What does SimCity, Civilization, Street Fighter, Twisted Metal, Wii Sports, NBA 2K, and Rollercoaster Tycoon all have in common? Well besides being video games, they all have some form of data visualization in them. While games like SimCity and Civilization have incorporated data visualization since their first releases, others have only more recently adopted them. For example: most sports games now include data visualization elements to track not only your progress as an individual or team but to display attributes.
Data Visualization Example from SimCity 2013
To my amusement when I began to research this subject in preparation for this lovely article you have before you, I found that the material available on data visualization within games was sorely lacking (emphasis on sorely). Aside from Nathan Yau's shout out to SimCity 2013 on his Flowing Data blog tumbleweed might as well have rolled across my screen. For something that has become so prevalent within the gaming industry (I’ve seen it with my own eyes when playing the games), why is there so little information out there on it?
I soon found myself wondering about the consequences of this. If I am having trouble finding information on data visualizations within video games, imagine what the developers of the games must be facing in coming up with best practices. Aside from following general data visualization best practices how do you ensure you are doing it right to enhance the gaming experience? My hope is that it involves consumer testing to find out what the average viewer wants to understand and see, and then presenting a variety of visual options and testing what viewers a) enjoy the most, and b) are able to understand the fastest.
While in simulation games (Sim games) the purpose of data visualization might be a little more obvious (budgets, statistics, etc), First Player Shooter games, Role Playing games, and Sports games are all using data visualization. Various games use them for displaying character or player attributes. Other statistics within the games are also being displayed, hit percentage, kill ratios, etc. Even games like Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat contain data visualization with bars depicting your health. These games have become more sophisticated since their first release and now also display power or energy levels, special ability strength, etc.
Twisted Metal gives us data visualization for health (your own and opponents) and ammunition
Street Fighter displays a "hadouken" and dataviz
A lot of data visualization in World of Warcraft
Some of these visualizations follow best practices. Others seem to use certain visuals because they look “cool”, even though the information being displayed within them could be received by viewers more effectively using different visuals. Perhaps, like with data visualization in business, we will see a shift towards best practices as data visualization becomes increasingly prevalent or visible in gaming. Maybe we’ll see some innovative ways in which it is used. SimCity 2013 has effectively turned entire cities into data visualizations, and the colors used are color-blind friendly.
I look forward to data visualization within games becoming more sophisticated, just as it has and continues to do so in our everyday life. Tying check percentages to goals for and against, to see whether playing aggressively increases or decreases my chance for success, would be interesting and quite frankly fun to see.
Please share your thoughts on how data visualization can enhance, and be enhanced in the comments section.