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Game analytics reveals games’ hidden impact

A decade ago, the term “game analytics” would have meant little even to those well versed in the fields of technology and interactive games. Back then, the trail of digital breadcrumbs left by players as they navigated through games did not play a major role in game development. But alongside the rapid growth of social media, handheld devices, and big-data tracking and analysis, a revolution in the world of interactive games has taken shape that matches the big-data-driven paradigm shift in IT.

“Analytics has spread through the game industry like wildfire and has profoundly affected game development at the global scale,” said Anders Drachen, an associate professor in the College of Arts, Media, and Design and lead game analyst at middleware analytics provider Game Analytics.

Drachen has worked with Magy Seif El-Nasr, associate professor and director of Northeastern’s Game Design Program, and associate professor of game design Alessandro Canossa to impose some order onto the burgeoning field with the publication of Game Analytics: Maximizing the Value of Player Data, the first central resource on the subject.

Drawing from more than 50 contributing authors and interview subjects across industry and academia, the book addresses both the nuts and bolts of analytics, as well as the psychology of game play, monetization, and data mining and visualization. According to Drachen, it serves as a foundational tool around which the field can organize.

Industry experts are using game analytics to gain immediate feedback about customers’ activities, experiences, and preferences, thus informing game development and management. But the value proposition doesn’t end with companies, Canossa explained. Players are using analytics to evaluate their own activities and compare it to that of other players. Researchers are using it to answer questions about topics ranging from human behavior, psychology, and social systems to urban planning, architecture, and geography, just to name a few.

The highly interdisciplinary field is growing rapidly, and to help meet the need for more industry experts to keep up, Northeastern has launched a first-of-its-kind graduate program with a game analytics track. While the program trains students in the importance of working across traditional workplace boundaries, it also introduces them to the broader value of game analytics beyond its financial implications. While game analytics has many components, the ability to analyze player behavior is at the center of the field’s growth. It also happens to be the distinguishing feature of Northeastern’s faculty expertise and the program’s edge.

“Ultimately, you will want to look beyond gameplay behavior and get contextual data about your players. This will allow you to get closer to the users and understand them better,” explained Seif El-Nasr. “This helps not only in entertainment games, but provides a powerful tool for games that have a serious purpose, such as those for learning, health, or raising awareness.”

With the 800-page tome now on shelves, the trio has begun working on the next iteration. “We know there is material out there for at least a dozen more books,” said Drachen. This time around, however, they plan to regularly publish new content online to keep up with the rapidly evolving field.