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Interview

Marco Alesci – Games User Researcher at Player Research

This month I’ve been talking to Marco Alesci, Games User Researcher at Player Research about his experience working in games, and top tips for people looking to join the industry.

He shared how his experience with primates helped him become a better researcher, the value of a research community and how to practice games user research skills.

What do you currently do in the games industry?

I’m a games user researcher at Player Research. I help game companies to answer questions about their games’ UX by conducting various types of research and analysis. This involves scoping the research project with the stakeholders, suggesting and executing the most appropriate methodology and reporting the research findings to them. As Player Research is a consultancy agency, I collaborate with companies around the world on games of different genres and platforms.

What did you do before you worked in games?

I started to work at Player Research soon after finishing a Master’s Degree in Experimental Social Psychology. I’ve always been interested in the ultimate causes of human behaviour and, for this reason, I dedicated my last University years to the study of primates’ behaviours. 

Although this might sound unusual, planning and executing research to study wild primates proved to be very instructive also for my Games User Research (GUR) career. Not only it taught me the fundamentals of research design but also provided me with specific domain and methods knowledge applicable to GUR. Interviewing local people to understand their attitudes toward the monkeys provided me with hands-on experiences in interview practices, which resulted to be useful when interviewing playtesters to assess their understanding of a game. In both disciplines, certain questions can only be answered through behavioural observation and precise note taking. Finally, studying primates also taught me how observed behaviours can sometimes be misinterpreted in absence of other additional information. Combining different types of data (such as interviews, behavioural observations, biological samples, habitat characteristics etc) to have a more holistic understanding of my study topic is equivalent to what is done in GUR to get a more accurate understanding of players’ behaviour.

How did you discover that games user research was a potential career?

This is an interesting story. After I graduated, I realised that I didn’t want to pursue a career in Primatology, as it didn’t align well with the lifestyle I wanted, so I started to look for an alternative career path in which my psychology knowledge was useful. At that time, I didn’t know GUR existed as the only psychology-related professions my University professors ever referred to were the clinical or work psychologist, which I was not interested in. 

One day, trying to find new and more appealing career options, I decided to search online for a way to combine my personal and academic interests together. I googled “psychology research videogames” and, after some digging, the IGDA GRUX website came up. Initially, I couldn’t believe that such an interesting job existed. Then, I assumed that other technical knowledge (e.g. coding, art design) was necessary. It was only when I read the first job openings’ descriptions that I realised that an entry-level GUR position was not out of reach based on my experiences. Now I’m so glad I did that Google search on that day!

Did you do anything to prepare or get experience before getting your first job in games?

I had to complement my research psychology background with more specific GUR knowledge. I studied every GUR content I could find, starting from the GUR book (Drachen, Mirza-Babaei, Nacke, 2018) and the talks of previous GUR summits. I also enrolled in free online courses to learn more about other topics related to GUR and games research (e.g. “mainstream” user research, serious games, gamification etc).

Joining the GUR Discord channel was also a defining moment. It gave me the opportunity to learn more about the state of the industry and to get in touch with GUR professionals. Receiving guidance from a mentor was incredibly helpful as I had plenty of questions to ask and I wasn’t sure if my CV was ready for a real application (so thank you very much Steve for helping me back then!).

How did you find the process of applying for jobs?

I’ve been extremely lucky to have landed on my current role immediately after finishing my Master’s degree, so the job-hunting period was pretty short for me. The hiring process deeply tested my GUR knowledge and also involved an expert analysis task on a commercial videogame. Presenting my findings to the Player Research team was both stimulating and scary, as I feared that failing the interview could have prevented me from entering in the GUR industry. Travelling to Brighton for the final interview, meeting the Player Research team in person and seeing the lab was really exciting. 

What was the most difficult part of getting your first role in the games industry? What did you do to overcome it?

I believe that the most challenging part for me was getting up to speed with the state of the GUR industry and realising that I had the competences needed to apply for an entry-level role. No one ever mentioned GUR as a potential career during my university studies, so I had to discover and study this discipline autonomously (I’m extremely grateful to the IGDA GRUX website, Discord, and the mentorship program). This also meant that I wasn’t fully aware of all the companies that could potentially offer GUR roles and where they were located. As there weren’t many GUR positions in Italy (my home country), I also had to be ready to move to a foreign country.

Do you have any advice for others looking to work in games?

First of all, make sure to have a solid understanding of GUR methods and that you can talk about them confidently. You need to be able to explain why certain methods are preferred over others and what their trade-offs are in terms of research reliability and business objectives. Job interviews will likely cover these topics.

Practice the job-related skills as much as you can. Conduct usability expert reviews in your free time, compile the issues you found in a short report and ask for feedback (plenty of people in the GUR Discord channel will be happy to provide it). Many hiring processes involve an expert review task, so being familiar with this research method will definitely come handy during this hiring step. Similarly, remember that you don’t need an high-tech lab to get experience with usability playtest. You can run mock-up playtests with your friends and family, or you can volunteer to help indie companies if you are up for it. This will give you initial insights on the difficulties and limitations of this research method and also something to discuss during the job interview. More in general, read jobs’ descriptions and be proactive in filling the gaps of your profile. 

Finally, but probably most importantly, join the GUR Discord channel and the mentorship program. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and to get involved with the GUR community.

Feel free to contact me on Linkedin if you have any questions or want to talk about GUR, games..or primates! 

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