‘Lifting the Fog & finding the Fun’ – How my PhD is linked to Zelda and ‘MetroidVania’ Videogames

I want to start this blog post by stating that I have just received my grades for 2 assignments I completed for the PGcert in Research Practice.

Both assignments tackled various issues:

  1. detailing a methodology (in essence a ‘map’) of how to progress with my PhD,
  2. writing the aforementioned Critical Analysis (in essence, the ‘story’) of my journey as an emerging researcher so far,
  3. outlining my work-plan (in essence ‘an ‘interactivity journey’) of how I aim to complete the PhD itself.

It’s worth starting at this point that when I teach Games Design to Undergraduate and Postgraduate students, I focus on something I call ‘The Tri-Force’ of Games Design. The term ‘Tri-Force’ comes from ‘The Legend of Zelda’ franchise of videogames. It looks like this:


Within the ‘The Legend of Zelda’ franchise each of the smaller triangles corresponds to 3 core areas within the main character Link’s journey towards achieving his quest. These are:


In videogames, within the context of high-level games design, my philosophy of teaching corresponds to 3 core pillars; each are one part of a larger whole associated with the videogame itself. These are:

  • Core mechanics – the main game action(s) which the player performs within the game.
  • Narrative & Story – the story which the player participates within; this can either be designer driven (a fixed narrative), player driven (actions defined by the player define the story told), or a mixture of both.
  • Interactivity – the method(s) in which the player interacts with the game, from a visual, audio and physical perspective.


With both assignments now behind me (for which I was pleased to have scored favourably), I am now in the process of looking at the Methodology, my ‘map’, my ‘core mechanic’ so to speak, to assess my both tasks I have completed so far towards achieving demonstration of/revealing the ‘map’, along assessing tasks I have completed and tasks I have yet to complete. I’m also considering the ‘story’ of my journey so far, and what now remains of my story and how I plan to tell that. I’m also looking into detail into my plan to ‘interact’ with the ‘map’, to help me achieve the goals I have set myself.

I also have to consider that I am currently ‘wearing’ various ‘HATS’; in other words, I have a number of different jobs and roles of responsibility. These jobs include:

  • Working as a Programmer Director at BCU on Undergraduate & Postgraduate programmes
  • Working in Research & Enterprise at BCU
  • Working as an entrepreneur and creative director in the Games Industry
  • Working as an emerging researcher/PhD student

Let me explain further…

Whilst all the ‘HATS’ on face value may appear different, they are actually all interlinked, and fortuitously a great many of the outputs from them can most definitely plug into my Research Practice. I’m now at what I’m calling the ‘Lifting the Fog & finding the Fun’ stage of my PhD.

If this were a videogame, more specifically a game with a map with enemies and/or a set of objectives, how do I reach my goals when the map is most definitely there, you can ‘possibly’ see the boundaries but the map specifics/smaller details/smaller areas are hidden by a ‘Fog’? What must I do to ‘lift the fog’, so that I can see smaller areas of the map more clearly, and more importantly, what must I do so I can see the routes more clearly to my goals/objectives?

In a videogame, the game designers build ‘Compulsion Loops’ into the game’s User Journey/User experience. This is so that the affective turn is focused upon ‘FUN’ within the Meta-Critical journey; this being the second-to-second, minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour user experience. The ‘Compulsion Loop’ can be something which stands out within the remit of the ‘Core Mechanic’ the ‘Story’ or the ‘Interactivity’ of the game.

This then begs the question; how can I try and use either videogame analogy to have fun doing tasks for my research practice, or more importantly, how can the affective methods focused upon fun adopted within a videogame to navigate through a map’s ‘fog’ (considering the aforementioned compulsion loops within the user journey/user experience) be used to migrate over to navigating the ‘fog’ in research practice?

Read on…

To start with, high level, I think it’s a good idea to outline what my ‘map’ broadly looks like. I also need to consider some important questions, such as: am I certain that I can see the ‘boundaries’ even though the specifics, whilst known/apparent to me in some ways, in other ways are not so clear?

I have already worked so far to define the high-level ‘map’, in other words the methodology of my PhD. As a reminder, here’s what it looks like:

My Methodology - June 2018

Now going deeper to identify smaller areas of my ‘map’, I think it’s a good idea to go into further detail of what I’m doing from the perspectives of the ‘HATS’ I’m wearing, so I can start to attempt ‘boundary definition’, before I move forwards. Now this is where it gets interesting. Funnily and serendipitous enough, part of the work I am doing at the moment as part of my work as a Programme Director teaching postgraduate students involves actual map design and map analysis, for a ‘Metroidvania’ videogame (here is a good definition of this type of game is: https://gaming.stackexchange.com/questions/17005/what-does-metroidvania-mean)

Looking more closely at one of the ‘HATS’/jobs I am wearing, it’s worth looking at how elements of that work align into a broader sense of ‘map analysis’, which in turn provide me with guidance on lifting the immediate fog within my PhD.

Firstly, looking at the work I am doing as part of my role as Design/Creative Director with Masters Students at Gamer Camp, as part of the experiential learning process, the students have to complete a Playstation 4 game, which heavily focuses upon map design and exploration. So far they have worked together in a number of teams, addressing the areas of Game Mechanics, Narrative and Interactivity, to complete a prototype phase of delivery, based on a creative brief which we, the teaching team, designed and distributed at the start of the PlayStation 4 Module back in January. Now they must move into the development and competition phase to create a working videogame, and this game will also be linked to videogames which my undergraduate 2-year fast-track BA(Hons) Games Design and Production students will be developing, during their collaborative project module. Working on these projects as a key stakeholder from the perspectives of Programme Director, and also the Design/Creative Director, means that I have had a great deal of design and creative steer on all of the projects and as stated earlier, the games are focused on ‘MetroidVania’; a game-type which focuses upon map navigation, exploration and character skill-acquisition, which then in turns facilitates navigating through a detailed and complex, unexplored map, full of secrets.

At this point I thought it might be useful to consider if there are other potential case studies within the remit of both workplace ethnography and auto-ethnography (and the interaction between them) worth discussing. I liaised with my Gamer Camp design students and I was pointed to this:

“How to design a great Metroidvania map” (https://www.pcgamer.com/how-to-design-a-great-metroidvania-map/). The interview with the developers of Hollow Knight discuss their process of map design; what is good to see here were the similarities with creating a map for this type of videogame and also creating not only a methodology for a PhD, but also creating a work-plan/interactivity journey prediction for a PhD. The developers had to consider a number of elements associated with their core mechanics, narrative and interactivity, including:

  • The basic path
  • Optional routes
  • The skills the player character needed to progress; when and how they would be learnt, acquired and demonstrated
  • Goals and what must be accomplished to achieve them
  • The Scope of the game

Now at this point, I took a step back and thought to myself:

“Wait a minute, my PhD and Research is somewhat like the User Journey of a ‘MetroidVania’ game; there is a map, it has goals, there is an overall objective, the map specifics aren’t clear to the player at the start; whilst some area boundaries are clearly defined, others aren’t defined at all! Whilst there’s a lot of ambiguity/fog, one must use and gain skills to progress and unlock more and more of the map, to reach new ground, complete objectives, to ultimately conquer the overall goal”

Now that is really serendipitous!

I then looked at the other roles I am doing to identify where and how I’m performing some sort of ‘mapping’ exercise, to see where and how I can learn from this. I found from my reflection that this included:

  • the map and spatial design work I did as part of the BCU School of Architecture ‘Co-Lab’ project to design and ‘interactive playground’ for King Heath Primary School, incorporating future technologies such as ‘eXtended Reality,
  • the user-journey experience mapping for a series of Design Thinking workshops I have to deliver at BCU, as part of the ‘DT.UNI.-Design Thinking Approach for an Interdisciplinary University’; organised by BCU’s Research, Enterprise and Innovation department within the frame of an ERASMUS + project,
  • the work I am doing as part of my research and enterprise responsibility, which also involves ‘strategic business road-mapping’ for ‘Games@STEAMhouse’ and the network-hub/digital cluster mapping work as part of the Midlands Game Engine,
  • the work I’m doing at my existing company SmashMouth Games, and the new company venture I am looking into, called ZAM Studios; this work naturally involves strategic business planning, company and product ‘road-mapping’.

This now brings me up to-do-date; I can look at these ‘HATS’/Jobs’ and ascertain how all the ‘mapping’ I’m doing can potentially help me to identify where and how I can start to ‘Lift the Fog’ working as a student to develop my PhD. Hopefully these blogs have started to act as a means of ‘fog-lifting’, allowing me to critically reflect and then analyse further what have I done, what have I learnt (the good and the bad), and what do I plan to do to progress, so that I may carry on with my PhD journey, hopefully moving forwards to achieve my short, medium and long-term research aims.

Watch this space!

Thanks to Dr Nick Webber, Dr Oli Carter & Dr Jacqueline Taylor Boote for the awesome feedback on my PGcert Assignments!


Starting 2018 – How my Research Approach is evolving…

As I’m writing this ‘new year, new blog-post’, I’m reflecting back on the work that I have done so far and the impending work to come, so can tackle the title of my PhD, which is currently “FINDING THE FUN: How can VIDEOGAME DEVELOPERS AND AUDIENCES use AFFECTIVE PROCESSES OF VIDEOGAME DESIGN to create AFFECTIVE VIDEOGAMES?” I would like to think that I am ‘on track’ with my proposal; the reaffirmation of my progress is having kind and supportive comments from both supervisors on the structural approach and the way I have so far managed to synthesise game development methodology together with my PhD methodology.

In my last Blog Post I discussed how I came to develop this methodology and the result was a framework of tiered processes, governed by stages akin to the development of a videogame:


Here is how I described this in my last post:

“One of the core goals of this methodology is to be able to work iteratively; within the contexts of the Workplace Ethnography and the Auto Ethnography, to then help create an Artefact or a series of Artefacts. This would require using the Cyclic Process of Iteration within both Agile Project Management using Scrum, whilst following the 4 tiered Process of Design (Problem, Research, Synthesis, Refinement); this cyclical process of design where each sub-process leads to the next, or as and where necessary leads back to the previous, will allow for flexible and reflexive practice to continue, so that that reflections at the end of each sub-phase can potentially inform the next phase with appropriate knowledge moving forwards. Furthermore moving forwards this reflective data is valuable to understand if and how a cyclical process of design can be improved, whilst also potentially reinforcing the process with gamification methods such as compulsion loops and reward ratios as and where appropriate, especially by analysing each phase within each cycle, henceforth, potentially gamifying the methodology of the PhD.”

At the tail end of last year, I had an interesting supervison chat with Dr Nick Webber, where we discussed the focus of working within “Workplace Ethnography and the Auto Ethnography”.  The discussion dissected some interesting points in that:


  • Normally involves a general Ethnography Approach within the workspace, usually involves participation within the workspace, from observations, to being part of the process
    • e.g. going to a studio and observing the dev process
  • Followed by interviews
    • Fully structured – questionnaire delivered in person, where each questions is governed by time
    • Semi Structured – aural historical – give the candidate a ‘prompt’ and get the candidate to talk about it, where the interviewer keeps the candidate ‘on track’ with ‘specific trigger questions’, OR the candidate talks about something else of value and the interviewer lets them do this and organises another interview about the original point


  • The ways in capturing Ethnography is ‘Hard to do’; they are the specifics of ‘everyday practice’ and how do you write about things that are ‘mundane’ and can be accessible to a broad audience
  • One must consider there are different ways of writing: memoir, diary, analytical style, theoretical style
  • Writing is ‘COMMUNICATING’, ULTIMATLEY IN MEDIA THERE ARE DIFFERENT FORMS OF COMMUNICATING, e.g. making games can be a form/method of ‘communicating’

 There can be ‘Rockstar’ Game Designers who are perceived as ‘auteurs’ – they have a very specific style which they take ownership of and products and evolutions within the media can be lead back to them

  • Dictionary.com definition of ‘auteur(s)’: ‘a filmmaker whose individual style and complete control over all elements of production give a film its personal and unique stamp.’

Bearing this information in mind, then looking at my current methodology diagram, then WORKPLACE ETHNOGPAHY AND AUTOETHNOGRAPHY COULD BE A VEN DIAGRAM RATHER THAN DETAILED IN SEPARATE BOXES

    • There can most definitely be cross-over between the two, in that one can reflect from an Auto-Ethnographical approach, whilst also being part of a Workplace Ethnography

Having thought this through, I refined the way that my methodology worked and re-purposed the diagram accordingly:



The main focus here is that now Workplace Ethnography and Auto Ethnography exist as a Ven:

Ethnographies & Intersection

The next steps for me were to then test this methodology, ultimately to create an artefact. Testing the methodology would allow me to gain visibility into whether the structure was indeed truly aligned to the MACRO process I use to design videogames which is: ‘Problem>Research>Synthesis>Refinement’. This would then allow me to understand on a MICRO level if the Workplace and Auto Ethnographies, and the Intersection between them, could be applied to RESEARCH, from an INDUSTRY/R&D Perspective, to then allow for SYNTHESIS & REFINEMENT of an ARTEFACT. The Artefact would hopefully then address a Gap in Knowledge, within the context of one or more of my objects of study; People, Process and Product.

Interestingly enough and serendipitously, whilst I was considering the means to do this, Star Wars Battlefront 2 was released By EA Games, one of my former games industry employers. Immediately upon release there was a huge backlash against the game by audiences, due to the developers’ incorporation of randomised loot boxes, which required players to purchase in the game to gain the best game experience. Ultimately, it was estimated that players would have to spend over £1000 in loot boxes, hence the ensuing backlash. Needless to say that had huge (negative) ramifications on the developer/publisher of the game, EA Games (one of the biggest developer/publishers in the world).

Having worked in EA specifically as a Game Designer and having some former insight into their work processes and practices, one of my former colleagues contacted me and suggested I write an article about the event and publish it on a website called ‘The Conversation’ (https://theconversation.com/uk). My colleague also suggested I write the article from the perspective of being both a former employee and also current gamer, expressing through the critical analysis my disappointment at how they tackled the strategy of release, to then eventually end the article with a possible design solution for future consideration. I contacted ‘The Conversation’ to see whether they would be interested, to which they unfortunately were not. I then spoke further to my supervisor after having sent him an initial draft, who then advised me that I should perhaps consider a different tactic, instead focusing upon a less ‘blame centric’ approach, to reconsider in the aftermath of the release of the game, how developers and audiences could work together more effectively.

I then took this feedback on board and then set myself weekly Sprints using Agile Project Management, thus following the methodology I had outlined, and ultimately I redrafted the article numerous times and then submitted a finalised version (along with my sources) to Gamasutra.com (https://www.gamasutra.com/). They published the article within their Blogs section. This allowed me to reflect back on the work done on the article, to say that the tiered game design framework, governed by Agile Project Management, within the context of Workplace and Auto Ethnography (and the intersection) to create the article which is ultimately an Artefact, allowed me to identify a GAP IN KNOWLEDGE; I was able to suggest a refined co-dependant development process which considered ‘monetisation’, the heart of why the audiences were not happy with the game.

Slide 18

Here is the finalised article on Gamasutra, entitled “The power of the Audience – how can Developers, Publishers & Audiences listen to each other more effectively whilst making video games?”: https://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/ZubyAhmed/20180112/312918/quotThe_power_of_the_Audience__how_can_Developers_Publishers__Audiences_listen_to_each_other_more_effectively_whilst_making_video_gamesquot.php#comment299190

Here are the sources I used to help write the article:

















Whilst writing the article, I was also given the task on my PGCert to complete a presentation which details the work I have done on my PhD Proposal so far. On Wednesday 6th December, I presented what I hoped was a well-received, humorous reflective presentation, which discussed core elements from my journey over the PhD. I discussed ‘The Eye of Sauron’, the development of my methodology and the need to test it and how I had found a case study for the test (the aforementioned game, Star Wars Battlefront 2). At the start of the New Year, the PGR Studio put out a call for presentations, for their conference ‘Inside Out’. The presentations had to follow the Pecha Kucha style (20 slides, 15 seconds per slide); having just presented a reflective presentation, I submitted my proposal to talk about my research. The title of my presentation would be ‘MY CURRENT PhD SIT-REP’ and I also had to provide a 280 character presentation synopsis, to which I wrote:

“The presentation starts with an overview of my career and journey so far, moving to my reflection and progress through the PGCert, focusing on the development of my PhD; the research question, methodology and also research artefacts, linked to Games Design and ‘Finding the Fun’.”

The presentation was accepted, and on Wednesday 24th January, I nervously presented to my peers (PhD Students/Researchers; those at the start and those about to/or having just submitted). Fortunately I completed the presentation within the allocated 5 minutes, however truth be told that I had allocated 20 seconds per slide, so last minute I streamlined my discussion points! Here is the slidedeck I presented on the day:

Slide 1 – I overviewed the structure and content of the presentation:

Slide 1

Slide 2 – I love Star Wars, so I used the introduction to mention that:

Slide 2

Slide 3 – Continuing with the Star Wars theme I mentioned I started my research nearly 40 years ago when I started playing videogames with the Atari VCS:

Slide 3

Slide 4 – I then fast-forwarded to the early 1990’s and discussed how I broke into the Games Industry, by first doing consultancy and freelance writing for Edge Magazine, and then started as a tester and worked my way up into Game Design and then ultimately leading to owning my own studio and also teaching Games Design at numerous institutes of Higher Education:

Slide 4

Slide 5 – Here I mentioned that I must have been teaching something right, as numerous graduates of mine have gone onto bigger and better things and are now working in senior/head positions at some of the world’s leading game development studios:

Slide 5

Slide 6: Here I talked about my current roles; being Managing and Creative Director of Smashmouth Games, setting up a new Design Consultancy firm called ZAM Studios, whilst also being Programme Director at BCU, and also being a PhD student and emerging researcher:

Slide 6


Slide 7 – This slide allowed me to overview the reflective models I used to help me contextually analyse the work I have done to date; primarily I used Driscoll’s set of trigger questions of ‘What? So What? Now What?:

Slide 7

Slide 8 – My discussion points here reflected back to the start of the PGCert and the very first lesson, where Tim Wall, the Director of Research came into the first session and gave a very insightful session, helping the class to ascertain the philosophy of work-thinking, doing a PhD:

Slide 8

Slide 9 – This interesting slide highlighted my thoughts during Tim’s session; whilst he came in and spent an hour getting us to question ‘Is it True?’, I was taken back to Sir Laurence Oliver ‘asking’ Dustin Hoffman ‘Is it Safe?’ in the film ‘The Marathon Man’:

Slide 9

Slide 10 – I then went onto discuss how Tim’s session then provoked a great deal of questioning within myself and how the start of the PhD can be mind-shattering as it’s full of un-answered questions, where academics must use a piercing analytical gaze to help try to answer them, surrounded by advanced methods and methodologies of analysis; it can be mind-shattering if focused in unpredicted ways, which is why I nick-named the PhD ‘The Eye of Sauron’:

Slide 10

Slide 11 – Here I discussed how I became accustomed to this ‘gaze’ and the need to tame it, so that it does not ‘focus’ on things which are not appropriate for studying the PhD, otherwise it can potentially be negatively disruptive:

Slide 11


Slide 12 – So by ‘taming the gaze’ and refocusing it upon a key element linked to AFFECT within the context of my research, which is ‘FUN’ this allowed me to kick-start my methodology:

Slide 12

Slide 13 – I discussed here that similarly as a Pokemon evolves, my research question evolved, from what it was at the start of the PhD, to what it is now, helping me to identify the 3 key Objects of Study:

Slide 13

Slide 14 – Dissecting the discussion further, I talked about how I use a tiered Process of Design, in 4 key stages, used cyclically, to iteratively design the DNA building blocks of a videogame:

Slide 14

Slide 15 – Moving forwards I then discussed how I also use Agile Project Management using Scrum whilst developing a game, to govern and help reach the milestone deliverables/the goals of the project:

Slide 15

Slide 16 – Here, I talked about how I came to formulate my research methodology, which I structured in the same way I design a videogame, in 4 tiered stages, governed by Agile Project Management using Scrum, where I also talked briefly about Workplace Ethnography, Auto Ethnography, and the intersection between them:

Slide 16

Slide 17 – I then discussed the need to test this methodology by going through the various methodological stages, to see if it does indeed work as a whole process; I discussed how I applied the methodology to write up an article on Star Wars Battlefront 2, how I am currently focusing upon a project linked to affective games design and how to make links to 3D printing and also how I am about to embark upon a Design Thinking project as part of the BCU’s partnership with the University of Dresden in Germany, whilst ensuring that these projects are governed by an Ethical review:

Slide 17

Slide 18 – This slide allowed me to simply show that by doing these projects, I am ultimately creating ‘Artefacts’, by going through various stages of iteration, and these ‘Artefacts’ are varied in their demonstrative prowess, which ultimately allows a contribution to the ‘Gap in Knowledge’ for the specific object of study in question, related to the ‘Artefact’ in question:

Slide 18

Slide 19 –  My penultimate slide allowed me to surmise and say that whilst I am continuing with my ‘multiple hat’ approach with my career and research, I hope that as my research evolves, just like a Pokemon evolving, I hope that I do too:

Slide 19

Slide 20 – I concluded, with thanks, on my end slide:

Slide 20

Picking up on the work I am doing moving forwards, as mentioned within the presentation I am currently focusing upon a project linked to affective games design and how to make links to 3D printing and also how I am about to embark upon a Design Thinking project as part of the BCU’s partnership with the University of Dresden in Germany, whilst all the while ensuring that I am governed by an Ethical review on these. So far I have completed an Ethical Review form for BCU, for submission and consideration; the way I tackled this was akin to completing a Risk Assessment form. I found the process slightly arduous, as I was critiquing and analysing my work from an outside perspective, whilst attempting to pre-empt problems and also pre-empt where my research could potentially take me, so that I could then attempt to pre-empt hypothetical problems which may/may not come into existence. Moving forwards in regards to the project linked to affective games design and how to make links to 3D printing, I am looking at marrying this project to the new Games Design Consultancy I am setting up, so I can work on this collaboratively with my potential new business consultant partners and also some industry partners. This will allow my research to hopefully have some immediate industry context. The Dresden Project will see me go to Germany in April 2018 to attend a Design Thinking workshop, so I can present how I historically and currently use Design Thinking in my workplace, and then bring back the learning, to ultimately create a Design Thinking ‘toolkit’ for the University to use. At this stage I think I will use another later blog post to discuss these in more depth, and also with follow up, as there will most definitely be more discussion points to talk about within the blog post.

To end this post, I want to quickly talk about how I’ve been following an email thread on the ‘Games Research Network’ linked to ‘Games Studies Autoethnography Lists’, and my thoughts on it moving forwards. The thread has proved to be interesting, as it has provided some further insight into other researchers’ work and also their thoughts. Two interesting highlights from the thread were:

  1. One of the researchers highlighted “not all personal experience constitutes ethnography”, as quoted from Chapter 3 (43), entitled ‘Ten Myths About Ethnography’ in ‘Ethnography and Virtual Worlds’ (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce and Taylor), ultimately stating that these authors see it as being ‘stricter’. I would like to attempt to get this book to read this chapter to gain further clarity on this statement, to fully understand its implications on my research
  2. Another researcher, David Owen, pointed the discussion towards his own book entitled ‘Player and Avatar: The Affective Potentional of Videogames’. Admittedly I was perturbed that similar research was done on ‘The Affective Potentional of Videogames’, however after a re-assuring chat with my supervisor, who pointed out that I can only learn from such pieces of work, which can then help me to realign/re-focus and ultimately improve my attempt at defining knowledge for ‘the gap’. However one thing that I found perturbing which is now leaving me with some questions; I researched the background of the author of this article and saw that he is a scholar, playwright and director, BUT not a game developer.

These points then provoke me to think and ask the question: ‘hang on, am I alone/in a minority, in the fact that I’ve worked/am working in the games industry and I want to do a PhD to address a real gap in knowledge which can be used/built upon by the games industry, thus providing some industry context, industry use and industry appreciation for it?’ On a personal level, whilst it may be an ambitious thought/hope, I would like to think that the research I am doing and ultimately the artefacts I plan to create as part of the PhD will provide some sort of industrial relevance within a focus of ‘R&D’, so that it can be incorporated in some way into industry practice. Is that an unreasonable thought?

Watch this space!


Thanks to Dr Nick Webber, Dr Oli Carter & Dr Jacqueline Taylor Boote





Finding Method in my Madness – How my Research Approach is developing…

Today I had my weekly supervision meeting, where I outlined my current proposed methods of working within the PhD and ultimately the Methodology, or ‘Framework’ as I like to call it, and Nick my Supervisor graded the tutorial as ‘Very Satisfactory’; needless to say that I’m feeling slightly pleased. I must be doing something right.

In all fairness, the work I presented today is a culmination of action points, investigations and research I conducted following on from my last blog post, at the Writing Retreat as part of the PGCert in Research Practice.  I last wrote that I would need to speak to my supervisors and test the waters with my findings, whilst also discussing the myriad of literature articles I have to review to help me galvanise the ‘rebuilding of my house’, my main research question and also to then help me to ‘find the people’, the sub questions.

So, after trawling through numerous literature articles from these sources, using these words in my search: ‘AFFECT’, ‘GAME’, ‘DESIGN’:

ACM digital library: dl.acm.org/

DIGRA: www.digra.org/digital-library/

Whilst also going through numerous articles sent to me from colleagues and also students of mine, from wesbites such as:



I did collate a whole batch of very interesting articles, one of which was called “Design Box Case Study: Facilitating Interdisciplinary Collaboration and Participatory Design in Game Development” (Altizer,Jr., Roger and Zagal, Jos{\’e} P. and Johnson, Erin and Wong, Bob and Anderson, Rebecca and Botkin, Jeffery and Rothwell, Erin). I did initially panic when I read the abstract, as the article was only released in October this year, it focuses upon a case study illustrating how a participatory design method – the design box – can facilitate the collaborative efforts of interdisciplinary teams. I panicked as I thought that the researchers who wrote the article had covered my research, making my work redundant; the initial focus of my PhD was to investigate the feasibility of creating a new video game design framework which utilises a cross-disciplinary approach for practitioners/students/researchers, underpinned by methods of gamification, so that developers can have better understanding of each other’s disciplines and can also utilise methods to instigate fun during development, whilst attempting to find the fun-factor within the end product. As I have worked within numerous jobs within the Games Industry and also within Higher Education, (ranging from Games Testing, Games Design & Creative Direction, Marketing & PR, Business Development, Programme Direction), this has meant that I have worked with numerous disciplines who are not versant with each other, nor do they wish to be versant with each other. I have historically found that within what I class as ‘old-school/old-guard’ game development, there is a disparity in working processes, vocabularies and ultimately working appreciations between disciplines such as marketing and game development, where the two should ideally work synergistically hand-in-hand, as the end users are the focus of the product creation, and the people and the processes should be governed by symbiotic, optimal outputs of delivery, always focusing upon the target recipients.  Fortunately I found that the article discussed using a particular methodology/process not unlike one I use in Industry and in Higher Education; however the one I use is slightly different, and more importantly, within the context of ‘fun’. The core process I use is 4 tiered and is cyclic, simply put I call it ‘The Process of Design’:


Phase 1 – Problem: Before starting the task, ask as many questions as possible related to the problem/design task in hand. Once the questions have been asked, they are then put in an order of priority, so that one must identify which questions must be answered first before others can be answered.

Phase 2 – Research: Once the questions have been correlated and tiered, before any ideas can be synthesised (either alone or in a group), these questions are then investigated by compiling and dissecting research material, from a myriad of different sources and media

Phase 3 – Synthesis: Once the first set of priority questions have enough research material to reference against, then, and only then is it logical to brainstorm (one can use a variety of techniques to brainstorm, either alone or in a group; I am a fan of the ‘Post-it Method’ – I learnt whilst working at EA Games). It is important to ensure that all stakeholders involved with the Brainstorm (which should take place over short-burst cycles of 20 minutes so as not to exhaust the creative flow) are versant with the research material, so that they are able to synthesis competent ideas within the context of the task; without synthesising ideas which may be redundant/contextually inappropriate/unfeasible.

Phase 4 – Refinement: Once the Brainstorm has been completed, the ideas are then mind-mapped, so that they can then be reflected upon by those involved, so as to ascertain if the Synthesis phase as indeed productive or if there are still ‘gaps’ which need to be addressed. If this is the case, then the process can be re-explored from the start, with any new questions arising going through the 4 stages, right from the start of Problem, to help to eventually reach Refinement once again. If the Refinement stage is complete, then the next stage of tiered questions are then able to be tackled; they too are then taken through the process systematically. This is repeated until the whole task is complete.

Here’s a visual example of the Process of Design I use with my students, to show how ‘OUTPUT BLOCKS OF KNOWLEDGE’ are created by going through the iterative cycles, to then develop a GAME CONCEPT:

PoD Plan


Having gone through the article, I then considered and realised that I am currently using my Process of Design to devise my PhD Question and ultimately my Research Approach,

  • Problem – by asking a set of questions reflexively using a number of different ‘lenses’ towards finding the gap, governed by three main trigger questions:
    • So What?
    • Who Cares?
    • What’s the Problem?
  • Research – by collating a myriad of reference material from different sources (and also prompted by interfacing with different people in different perspectives), all interrelated to the questions that have arisen
  • Synthesis – formulating findings based on the research material, from the task of identifying and refining the main research question, to now, identifying and refining the Research Approach
  • Refinement – Being able to take a step back and analyse the work done and also get feedback and feed-forward from different people with different perspectives, so that I can re-analyse and establish how to progress, which means going back to the beginning if necessary.


Following on from this, to help me galvanise my considerations towards Workplace Ethnography and also Auto Ethnography, I then went through in more detail an article sent to me by one of my MSc Video Game Enterprise, Production and Design students; about how Fireaxis saved ‘Xcom Enemy Unknown’ by having “Mutator Mondays” where each week the developers would try out new features in an attempt to ‘find the fun’:


Looking back at the article, it described how the development lea, Jake Solomon, and his team, went through many years of iteration of the game, only to constantly start again from the beginning, due to implementing systems which did not work, or by over-complicating the design and play of the game. Ultimately this ruined the ‘fun’. Interestingly enough the article describes how the developers became so close to the problems with the game, that they were no longer able to see them, as they were so close to them. The break cam when the development team had to present the game to other people in the company at an event which took place called ‘Mutator Mondays’ – anyone from within the company could attend if they had an interest in Games Design – where they then would discuss the state of play with the game, to come up with a ‘Mutator’ – something that would ‘change’ the way that the game was being played. It would start with a question which they would then explore e.g. “what happens if the units have double hit points?’. If enough people thought that was interesting then it would be introduced as that week’s mutator – so for the next 7 days when the game was booted up, people could manipulate the hit points of the units in the game and try it out. This was not without its problems; it did lead more problems being introduced and also made the game not fun to play at times, however overall it allowed the development team a chance to better understand how everything slots together (all gameplay elements working on a macro/micro inter-related perspective). But sometimes ideas would come along which would improve the fun, and then stay in the game forever, so the weekly brainstorm sessions really helped to improve the playability (sometimes even at the cost of huge chunks of work being cut for the cost of large amounts of fun gameplay ideas)

Reflecting back after watching this, I was taken back to all the very similar circumstances which took place within my history working as a Games Designer/Creative Director within the Video Game Industry and also within Higher Education when I have helped students (and staff) make games. One particular example which came to mind was last academic year whilst working at Gamer Camp on the Playstation 4 game as part of the joint MA/MSc Video Game Development & MSc Video Game Enterprise, Production and Design project, towards the end of the development of the game, the team were having problems ‘finding the fun’. As Gamer Camp is a year-long full time programme, the delivery of the Playstation 4 game is aimed at August of the year, and normally at this stage I embed myself within the development team to help to bring the project together. One thing that I encouraged was the process of the ‘Daily Build’; this is when the team would create a playable version of the game and then it was actively encouraged that every member of the team play the game, during a fixed timeslot, every day, so that they could identify what was fun and what was not, on a day-to-day basis, to then identify what they must do to rectify any issues which would arise. This process works with a comparatively small development team working within one fixed location, and towards the end of the development of the game, it is also a way of developing intrinsic motivation towards completing the development of the game, as best possible, whilst also building team cohesion within the final, and potentially stressful times of development.

Furthermore the reflection allowed me to look at what I am currently doing within the context of the PhD and developing my Research Approach, and I am starting to consider how I can adopt an innovative approach to utilising a mixture of experimentation and structure, to allow for tiered and cyclic output, all of which are driven by ‘methods of fun’. So after further discussions with my supervisors, both of whom confirmed that it would be good if my PhD could potentially demonstrate:


I then started to consider how I can make my PhD like a Game…

Following on from this I then used the Process of Design to ask this question in the PROBLEM PHASE:

‘How can I make a PhD like a Game?

There were two texts which came up in my RESEARCH PHASE which were contextual to what I then asked in Problem:

  • The first was an article written by a former colleague of mine, Tomas Rawlings: ‘How do you turn PhD research into a game?’ https://blog.wellcome.ac.uk/2012/07/23/how-do-you-turn-phd-research-into-a-game/. Whilst again I was anxious that my consideration towards making a PhD like a game had been done, the work discussed within this article was more centred on taking Research within Biomedicine and creating a Video Game platform to demonstrate the findings; in essence putting ‘the scientist in the role of a game designer.’ Fortunately the consideration I had in mind was to look at the core processes within a PhD’s Methodology and look at how one can try and create ‘Compulsion Loops’ within the methodology; Joseph’s Kim’s definition of Compulsion Loop is: A habitual, designed chain of activities that will be repeated to gain a neurochemical reward: a feeling of pleasure and/or a relief from pain (https://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/JosephKim/20140323/213728/The_Compulsion_Loop_Explained.php). To do this would require some method of cyclic iteration/development…
  • The second was a fun read: ‘20 Reasons Your PhD Journey Is Really A Pokémon Go Game, by Jeremy Chan, in Asian Scientist Magazine at: https://www.asianscientist.com/2016/07/columns/hacking-a-phd-20-reasons-phd-journey-pokemon-go/. This confirmed that the overall phases/methodologies within a PhD can be looked at like a game, and subsequently one could arguably use different games to compare their PhD’s against; in this example it is within the context of Scientific Research and Pokemon Go, filled with Short-term, Medium-Term and Long-Term Compulsion Loops.

Therefore reflecting on these articles and also my own working practices, I considered that adopting a Methodology from a ‘Gamified Perspective’, Cyclic Iteration is important, as well as Short-Long Term Compulsion Loops, so that intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is consistently maintained.

At this stage I felt comfortable then to attempt to go into the SYNTHESIS PHASE, especially after having been galvanised by content delivered in the round-table discussion sections and also the presentation sections of the PGCert classes, in particular

  • Oliver Carter’s session on ‘Doing Ethnography’,
    • where I gained further insight into the differences between Ethnography and Auto ethnography, complete with techniques on conducting interviews (Structured, Semi-Structured)
  • and also Jacqueline Taylor Boote’s round table on ‘Participation in a community’
    • where I considered further the communities which I would engage with, which would include:
      • Practitioners/developers making small-scale video games either for themselves or for the consumer market (through observation and experience of individual professional practice making commercial/industry artefacts in ‘Indie’ development)
      • Practitioners/developers making large-scale video games for the consumer market (through observation and experience of individual professional practice making commercial/industry artefacts in ‘AAA’ development)
      • Practitioners/developers making video games within Higher Education as part of learning and teaching strategies (students and lecturers)
      • Practitioners/developers making products outside of the medium of video games who can identify linked to video games, within the design and development of their own products, within their specified medium of delivery (for example App developers or designers/manufacturers who deliver services or develop physical products linked with video games)
      • Fellow Researchers within Academia, either directly related to this field of study or potentially not, where intersections may occur with research findings

So I then Synthesised my Research Approach; my Methodology/Framework which I would use to create the PhD:





One of the core goals of this methodology is to be able to work iteratively; within the contexts of the Workplace Ethnography and the Auto Ethnography, to then help create an Artefact or a series of Artefacts. This would require using the Cyclic Process of Iteration within both Agile Project Management using Scrum, whilst following the 4 tiered Process of Design (Problem, Research, Synthesis, Refinement); this cyclical process of design where each sub-process leads to the next, or as and where necessary leads back to the previous, will allow for flexible and reflexive practice to continue, so that that reflections at the end of each sub-phase can potentially inform the next phase with appropriate knowledge moving forwards. Furthermore moving forwards this reflective data is valuable to understand if and how a cyclical process of design can be improved, whilst also potentially reinforcing the process with gamification methods such as compulsion loops and reward ratios as and where appropriate, especially by analysing each phase within each cycle, henceforth, potentially gamifying the methodology of the PhD.

As I mentioned in my original proposal, the generation of one or more artefacts, will attempt to fully engage and address the problem, in other words, the main research question. The penultimate step within REFINEMENT would be to critically reflect on the artefact(s) as a whole; this would act as a method of discovering any new knowledge which could prove to be positively disruptive within establishing an effective process of design. Finally the artefact(s) will form the basis of a portfolio of practice leading to the final submission, which presents and illustrates answers to the overall research problem.

As mentioned at the start of this article, moving forwards with this Methodology, I have had feedback from my Supervisors in that they were pleased with it; I would now like to reflect back and go through a process of REFINEMENT WITH THIS METHODOLOGY to ensure that it is galvanised as best possible, before moving forwards into the next phase of developing my Research Approach.

So once again, watch this space!

Thanks to Dr Nick Webber, Dr Oli Carter, Dr Jacqueline Taylor Boote, Oliver Williams and Eir Causey

Helping to reform my PhD Question – How the ‘Eye of Sauron’ is helping to rebuild the ‘smashed house’…

So I’m currently writing this Blog post as I’m sat in a Writing Retreat, organised as part of the PGCert Research Practice, run by Dr Helen Kara. I now have a fantastic opportunity to reflect upon events which have taken place since my last Blog post, and hopefully I can use this time to write about them.

My last Blog post ended upon my focus upon these considerations:

  1. The ‘Eye of Sauron’ – mind-shattering, ground-breaking deep analytical/questioning gaze
  2. The ‘smashed house’ – what needs to be rebuilt and by when?
  3. ‘What’s the gap?’ – Are the ‘people’ inside the house going to help me to articulate my argument?

Since then a number of occurrences and discussions have provoked the ‘Eye of Sauron’, causing it to focus its gaze on a number of different things.

Firstly the Eye casted its gaze upon my own personal definition/identification of ‘Fun’ within the context of videogames. I began asking a great deal of reflexive questions which were considered towards what I intrinsically enjoy within the framework of my perceived objects of study, which currently I believe are:

  • People
  • Process(es)
  • Product

These questions included these to name but a few:

  • “What elements do I find fun in Videogames and why?”
  • “Who are the people I like to interact with when I play a Videogame and why?”
  • “How can I understand different people’s perceptions of what they find ‘fun’ within the context of ‘play’ in Videogames?”
  • “Do I like developing videogames, if so why and with whom do I enjoy developing videogames with?
  • “Is it possible to have fun making a videogame? If so how and can this ‘fun’ help the team and the videogame?”

NOW, it was this last questions which then stuck in the back of my mind, and it’s this last question I will come back to later…

It’s worth at this time mentioning that serendipitously a number of things have facilitated my reflexive analysis of fun over the last week or so:

  • A number of my favourite videogames being released; these include Super Mario Odyssey, Assassins Creed Origins and also Metroid – Samus Returns. I’m playing all of these videogames (at different times of course) to help me to define what I think and believe is ‘fun’ and then help me to identify how these products can be analysed within the context of the people who made them, the processes they used and also the audiences they were made for
  • An interesting and exciting time within the Masters programme I direct. Currently students are developing tablet games at BCU’s postgraduate facility Gamer Camp. The students are working cross-discipline as Artists and Coders as part of the MA/MSc Video Game Development programme and also as Game Designers and Producers as part of the specific Programme I direct, which is MSc Video Game Enterprise, Production and Design (which by the way recently got externally examined and these very flattering comments from our external Dr Nigel Newbutt were delivered; “This programme, and the work being produced therein, is one the best in the country” and “This MSc provides many distinct features and represents, in my view, one of the best examples of a games production MSc in the UK.”). There are around 30 students in total, split up into 3 groups and each group has just finished their concept and pre-production phase for their tablet game. They must now complete making the games in the next 6 weeks, just in time for Christmas. It’s going to be an interesting journey; keeping moral and motivation up is going to be a challenge, and as part of my research I’ll definitely be interested in analysing the students’ working processes to help me to identify ways in which the students themselves encourage methods of incorporating fun into the developmental processes, which ultimately and hopefully will facilitate a fun product to be created (well that’s my hypothesis anyway)
  • An interesting time with the Undergraduate Game Design & Production 2-year fast-track programme I launched in September, where the level 4 students who started in September 17 are about to embark upon a journey of making their own individual Board or Card Games. It’s interesting that over the course of the last module I have been gearing up the students’ engagement with the curricula with a Gamification System I have developed and used before, here at BCU and also at other HE Institutes I have taught at, focused upon Reward Ratios & Achievements. Over the last 5 weeks I have been developing their affinity to colours associated to the class register; by using 2 simple colours which normally correspond to positive and negative, red and green, the students can see which colours they attain for dates on the module based on their attendance. By making this data transparent, it develops peer-to-peer competition and ultimately facilitates and encourages engagement with the module. This micro element is a fun factor associated with engagement
  • The reflection of development which is on-going within my own game studio, SmashMouth Games Ltd; how I’m considering re-releasing a back-catalogue of videogames within a compendium for Apple and Android, which is forcing me to consider the development processes involved and how can I keep everyone motivated and engaged to deliver. I need to be able to know I have methods of incorporating ‘fun’ into the development process (based on the development team and stakeholders involved), so I can rely upon implementing these if needed.
  • The development of the enterprise opportunity I am looking to launch at STEAMHouse in 2018; how I want to ensure that in some way the clients involved can develop their businesses and enterprise opportunities in new and exciting ways, using processes they may have not used or even considered before, ultimately driven by a number of motivational factors. This includes identifying and gamifying ‘fun’ elements within their daily practice
  • The development of my own reflexive practice within my PhD and how I’m learning how to tame the ‘Eye of Sauron’, to ensure that its gaze is appropriately focused on what it needs to focus upon. I’ve learnt in a very short space of time that this gaze can be very powerful and could potentially unravel fundamental beliefs and practices; yesterday I had a deep and meaning conversation with a work collage over dinner about religion and the ‘Eye of Sauron’’s’ gaze of reflexive methodologies came out to play within the conversations; the discussion which then ensued lasted nearly 3 hours! I have therefore taken on board that if I can tame this very powerful tool of reflexive practice, then ambitiously I want to try and identify how I can have fun starting to do this, and also have fun maintaining a degree of control over the ‘gaze’; I know I sound ambitious but right now it’s a motivational factor to proceeding within the context of the work ahead of me.

Looking at the list about, one of the first in-class tasks within the context of this writing retreat is to do a short-burst 5 minute active writing prompt. The task specified that I could pick any prompt I like, but I must use the word ‘I’ within the prompt; the prompt I picked is related to the first of the points I raised above; “A number of my favourite games being released” – easy talking point for me as it’s currently fresh in my head. This is my prompt:

 “I want to reflect upon the Fun elements in Products I have played”:

This is then what I wrote over 5 minutes:

“So, over the last few days I have been playing a number of different games and whilst playing them my PhD and the focus of main question and also the sub questions have been in the back of my mind. The latest game which stands out for me which is so much fun on so many levels is Super Mario Odyssey. I recent recanted my own mini verdict to a work colleague and I said this about the game:

“Apart from a few minute auto-camera issues, this Mario is by far the much anticipated spiritual successor to Mario 64. Time elegantly flies by when you’re playing the game; it sublimely mashes up Mario’s best gameplay moments from his last 10 years of outings. This is a delicious cookin- pot of fun, one which you’re going to want to savour, because meals like this don’t come along very often! Overall a MUST BUY; to not want to party with the best you’re probably a Big-Rigs, ET and Superman 64 gamer, fuelled by Cogs of Crap shotgun-hell addiction…Forget the rest, now play the best!”

So what I identified from playing this is that the fun has manifested itself historically over the last 30 years since Mario’s conception and this product is the culmination and combination of identifying all of the ‘fun’ elements within his previous outings. I do think that from my PhD perspective it is interesting to identify how and why the developers identified these ‘fun’ elements and focused upon them within the context of this game; I mean the game has been scoring mega-high meta-critical scores!”

Interesting huh? The content I wrote auto/instinctively aligned to ‘fun’ and the body of text I wrote was focused upon my own perception of identifying ‘what exactly is ‘fun’’ within the context of videogames. So straight away, I believe I may be starting to ‘tame the gaze’, I may be starting to be more strategically reflexive within the context of The ‘Eye of Sauron; my start at trying to govern the aforementioned mind-shattering, ground-breaking deep analytical/questioning gaze is to focus it on ‘fun’!

By starting to focus on something I enjoy is my first attempt at establishing some forms/methods or even modes of analysis for which I can then apply to the ‘Eye of Sauron’ to moving forwards, so its ‘gaze’ can be governed and controlled more effectively (it’s worth mentioning though that I’ve been advised/cautioned about applying this to my own enjoyment of games, as it could potentially be fatal to the ‘thing’ I enjoy – in that it derail my own personal enjoyment of videogames so they may not be enjoyable as a pastime to me anymore. I do consider though my resilience strategies; I would respond that I have been working in Videogames as a Designer for over 20 years, so my work is my hobby, is my life, and I’ve the coping strategies I’ve developed over this time have helped me maintain my passion and enthusiasm from an personal intrinsic motivational level).

So moving forwards within the context of:

  • The ‘smashed house’ – what needs to be rebuilt and by when?
  • ‘What’s the gap?’ – Are the ‘people’ inside the house going to help me to articulate my argument?

I have also had to reconsider the eloquently phrased ‘puzzle’ which sits before me (eloquently phrased by my supervisor Nick as he knows I like game analogies) ‘to try and rebuild the house’ and also try and find out ‘who are the people inside the house’, in other words, ‘what’s the gap?’ To try and start to solve this puzzle I must now reconsider my original main question, as the house has currently been ‘smashed’; my previously main question/title was “Methods of making, playing and finding the fun’ – How can videogame design work?” Admittedly I do think there are areas of this title still present within the pieces of the puzzle before me; I must now try and figure out how I can use the ‘gaze’ to help me identify which areas I can progress with, therefore helping me to start to rebuild the house and figure out the people within. The pieces before me are:

  1. Focusing upon which question is more appropriate to my field of study and allows me manoeuvrability. After my last supervision it was highlighted that within the context of ‘FUN’, this is a form of ‘AFFECT’, and that I must consider the provocation of emotional responses, as ‘THE AFFECTIVE TURN’ corresponds to a number of pieces of research works, cross discipline in Arts and Humanities
  2. If I consider my 3 Objects of Study which are People, Process(es) and Product, I must consider a balance of traditional and practice elements applicable to the INTERSECTION OF FIELDS within the context of SURVEYING THE FIELD; understanding the topography of the research landscape
  3. The consideration between what is ‘Academically Phrased’ and what is ‘Publically Phrased’; as mentioned in my last Blog, the state of play with my question as it stood was:
    1. “Can there be an affective videogame design process to create an affective videogame? If so how?” – this is more academic
    2. “How can video game developers implement ‘the fun factor’ in videogames more effectively?” – this is more public centric – like a public report
  4. Finally I must consider all the reading resource which I must dive into, to help me further understand the lay of the land, within the context of my literature review. So far I have been visiting the Digra library (http://www.digra.org/digital-library/) to collect a vat of resource focused upon ‘AFFECT’ and ‘GAMES’. I have also collected a great deal of resource from colleagues; really applicable articles and interviews. Thank goodness my supervisor has stated that there will be upcoming discussions of reading strategies to help sift through all this knowledge, to help identify the pearls!

So, my first draft at attempting to rebuild the main question, especially after going through a period of reflexive analysis of my own perceived definition of ‘fun’ is:


This links back to the aforementioned question I asked which was: “Is it possible to have fun making a videogame? If so how and can this ‘fun’ help the team and the videogame?”

So, I believe I’ve covered and synthesised the Objects of my Study into this newly formed question. Breaking this down I can see that I’ve covered:




The next port of call regarding this is to speak to my supervisors and test the waters with my findings, whilst also discussing the myriad of literature articles I have to review to help me galvanise the ‘rebuilding of my house’ and also to then help me to ‘find the people’!

Once again, watch this space!

Oh and before I go, here’s my Thesis Haiku:

Enter deep inside my mind (7)

Enter see what you will find (7)

Reflexive and enticing (7)

My research is exciting! (7)

and here’s my Mash up poem, containing  words from 3 environments where I have written content:

File 01-11-2017, 15 48 42


Thanks to Dr Helen Kara, Dr Nick Webber, Dr Oli Carter and Dr Jacqueline Taylor Boote

My journey starting a PhD


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