Alyea Sandovar at the Gamification Lab

We recently had Alyea Sandovar visiting the Gamification Lab. Alyea lives in San Francisco and is currently working on a Ph.D. research project in Human Organizational Systems at Fielding Graduate University. This is how she describes herself, her background and work: ‘As a behavior engineer and game studies researcher I have three
passions: 1) Human Beings 2) Technology 3) Games. My focus is understanding how human beings behave, live, interact in systems, play and co-create together. I am passionate about expanding our human potential and seeing what is possible with the technology we build. And in particular how to expand our creativity, design thinking and
creative intelligence. This knowledge has come in handy in game design, game studies research and user experience. My experience also includes working in different types of settings including startups, corporations (accenture) and non profits. Currently, I am finishing my PhD at Fielding Graduate Institute where I am looking at the values of game designers from emerging markets’. This is a report of the chat we had after her presentation.

Gamification Lab: You are currently working on a PhD dissertation on the values of game designers from emergent markets of the video game industry, and are also looking at how gender issues are involved in the practices of production of digital games. Could you tell us a bit more about your current research?

Alyea Sandovar: Sure thing! My research is a qualitative study-I am interviewing designers from non-dominant regions from around the world, including women. My research has two areas of focus. The first looks at the values of designers. There is quite a large body of work from information ethics that explores how the values (norms, beliefs etc.) of designers are transferred to the technologies they create (see for instance the work of Nissenbaum, Flanagan, Belman and Friedman).  At the same time we are in a time in our history where most of our cultural products are created by certain regions in the world. So my second interest is looking at values of designers that are from non-dominant markets. As we know the development of games has usually been dominated by North America, Japan, Korea and Northern Europe. Game development also occurs in emergent markets like Brazil and India, but usually development work is commissioned from North American or European countries. And of course also well known is that game development is male dominated. Hence, the values of the dominant perspectives tend to be embedded in the games created. So I am very curious to see: 1) what values are “not” in the mix right now, 2) what sort of influence dominant perspectives have on designers from other regions 3) what decisions do designers from these markets make on designs based on the mix of values

GL: What motivates you to study games, and the people who work with games?

AS: My grandmother used games to help us cope with the challenges of growing up in Colombia. Games kept us entertained, empowered and motivated. So for me games have a sweet spot, a way to have both challenge and fun. And of course, growing up I always wondered who were the people that create these amazing technologies. You see what most people don’t realize is that when you grow up in developing countries (and you aren’t rich!) whatever happens in the U.S. or Europe looks unreachable. It can feel like a dream, and so far away. It feels like those regions reach us and change us. But for us to influence them and change them is quite another thing. So I was very curious to understand design processes. At one point, I thought I would look at game designers in the U.S. but I realized that what speaks to me more is looking at voices like my own, which aren’t often heard but have so much to say. I am also super excited about design–I like design, I like fashion and I have a passion for looking at how things are made—the design of objects, the creation of products etc. So looking at games and their design is a perfect fit for me.

GL: What do you think makes the topic of your research particularly interesting?

AS: I think this topic brings to larger questions. It asks who is creating our cultural products and how others, not currently dominating the creation, could contribute to this process. I am a philosopher at heart and my work has to have an application that helps elevate others in some way. It’s not enough to do research for research sake. For me research has to help other people and make the world a better place. So the question about our cultural products is truly about the heritage we leave behind. Games are part of our cultural heritage and my passion is to involve as many people as possible in the development of our human heritage. Highlighting other voices and other values is part of that involvement.

GL: One aspect that was particularly interesting in your presentation at the Gamification Lab was the way in which you bring your own personal experience, history and perspective in your research. Which aspects do you think make this process relevant? How much of yourself you see in the questions you ask when approaching academic research?

AS: I see myself 100% in the questions I ask for research. For me research is about my personal passion and history. I may not like what I find, or my findings may contradict my personal views. But the question always starts from something I experienced, something I saw or something that impacted me in some way. I cannot research anything that I don’t have a personal passion about. And I think this speaks to how I live my life. My decisions are always about following what is right and true, and not about what is perceived as best. The impetus for knowing always comes from within first, and then I either confirm or reject any notions based on what I find.

GL: Finally, you also have experience as game designer and you have a strong interest in gamification and alternate reality games. What do you think is making these new kinds of games so popular at the moment and so interesting for many designers (and design companies)? What do you think is at stake in the emergence of gamification?

AS: To put it bluntly, everyday life can be a hassle and boring. And I believe that as human beings we are wired for play (using my psych background here). Let me ask this: Who likes paying bills? Who likes always having a routine with no change? Who likes monotony? Who likes running errands? No one does. We might like the accomplishment but the action itself—is pretty gnarly. I think gamification and alternate reality games are a way to infuse play, goals etc. into our daily lives. Not long ago, I committed myself to running several times a week. But frankly could not get myself to do it often. I am a person that is easily bored so I need something to keep me motivated. Then I discovered the “Zombies Run” app, I found it so much fun. Same goes for the medicine ball (it’s a weighted ball for exercise). I love the medicine ball, I get to throw it up and catch it for exercise-who doesn’t like to play catch?
Infusing our daily tasks with a bit more flare is exciting. And I think that is where gamification comes in. The challenge however, is that companies are using game mechanics to change purchasing behaviour and solidify a brand. These companies simply take elements of games and put them on top of a platform to increase their bottom line. Most don’t understand what these elements are for or how the delivery of the experience becomes broken. I am a proponent of making our lives more fulfilling, joyful, challenging and creative. And if bringing elements from games can add to our everyday life then let’s go for it. But I think it’s important to understand how these elements work, their purpose and how to use these elements wisely.


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