Charles Somerville is a user researcher at Bethesda. I caught up with him to ask about his journey into games. He talked about some great topics including applying academic experience into the games industry.
What is it you currently do at Bethesda?
I’m a user researcher, and my job is to conduct and facilitate user research at the publisher level for the many talented dev studios in the ZeniMax Media family. This means that while the actual science of designing and executing user research is the core of my job, it is equally (if not more) important that I also help maintain positive relationships with the many stakeholder groups Bethesda’s UR team interacts with.
What was your journey into games user research?
The abridged version of this story always starts in the same place at GDC 2018 in San Francisco. While attending graduate school in southern California, I had scraped up enough money to attend my first GDC, and by that time I was still unaware that games user research was a field. When exploring the various talks being given, I discovered the roundtable discussion on user research in games chaired by Ben Taels, who would end up being my boss a year later.
Fast forward to 2019 and many, many rejected applications later, I landed a contract role at Epic Games as a UX Lab Analyst, helping to moderate Epic’s lab and support the talented UX team there.
In the middle of 2020, right after the pandemic began, I knew my contract was expiring soon and began exploring full-time opportunities. Fortuitously, a user research role opened at Bethesda, and I applied with all due haste. Many interviews and several months later, I began my first full-time role as a mid-level user researcher.
What did you find the most challenging step of getting a role working in games? How did you overcome that?
The first step is always the hardest, and that is absolutely true for landing a job in the gaming industry. I had several advantages when I started applying specifically to GUR roles – my location in California meant that I was close to many studios, and my recently acquired graduate degree in social psychology was a good way to prove my research acumen.
However, the biggest gap in my history was, funnily enough, displaying a passion for games and doing so in a way that coincided with some kind of work history or academic project. I did what I could to remedy this by working with my academic advisor on incorporating games into my doctoral studies while also doing independent research on the side.
Did your experience working in academia help with getting a job in the games industry? How?
Yes and no. Academia taught me the fundamentals of research and the importance of the scientific method, especially when dealing with something so subjective as games. However, academia never adequately prepared me for the sheer speed at which GUR operates. Turnaround time has varied at both the companies I’ve worked for and across different projects, but I think anyone else in the field will agree that there is an expectation that results are due sooner rather than later. Academia just really doesn’t prepare a person for that – or at least my experience didn’t.
What would your top tip be for someone looking to become a games user researcher?
It’s okay to fail. This field is highly competitive at the junior level. As I said earlier on, the entirety of my 2018 and part of 2019 was spent applying and getting rejected to a lengthy list of roles (recorded in a spreadsheet I keep to this day as a reminder and confidence boost). Every rejection is an opportunity to reach out, be graceful and gracious, and learn why you didn’t make the cut. They are chances to patch the holes in the metaphorical armor of your resume and try again. Be persistent and willing to improve, and you will get there!
As a bonus tip, perhaps even more important than accepting failure, learn how to network. Attend conferences as you’re able. Go to talks. Join the GRUX SIG Discord. Our community is still relatively small, which means that good impressions are critical. Conduct yourself in a way so that your name has a positive association, and your chances will greatly improve.
Thanks Charles for the great introduction to his journey, and top tips! To hear more from Charles, do follow him on twitter. This is a popular topic, so we have more interviews from experienced games user researchers about the transition from academia to industry over the next few issues, including Joe Florey from PlayStation and Adam Lobel from Blizzard.