An interview with Otronicon keynote speaker Mike Ambinder, senior experimental psychologist at Valve Software

An interview  with Otronicon keynote speaker Mike Ambinder, senior experimental psychologist at  Valve Software

It's full STEAM ahead for this weekend's 12th iteration of Otronicon. The Orlando Science Center's annual expo celebrates science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics through video games and computer simulations, so it's doubly appropriate that this Saturday's keynote speaker is Mike Ambinder, senior experimental psychologist at Valve Software – not only did his company create the groundbreaking software distribution system called Steam, but (as he explained to me in an online interview last week) his career working on some of the gaming industry's biggest hits – including Portal 2 and Left 4 Dead – epitomizes the intersection between scientific innovation and electronic entertainment.

Like many kids from his (and my) generation, Ambinder got the original Nintendo Entertainment System at an early age, and has "been playing games ever since." Playing around with BASIC on an Apple IIe fostered his interest in programming before he moved on to PlayStations and ultimately the PC, which is now his primary platform. Ambinder entered Yale with interest in both computer science and psychology, and "was lucky enough to find a pre-existing major that let [him] pursue both of them." Ambinder was attracted to programming because he enjoyed "the feeling of accomplishment at completing a working program," and psych because he has "wanted to understand the riddle of consciousness for about as long as I've realized I've had it."

While finishing his Ph.D. in experimental psychology from the University of Illinois, Ambinder attended the GDC game developers conference in hopes of selling himself as a consultant, and was offered a job with Valve after giving a presentation on applying psychology to game design.

"I was lucky that Valve was open-minded enough to want to hire someone like me," Ambinder recalls. "All I knew of Valve before I got the job was that they had made some pretty sweet games, and that they were giving me an opportunity to pursue my dream job. I'm very lucky to have landed at a company where freedom and autonomy and analytical decision-making are prized. I realized how fortunate I was to work for a company that would encourage someone with a background in psychology to see what they could contribute in a field where they had no prior experience."

Ambinder's mandate at Valve is to "apply knowledge and methodologies from psychology to game design." In practical terms, he spends his time on data analysis, hardware research, play-testing methodologies and on any aspect of games where knowledge of human behavior could be useful – "fostering cooperation/competition among players, manipulating visual attention, designing experiments for our in-game economies, generating reward/reinforcement ratios, and so forth." His recent efforts have focused on player behavior and economic structures in multiplayer online games like DOTA 2 and Team Fortress 2.

Ambinder describes Valve's process for refining a product as "very straightforward: We come up with a game design (our hypothesis), and we place it in front of people external to the company (our play-test or experiment). We gather their feedback, and then iterate and improve the design (refining the theory). It's essentially the scientific method applied to game design, and the end result is the consequence of many hours of applying this process."

Gathering that play-test data involves a brave new world of biofeedback technology that can quantify gamers' enjoyment. Currently, Ambinder is "very curious about what we can do with unobtrusive measurements of facial expressions, as well as the possibilities of eye-tracking" as next-generation input methods. But ultimately, he says that "data is neither a substitute nor a competitor for creativity; data is supportive and additive to the creative process. That said, relying on instinct without testing assumptions can lead one to fall prey to a variety of cognitive biases. Data, in that sense, is a useful check on the fallibility of our reasoning."

Despite spending his days with video games, he continues playing for fun in his spare time. "I was worried when I started that I would lose the desire (or ability) to simply play games for enjoyment, but fortunately, that hasn't happened. I have a more critical eye these days when playing – I'm always curious why a certain game design choice was or wasn't made – but I still have as much fun playing now as I did when I was playing Mario back in the NES days. I am a big Final Fantasy fan, so I recently spent a large amount of time playing through Final Fantasy XV." As for the new virtual reality platforms entering the market – some of which will be demonstrated at Otronicon – Ambinder hopes that VR will "enable some pretty compelling and qualitatively different experiences than what currently exists with traditional interfaces."

Ambinder's parting advice for young people interested in pursuing game-related careers is "simple and clichéd but always true: Find something that you really enjoy doing, and then go and do that (whatever it is). The best way to get hired somewhere is to get really good at something, and the best way to get really good at something is to do what you enjoy.

"I loved researching psychology and playing video games, and it made sense to me that there was an opportunity there to combine those pursuits, and I knew I would be happy doing it. That's the key – go find what you'd be happy doing."

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