Skip to content

Watching and Learning

My best friend was visiting me for a few days last week and while he was here I did something that I haven’t done in a long time, and something that I’ve never really done right: I watched someone else play a video game.

He’s a big fan of first-person shooters and has played enough Halo with me to trust my judgment, so when he asked if I had any games that he might not have heard of, I immediately thought of Portal. While mechanically very similar to an FPS, anyone who’s actually played it knows that Portal is really a puzzle game, so I was interested to see how my friend would respond to it. I was happy when he dived in, flying through the initial puzzles without any trouble, chuckling at a few of the jokes, and being suitably impressed at the novelty of basic gameplay like a portal jump.

What was really interesting though were the ways in which his experience diverged from my own. I saw him solve puzzles in ways that had never occurred to me, such as putting a portal over the furnace on the final boss, and I was newly impressed by the versatility of the mechanics. More importantly, he didn’t dwell for a second on the writing scratched on the wall. When he came to the end of the Companion Cube stage he simply tossed it into the burner without a second thought. Finally, he turned the machine off before Jon Coulton’s Still Alive was through its first verse.

I’ve always wondered if one could enjoy Portal without giving a crap about all the things that everyone talks about on the internet. Unfortunately, because I enjoy those things about the game as well, I’ve never been able to confirm it. Watching my friend play through the game once taught me a lot about the design of the game itself, but also that it could be enjoyed as simply a game, and not subcultural phenomenon. All this made me wonder what I could learn about favorite games just by observing another gamer’s experience, rather than participating.

As game designers we all play games as often as we can, and talk at length about even the most minute details of our favorites, and sometimes we even play games with others, either in competition or handing the controller back-and-forth. However, talking will never give you a great picture of someone else’s experience, no matter how many times you’ve played the game yourself. Playing with people is a great way to reveal things about a game that you may not have noticed otherwise (see Gears of War for good example), but for the most part you’re always going to be worried about what you’re doing, or waiting for your chance to play.

What I’m suggesting is the basis of playtesting. It’s more useful to watch someone play your game than to talk to them about it or play it yourself. The iterative process of building and testing is how most of us learn game design, and as we become more acquainted with this process we start to ‘see’ things in the games we play. To some extent our familiarity with game design means that we get more out of the games we play. We can start to make intelligent guesses as to why a designer presented us with a given situation, such as dropping only blocks made of groups of five, rather than the myriad of other possible situations. However, I would like to suggest that the rules of playtesting still apply. It’s more useful to watch someone play someone else’s game than it is to talk to them about it or play it ourselves.

Some argue that you can’t really understand a game without experiencing it yourself, and I won’t argue with that. However, in the right environment you can still learn a lot from just watching. The trick is to treat it just like you would any other playtest.

To get the most out of watching someone play a game you probably need to have played the game yourself. This way you can match their experience to your own, and see if the things that you assumed about the game were actually designed in, or simply your own rationalization. It follows that you shouldn’t help the person playing, unless it reaches the point that watching them spin their wheels isn’t helping either of you. In other words, don’t exasperatedly jump in the second they can’t figure out a boss pattern, but after their tenth death it might be good keep things moving with a little hint.

Pick a person that will enjoy the game they’re playing, or will at least give it a good shot in the name of science. My friend already enjoyed FPSes, so he already spoke the language that Portal was speaking, even if he was unfamiliar with the accent. If I had recommended that he play Vagrant Story, one of my favorite obscure Japanese action-RPGs, he might have still gotten into it (not likely) but in the time it would have taken to click I would probably have been the one to lose interest. That said, if you find someone that will play through Fallout even though they hate RPGs, my guess is that you’re going to learn a lot about that game. Also, hold onto that person, because they love you very much.

Finally, talk to the person. Observing how a player tackles a problem is especially useful when you get a sense of how they’re approaching it. Sometimes a player will broadcast what they’re trying do to in how they move their avatar, what they look at, pick up, etc. There will be quite a few times though when they will simply sit there and think. Give them enough time, and if they figure it out, ask them what they were thinking. If they’re sitting there for a long time ask them what’s going through their head. After a while my friend simply kept a running monologue going of what he was thinking at any particular time, no matter how mundane.

Games are a strange form of ritualized conversation between people. Sometimes between two players, sometimes between the player and the designer. As game designers it’s our job to keep a conversation going with people that we’ll never meet. We learn this just like we learn anything else, by trying it ourselves, but also by watching other people do it. It’s ironic that watching a game might be as illuminating as playing one, but in the end they’re all just tools to help us understand what we’re looking at, even if it’s something we’ve made ourselves. So if you have some time this weekend, pick one of your favorite games, grab a friend that you think would enjoy it, and watch them play. I guarantee it will make you a better game designer.


If you don’t have any friends, then I recommend checking out some of the videos at the Speed Demos Archive. Speed running is a culture unto itself, but you can still get a lot out of watching people who are so good at a game that they nearly break it.


  1. Bob wrote:

    I had almost the exact same experience with a friend of mine when I invited him to try “Portal” after I’d finished it. We’ve been teaming up on a couple of oldies downloaded on the Wii (he’s the one who sequence-broke “Super Metroid” and snagged the x-ray beam early), so I was curious to see how he responded to a game that I’ve taken some issues with, but for the most part enjoyed and appreciated very much. Like your friend, CJ, he didn’t really seem to give a damn about most of the “narrative” elements of the game– he didn’t laugh at any of GlaDOS’ voice-overs, didn’t bother to go inside any of the secret “The Cake is a Lie” rooms, and tossed the Companion Cube into the furnace without a second though. He doesn’t even refer to “Portal” as a game on its own– whenever we talk about it, he can’t help but call it “Half Life 2″. To him, it’s not a game. It’s an expansion pack.

    He did find many more short-cuts than I did, and subsequently finished it faster. Maybe without paying attention to the narrative distractions, some gamers are simply better off at solving the puzzles of the game itself. Then again, he’s not immune to treating the game as a vessel of emotional investment, either. Lately we’ve been playing “BioShock” on his new laptop, and he’s gone on record as regretting the fact that he harvested any Little Sisters at all. That’s another game, however, that he’s mostly ignored the set-dressings for, except for a few Ayn Rand jokes here and there. If the whole Little Sister option weren’t shoved into the player’s face the way it is, he probably wouldn’t notice that, either.

    Tuesday, March 25, 2008 at 12:47 am | Permalink
  2. Well said Pratt (or CJ)… whether you call it play testing, user testing, or Q and A… design will always need the end user to help deliver a game to its best possible end state. I would add finding users of different skill or literacy levels is also key.

    Tuesday, March 25, 2008 at 1:17 am | Permalink
  3. Nash wrote:

    Charles, did you discuss the narrative with him at all after the play through? Did he just not care at all? Did he particularly dislike it or was it a non-entity?

    Tuesday, March 25, 2008 at 5:32 pm | Permalink
  4. Oren wrote:

    Interesting article, though I disagree on one thing. You should not give a FPS to someone who LOVES FPS, because then you will get very skewed data. He knows how the game works, and wont see any of the problems that a casual/ action/ RPG/ any other type of gamer will find. Its good to have someone who has played games before (I know, almost everyone has now, but you would still be surprised), but not someone who LOVES that genre. Its good to have a fanboy play it once in a while, to ensure you are not alienating your core, but its more important to test with someone who doesnt play that type of game all the time. I think thats why Bioshock is so amazing to me. I can see how much time they spent analyzing that first level, because I am sure if I gave it to someone who doesnt play games (which I have done) they will figure out what to do. Someone who plays a lot of FPS would say the level sucks because it is too slow and explains too much. They will hate the exact thing that draws in other people. It would be like giving MGS4 to Bob, and then expecting that he represents the average gamer!! Games need to be tested, but they also need to be tested well. Make sure you get the right people to playtest, otherwise it will just be a waste of their time, and yours!

    Tuesday, March 25, 2008 at 8:36 pm | Permalink
  5. Very insightful post. If you haven’t already, you should read Everything Bad Is Good for You, which has a section devoted to explaining why we enjoy watching game shows and reality TV (and, by extension, video games). The thrust of the argument, as I remember it, is that we find it cognitively stimulating to observe other people making choices. It’s fun to put yourself in their place.

    As far as speed runs go, it’s hard to beat Zoid’s runs of Metroid Prime, especially the 100% runs. You’re right that they’re probably kind of meaningless if you’ve never played the game, but if you have – oh man. The drama. The tension. The stunning, raw feats of pure skill.

    Tuesday, March 25, 2008 at 11:22 pm | Permalink
  6. Charles Joseph wrote:

    Nash – I did ask him what he thought of the story, and he said that he wasn’t really into stories in games. So it’s not that he didn’t like, he just didn’t pay any attention. The thing I find that really speaks to Portal’s quality is that he still liked the game just as much as I did.

    Oren – It’s not that I think the testers should LOVE the game, but I think that they should be acquainted with the genre. For instance, I did the test you’re talking about with Bioshock actually, with another friend who will remain anonymous (his name starts with a ‘T’ and he’s from Europe). He couldn’t get through the first level because he couldn’t look and move at the same time.

    I hear you though, you don’t want someone who loves a game unconditionally. Perspective is important. Like Charles Berkley said, it’s always best to test with a range of people of different skills.

    Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at 12:11 am | Permalink
  7. Noah wrote:

    “When he came to the end of the Companion Cube stage he simply tossed it into the burner without a second thought.”

    I think I’d like this friend of yours…

    Thursday, March 27, 2008 at 5:29 pm | Permalink
  8. Bob wrote:

    Here’s the thing, though: Don’t we all have friends like these? When it comes to appreciating this stuff in games, how much are we just preaching to the choir?

    Thursday, March 27, 2008 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared.

Comment spam protected by SpamBam