Many years ago as I was part of the questioning panel in a job interview for a computer support position, a candidate was asked a typical question: what are the three most important characteristics for this job and how do you rate in those characteristics? His first reply was “I’m a good listener”.
And while that’s a vital characteristic for computer support people because they need to listen to the people they’re supporting, it’s also true for video game designers.
When a video game is produced by a team rather than by an individual, virtually every member of that team wants to influence how the game works. A great many of the people who work on video games would really like to make their own game but don’t have the opportunity, so the next best thing is to help shape the game that they’re paid to work on.
The person who most obviously must accommodate the desires of all these team members is the game designer. They’re going to give their ideas and proposals to the designer. And it’s the designer’s job to listen, and listen well, and when necessary explain to the team member why their idea may not be practical or simply why it won’t be tried.
Listening well is an art and a science. Sometimes perceptions are involved, for example whenever there is “multitasking”. My wife reads a lot these days, and frequently when I say something to her she keeps her eyes on her book or reader. Is she really listening? Usually she is, up to a point, because if I ask her to repeat what I said she can do so. But listening well is more than repeating the words, it’s understanding and processing them, and sometimes she doesn’t do that while she’s reading.
Yes, many of us may be able to do something on the computer and listen to someone at the same time, because according to recent research a person can multitask two things without much degradation, whereas more than two causes obvious degradation in the quality with which each task is done. But if you’re looking at the computer screen (or at a book) and not the person you’re listening to the perception may be that you’re not listening. The perception depends on the familiarity of the two people with one another and with how they do things. But if you really want to appear to be a good listener you need to face the person you’re listening to and look at their face, if not directly into their eyes. (If you’ve ever talked with someone who consistently avoids looking you in the eye then you know the doubts this can engender.)
Good listening is a skill that can be learned. Search Amazon Books for “listening skills” and you’ll find lots of books about the art of listening. But it’s not rocket science. There are probably just two things - well, really three - that are required. First you need to concentrate. This is becoming a lost art in the 21st century but it really does make a difference. “Multitasking” prevents you from concentrating. Second, you need to care about what the person has to say, which generally means you need to respect them. (If you’ve talked with people such as nurses and librarians who have to work regularly with physicians, one of their complaints is that some of the physicians don’t listen to them. That’s because those physicians don’t sufficiently respect the other people. Which usually turns out to be a mistake.) On the other hand, it’s easy to understand why a successful game designer might not listen very well to the typical fanboys or fangirls who come up and try to tell them the five things they needed to do to make their published game much better.
Yes, respect has to be earned, but when you start out on a game development team you have to assume that the other people have earned their places there. And even if the game designer has learned that particular people have exceptionally useless ideas it is still “politic” to listen to them so that they’ll be happier and presumably do better work as a result.
The third thing is, the listener has to actually process what he’s hearing and take it into account in his behavior. You can hear the words, and respect the speaker, and still not do anything about it.
Although tabletop game design is typically a solitary activity, in the playtesting stages the designer must listen to the playtesters. We have all heard stories, both from games and from other endeavors such as software and hardware production, of people who didn’t listen to testers and produced what amounted to defective products.
What about focus groups? While listening is a very important skill there are times when asking people certain kinds of things is not very useful. Some disciplines use focus groups a lot, but they don’t seem to be very useful in game production. That’s because in a focus group you’re asking people what they would do rather than observing what they actually do, and in games you can observe what people actually do by having them try the game. Jakob Nielsen, the guru of web usability, says that people often don’t do what they say they will do, not because they’re lying but because they just don’t know themselves very well or don’t take into account all the possible reactions - it’s like asking somebody which he would save if he could save only one of his wife and his daughter, whatever he *says*, he really doesn’t know what he’d do if the situation arises. So asking people what they would do in a focus group about games is of very limited utility no matter how well you listen.
The other thing that’s done in a focus group is to ask people for ideas, for how things should be done, and when you do that with people unless you have very specific questions, it’s very difficult for them to come up with something more than “just the same only better”.