PhD Diary entry No.#5

James Newman is a person that cannot be described in a single phrase – he is spinning many interesting plates right now and has been, at least, doing that for the last decade. James Newman is professor at Bath Spa University (official title is Subject Leader for Film, Media and Creative Computing. School of Humanities and Cultural Industries) author of Playing with Videogames (as well as other books) and has recently been pivotal in creating a 5-storey building dedicated to games in Nottingham – Game City (which opens on March 28th by the way, you should go there!)

If there was anyone that articulates that they understand player engagement, and the multitude of ways in which players display engagement with games, this is the man.

I had come to know James through a happy accident. In fact the day before I met him I was halfway through his book Playing With Videogames, and citing him in my writing, and the next day when I went to the UK Videogames Industry Conference, there he was, speaking on the stage. When the penny dropped that the James Newman on the stage was THE James Newman of my book, you can imagine I had a bit of a ‘ohmygod it’s HIM!’ internal dialogue. So what does any student do? She offers to take the guy out for a cup of tea. And I did, and we did, and we talked for some time. It struck me how very passionate James is about his work and he’s a totally down-to-earth and humble guy. So because he was really approachable, I asked him if I could interview him and he said yes, I could. He also invited me to come and speak at Bath Spa University where he works, so that was pretty cool.

I was very lucky to interview James Newman this morning, and this wasn’t just lucky because he is a very busy person, but lucky because this was in fact the second interview I carried out with James, being that my first interview with him (which was months ago now!) never even recorded. Thank you technology. So I had to get over the heart-sinking feeling that two hours of pure gold were lost. Thankfully, I took many notes in that first interview but this isn’t enough for a PhD. So lucky me, James was very understanding and after a long trip to the States were he was teaching at Stanford, he came back and we interviewed on Skype this morning.

The interview went well – and by that I mean that (I think) the interviewee, James in this case, felt comfortable to answer the questions I had prepared to his true beliefs and opinions.

He also opted-in to be part of further phases of the PhD and also opted-in to see results pre-published (so before they even go on this website) as this is one of the ‘thank-you’s’ I’ve offered interviewees. Another sign that it was a great interview is that it made me want to change the way I have designed the PhD, and the way I want to design the ResearchGame as part of the experiments within this PhD. While this might make my supervisors hearts pound (I can imagine them wide-eyed at my proposal to change several important components!) it is good to be challenged on the way I thought I WANTED TO carry out the experiments, to the way I probably SHOULD carry out the experiments. For instance, James mentioned in his interview the top three ways he feels I could measure whether playspondents were engaged in the ResearchGame and Gamified Survey or not (after they’ve taken part, that is) and his thoughts made me see that I would actually need to imbue different components to the design of both game-based surveys in order to measure engagement. Of course at this stage, I can’t say what those things are but all will be revealed when the results of the experiments are published. What I can say though is that James was able to challenge me on lots of areas I thought I was sure about, and opened my eyes to different facets of this subject that I’d never seen before.

Although this second interview with him was being recorded, I couldn’t help but make some notes as there were things James was saying which were just brilliant nuggets of wisdom. For instance – how replaying games is a way we, as players, show engagement with a game. And when we’re done playing a game, we find other ways to play it – like ‘can I get through the game without collecting ANY stars?’ or ‘can I get through the entire game in 5 minutes’?, and so in this way, James describes the way we play WITH videogames and digital games, hence the title of his book, which was pivotal in my preperation for the PhD application process and writing my literature review.

James also made me realise how so, so many terminologies are used within the games industry that are quite ‘woolly’, for instance, even the term ‘engagement’ is diffficult to define, and who can really define what a Game mechanic is, or a game component, or a game element? Unfortunatley, a lack of lingua franca does make academic conversations difficult (and interviews!) but it seems there is a kind of common ground wih some of the definitions – like the term ‘game-play’ for instance, it’s a word used differently in different contexts, but the people using the word kind of mean the same thing.

This made me realise that for the sake of articulating many areas of this PhD and the PhD results, it will be necessary for me to research the various definitions of games, game mechanics, game components etc in order to develop a dictionary of terms that can be understood by you, the reader, when it comes to consuming the text produced from the results of this PhD.

So not only has my to-do list extended to transcribe a two hour interview, but I now am bubbling with lots of ideas that have extended the to-do list even more!

It goes without saying that I’m insanely grateful to James Newman for his time, and his inspiration. I hope that in reading this post you can see just how important and influential and inspiring these interviews are to me and how the PhD evolves, so that you might answer to my Shout Out and contribute to an interview yourself by being an industry-expert interviewee!