, psychology, HCI, computer science, sociology, and more are necessary to produce meaningful, appropriate, and careful research. Common methodological and inference mistakes would be nipped in the bud by involving those that could identify that early on. Involving the requisite expertise throughout a project only serves to strengthen it and the subsequent produced data that becomes generalizable knowledge for our community.

Could you share your favourite sessions you’ve previously seen at the #gamesUR Conference?

This will actually be my first  Summit!

Could you share a piece of advice you’d give to novice researchers or people wanting to start a role in Games User Research domain?

Question everything. Like any domain, there are lots of strong opinions on the “best” and “worst” methodologies, surveys, data analyses, and other tools in a games user researcher’s arsenal. Take all of this with a grain of salt and do your own and frequent research. The field is changing rapidly and being a savvy consumer of the latest research will help you make your own justifications and decisions on your research methodologies so that you can produce strong, valid research outcomes.

What’s your favourite game?

I have barely played any other game since I picked up Overwatch. Everything from the styling, diversity of playing abilities, character feel, team composition strategies, and now the Overwatch League has me hooked. Overwatch made me finally take an interest in esports, and I now am studying how to support fan acquisition and novice viewer experiences through visualization and UI design.

Full details of Laura’s talk with Elizabeth, Nikki and Bradlyn entitled “You Play Like a GURL: Perspectives from female-identifying researchers” is available on the sessions page.

You can follow Laura on twitter @sciencelaura or visit her webpage www.lauralevy.science to see her other work.

Nikki Crenshaw is a UX Researcher with the Games User Research team at Blizzard Entertainment. Over the last 2 years at Blizzard, she has conducted research on player sociality, social affordances, and accessibility. Prior to working in the games industry, Nikki received her PhD from UC Irvine, where she did work exploring how game design and cultural ideologies influenced social experience in World of Warcraft and Nostalrius Begins. To connect with Nikki, you can find her on Twitter @Gaiazelle or through linkedin.

Elizabeth Zelle is a User Researcher at the Bethesda Softworks Research Lab located at id Software, outside of Dallas, TX. She’s been in the industry over 10 years, and in her 7th doing GUR. Prior to starting at Bethesda in 2017 she spent 5 years conducting user researcher at Volition, so she has a breadth of experience working with both developer and publisher stakeholders on a wide variety of genres. She’s also an undercover marine biologist. To connect with Elizabeth, you can find her on Twitter @kohizeri.

Bradlyn Walker holds a Masters degree in Human Computer Interaction from Georgia Institute of Technology. Her background is in Cognitive Psychology. Her research interests include immersion and flow as they pertain to entertainment technologies. To connect with Bradlyn, you can find her on Twitter @bradlynwalker .

Sebastian Long is the Director of Player Research. Since 2012 Seb has contributed to more than 200 games as a UX Researcher, spanning every genre, audience and platform. He now leads Player Research’s international growth and training, while working with game studio leadership to ensure player data is a tenet of their development practice.

Hello Seb, could you please summarize your talk and one of the key takeaways the conference attendees can expect?

I’ll be sharing advice on writing ‘Expert Reviews’: a gamesUR approach designed to quickly find flaws in a game’s experience, focusing on usability and learnability. I’ve parsed a series of practice Expert Analyses conducted by entry-level Researchers to find common failings and opportunities to improve. Among a host of other advices I’ll discuss how to talk about monetisation, how to recognise when you’re steering too close to game design critique, and lots of advice for bettering your finding of issues and communicating them to developers.

How did you get into the games user research domain?

I studied HCI at Sussex Uni, and collaborated on a number of commercial games user research projects with their start-up game lab. In 2012 Player Research was founded to provide commercial gamesUR to global teams, and we’ve grown steadily ever since. I am now leading our lab-opening projects in other countries.

What would you consider the biggest challenge(s) that Games User Research faces today?

There is a stark contrast between those game development teams that have engaged with games user research and UX processes, and those that have not. What drives me personally is the biggest picture: of increasing gamedev-wide engagement with player data, and earning us all the ability to drive research into the heart of game development, pragmatically, for every gamedev team. Games UX is alike to mainstream UX (for non-game products and services) in that we’re constantly fighting against low research-literacy among development teams, and a lack of trust in qualitative approaches. But games user research is several years behind mainstream UX in terms of thought leadership and breadth of approaches; there are many lessons to be learned, and walls to tear down. As games are empowered to become more technically complex through AI, VR/AR and other advancements, it’s going to be a wild ride for games UX professionals to keep apace, and fight for the validity and value of user testing in a world where players are increasingly connected and vocal in providing feedback.

Could you share your favourite sessions you’ve previously seen at the #gamesUR Conference?

Several of the talks on research strategy have been fantastically insightful, including sessions from Riot, Ubisoft, id, Scopely and Bungie in outlining their approaches product-wide. But if I had to pick one, I really enjoyed Yossef Benzeghadi’s session on the analytics successes in Ghost Recon Wildlands Great talk, great game!

Do you have a favourite example of an elegant usability/UX fix or feature?

I loved how the world of Portal 2 allowed it to be really on-the-nose with player instructions, without feeling out of place. The example that sticks out is the sign in one of the test rooms that said “In case of implosion: look directly at implosion”, to encourage players to do exactly that. The most interesting UX work for me is being done in VR, where we’re getting the luxury of some vacuums of interaction design; managing players’ attention and moving players around the playspace effectively and safely has needed some innovative designs, and some careful user testing. I was awed by Job Simulator’s modular expandable workplaces that modify the interaction design of the virtual machines you operate, based on your available playspace.  Genius!

Could you share a piece of advice you’d give to novice researchers or people wanting to start a role in Games User Research domain?

Read everything. Go to Gamasutra and read everything. If you’re going to make a career in gamedev you have to speak and think and empathise with developers. This is, critically, most unlike the way in which a consumer would speak and think and empathise with game developers. Follow @gamesUR on Twitter and of course read the GURBOOK and Celia Hodent’s A Gamer’s Brain, and all the other standard literature, but don’t forget that good data needs to be persuasive and actionable and empathetic, not just rigorous.

What is your “guilty pleasure” game?

I think I own Binding of Isaac on three different platforms… And the board game is brilliant too!

Sebastian’s talk “What Makes A Great Usability Expert Review? Lessons From My Practice Game Analyses” will be presented at the #gamesUR US Summit, March 19th in San Francisco. If you’d like to reach out to Seb directly, you can find him on Twitter @seb_long

Lauren White joined Microsoft in early 2015, working on the Xbox platform shell with a focus on user experiences and UI design. Before that, she was sharpening her skills as a user researcher with consumer products. She has a BA in psychology from Reed College, and a PhD in media psychology from Fielding Graduate University. When not working, she’s looking up at space and wondering when we’ll get humans to Mars.

Could you please summarize your talk and one of the key takeaways the conference attendees can expect?

The role of user researchers can evolve and have greater impacted when partnered with other research-oriented disciplines such as data science.  I’ll talk about the relationship I’ve fostered with data science related to a research project I worked on for the Xbox console.

Why is your talk important to share with others?

As a field, we should always be looking for other opportunities to view and understand data in new and interesting ways.  There’s a time and a place for usability testing, but we should always look to grow and learn new things.

What would you consider the biggest challenge(s) that Games User Research faces today?

Earning respect, trust, and credibility from partner teams and stakeholders.

Could you share a piece of advice you’d give to novice researchers or people wanting to start a role in Games User Research domain?

Part of the job isn’t something you can learn from a book on research methods or design or user research.  As a UR, soft skills like being personable and communicating effectively is equally if not more important than walking the walk.

What games have you been playing recently?

I have a backlog for my backlog, so I rarely play any new games.  Currently, I’ve been playing through HUE, finished the Batman Telltale game, and Plague Inc.

Beyond work… what is your passion?

I am obsessed with space.  Saying it’s a passion is tough because I can’t do a lot with that other than consume information and images from people that are much smarter than I am.

Do you have a favourite example of an elegant usability/UX fix or feature?

I love different door handle designs that make it utterly apparent that you either need to push or pull to open the door without having the words “Push” or “Pull” visually present.  Something you rarely think about it because the design is just so seamless.

What is your “guilty pleasure” game?

I played the skags out of Borderlands.  Terrified to see what my totals hours spent on all three games would be.  Would probably be more meaningful to measure in days, not hours.

If there is one change in the industry you’d like to see for 2020, what would that be?

I feel that internal tools can sometimes get a pass on being perfectly usable and beautiful.  I wish we placed as much importance and emphasis on tools we as researchers use everyday as we would with things our users use.  We’re users too!

If you had access to unlimited funds and time to run your “dream” research study or project, how would this look for you?

This may be so far out there, but I would love to know how we as a society would function without social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter and Instagram.  What if our technology was limited to more rudimentary communication such as 1:1 conversations, or 1:few conversations? Would we be more kind to each other? More productive?  More creative? More problem-solving-oriented?

Are there any other research topics or methodologies you haven’t explored yet that you wish to try?

Oddly enough, I feel like I’ve tried most if not all of them.  Everything from eye tracking to A/B tests to focus groups, card sorting, usability sessions, interviews, data science, telemetry.  I’d be more interested to know what I haven’t tried!

What’s your favourite game?

This question is like choosing your favorite child.  I absolutely love Tetris, Portal, Borderlands, and Drop7.

Lauren’s talk “Including the User Voice in an Algorithm World” will be in the Development track presented at the #gamesUR US Summit, March 19th in San Francisco. If you’d like to reach out to Lauren directly, you can find her on Twitter @lnwhite.

Dan is a 10 year User Research vet, having worked at several large tech companies like Google and Expedia, to small startups such as DivX. Most recently Dan has spent his past 7+ years at Blizzard, conducting studies across a large and diverse set of methodologies: usability, playtests, surveys, diary studies, remote usability, interviews, eye tracking, accessibility, and many more. He also has gained a depth of experience researching Blizzard’s wide array of games (World of Warcraft, StarCraft II, Heroes of the Storm, Overwatch, Hearthstone, Diablo 3, Overwatch League) as well as numerous support teams (Web, Battle.net, Customer Support, Internal Tools, Esports, QA). Dan’s passion for research stems from his curiosity and desire to learn more about people. He really enjoys those surprises that inevitably happen when doing research.

Could you please summarize your talk and one of the key takeaways the conference attendees can expect?

My talk is about the adventure the newly created Blizzard GUR team experienced building out research on a massively successful 10+ year old game, World of Warcraft.  Hopefully providing some insights into what worked and what didn’t.

How did you get into the games user research domain?

A friend I knew from my Masters program at UW in Seattle got a job at Blizzard and she let me know about an opening in the research department.  A few months later I got the job and have been here ever since (7+ years).

What would you consider the biggest challenge(s) that Games User Research faces today?

Having GUR “champions” at the right levels of the company to help create awareness and impact.

How so?

It’s mostly about getting executive-level support for Games User Research. Changing culture on game teams is easier when you are supported at the appropriate levels.

Could you share your favourite sessions you’ve previously seen at the #gamesUR Conference?

I really enjoyed last year’s panel where industry vets from other professions within game development talked about their experience with GUR, highlighting what worked and what didn’t. (#gamesUR USA 2018, “Keynote: How to Win Friends and Influence Developers” ).

Could you share a piece of advice you’d give to novice researchers or people wanting to start a role in Games User Research domain?

There are lots of people making indie games. Reach out to some and offer to provide research support.  You’ll likely have to do it for free, but request the ability to use anything you do for them in job applications.  You’ll learn a lot and build out a strong resume of work you can show.

Are there any other research topics or methodologies you havent explored yet that you wish to try?

I am super interested in doing more longitudinal research. We’ve done some, but figuring that out for our games given how much time is spent at the end game and improving our ability to collect data over time will be massively useful.

What has been your biggest surprise or funniest moment while conducting your research?

In my 10 years, I’m still amazed at how much I am learning about our players, their perspective, how they play our games, what they are aware of and what they don’t know.  I am constantly humbled and reminded of how important it is to stay curious and leave your bias at the door.

Why do you believe your talk is important to share with others?

We have been working with a development team that has built and supported an amazing game that has lasted almost 15 years, figuring out how to begin providing games user research support and the lessons we’ve learned feels useful for both new and seasoned researchers.

Beyond work… what is your passion?

[I’m] definitely a family guy. I love watching my kids grow and attempting to give them experiences that will ignite a passion for life-long learning

What is one fact people would be surprised to learn about you?

In my youth I was a member of a prestigious boys choir, singing for president Regan and in operas.

What’s your favourite game?

Favorite games often become so because of the time in your life when you experience them.  For myself, I loved the original Bioshock, and a big part of that was because I played it during a particularly tough part of my life.  The mechanics and mood, the fun plot twist, it really resonated with me, and gave me a space to recuperate mentally.

Dan’s talk “Games User Research: A World of Warcraft Case Study” will be featured in our Development track at #gamesUR Summit on March 19th in San Francisco. You can find connect with Dan directly via Twitter @DJPoe.

Jonathan Cohen is the User Research Manager at Gearbox Publishing; he has a background in cognitive science and experimental psychology with over 15 years of laboratory research experience that he applies to games user testing at the studio. He has presented research

findings at academic conferences, universities, and at the Games User Research Summit. Outside of games research he enjoys tabletop gaming and organizes regular board game and roleplaying game events with colleagues and friends.

Hi Jonathan, could you please summarize your talk and one of the key takeaways the conference attendees can expect?

I present three case studies that grew out of our work with Compulsion Games during the development of We Happy Few. These case studies cover gameplay and narrative issues and solutions that were informed by user research findings. One of the biggest takeaways that I hope I can convey to the audience is the importance of a good relationship with one’s development partners, and how said relationship can positively impact the flow of information before, during, and after a test.

How did you get into the games user research domain?

I studied cognitive science in graduate school, with a focus on perception and action; about halfway through my program I knew that I wanted to work outside of academia but still conduct psychological research. After I graduated I spent some time conducting applied research with the government. I attended PAX East and witnessed the scope of the gaming community, which prompted me to switch paths and focus on games research. I found the position at Gearbox in the fall of 2012 and I have been with the studio since then.

What would you consider the biggest challenge(s) that Games User Research faces today?

The challenges a GUR team or individual faces are often idiosyncratic to the project or team with whom they work; that said I think one challenge that cuts across projects is determining how best to integrate new methods and technology into experimental designs and testing practices. While adding a new piece of technology or analysis to one’s approach may result in broader data sets, it may come at the cost of speed or introduce unwanted – or difficult to parse and explain – noise to results.

Could you share your favourite sessions you’ve previously seen at the #gamesUR Conference?

  • John Hopson’s talk last year about player segmentation, especially when he debunked the approach taken with Magic: The Gathering!
  • Nick Yee’s presentations about player profiles
  • The “fishbowl” round-table discussions
  • Anything involving Jordan Lynn

Could you share a piece of advice you’d give to novice researchers or people wanting to start a role in Games User Research domain?

Some advice for folks getting into this field:

  • Find a mentor and ask questions; most of us come from an academic background and are happy to share what we can from our experiences.
  • Don’t ever presume that the user is wrong when they provide feedback; seek to understand the underlying cause of their feedback and then operationalize or recontextualize the feedback as data for developers or stakeholders.
  • Learn to be flexible about experimental control; games often have variables that are difficult to pin down or control in a traditional laboratory sense.

What’s your favourite game?

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES)

Jonathan’s talk “Shaping Wastrels into Proper Citizens: Impacts of UR on We Happy Few” will be featured in our Development track at #gamesUR Summit, San Francisco on March 19th. You can reach out to Jonathan via email

Santino is the sole Playtest Recruiter for Activision’s Central User Research Team, handling all of the projects that the team supports. Prior to his work at Activision, he was a Store Manager at Gamestop for three years, learning about various video game genres along the way. Having worked several years in customer services roles, Santino combined his lifelong passion for gaming with his learned ability to read people over the phone and in person to drastically improve the profile accuracy of recruited participants for the research conducted at Activision.

Could you please summarize your talk and one of the key takeaways the conference attendees can expect?

My talk is pretty much, “Here’s how I talk to 100 people to find the right 10.” One of the key takeaways is how to deal with rejecting participants. Come listen to my soothing, monotone voice say, “No.”

Why do you believe your talk is important to share with others?

I believe recruiting to be incredibly important to the research and I would love to share what I have learned in the process.

Could you share a piece of advice you’d give to novice researchers or people wanting to start a role in Games User Research domain?

Be comfortable being uncomfortable. You will see faces you haven’t seen before, voices you haven’t heard before and attitudes you haven’t dealt with before. To get out of your comfort zone, go to social events or start a club with one of your interests (Games 😉). Google game dev meetups in your area and go out. Challenge yourself to engage with at least one person during your time there.

How did you get into the games user research domain?

I got in [to Activision] through a playtest recruiter role. The call banker is an entry level role within user research.

What’s your favourite game?

Of all time? Geez, that’s tough. I would have to say Super Mario. First game I remember playing. Easy, fun and timeless.

What games have you been playing recently?

Call of Duty, Super Smash Bros. I really want to start Spider-man, but where’s the time?!

Beyond work… what is your passion?

Huge MMA fan. Love the sport.

What is one fact people would be surprised to learn about you?

I saved my brother from drowning when I was 5 and he was 4, and my glasses are real.

What is your “guilty pleasure” game?

WWE games. I stopped watching wrestling around the age of 16, but I have held the WWE Universal Championship, Tag Team championships, WWE Championship, and NXT Championship belts from WWE 2k14-present.

Santino’s talk “Diary of a Playtest Recruiter—You want me to do what? (and by when?)” will be featured in our Development track at #gamesUR Summit, San Francisco on March 19th. You can reach out to Santino via email.