Playing Games for Visualization
The Illusive Man regards a MoireGraph. Original image via BioWare.

Games and Visualization

As anyone who has been following my Twitter account knows, I am a gamer. I eagerly await the conclusion of BioWare’s Mass Effect trilogy; Mass Effect 1 was the first game I owned on my XBox in 2008, so it has been a long time coming. More pertinent to this discussion, however, is my interest in how video games and visualization intersect. The interplay between visualization and games is the subject of joint work with Dr. Niklaus Elmqvist and his student Brian Bowman that will appear in a future issue of IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics.

Both video games and visualization are visual media focused on communicating complex information interactively; the context (or tasks) primarily separate the two domains. Recently, a confluence of sort has occurred with researchers visualizing video game activity (e.g., Hoobler et al.’s depiction of competitive gameplay strategy in Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory) or applying game mechanics—-generally under the moniker “Gamification”, a term I dislike—-to visualization (e.g., Diakopoulos et al.’s playable infographics) to enhance the visual exploration. Anytime two fields begin cross-pollenating, I find it useful to take a step back and examine where their disparate parts fit together—-in other words, to find the match points in their respective design spaces. This confluence framework is the subject of our paper.

The Design Framework

Our design framework consists of five categories used to analyze the use of visualization within video games: Primary Purpose, Target Audience, Temporal Usage, Visual Complexity, and Immersion/Integration. These dimensions measure the purpose of the visualization and for whom it is designed, the timing context of the depiction (e.g., retrospective playback vs. continuous, in-game display), the sophistication of the visual depiction, and how well the visualization “feels-part” of the game. This taxonomy spans a wide set of applications, from a depiction of game play paths used by level designers when creating the game, to a continuous indication of remaining health in an online first-person shooter. For a concrete example, consider the (generally loathed) resource mining mini-game of Mass Effect 2.

The resource mining screen from Mass Effect 2. The visualization on the right summarizes available resources on the planet (line chart) and the gathered resources (bar chart).

Resources are required in ME2 in order to build advanced technology for the player. These resources are generally gathered via scanning a planet—-The player moves a target reticle over the planet’s surface; as this occurs, a dynamically updating (and animated for visual effect) line chart indicates the amount of four different resources in the area under consideration. Moving the reticle changes the signature of the line chart as the proportion of resources change. Underneath the scanning interface are four skewed bar charts indicating the currently stored value of gathered resources. Thus, the player scans the animated line chart in order to find high concentration of the resources desired while using the bar chart to determine which resource is most needed.

In terms of our framework, the Primary Purpose of the mining visualization is Status: It communicates to the player the amount of potentially minable resources and their currently stored values. Other possibilities are visualizations for Training players how to play the game or Debugging for game designers. The Target Audience is the Player; other visualizations may be used by Designers or general Observers watching, but not playing, the game. While the visualization updates dynamically when used, its Temporal Usage is Intermittent; the mining screen is only used some of the time and is not the focus of the game. In contrast, health meters in fighting games would be considered Continuous. Though the charts in the mining screen are dressed up for entertainment, their overall Visual Complexity is Intermediate—-somewhere between Basic health bars and Advanced chloropleth maps used in some strategy games. Finally, the depiction is considered Immersive/Integrated as the mining screen is presented as the interface used by the player’s vessel for mining—-it is an artifact within the game world. Other levels of Immersion/Integration correspond to depictions separate from usual play but within the game (Informative/Integrated) or presented game entirely (Informative/Separate).

Our paper presents several additional examples of the framework in action and common patterns of visualization use in games.

Playing with the future

The cross-fertilization of visualization and video games has only recently been explored and there are many possible future directions. We will likely see more uses of video game-based ideas within visualization and, in the vein of our work, more application of visualization to video games—-either as part of the game or integrated into the larger discussion surrounding a particular game.

Now, if you excuse me, the Earth needs defending from those darn Reapers.


B. Bowman, N. Elmqvist, and T.J. Jankun-Kelly, “Toward Visualization for Games: Theory, Design Space, and Patterns,” to appear in IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics. Link