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The Case for Casual Biometrics

December 20, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

In Conclusion

Despite the successful employment of biometric testing in the highest strata of the video game industry, a review of recent publications on psychophysiology and video games reveals that it has not yet been adopted by the casual sector. It might be assumed that the costs involved in running biometric experiments make it affordable to the developers of high-end games only, but Gua-Le-Ni is proof that this is not the case.

We needed very little work and money to transform a simple air-conditioned research room in a viably neutral testing environment. Additionally, as witnessed by the release of Nintendo's Wii Fit balance board and its planned but unreleased vitality sensor hardware, biometric equipment is quickly becoming consumer technology -- that is to say, trivially inexpensive and more portable.

If biometric testing is really not economically prohibitive, then why have the developers of casual not embraced its technologies and methodologies games yet?

One possible answer lies in the focus of triple-A titles on action-oriented genres such as shooting, racing, and sports simulations. Whereas the qualities of such games give rise to easily detectable physiological patterns, the same is not always true of casual games such as puzzle games, hidden object games, point and click adventures, etcetera.

What I am arguing here is that the notable absence of biometry in the quality assurance methodologies of the casual sector of our industry can be accounted for by practical reasons as opposed to limitations in development budgets. Accordingly, there are no real obstacles that would prevent casual game developers from employing biometrics in testing action-oriented casual games or in investing in pursuing more research.

Biometric methodologies might, in the near future, also offer the capability of tracking internal states that are more relevant to the growing casual market, such as the level of concentration of the task at hand, the bafflement induced by a cognitive task beyond one's capabilities or the feeling of accomplishment.

The diffusion of expertise and the availability of the interpretative frameworks are also growing, and not only in obscure academic circles: several of our game design undergraduate students are developing graduation projects which involve the design their own biometric experiments, running their tests and the independent analysis of data.

As already hinted in my opening quote, I do not consider psychophysiology to be the ultimate video game analysis tool, nor I ever hoped or believed it could replace traditional game design and quality assurance approaches wholesale. An understanding of biometry as the "holy grail" of casual game development would be naively optimistic and blind to the partial, albeit deep, quality of the insights it provides.

Aside from the objective benefits explained above, and the large quantity of data that are possible to be harvested, working with the added lens of psychophysiology allowed me to talk to my testers about their feelings and intuitions with a more solid ground both when referencing a particular game event and when comparing results with those of other testers in the same target audience. Biometry made my process richer, more accurate, and also more interesting from an anthropological point of view, further fuelling my passion and my curiosity for game design. Personally, it was a refreshing and enriching experience that I am looking forward to repeating with my next, bizarre experiments in combinatorial game design.

From the outlined perspectives, the future of biometric and biofeedback applications in casual game development seems to me to be very promising. Applied research in biometrics is able to continue to attract funds and, even at the current level of economical affordability, the video-ludic employment of biometric technologies has proved capable of delivering both deep insights and objective advantages. Our benchmark case study Gua-Le-Ni, for instance, has received excellent reviews, attaining a current Metacritic score of 83 percent.

Once again, psychophysiology does not universally offer normative answers, but it does grant the possibility to understand players more thoroughly and to better 'draft' the games that we make -- and on these grounds, I believe that it will play an increasingly important role in the future of game development across all sectors of the games industry.

One of our test subjects wearing the complete set of sensors that were used during the second set of biometric tests.

Where whales can slow down their physiological processes when diving in the ocean depths, slowing down the development process of our benchmark title Gua-Le-Ni allowed the researchers to observe physiological processes in players to gain a far deeper understanding of game play experience.

With the more efficient methodologies now in place at NHTV Breda University of Applied Science, the development process would not even have to slow down, thus making the methodology even more viable to be integrated in casual game development iterations. With our efforts both in terms of research and game design we hoped to have opened a fresh, blue ocean for casual and independent developers: biometric game design.

In addition to the valuable information and inspiration that was gleaned from this method of testing, both researchers and test subjects had a whale of a time.


Gualeni, S., Janssen, D., Calvi, L., 2012. How psychophysiology can aid the design process of casual games: A tale of stress, facial muscles, and paper beasts. Full paper on biometry-aided casual game design presented at the 2012 Foundation of Digital Games Conference in Raileigh, NC, United States, May the 30th, 2012.

Gualeni, S., Janssen, D., Calvi, L., 2012. Psychophysiology and casual games: always a good match? Full paper on biometry-aided casual game design presented at the 2012 ECREA Conference in Istanbul, Turkey, October the 24th, 2012.

Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

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Game Designer


Stefano Gualeni
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Dear Dario, thank you for your kind comment and your interest. In case you are eager to know more, you can find an academic account of our process on our benchmark game at (it is one of the two papers referenced at the end of the article).

As far as hardware goes, we started with this research project roughly two years ago with one of the cheapest set of biometric sensors on the market called Procompt Infiniti produced by Thought Technology:

We decided to use a very basic setup, clearly, because the original scope of our applied science and our industry partners was that of working towards the possibility of making our framework and methodologies viable for small developers. Right now, the set costs a little less than four thousand dollars, which is not too bad. :)

The biggest problem that our researchers and technicians had to solve, however, was not related to the sensors or to the creation of a neutral and isolated room to test in. The hardest problems they had to tackle consisted in bringing metrics from the game, game play videos and biometric data together in a single timeline, on a single machine where changes in psychophysiology, game performance, muscle contraction and game events could be assessed and compared.

Without a working framework capable of allowing hardware and software to communicate automatically, it is nightmarish to perform biometric analysis on video games. It was the case of Gua-Le-Ni, when our framework was just at the beginning of development. It took the technical part of our research team more than a year to develop a working and reliable version of the framework. I believe it's safe to say that, in our case, expenses and difficulties did not end with purchasing and setting up the biometric sensors.

Hopefully, commercial set of biometric sensor will soon come with a framework which is easy enough to utilize and obtain answers from. I do not know if we will be able to disclose the software we wrote and the hardware solutions we found, but I presume more technical papers will be published by the more technical people in the research team.

Once again, thanks for your interest.

David Serrano
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Stefano, we know playing games will trigger a physiological responses in (most) players. But the physiological response to a game doesn't necessarily correspond to the player's opinion of the game. Or to their gameplay preferences in general, correct? Raising a player's heart rate or muscle tension could mean he or she finds the game exciting, but it also could mean the game is frustrating them or pissing them off. If I was tested while playing a game on the highest difficulty setting, I know my heart rate, blood pressure, breath rate, muscle tension, cortisol levels, etc... would spike sharply. But this wouldn't mean I found the game exciting or that I was enjoying it on any level. Because in reality, I find that playing games on higher difficulty modes sucks every second of fun, pleasure or enjoyment out of the experience. And my positive or negative opinion of games is largely determined by how well I believe the normal mode difficulty curve has been balanced for the average player the audience, and how well the casual curve was balanced for new or low experience players. So when biometric data is collected, is combining it with, or reconciling it against the player's verbal or written feedback part of the process?

Stefano Gualeni
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Dear David, thank you for the very interesting question and for having shed light on the fact that I have - perhaps - not been thorough enough in the article with regard to our (multi-leyered) process. As you might imagine, writing this article for a non-specific public demanded decisions about what to omit or simplify about the ways in which we gathered, collated and interpreted data.

Your answer could be, very synthetically, found in this sentence of page 2: “To complement a wider quality assurance campaign based on questionnaires, interviews, blind-testing and hard-core performance tests, the Dutch research team at NHTV Breda University of Applied Sciences ran an initial series of biometric tests on Gua-Le-Ni. The aim of these initial tests was to structure a testing methodology incorporating the added perspective of biometry.”

I am thankful for your question because it allows me to elaborate a little more on our work.

So, David, the first thing that you need to keep in mind while reading about our tests is that each subject that tested our game was also exposed to other TWO video games in the same sector and genre of Gua-Le-Ni (casual time-base action video games). In that way we could obtain biometric data about our competitors and have a rough base to compare our game against. However, we did not tell the test subjects that one of the games was developed internally.

On top of that, we administered to every participants mini in-game questionnaires to be filled in quickly between games (normally administered upon ‘game overs’ and to be rapidly filled-in). At the end of each game session with one of the three tested games (ours plus the two control ones), a more thorough questionnaire about the general game experience – also known as a GEQ – was filled in by our guinea pigs.

At the end of the process described above, we would informally discuss with each participants the merits of the games, making notes about the difficulties, the feelings, the interfaces and generally anything they wanted to disclose about their experiences. The interviews mostly focused on Gua-Le-Ni, which (depending on the subject) was either the first, the second or the third game of the series of action-based casual games they played.

Interviews were the most useful for me as a designer, but they were also poorly reliable. As it turns out, players tend to have a very selective and distorted set of memories about their game experience. The specific literature informs us that they can remember very well the beginning and the end of the experience, and perhaps register accurately a particular event that happened during gameplay, but the rest of the playing session is usually vague in their cognition and is mostly re-constructed a posteriori. The vagueness and the cognitive blanks could be filled, in our case, with metrics, biometrics and videos. In that way, we can complement their feelings with an objective tracking of the game sessions from both an in-game performance point of view and a bodily one. Besides, interviews and records of the game states are normally crucial in determining how the bodily signals should be interpreted (or at least suggest a way in which they could be read.

The riddle of the smiles during ‘game overs’ that was cited as an example in the article was solved precisely during informal interviews, where the players specified that the end of their games were received positively. During the interviews they specified clearly that they wanted to keep going on with the game and that the gradual disappearance of the beast in play behind the curled page always left them with the feeling of having ‘almost solved it’, hence their smiles.

The positive valence of those stress spikes remained a mystery until we compared our notes about the interviews with the actual stress graphs. Interesting, isn’t it?

David Serrano
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Stefano - Thank you for taking the time to reply. Yes, it's very interesting because during my career in magazine publishing, we went through a similar period where new techniques and systems were implemented with the goal of reducing or eliminating the level of subjectivity and guess work from creative and technical processes. So I see many parallels between the problems you're addressing with biometric data and the problems other industries addressed through a marriage of statistical process control and science. I think the game industry will eventually create similar systems, standards and procedures. But implementing them will be a slow, tedious process with a steep learning curve. But the end results are absolutely worth it.

Susan O'Connor
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Interesting, thanks for this

Stefano Gualeni
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Dear Susan, thank you for having read and commented my article.
In case any of you were interested in knowing more about our ongoing process, our framework for biometric analysis, or simply feel like meeting up, shaking hands and the like, well... You might be interested in knowing that I will be one of the speakers at the upcoming 2013 Games User Research Summit in San Francisco on March the 26th. (

In case you are planning to attend, feel free to contact me. Also, a new game might be on the way...