This month I’ve been talking to Jess Tompkins, Senior Researcher at EA about her experience working in games user research, and top tips for people looking to join the industry.
She shared her own journey into games, the value of doing a PhD, challenges around inclusion and diversity in games, and the importance of judging research on it’s impact.
What do you currently do at EA?
I’m a (relatively new!) Senior Researcher for Consumer Insights, supporting our Positive Play team with data and insights to help make our games as inviting and positive as they can be for all. I started this role approximately one month ago, so I’m still learning about the space and research needs for my stakeholders – but, I’m very excited to be here!
Prior to starting this role, I was a UX Researcher on EA’s global User Experience Research team. I worked directly with game development teams to understand their research needs for their products, running everything from playtests to in-depth interviews and surveys – all to advocate for our players and drive improvements to game design.
How did you get started in games user research?
I tell this story a lot. I was attending the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in 2016 on a scholarship from I Need Diverse Games (I remain forever grateful to them!). I was there to learn more about the industry as an academic (I was a PhD student at the time) and to conduct some on-site interviews with developers who volunteered to participate in my research about character design. Around that time, I was coming to realize a lot of my academic questions had practical implications — I wasn’t satisfied with simply doing research for the sake of building knowledge; I wanted to do something with it.
When I attended a roundtable discussion hosted by IGDA’s Games Research and User Experience special interest group at GDC that year, I had this massive epiphany for my career. I already had some doubts about thriving as an academic. The game user research discipline was the intersection of two things I enjoyed very much – research and gaming – so, it made a lot of sense that I pursued that rather than academia.
You studied for a PhD. How has that helped your career in games user research?
It helped me in the sense that, prior to attending graduate school for my PhD, I didn’t have sufficient research training – particularly with human participants. Research skills can be picked up in the industry, but increasingly there is a demand for talent with existing, robust research chops.
When I entered my PhD program, I had a Master’s in Media Arts. I knew how to do secondary research, but primary research with human participants was something I had yet to practice. In my PhD program, I developed expertise through coursework and through experience with independent research projects. I quickly learned how to plan and execute interviews, surveys, experimental designs, as well as how to analyze data qualitatively and quantitatively to make a compelling argument. All of these skills, honed in an academic environment, transferred nicely into professional games user research.
Would you recommend studying a PhD to people interested in working in games?
It depends on your level of experience and familiarity with research! I received a lot of value from my PhD. Coming out of my Bachelor’s and Master’s programs, I lacked adequate human-centric research experience, but taking on the level of work in my PhD really deepened my knowledge and gave me the experience I needed to be a competitive candidate for jobs.
I’d like to note, some folks will undertake robust research activities in Bachelor’s programs and Master’s programs. Sometimes, that’s all you need! But for me, as someone who did not attend a research-driven undergraduate or Master’s program, the PhD research experience made a huge difference.
Another note: everyone’s financial situation is different. I strongly recommend anyone entering a PhD program have at least 4 years of secured savings or funding. If you’re not getting that funding from family or a partner with a job who can support you, I would encourage anyone pursuing a PhD to only take part in programs that will fund you through a teaching assistantship/stipend for at least 4 years. My advice is you shouldn’t pay for a PhD with substantive loans unless you can reasonably pay them back. For working in games, I would be extremely hesitant to recommend anyone take on massive debt to obtain a PhD when there are other ways to enter the industry. In the time it takes you to complete a PhD, you can work in the industry in an associate researcher or moderator role.
What skills do you think have been important to work on as your career has developed?
A notable shift in my mindset as I’ve advanced my career is about the impact my research will drive. I came into the games industry as an already savvy researcher; what I lacked was a strong sense of business acumen and, specifically, how the games industry operates from the inside. To that end, it’s been important for me to develop my understanding of how the games business works – this includes understanding the different stakeholders on a game project and when to talk to the right person about research, how to work with cross-functional partners (such as analytics and brand), as well as knowing your game project’s business goals.
Top of mind for user researchers is usually things like design intent, game pillars, and UX goals, but knowing your product’s business goals (e.g., obtaining a 70% metacritic, expanding a franchise’s audience, etc.) can also be helpful for you as a researcher to help inform potential risks to the product’s success.
I would also add, hone those communication skills! Those of us in the field can’t emphasize that enough. Not only do I want my stakeholders to consider me a partner in the development process by building rapport and trust, but I also see it as part of my job to inspire my development partners to act on my insights. It’s one thing to provide research and be helpful, but we need to take it a step further and inspire discussion about positive change.
What do you think are the biggest challenges for people joining the industry now?
The biggest challenges, I feel, are related to diversity and inclusion. We’ve unfortunately seen time and time again that women, people of color, and LGBTQIA+ folks are likely to face discrimination in this industry (and beyond). Folks from these underrepresented groups may face issues related to pay equity, career advancement, and fair treatment in the workplace. Thankfully, many companies recognize this and are providing more education and resources on this topic.
Know your friends and allies in this industry. It’s not a matter of having the most connections, but having a few trusted and deep ones – people you can use as a helpful sounding board and confidant when you need it most.
Be a part of the change: educate yourself (take a look at the existing resources and communities at your workplace), be an ally, and put in the work to improve your company’s culture and contribute to a better environment for everyone. This work shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of underrepresented talent.
Do you have any advice for others looking to work in games user research?
Find a mentor or mentors. Have one for different ‘seasons’ of your career. So, as you’re first looking to work in this field, have a mentor who can help you hone your skills, give feedback on your resume, introduce you to folks in the industry, and so on and so forth.
Once you’re in a professional setting, it may make sense to continue your relationship with your mentor, or, maybe they will have done all they can by that point to set yourself up for success. Ask yourself what your goals are and if your mentor can help you get there — and if they can’t, it may be time for you to find a new mentor who can help you with the next steps you want to take in your career. For example, once you’re in, what do you want to do three years from now? Five or ten years? Do you want to climb the ranks of your research org or eventually try something else? Knowing what you want is important, so take the time to reflect on that and build relationships with people who can support you.
Also, once you have sufficient experience (which, frankly, is much sooner than you think!), pay it forward by mentoring others who aspire to work in this field.
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