2021 – A Very Noita Year

Many in my network publish highlights of the past year typically in January, or even in December. For me, the annual reflections have been a great way to start the year and celebrate the recent achievements instead of jumping right into the extensive list of dreams, hopes and concrete to-dos. It is important to stop and reflect, appreciate your past and lay the mental groundwork for new things ahead. 

This year, I had a harder-than-usual descent to work life after the holidays. It has been quite an exhaustive year as a new parent balancing work and life in the pandemic era. Even the holidays themselves were filled with new kinds of stress factors. My first work week of the year 2022 went past too fast and while all the deadlines kicked in, it took me nearly two months to get my reflections into a publishable format. But 2021 was a special year, and I am not a person that gives up easily, so here my highlights!

I know it is a bit dirty to quantify one’s academic achievements, but it is definitely part of the world that we game scholars inhabit. While game developers crunch the numbers of the download rates, peak online players, user acquisition costs, or for instance click-through rates — we follow the slow development of the impact of our research papers.

Annual citation count progress
on my Google Scholar profile.

In 2021 I improved my academic metrics from 180+ citations (2020) to 230+ citations (2021). I follow my numbers from Google Scholar, so they keep on piling up while the Google “robots” find more papers from each year. While I have had one or two valleys on my statistics, it is definitely nice to see an upward trend for a few years in a row.

For me, improving metrics has been a sort of a maturity test: after 15+ years in academia, am I able to make sure that my research is noticed and my contribution is used? Do I understand the networks of academic communities, and how to, not only report your findings, but to also make sure that my work is spread around? While there are numerous tactics and lessons that I have learned throughout the years, and more so in the past year or so, one of the biggest factors for the citation count is the sheer number of (new) publications.

For a long time now, I have been aiming to publish 2 to 4 academic papers per year, and I was really stressed out whether it would be possible after transitioning to parent life. I ended up publishing 9 articles, out of which 7 were peer-reviewed research articles, one a book review and one a preface for a book (check out Game Designer Confessions by Konsta Klemetti & Harro Grönberg from Amazon).

Many of my contributions are published within a small scale special interest academic conference ICGJ. While the ICGJ conference has a relatively low impact factor due to its age and breadth of its niche, it has been my go to venue for game jam research. At this stage of game jam studies, I find it important to share the research results with the right community — Instead of trying to aim venues rated higher. It also helps that ICGJ utilizes ACM Digital Library, allowing people outside the ICGJ community to find our work with ease. I got really lucky in 2021 and got several papers accepted. I was also happy to receive two best paper awards. 

I have to admit that publishing 7 research papers in a single year feels like a small miracle as a new mom. I am grateful for the support of the community surrounding me, and I will try to remember to pay this back to other new moms in our communities. And while I am happy to also support new dads, I am especially emphatic to the ones that have had their bodies stretched and scarred in the process. Academia, especially tech academia, is still pretty harsh for women and it is not the most friendly environment to be pregnant, breastfeed, teach small kids to sleep, and to take care of your own recovery. Support is really important.

I have titled 2021 “A Very Noita Year”. I am sure that I will be excited about the work I did in collaboration with The Finnish Museum of Games and indie game company Nolla Games, even years after 2021. Noita – The Long Journey of a Game Idea exhibition, was showcased at the Finnish Museum of Games from 4th September to 12th December. The curatorial research team included me, museum researcher Niklas Nylund and my former student Riina Ojanen. The project was a first of its kind for me as a combination of praxiological research and exhibition curating. The process involved over 100 hours of gameplay of Noita, mostly streamed live on Twitch. I also regularly started my days with watching other content creators streaming their Noita runs. It has been a long dream of mine to utilize streaming in my research projects.

Streaming Noita on Twitch.
Stream statistics from 11th May 2021.
My son doing his own research on Noita streams.

In the end, the project consisted of a great selection of varied information sources: multiple interviews with the development team, engagement of the player and content creator community of Noita, physical materials such as development notes and lists, sketch book, one development diary, multiple mockup images, videos, trailers, 23 early prototypes, 180+ builds of the game, as well as other materials provided by the development team and what we found online.

In the spirit of The Finnish Museum of Games, the exhibition also featured two playable prototypes/games from the development journey: one really early prototype (Wizard Physics) and the Steam Early Access version of Noita. We have a couple of research papers lined up and hopefully will be able to publish the academic side of the results somewhere between 2022 and 2024. The project had really interesting research findings from the praxiological perspective.

Arvi Teikari’s sketch book was filled with gems.
Exhibition setting of Noita – The Long Journey of a Game Idea. Photo: Saana Säilynoja / Vapriikin kuva-arkisto.

I also took on an extensive illustration work for the Noita exhibition. We ended up dividing the development journey of Noita into seven timelines. All these timelines were visually presented in the exhibition space as  80 x 200 cm posters surrounded with carefully picked objects, notes and drafts. Each timeline was themed according to a level in the actual game. I created stylized graphics iconizing characters and objects originally created as pixel art by the Noita’s lead artist Arvi Teikari. While I was happy with the overall look of the visuals, I found the development of the pixel-to-vector translation the most fascinating. I find the exhibition illustrations to be my most advanced and ambitious graphical work since 2003, when I started my own company.

Original Noita game with pixel art on the left, my vector interpretations on the right.
Developing a style guide for the exhibition illustrations.

Sometimes I feel that I have become a bit of an overused face or voice on Finnish media. While it can be flattering to be invited to share your insights, it often steals time from other work. Not all media work is visible: I sometimes help journalists to find suitable experts or educate them over the phone with impromptu lectures on games. I take this as our service for the society and am happy to help, as educating the masses on the plurality and complexity of game phenomena will also help our scholarly work in the long run. This year the Finnish game industry hit one hallmark with our national media: we got a full hour of live prime time on the national broadcasting company YLE’s TV2 talk show Kulttuuricocktail, labeled as culture programming. I was humbled to represent our professional communities together with the legendary Sami Järvi (Sam Lake) from Remedy. The title of the talk show was “Videogames as a super art form”. The show was in Finnish and is available as a recording: https://areena.yle.fi/1-50834543.

Me and Sam Lake at Yle’s greenroom waiting for the showtime.
Discussing games as “super art form” on YLE’s Kulttuuricocktail.

Perhaps the biggest highlight of the year was the launch of our Game Design Praxiology Group (with the letter i, not e!!). We have been existing for a while now, sharing our pet-peeves of studying games from the praxiological point of view, but it is time to come out from the stealth mode. Our group currently has 8 members including me. We are versatile: we cover different nationalities from Finns to Swedes, to Brits to South Koreans. Our backgrounds are in philosophy, game studies, history, art education, media studies, and even physics. We study games as art, cultural diversity of game development, translation processes of expertise in game development, game jams, game development tools and pipelines, game art education, development of quantum games, tools for hybrid play, epistemic communities of game developers as well as language(s) of game design just to name a few general topics. Many of the members of our group have experience in the game industry prior (or parallel with) their academic careers. 

Currently there are multiple specific PhD research projects ongoing in our Praxiology group. Solip Park is studying game expats at the Finnish game industry, Ed Morrell is taking an interesting perspective on studying game making through asset creation and design fiction, Laura Piispanen is looking at quantum game design and development of science games, and Heikka Valja is looking at game development from the art education point of view. I am super happy to be able to supervise these projects!

Our senior members, Ville Kankainen and Ylva Grufstedt, are working on their postdoctoral research ideas and projects. Ville is currently finalizing his doctoral studies on hybrid play at the Tampere University, and his insights to hybrid and analog game design is very valuable for our group. Our Swedish leg of the team, Dr. Ylva Grufstedt, is working on her postdoctoral studies and helping Aalto’s online learning services to understand the challenges of (educational) game development pipeline(s). Our game development lecturer at Aalto University, Miikka Junnila, is developing his research on the dialogue between theme and mechanics in game design. 

It is great to have this group, and we are currently applying for funding from several sources. We run monthly game research seminars mixed with other game groups at Aalto, focusing especially on our shared interest in game design research. We are always looking for interesting academic and industry collaborators.

We invited Casey O’Donnell to speak about his research to one of our monthly seminars.
Our Aalto Game Design Research seminars were the only virtual “coffee breaks” for me in 2021.

Apart from these highlights, life in 2021 was pretty monotonous as the world has been in a constant stream of limitations and lock-downs. Me and my husband worked from home and avoided burdening our small family with Covid-19 or other viruses. Despite that, I got new glasses (to cheer me up) and enjoyed daily walks with my son. I tried to keep my walks interesting by practicing some impromptu phone calls to colleagues around the globe while the toddler was sleeping. I highly recommend this to others! Unfortunately my son’s sleeping pattern changed during the Autumn, so these walks are now in the past.

Combining baby walks and meetings.

At the end of the year 2021, I got myself an Oura ring and new Apple Watch to help make my habits visible to me. While I do feel that I have learned a lot in my life, I am still on my journey to learn how to take better care of myself. 

While I knew that I was sleeping really poorly on some nights, Oura made it really visible encouraging me to concentrate on demanding less from myself on the next day.

The first year of the pandemic was run in survival mode. The second year has felt like squeezing the final juices from the fruits planted in the pre-pandemic time. We desperately need carefree face-to-face interactions, wandering around the campus, coffee breaks, corridor conversations, and conference trips to keep research fresh and our sanity intact. 

2021 was a good year to reflect on, but it was a hard year to go through.

Game Design Praxiology

On 14th May 2018, I successfully defended my doctoral thesis titled Game Design Praxiology at the University of Tampere, Finland. My dissertation is a collection of 19 different studies between 2006 and 2016 covering topics from game ideation and production processes to design values of game developers and cultures of game jams.

Kultima_Praxiology_COVER_webThe book without the articles is available online at: http://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-952-03-0742-4.

The journey to get to this point has been long and I reflected that path and future directions on my lectio at the defense day. Here is my transcription of the opening talk:

Over ten years ago, I stepped into the world of game research. Since 2006, I have been calling myself a game researcher. Such title does not exist formally, but it is more communicative than university researcher, project researcher, or university lecturer – as the Finnish universities wants us to call ourselves. It is almost – as if – we would be without a personal agenda: blank canvases working as hands in a machine that produces objective lessons in the human life that we want to understand better, or even gain better control at. But all of us researchers, we know that being a scholar on a certain field, calls for devotion, persistence and personal engagement. Often times you are the only one, or at least among the very few that sees the seriousness of your topic.

Being a game researcher has been a dream come true career, I was never able to imagine. When I started my university studies in 1999 at the University of Turku studying theoretical philosophy, games were touted as a mere past time, waste of time even among my peers, and most definitely not worth an academic eye. Much has changed since.

Digital games have become part of everyday lives of majority of the people in the first world countries and beyond. Several generations have been brought up by games. We have learned languages through games, acquired skills that are imperative for the ever complex futures, formed friendships with each other, found solace in the midst of the political turbulence or remedies on the emptiness of the modern lives. We have found power in play, fell in love with the craft and each other – some have even found their partners in life through games and brought up their kids with gaming. We have also learned how games can bring bullying, hate or even crimes closer to our homes. Game cultures hold all the colors of the human. And there is much to explore when something goes into so many levels and dwells deep into the human in us. We have started to realize the value and the seriousness of games as a phenomenon.

But games are not only for the players. They are made in professional settings, where people get paid for their work. They are designed step-by-step and piece-by-piece. Hours and hours are used in perfecting the best ones of them. Hundreds of people are involved in the biggest productions. Even the most simple ones take time, skills and experience to reach the devices of the players. If we only look at the final products, we have a very limited view of the overall of the phenomenon of game design.

This dissertation contains five claims: 1) Game design is timely and particular, 2) Game design is value pluralistic, 3) Game design process is opportunistic, 4) Game design process is a plethora of ideas, and 5) Game design practice is natured and nurtured by the surrounding ecosystem. These theses form the foundation of game design praxiology, which I have further translated as a pursuit to study games as created.

My dissertation is positioned on the multidiscipline of game studies. It presents the findings of a ten-year study of game developers and the contexts of their creative practices. As a multidisciplinary enquiry, this study draws from the theoretical and methodological traditions of creativity studies, management studies, computer science, and design research to supplement the discipline of game studies. However, studying game developers is not a typical focus for the field of academic game research. Through this dissertation, I am making a critical comment on the young tradition of game studies for its ontological narrowness and the neglect of the relevance of the creator in the quest for understanding the phenomenon of games and play.

I argue, that we cannot fully understand games before we also understand their creators and have a better view on what goes into making games.

This study has been a long journey. Altogether, the five claims presented in my book, draw from nineteen sub-studies between 2006 and 2016. The whole, that these studies form, is exploratory utilising multiple methods, capturing the voices and realities of the creators in different ways. Some of my sub-studies have been spanning over couple of years, some have been small investigations into specific topics and some have drawn from couple of different data sets that might have been collected further away from each other. They all have their own research questions and conclusions, but they have also impacted each other and contribute to a whole that has been growing within a decade of my career. The overview of the study is ethnographically informed: the data collection covers an extensive period in games from 2006 to 2016, bridging the sub-studies with field work and digital ethnography at multiple industry events around the globe and social media platforms.

I have found value in collecting the stories and reflections of the developers to understand game development as experienced, since the issues that they express and the meaning making processes that they engage into, as well as words that they choose to use, frame their practices. This dissertation takes several levels of game developers’ realities and experiences into consideration, but at the same time leaves a lot for others to study.

Perhaps most importantly, my dissertation addresses the changing environment and a decade long stream of trends in the game industry – painting a picture of a challenging field of the practitioners. Such an environment requires flexibility and adaptation from the creators making game development a constant learning process.

One of the trends that I highlight in my dissertation, is the casual turn in games. When I started my work at the University of Tampere, we were set to study the design space of casual, mobile, multiplayer games. As these three notions dominates the game markets nowadays, back then there were not even a single game that would combine all of these dimensions. Some games in 2006 were directed towards large audiences with their simple and easy to learn designs, some were utilizing the power of networked computers to gather millions of players together and some were played on the mobile devices. But none of them were Clash of Clans, Candy Crush Saga, or perhaps something like Design Home that I play almost daily. Digital games were about to grow up and become as penetrating in our everyday lives as Football, Chess, or Lottery had been for decades or centuries before the digital entertainment. This normalisation of digital play has had a wide impact on the ways computer games are created.

In 2018, the sphere of games and play is overwhelmingly vast. There is more variety for everyone to search – and at the same time it is increasingly difficult to get visibility to a single work. Any theoretical frame that pursuits to address games without narrowing their scope, will be in trouble. My dissertation explores the multitude of game design, and discusses how games can be many and always affected by the values and appreciations of their respective creators – which also come in numbers. One of my favorites in this dissertation is the notion of game design value. I have used this to communicate the pluralistic nature of game design. Throughout my journey, I have been witnessing as well as participating to several discussions where we compare our game experiences. We are all engaging from our own perspective on the judgement of game design decisions that the game developers do before we engage with games as players. Even though for a one game maker, it might be important to create really challenging games or others use games as a platform of self-expression, innovation, or economic gain, game design cannot be reduced to a single value.

It is important to understand that games are made by someone. And the processes of these creators are not straightforward. Anybody can come up with an idea, but it takes experience and persistence to make those ideas come to life. In essence, it takes several tries to get everything right in such an experiential product as games strive to be. In my dissertation, I address this core concept of game development: iteration. Game development consists of cycles of working on the details, where some ideas hit the dead end and others are formed during the process. Iteration is a word used widely by the practitioners, but in my work I tie the concept into a larger notion of opportunism in game design. Opportunistic strategies are visible on multiple levels of game work, and embraced as well as amplified within game creation cultures. Game developers do not only need to react to the changes within the industry, but take and prepare for the opportunities that might come about within the development processes.

A big part of my study is revolving around the notion of game idea. The level of ideas is more accessible to the outsiders of the creation cultures, but often misunderstood. One cannot enter the industry as an idea guy – game developers are not running out of ideas. The creative process of making games is collaborative and social, requiring creative input from several professions. The game innovation processes are not solely based on single overarching game idea, but rather on various idea acts: practitioners create ideas, record them, utilize them in various ways, bounce ideas with others, test and learn new ideas through prototyping, find new ideas and kill loads of them within the production processes – and they also nurture their creative processes through hobbies and research. The role of a game idea is not emptied through brainstorming studies. It needs to be looked through the lens of game design praxiology.

Lastly, my work highlights how the larger ecosystem impacts on the game development practices. For the past decade, the game industry has expanded into a wide ecosystem of diverse actors and professions. We no longer can operate with simplistic frames of role division between a game designer, programmer and an artist – we need to understand the rich fabric of networks of people that make the productions and the whole industry move forward. This varying network of actors, including non-commercial actors, has its own role in nurturing the developments within the field.

Nowadays there are multiple different paths to become a game developer – through school or training, but also through hobbies just like decades ago. In my dissertation, I have highlighted the phenomenon of game jams, as it has been growing exponentially during my study period. And I believe that it will have a greater impact that we can yet understand. Looking closer to this phenomenon particularly, we are able to expose a widely spread global movement of creative communities emphasising diversity, co-creativity, opportunism, and prototyping cultures impacting a whole generation of game developers.

Throughout these ten years, I have been sitting at the audience of several of my colleagues defending their books on games. A classic question or comment from an opponent has been how one could have been dividing the examined study into smaller, more focused investigations making the theses cleaner and easier to handle. I feel like we game scholars have not had such an academic luxury. As you embark on one question, you are destined to face a wall of another one. We are starting to find the paths that are more safe to focus on. There is much more work to do. My dissertations calls for further research within game design praxiology: as long as game making is not a part of the basic education in the same way as writing or drawing, games are in danger of remaining misunderstood as a wide and vibrant form of art and practice.

I ask you, Doctor Whitson, as my opponent appointed by the Faculty of Communication Sciences, to make the comments on my dissertation, which you consider pertinent.

Thank you everybody, who were part of this journey! I appreciate all our past projects and conversations as well as look forward to the future collaborations! From now on, you can call me Dr. Aakoo.

Here are some photos capturing the shared joy of the defense day:

Putting together a map for game design research – My map

I started my academic career in 2003 and stepped into game research in 2005. For the past 8 years I have been trying to understand game development as a creative practice from several different angles. Years run so fast and as you eat, the hunger grows. From where I stand now, the field still seems so open: so many questions are unanswered and so much data is running through our fingers as we speak. Game development is constantly evolving and that is making this work exciting, yet hard.

When I started at the Game Research Lab at the University of Tampere in 2006, there were practically no academic publications on creativity techniques and game development – none that I could find. Even though I think that my presentation at the Game Developers Conference in 2008 was an exciting experience, I must admit that I was rather oblivious of all the details relevant to game design. For conducting a study related to creativity techniques and game ideas, the game design literature was not really helpful as the sections on creativity and ideas were thin – for a reason. If game idea and game development would have a Facebook relationship, it would read “it’s complicated”. But there is a relationship: it is filled with love and hate, highs and lows. It is on and off. What such best sellers as Game Design Workshop by Tracy Fullerton or Rules of Play by Salen & Zimmerman can offer is not in the depths that a researcher needs in order to understand this delicate relation.


I just recently came up with a new working title for my PhD dissertation: A Treasure Map for Game Design Research. As my studies so far have been consisted of several interrelated, yet not systematically focused sub-studies it has been a struggle for me to try to put them together as a coherent whole. The ideal picture that I have been trying to form in my head has been too detailed and I am sure that I am not able to make it even in my lifetime.

Fortunately, the years have also pushed others to this direction and now the situation on the citation front is a bit easier. As with any subject, the publications are still rather scattered and not everyone reveals themselves in DiGRA conferences or on the Gamesnetwork@uta.fi mailing list, so I am sure there are several relevant studies out there that I know nothing about. But it is good to know that there are others working on this too.

For me, it is time to put things together and draw the map that has been forming during my adventures on game development. So far I have been interviewing over 150 game industry professionals of varying nationalities, conducted numerous design experiments, run several workshops and attended over 20 industry conferences around the globe. I am ready. No matter how sketchy the map will be, it will be.

What is research?

I spent five years of my life actively studying philosophy, acquiring my masters at the University of Turku, Finland. From Autumn semester1998 to Spring semester 2003 I took classes in history of philosophy, epistemology, philosophy of science, metaphysics, ethics and logics, to name a few that I can remember. I was very happy to part of the discussive community – a community that would never punish you to think “too much”.

I had difficulties to find my “minor” within the Faculty of Social Sciences, where theoretical philosophy, my major, was based. This eventually led me to a rich combination of different courses, mainly concentrating on technology and society.

I shopped around my campus, attending classes in Computer Sicence, Linguistics, Psychology, Sociology and Learning Technologies. I took classes from different universities in Finland. I actually even finished a minor on History of Science and Technology, which was mainly taught from the university of Oulu – around 700 km away from my student accommodation. I studied various networks, including network for Cognitive Science and Cognitive Technology and Future Studies. I learned things from there and there, but I cannot really say that I would master any of these areas.

I have always been interested in science. My father is a retired scientist and I lived first 20 years of my life next to a research center studying northern lights. I learned to use computers by trying out almost everything I could find on the centers computers, which I was not actually aloud to use. Luckily, people used to go to home after six or something and I was trusted to stay alone at the offices. I still feel quite home in office environments. Science to me was offices with computers and fancy research equipments.

Today, science and research is still part of my everyday life. I have been working as a researcher from 2003, starting at the University of Lapland and now at the University of Tampere for the past six years. My first faculty was filled with educational scientists, calling their research multidisciplinary. I, as a trained philosopher skewed towards epistemology and philosophy of science, was often times somewhat baffled. Retrospectively, partially this was due to my inexperience and partially due to the lack of scope in the classical philosophy of science. Similar thing happened, when I moved back to south and started working with game researchers mainly with a background of computer science and cultural studies. I was not sure what was the research that we were conducting.

Nowadays I call myself a design researcher. My PhD is concentrating on the creative processes of game developers. I have always been interested on games and my spark for creativity studies was ignited by my wonderful colleagues at the University of Lapland. I am so lucky that they did not end up hating me.

I have always felt as an underdog having a background on a subject that virtually relates to nothing. And everything. Philosophy can take you far, but it can also keep you going in circles. Even though I loved (and hated) philosophy to pieces, I started to feel quite early that I have to do something more practice oriented. After more than ten years, I am still on that road.

Quite recently, one of my colleagues said to me that “You are not actually doing research.” within a sentence that was initially meant to be more than a compliment. It was one of those moments where colleagues pat their backs and lament on bureaucracy, lack of resources and inability of others being as marvellous as you are. That was a fun moment and I really needed it. But it made me think on those few words that my co-worker lightly cast over me. This was not the first time I had been addressed like this.

About four years back another colleague of mine also said something similar. She actually said, again within a completely another issue, me being “…more of a project manager type than a researcher type…”. And I got somewhat utterly fixed with this sentence. I was in the beginning of my (game) research, so that was perhaps more than justified. But I just could not identify myself from that sentence.

It kinda makes sense. I hate reading. I hate writing. And what does a researcher (on a humanistic field) do? Reads and writes.

What is research then? My classical philosophy of science education actually does not even recognize reading and writing explicitly being part of research practice. Some even believe that humanistic research is not actually research, but more of a “study”. And this term is what humanists also sometimes use themselves. Also philosophers do not necessarily think of themselves as researchers, even though they would be paid for being a “researcher”. But I am not here to do a semantic analysis of the use of this word.

I am left thinking, why I appear as “non-researcher” or “more of a project manager type”? What have I been doing for the past six years?

I do quite a lot of “extra” so to speak. I go to game developers conferences and meetings, I drink with them, I have fun with them, I play games with them. I probably have somewhere between 200-400 game developers business cards. And I don’t think myself as a crazy social person. Cards just pile after some years. I can say that I have networked. But was that research?

I am also actively participating to different things at our faculty. I participate to stupid bureaucratic meetings, but more so, I enjoy doing spontaneous side projects with my co-workers to build a better community. I also organize extra courses for students without an extra pay. I like to contribute. But it is not research.

I love to do graphics and would love to have more time to take part on game design projects. I am constantly incorporating visual and design tasks to my research projects. I love print and I believe that visual is the future (even print!). I have been organizing game jams for past four years locally and I am contributing also globally. But is that research?

I also like to keep my self as an avid gamer. Sometimes it is difficult. It is hard to keep enthusiastic on something that you do for your living, you change as a gamer. In 2007 I started to write to Gamereactor Finland to broaden my selection of played games and push me to write about them in Finnish. But that is not research.

As you can imagine, all this does take quite a lot of my time. I do a lot of it on my work time. And it is not research. However, I am paid for being a researcher. Do I cheat the university? I don’t think so.

I believe that if I would sit in my office from day to day, reading and writing as much as I could; occasionally interviewing people (perhaps over phone), sending survey links and email enquiries to game developers; posting sticky notes on my wall to keep my thoughts organized, I would cheat myself. I would be a poor researcher.

I have conducted two semi-structured interview studies, one online-survey, two structured design experiments, two experimental interview studies, two structured experiments and three content analysis on online or otherwise already available material (some ongoing). Some experiments, workshops and data collections were never finished and I have given up on them (they were silly, no need to keep them on). I have published around 40 pieces more or less about games and design. It’s been more than six years now, I can also say that I have officially speaking – researched.

Maybe it is too much, some could say. But to sooth you; I do not really dive that deep (yet). What I am lacking in quality, I am gaining with spectrum. And I have seen this the only way for me. For now.

When I entered the field of research, I had quite an idealistic and clean view on how research is done. My education was mostly about analysis and critique. Not too much about contribution and process – even though my master’s thesis was actually about that. I was very hard on my colleagues at the University of Lapland and was constantly critiquing their theories. I was still a pain in the ass when I entered Game Research Lab at the University of Tampere. I have softened a lot within these years. Research is dirty business. And I love it.

I have learned unbelievably a lot about games and about games industry (not nearly as much as the developers themselves, or perhaps not the same things). But I have been also quietly starting to wake the philosopher in me. I have regained my interest in to the basement of research – that is the philosophy of science.

There are many things that research can be. In some cases, reading is very important, in some, experiments take the biggest role. Some have data, some have theories. Most of them have both. Some research is conducted within an extended time period, some are short and ages fast. Some research is interested in causal relationships, some descriptions of the past, current, or future. Some researchers use methodology x, some y and some z. And some do the mixture. But what is common to all of them?

All that I do is research. When I talk to the game developers, I am conducting either a pre-study or building a trusty relationship with future interviewees. When I am talking to my colleagues, I am testing my own thoughts and theories and gaining information of things I would never read myself. When I am spending my time with my students talking about games, I gain understanding of play that is foreign to me. When I review a crappy piece of a Wii game to a game magazine, I learn what compromises, schedules, budgets and social dynamics can do for a game piece. When I am organizing an extra course, I create a social pressure for me to read pieces I find constantly excuses not to read. When I am enthusiastically throwing myself into an extra project at our faculty or elsewhere, I am building an intuition of a design process of different kind. And when I start a thing or two, I don’t usually plan the outcome. I don’t always have fancy questions, I am just curious.

And that’s what a research(er) in my mind, is.

Thanks for reading.

WTF… Is Happening?

This is an edited manuscript of a wrap-up speech at Shared Gems seminar 2012 at Helsinki Metropolia University of Applied Sciences. The title was supposed to be a comment to the Petri Purho speech titled “WTF is… Game Design?”. He almost changed the title before the seminar, but I specifically asked him not to. So he only changed the speech… Kind of him not leaving me alone with a WTF-title.

So basically, what you are about to read, is a rant-type of summary of topics within the seminar (program here) targeted for game students, but also some kind of state of things from my perspective. The text is supposed to be provocative. I also tried to be funny, but I guess that is not my thing. I removed most of the jokes.


I teach and study games. My name is Annakaisa Kultima and I come from Tampere, the hot place in Finland when it comes to games at the moment.

This is my recorder. I have collected quite many interview data on developers both in Finland and abroad. But never enough. This area is so uncharted it hurts.

I do design research. This is a picture of my tequila shot at Mexico last autumn. Design research is similar to this drink. Some people take only the shot, some prepare the shot with lemon juice and some take the salty tomato juice to sooth everything at the end.

Design research works approximately on three levels too. You can study things that help you design better things, you can jump and design yourself to understand things better, or u can look things afterwards and analyze things that have already been done.

When I drank this drink, it was nice and warm night at the back yard of a local game designer’s house. It was a very good moment. I have similar fuzzy feelings for my research. And I try to cover all of the three steps.

However – one should remember that science and design by their nature are importantly different. Where science seeks general laws and tries to verify facts by repeating the experiments, design is interested in PARTICULAR and things that are not easy to repeat. That makes the relationship a bit uneasy. Sometimes design research is not considered science at all. And in some senses it is true.

I do design research, but perhaps correction is needed. I do GAME design research. One of my favorite sentences is this:

“Game design is a second-order design problem. A game designer designs the rules of the game directly but designs the player’s experience only indirectly.” – Salen & Zimmerman, Rules of Play 2004

It captures the pain and challenge of game development. Game designers try to build an experience that they can only bring alive through the rules and whatnots of the game. It is second order design.

You as a game designer do not come in a box – you don’t know how your audience is experiencing it all.

Since one cannot know how the game feels and how people response to it before it is done, it needs to be done. Several times. YOU don’t even know how it feels like. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. And usually it is the fifth or even sixth or seventh time when you get it right.

Your head can imagine so many things that are not possible. Don’t do game design in your head alone.

There is a lot of talk about how game designers and perhaps the rest of the developers are player’s advocates. I hear that. And we have a lot of tools and practices to follow that order too. But at the end the industry WAS and IS built on passion. There were no schools and the pioneers were high school dropouts or did not fit to the university. But they knew what they loved. And as they cared what they were doing, they did things that you care too.

This is a game idea from one of my game design courses.

Now, the struggles that game developers had on 80s or 90s or 2000 are not the same today. It was not easy and it is not easy nowadays, the support is now better, there are more attention and customers, but the competition is getting harder.

Things are also changing all the time. If you concentrate on making your game for a long period of time, let’s say 1-2 years, which is very rare these days, things have already changed. For the past 5 years things have changed drastically.

First of all is the casual games. And no, it is not as simple as “easy to learn and difficult to master.” It is all about the transformation of game design values and so to say “normalization of digital games”. And not only about Diner Dash, but it goes all the way to the triple A.

With “normalization of digital play” I mean the way that games have been there for thousand of years as part of the everyday life of different people. For grannies it is Bingo. For some it was chess. For so many people it is Lotto on Saturday nite. Practically everyone play games.

Then there is the social media. We chat with our parents and relatives on the same space where we play. There is normally a bit less zombies and radioactive goo. Immersion is not the only value. Routine is important for modern people in the middle of all these changes and instability.

We do have new approaches. Games that are connected all the time have the advantage to measure all of the clicks. But it is not heaven; it just creates yet another profession on games industry. We now need also the stats people. And now game devs are doing what web developers and advertisers have been doing a long time.

Games are big business. It is not only art skills nor the stats that you need. You need to know how to bring the bread on the table. It is serious now.

And so it is not all about triple A titles. The holy trinity of digital games are FPS, RPG and RTS. If you DONT know what that means, perhaps you have a chance, you might see the similarities between scratch ticket and online gaming, football and Quake, board games and iPad games. For the rest of you, I hope u play outside your own comfort zone.

At the game education we do have a problem. We attract the kids that are happy with current games. You come in as a gamer, not as a maker.

This is Seth Killian playing NY game student’s combat game that was made as a token for love for street fighter and such.

You might think that you are unique and you have unique ideas, but if you look at the mirror and see a guy wearing t-shirt, jeans, funky sneakers and a messenger bag with badges and you played Diablo and Skyrim last night, we got your type already covered.

This is a picture from this year GDC. It attracts 20 000 game professionals yearly. They all look pretty much the same. If there are girls, they also look a bit like that. But things are changing.

I have visited San Francisco now for four times from 2008, skipping one year. I love to go to game conferences. I have more serious reasons, but I have enjoyed the space at certain facilities. I never have to schedule to pee in time. Not before this year. Girls are taking over the industry, they need to pee too. But they now also have to wait in line.

This is actually at the restroom on the Moscone center, SF. Im ok.

As things are changing so fast – perhaps not that fast – but usually way too fast to ship perfect product. That creates a problem for the education. Should we teach what you need tomorrow or what you need next week?

This is a picture of a debate between, mostly between, Nick Fortugno and Chris Hecker; Manveer Heir from Bioware in the middle. They are passionately arguing which is more important for a game designer – to learn to program – or not. Nick, which I admire tremendously, he is one of the smartest people I have EVER met, is stating that he would be better designer if he would have programming skills, BUT, it would take all the time from reading and researching OTHER things that affect his craft.

Learning takes time and you have to make choices how you consume your time. The study credits that we, as educators, can offer you ARE WAY TOO LITTLE to make you a professional.

What we should do is to make you take the AGENCY of your own learning process. This is because it DOES NOT end when you enter a company, or you have shipped your first hit. Imagine this: most of the successful people on this industry have MADE their path, it was not given to them.

One of the things in the future is hybrid experiences – such products as Skylanders that surprised perhaps everyone on the 2011 Xmas markets. Or brave openings like Makielab’s 3D printed dolls where the previous lead designer of Habbo Sulka Haro went. Or Mechatars. Or things that LEGO is FINALLY doing. And this is now when we finally started to think that we are all online, virtual and with digital distributing.

And this is important. There are industries that know these things better. They know how to do stuff. I mean like objects and surfaces to touch. And they are older and not that sharing and caring like digital games industry.

This is Life of George from Lego and if you don’t know it, you should check it out.

But at the same time these all are domain of design. And it means that we are dealing with things that are in the future. And so many things are similar to game design. Perhaps even more than what we think.

This is me asking from Eric Zimmerman, the co-author of the Rules of Play, a book that you should actually read from cover to cover, about his notation of second order design. Some of the things that we are learning from game developing are universal.

But don’t despair, things are cool. As long as u REALLY love MAKING games, you will be fine. BUT if you are just another gamer, perhaps you have more fun watching.

These are the things I want u to remember:

You are not the audience.

So don’t stand in the crossroads waiting.

As long as u are young and not too cynical, when you don’t know all the limits and problems that all the veterans know, use this naivety to make something brave, something that shakes yourself if not others.

And even though it is fun to be part of the community, don’t be afraid to stand out.

This is Dustin Clingman. He organizes the annual Golden Gate run at GDC and he runs in a kilt. Yes, you heard me right: game developers exercise too. Those with best fit are the last men standing at the parties.

However, be prepared to fail a lot. Sometimes you are too early, sometimes too late. Like Apple game center. It is always combination of bravery and following, leading the way or timing right. Innovation is not easy, in order to success; you usually have to be the second, Like Zynga. Yeah: it is also compulsory to imitate in order to make things work.

You set the future: there are no princes or princesses. Your teachers are not your saviors. They have no FUCKING clue what they should teach you. We don’t have the FUCKING clue where this industry is going. Today’s veterans don’t have the clue.. It is like that movie Cube, where the system is built in pieces without the thorough understanding of the purpose of this all and the one that walks out of it is — fucking retarded. Excuse my language.


The original presentation slides can be found here:

GDC 2012: How to use it & what to think of it

I had my fourth year of Game Developers Conference this year. GDC is like “the week of the year” for the game devs, even though most of them actually don’t see any presentations. They are there for the business meetings, and perhaps for the parties. But presentation-wise: this is the place to be if you want to understand the industry.

GDC is a good place to have an overview of the industry. It is not like people are telling you directly what is the future, but you can read a lot between the lines and from the general atmosphere. The one of the reasons I keep coming back to this conference and prioritize this over academic ones is that people are actually pouring their ideas instead of vague and abstract notions of historical theories of whatnots. Academia can be so slow and stupid from time to time. But it is not so that the whole GDC is gold. It requires some skill to get best out of it.

GDC 2012 at Moscone North

Let me first tell you my tricks how to “use” the conference and then share my thoughts on what this particular year is telling me.

Some of the tricks I have inherited from the veterans and some of them I have developed myself:

  1. First of all, let yourself shop. The conference has altogether over 400 sessions spread for 5 days. It is most probable that you will not be able to see all the sessions you find mildly interesting. You have to prioritize the sessions, but leave second or third options too: eventually you only need about 5 minutes of the session to know whether it is going to be good or not. If you feel agitated, just leave the session and go for the second best on your schedule. This will not insult people. The worst-case scenario you end up bashing the presentation on Twitter as you feel trapped inside bullshit generator. That might be insulting.
  2. Follow Twitter #GDC. You can read the best bits from other sessions while they are happening. Feel free to jump to that session if something caught your eye. Unfortunately this is not the best trick, since ultimately the best presentations are silent during the presentations; people are really focusing every word of the speaker.
  3. Utilize the Vault: most of the sessions of GDC are recorded and if you have all access pass, you can check those later. My advice is that you DO NOT prioritize those sessions that are the most awesome information-wise. Just leave them to check from the vault. Think it this way: will you REALLY have time to watch the session online later when the buzz has gone? If so, you are ok with that session to be left for the Vault. If not, go and check it NOW. So if you have to choose; go for the second best; the ones that are slightly peripheral to your interest. This actually relates to the next rule:
  4.  Don’t go (only) for your core. If the session will address something that you already know through and through; chances that you will get something new out of it are small. It is best to go and browse something that is interesting but not necessarily your domain. This way you learn more and get bigger picture.
  5. Lastly, there are certain formats of speeches that always work, or names that always indicate a good speech: my personal favorites are game design challenges and rants as well as design postmortems, experimental gameplay session or year in reviews. And favorite speakers include: Eric Zimmerman, Nick Fortugno, Paulina Bozek, Sott Jon Siegel and Jason Rohrer to name a few from this year. I also like to go at least one Japanese session with simultaneous interpretation, just to amuse myself by the interpreter and to get at least one Japanese thought in my head to spice the bias of Northern American speakers. On my pooplist based on this year is at least Sid Meier. He really had nothing to share other than his fame – and the room was packed. I would recommend anyone with a moderate understanding of game design to avoid his speech. But if you are a total beginner he might deliver points that really get you going.  Also Spry Fox Daniel Cook was not that great. But average is not always bad. You need to mix proven formats and safe names with totally random speeches. Go and listen also nobodies, they can be the next big things on this industry.

So those were my tips. Now, let me explore what I think that this year was oozing for me:

  1. Bifurcated maturity. Summits were surprisingly good and main conference was highly detailed. Past years mobile summit and other summits have been a bit less great. Social, casual, smartphone areas have matured. The processes are well thought; there are bigger players involved and there is no difference in the quality of the speeches comparing the “new” and the “old” players. On the other hand, the main conference was very detailed, loads of detailed technical speeches. Nothing that striking or revolutionary: perhaps even slight stagnation: Uncharted 3 was covered by eight speeches, similar to four presentation of Saints Row: The Third.
  2. Metrics are here. It is not that crazy anymore – it is not about evangelizing the power of metrics within the innovation process. Instead the speeches were subtler and more detailed including loads of formulas and best practices. Metrics are like bread and butter for at least social game developers and A/B testing is the thing.
  3. It is time for design. In the meanwhile as we wait for another technological leap (if there is one coming), it is time for design. For the past years, there has been a lot of innovation within business models and even though I did not take part of any myself to verify this, I heard that business track was poor this year. Nothing new under the sun. But I think that after couple of years of technological changes and business oriented innovation; there is a lot of pressure for design innovations. We do have the improvements in 3D, probably also in motion detection in upcoming year, perhaps something rather new like brain controllers etc. But in general, the potential of these have not been actualized for various reasons. Whether we can actually have push from the design side is yet to be seen. The strength of the indie track within GDC is one of the indicators that it is time to let designers play more.
  4. Developers hate free-to-play (at least some of them). Last year the hatred was cast on gamification. Last year it seemed that the bastard child of serious games was taken over the whole conference. Loads of jokes on how to lifificate games or even gamify games were addressed. Now this year the joke was on free-to-play. During the decades of digital games, a strong identity has evolved. Now there is need to maintain it. It is time for ludological manifest number two. Games for their own sake.
  5. And as a last point, which is not necessary visible in the presentations: This year is the GIRL year. I had never ever had to wait in line for a toilet at GDC before. This was the year one. I also overheard two girls behind me discussing in deep details of social game design on a street one morning. Never happened before too. I mean, I don’t think there has not been someone discussing passionately about viral design last year or years before, it is just that what are the odds? I bet this year the odds were much higher than last year. I only wish we will see more girls also on triple-A productions. This might be the last year guys own the industry. Who knows?

Thou shalt not monetize thy neighbor
"Thou shalt not monetize thy neighbor." & "God hates game designers."

Altogether, it seems that industry is in a somewhat stable situation. Casual/Social/Smartphone has been established it’s position within the industry, we are waiting for design innovations from that side; business innovation has cooled down, f2p is not going away; Triple A companies do what they know best: better tech, better stories, deeper engagement and so on.

Perhaps it is quiet before the storm… Who knows? Am eager to see GDC 2013. If it is not any different from 2012 – I am definitely disappointed. 

Game Slices

I started this blog in 2007 or 2006 with a domain name gameslices.wordpress.com. My purpose for that time was to track my game experiences, slice by slice, one way or another. I do play a lot, even though I don’t think I play as near enough as I should. This applies to most of the game related professionals. Playing games take a lot of time and keeping up with the stream of new games is impossible even for those whose job description is following the game trends.

I have kept a diary of my playing starting with mobile games and recent years to record my experiences with Facebook games. Latter does not have so much relevancy with the work that I have been conducting recently. And then it has a lot. If one studies design and innovation within the games industry – of course it has. But the time I started the diaries, I was not quite sure why I was keeping them. But those are not public. And I feel like it is time for me to continue with the path that I once started. But with smaller steps.

Playing games personally and not only reading about them or watching speedruns or trailers is vital to any researcher on this field I would say. But sometimes I feel that I play games that nobody in my circles actually likes or plays. Or people just don’t talk about these games. And I am have difficulties to find someone to share my passion. I also feel like I am not valued as a customer. Most of my favorites never gets sequels, as they are not enough profitable – if done by bigger studios. They simply have something else to do and bigger bucks to collect.

What kinds of games I like then? That is very difficult to describe shortly. And I am not sure if I really even know that. I try to tell this with the help of examples:

Mirror’s Edge – for its stylistic visuals, sappy sisterhood story and the female protagonist having kind of Leeloo feel in her. This game also set me free from my perfectionist gatherer personality.

Katamari Damacy – for its overall absurdity, Kings tights and his narcissistic and bi-polar personality, rolling & destroying in general as being fun.

WTF – for its absurdity. “Part time job hell” and working for a job demon is just hilarious idea. The game captures something essential in our everyday lives and it was rather amusing to show people what I played: “I just turn these pens into right direction and put a cap on them.” Nobody asked if they could try.

Viva Pinata – for its atmosphere and characters: horstacio is so horsey. For the ridiculous difficulty and me being forced to play with the help of the game wiki without feeling that I cheat. This game made me happy.

Ratchet and Clank – for its humor and media references. And of course for the hilarious weapons.  Playability of this game is in its top. If someone is about to do a platformer – he should reference this.

Bioshock – for it being located in an underwater city. For it’s quality side stories and audio messages. For it being a dystopia to make me think – for it criticizing elitism.

Impossible Mission – for its detailed furniture, characters directability, for its mad difficulty and its puzzles being always different.

And there are many more…

I set up a Twitter account AaKooPlays to record my slices of game experiences. I don’t know where it leads me, but I feel like I want to share what I experience. I know I am not in the mainstream, but I also know I am not alone. Maybe someone will follow me. Maybe I will use them later as notes and for reflection. This twitter feed is also shown on the side of this blog.

Games and Innovation

I have been busy working on our new project Games and Innovation. It is not that new anymore, since it will be finished by the end of this year. Loads of data has been collected and hopefully there will be huge amounts of publications available for the upcoming years. The official blog for our project is http://www.gamesandinnovation.com

I also officially started my PhD studies here at the University of Tampere this spring, as a doctoral student of department of information studies and interactive media (INFIM). My thesis working title is “Games and Innovation”, just like the title of current research project that I am leading. Some old publications will be possible to use for the thesis, which hopefully makes the journey slightly easier.

GameSpace research report and tool

The GameSpace research report is finally available online. You can access it from Tampere University Electronic Publications, Tampub or directly from this link:

Check out also our department previous e-publications here.

Perhaps even more importantly, we have also released tiny flash tool with shorter texts and all the articles, files and tools that we have produced during the project. There you can also find the printable versions of VNA, GameBoard, GameSeekers and other game idea generation tools.

Flash tool: http://gamelab.uta.fi/gamespacetool/

Theoretical Philosophy and Thought Experiments

I have been a Master of Social Sciences (abbreviated to VTM here in Finland) from the last summer. The journey of 10 years with a specific interest on thought experiments as a method for philosophy (and science) ended into a Finnish master’s thesis where I reported my findings on the subject matter. I can never say that I actually was finished with this issue though.

The topic was never easy, and it doesn’t cease to interest me these days either. I am eager to find out how the area is evolving further.

But the burden of heavy philosophical arguments and deep waters of pure mind games is now officially come to an end from my side. I don’t think that I am able to ever dive into that deep end of science any more or at least not as intensively as I have been. But as they say: never say never. There are definite links with design research and game research with this meta-philosophical topic…

If you are interested, the thesis is available here, but unfortunately I have to inform you that in order to really understand it, you need to master Finnish and possibly also basics of philosophy. As a good reference in English, you can always start on reading Sören Häggqvists dissertation from year 1996. I follow the same lines in many respects with him.