Ethics in the Videogame Industry: A Mythbusting and Scientific Approach

This article is an enhanced write-up of the talk I gave at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in March 2019.

Videogames are one of the most popular forms of recreation in the world and they will generate over 150 billion US dollars in 2019, yet they often generate terrible press. For example, some games are accused of making players violent, or to turning them into addicts. I’ve been in the videogame industry for over 10 years and the latest game I’ve worked on (as director of user experience at Epic Games until I left on October 2017), Fortnite, is played by about 250 million players. It’s also under scrutiny by many concerned parents who fear that the game might have some negative impact on their children. Some parents have been reporting, for example, that their children play Fortnite at the expense of their education, health, or even personal hygiene. It saddens me that videogames can have a negative impact on some people’s lives but I’m also frustrated by the fearmongering I’ve been witnessing, most of it with no solid scientific ground. This fearmongering — and sometimes even scapegoating — around videogames can distract the public and lawmakers from identifying and addressing the real potential of  videogame play, and tech in general. As a result the game industry is often defensive when responding to the horrible things it’s accused of, which is understandable but fails to build a constructive dialog. We, videogame developers (i.e. all the professionals participating in crafting a game), have a responsibility as content providers to foster this dialog. 

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Understanding the Success of Fortnite: A UX & Psychology Perspective

Fortnite is one of the most successful video games in history, and this success fascinates and confuses many people who have made efforts to account for how a game could have become such a phenomenon so quickly. As the former Director of User Experience (UX) at Epic Games, where I worked on Fortnite from 2013 to late 2017, I would like to share the different steps that were taken by the Fortnite team to build what would later become the phenomenon we now know, through the lens of UX. My background in psychology, my occupation as a UX strategist, and my personal work on the game likely bias my perspective since we are all susceptible to unconscious biases. However, this analysis, unlike those that have been proposed thus far, is a firsthand account that was presented in several Game Developers Conference (GDC) talks that I gave before Fortnite was released, and in my book The Gamer’s Brain: How Neuroscience and UX Can Impact Video Game Design (2017). 

The Fortnite team had a precise vision and collaborated very closely with the UX team to deliver a game that would be true to this vision and that would appeal to many different types of players. My contention is that the success of Fortnite is linked to their efforts in adopting a UX mindset. My goal here is to explain how to develop such a game UX mindset and build a UX strategy to help game developers around the world find success more quickly with the games they are crafting. This is especially crucial for independent developers who have fewer resources yet still compete with the thousands of games released every year. 

I will detail here the three most important steps to develop a game UX mindset, which were taken during the development of Fortnite:

  • Understanding the player’s brain
  • Following a game UX framework (guidelines to usability and engage-ability)
  • Applying the scientific method & establishing a UX pipeline
Simplified diagram showing how the brain learns
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