What to look out for in the experience of serious games
People in this day and age are accustomed to using different types of (social) media. They know how to navigate on websites or how to find and play a video. However, when asked to review a serious game, users are less sure of themselves. Although some find it an exciting break from the usual, at the same time it is unknown territory. Ordinary course of action goes out the window and instead users have to go back to consciously work out what to do.
This article describes some striking usability issues users encountered during a usability test of a serious game and what designers can do to facilitate the UX of serious games.
The gap between game conventions and users without prior game experience
One of the biggest struggles users encountered had to do with conventions. Generally, the navigation on websites is for most people straightforward, as a result of lots of prior experience. When users are confronted with a new website they can simply fall back on their knowledge of websites they have used before. However, this isn’t the case for serious games. The conventions of serious games are based on knowledge of other games. From that, a problem arises, since serious games are often used by people with limited game experience. This gap between the lack of prior game experience and the game conventions that are applied in serious games are important to consider since it can get in the way of the intention of the game.
In the serious game we tested, users were required to use the WASD- or arrow keys for walking and simultaneously the mouse to move the camera. This is a common way of navigating and is used in most PC games. However, the users in our test struggled greatly and were often observed using one hand to switch between the keys and mouse. This resulted in users seldom walking and moving the camera at the same time. What developers had intended as a smooth movement became walking stiffly.
Especially when users just started out, they were occupied by the navigation, which gave them less focus to engage with the actual skills the game wanted to teach. This can be solved by adding a practice level in which users have the time to can gain experience in game navigation in order to close the gap. Naturally, instead of dealing with a negative user experience it is more effective to avoid this altogether. That is why we encourage to take into account the prior (lack of) knowledge and incorporate this in the design and development of a serious game.
(Direct) feedback is your friend
Related to the lack of conventions is the need for feedback. When testing a website, we often ask users to buy a product. If they are able to find the product and go to the check-out, users generally feel they have achieved the goal, without needing to clarify this through feedback. With serious games, however, feedback becomes more important. This is because users are unfamiliar with what is expected of them in serious games and for that reason could have difficulty identifying if their goals are achieved. This may be reinforced by the purpose of a serious game, to teach the user a new skill/expertise. They do not yet possess this skill and consequently, users need feedback during the learning process to help recognize improvement. Otherwise, users will continue bad behavior and not learn from mistakes.
Next, if feedback is implemented it is important to make sure that it is also understood correctly by the users, otherwise, there won’t be a change of behavior.
This was also apparent in the serious game we tested:
In this game users had to help customers in a store, the designers determined that the talking distance was important. When a user would talk to a customer with an inappropriate distance the customer would stand akimbo (with hands on the hips and elbows turned outward). This was supposed to be the indication the user did something wrong. However, the users did not pick up on this and were left confused without any change in behavior.
By testing and looking at the eye-tracking we were able to see that users certainly looked at the feedback of the movement of the arms. After asking questions we discovered that the users did notice the movement of the arms, but simply didn’t know what it meant. Users knew that distance was important and observed the customer’ s reaction, however, they did not connect the two. That is why for feedback to be effective, it has to be given both directly when a mistake occurs and with a clear enough message. To state that feedback should be meaningful and understood may seem like a bit of a truism. Regardless, in this serious game, it was an important oversight. That is why, even though a game appears to be without problems, it is essential to test for such unintentional mistakes.
Game behavior involves speed and focus
Something we didn’t anticipate on was a difference in behavior. People tend to become more performance oriented when playing a game. Users often remarked they felt the need to do things fast, which sometimes led to them being less mindful of the actual aim of the game.
In the game users had to help customers that walked into their store. Users would often greet the customer as soon as he/she had one foot over the doorstep. This of course wasn’t the desired behavior the designers wanted to teach their users, since this would be considered impolite in reality. When asked, users said that they actually never addressed a customer that fast, but since it was a game they wanted to be done with the task.
Therefore, it is important to have a balance in the game- and learning elements of a serious game in order to accommodate to the competitiveness of playing a game without getting in the way of the learning objective. Moreover, users were prone to be really involved in the game, which could be great for learning a new skill. Though the absence of a pause button resulted in users not being able to escape from the fast pace of a game to reflect on what they have learned.
A successful user experience of serious games depends greatly on how designers deal with the lack of prior knowledge of users about gaming. Designers could facilitate users by incorporating practice levels with a run through of game mechanics and navigation involved. Moreover, by adding heaps of meaningful direct feedback along the way users will be able to learn from their mistakes and take on the appropriate behavior. Since we found some important oversight and unforeseen usability issues, we encourage to conduct UX tests and by that making serious games more user-friendly.
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