A doctor in cognitive psychology, Celia Hodent has helped refine the user experience of many games, including Fortnite. Since 2020, it has been tackling overly aggressive monetization models that attempt to tie the player down. The Press joined her in Los Angeles.
How does a psychologist come to collaborate on video games?
I have a doctorate in cognitive psychology, I have done research on cognitive development, how mental processes like perception, attention, memory work. I turned quite early to entertainment, to games. Games are very important for the development of children and also for maintaining our neurons and our brains in adulthood. Quite quickly, I fell into video games since I myself am a gamer, I grew up with video games, I played a lot with my parents. I started at Ubisoft, in France, I went to Ubisoft in Montreal – I stayed one winter, I survived! [rires]. I very much enjoyed my time in Montreal. I had an opportunity at Lucas Arts in San Francisco. I arrived at Epic Games in 2013 and I became director of user experience, I worked a lot on Fortnite until 2017. I’ve been a consultant for six years.
Your name was mentioned in the class action against Fortnite. How do you respond to those who see you as one of the people who helped make this game addictive?
Obviously, in video games as in any cultural product, we have to be engaging. My job is the user experience, which puts itself in the place of the person. The goal in a video game is to have fun. Is the game ergonomic? Do people understand what they have to do?
So there’s nothing in a video game like Fortnite that is designed in a treacherous way, using what we know of the human mind to make people addicted?
Video game developers never want to make people addicted. This is neither wanted nor desirable from an ethical point of view. The idea is to bring fun, that’s all. Game designers use mechanics to make the game more interesting. But it’s very detached from the marketing techniques that are used to bring people back, not because the game is interesting, but because if we don’t come back, we will lose all our credits or everything we have won. .
In July 2020, you launched Ethical Gamesa campaign offering a guide to making games more ethical.
I’ve been talking about it for a long time. From the beginning of 2019, I gave a talk at the Game Developers Conference saying that there are ethical questions to be had about what we do. If we want to defend video games as an art, we must be aware of practices that are not at all ethical, which are there to engage with monetization, or to bring people back not because the game is fun , but because they feel compelled to do so. These are elements that, from my point of view and that of a lot of people in the industry, are problematic.
Do you have any particular games in mind?
In fact, the problem is not so much the game mechanics per se. Often it’s going to be something outside of the game. It’s going to be, for example, a reward that you can get if you log in every day. If we don’t feel like playing, we shouldn’t be punished. There are mechanisms that are not only used in video games, in marketing in general, in your supermarket, in airplanes, these are loss aversion mechanisms. It’s very widespread and it’s been around for a long time, it’s not new. These models are now used in video games, especially the models free-to-play.
Have you convinced any studios to come on board with you?
I have several studios who contacted me, who were interested in the process. I don’t think it’s mature yet, I’m still working on bringing together all the academic research on the different elements that we address in this code. The idea is to develop an ethical charter for video games, but we want it to be based on science, not on the moral panics that we can hear here and there. It’s gonna take a little more time.
For brevity and clarity, this interview has been edited.