Jamie Madigan on Science Communication

One of the world’s foremost experts on the psychology of video games is one of us! Jamie Madigan, Ph.D. is the I-O psychologist behind the blog, podcast, and media empire called The Psychology of Video Games. In the first level, Jamie and I talk about how a good workplace is like a videogame and why that’s a cool topic for book. In the boss level, we talk about science communication, sounding like a person in your writing, and the differences between writing for a popular audience and writing for other nerds. Finally, in the bonus level, Jamie shares his tips for working with journalists.

Guest Bio

Jamie Madigan has a Ph.D. in I-O psychology (from the University of Missouri St. Louis) and he has always played a lot of video games. His mission in life is to popularize understanding of how psychology can be used to understand why games are made how they are and why players behave and think as they do.

He’s consulted with game development companies and talked at conferences about how game developers can incorporate psychology principles into game design and how players can understand how it affects their play. He is the author of Getting Gamers: The Psychology of Video Games and Their Impact on the People Who Play Them and The Engagement Game: Why Your Workplace Should Look More Like a Video Game.


This transcript is AI-generated and may contain inaccuracies. Please do not quote myself or any of my guests based on this transcript.

[00:00:00] Ben Butina, Ph.D.: Hello, and welcome to Department 12, where we talk about everything I-O psych. I’m your host, Dr. Ben Butina. Joining me today is Dr. Jamie Madigan. How are you today, Jamie?

[00:00:09] Jamie Madigan, Ph.D.: Hey, I’m doing well. Thanks for having me on, Ben.

[00:00:12] Ben Butina, Ph.D.: Jamie has a PhD in I-O, psych from the University of Missouri St. Louis and his mission in life is to popularize the understanding of how psychology can be used to understand why games are made how they are and why players behave and think as they do.

Jamie you’ve written hundreds of articles and blog posts and podcasts on these topics and served as an expert guest for dozens of TV shows, radio shows and podcasts, as well as print articles. And you’re also the host of your own podcast, the psychology of video games,

But today I’d like to talk to you about your latest book, The Engagement Game: Why Your Workplace Culture Should Look More Like a Video Game. Who is this book for? Who’s the audience ?

[00:00:48] Jamie Madigan, Ph.D.: It’s mostly for people who want to become better at their job of, of management or, or as a leader, and at least have a passing familiarity with video games or somebody who knows people who are really into video games, because the basic ideas is to look at, yeah, like what is the psychology behind good game design say about how to be a better manager, a better leader. How do you get people feedback? How do you motivate them?

How do you set goals? How do you create the kind of climate and culture that you want in your organization and all of that? So, yeah, I think it’s anybody who wants to be better at their job. Once that advice sort of packaged in something very familiar. Frankly entertaining, like video games.

[00:01:31] Ben Butina, Ph.D.: You’ve spent most of your career exploring the psychology of video games. What made you decide to flip that script and say, Hey, I’m going to write a book that explains work psychology through video game examples or concepts.

[00:01:44] Jamie Madigan, Ph.D.: It was mostly because when I would be writing these articles or talking to these podcasts guests about things, like why are people motivated to play games or how to games do feel.

I was going back to a lot of the IO psychology literature. Drawing on decades, old research and research programs around very basic things around motivation, engagement, feedback, goal setting. You know, these are all things that good game design makes proper use of and in a lot of ways they make better.

Use of, then we see in the workplace or education and so forth. It was all just a lot of overlap there that sort of naturally occurring as well as other areas of psychology, like social psychology and consumer psychology. So there wasn’t so much. What does gaming psychology have to say, but it was more like, what does IO psychology have to say about these broad topics and how does that often get applied to video games and how can you learn from that application?

[00:02:38] Ben Butina, Ph.D.: I don’t think that the content of the book is going to be surprising to most of my listeners. Most of my listeners are either IO, psychologists or, or students but we’re all kind of IO nerd. So hopefully a lot of this is already stuff that we know and the book’s not for us, but I did want to talk to you about is that I think the book can serve as a model for us as science communicators.

We know we’re not doing science communication as well as we need to. Communication is a pretty big deal for us. We’re an applied field. Our ability to help other people depends on our ability to explain what we know to employees and managers and executives in a way that’s understandable and persuasive to them.

But when it comes down to actually changing our behavior or doing things new, it doesn’t seem to advance much past. How do we make this research abstract, get to the eighth grade reading level or something instead of doubling down on doing what wasn’t working before you went in a completely new direction.

And, and part of what I admire about the book is the tone you write like a regular person, for lack of a better phrase, you don’t write like an academic.

[00:03:45] Jamie Madigan, Ph.D.: I don’t take that as a compliment.

[00:03:46] Ben Butina, Ph.D.: You should. That’s definitely how it’s intended. Do you have any advice to offer on how to revise our tone so that we’re writing in a more conversational, accessible way for ordinary?

[00:03:57] Jamie Madigan, Ph.D.: Everything you just described resonates with me, one of my professors back in grad school always said that research is not complete until it’s communicated. It’s got to go all the way back out and it’s gotta be shared with other people. That’s like one of the last steps in the scientific method is that you share with others.

 Often in the same breath, those grad school professors were trying to get us to write exclusively in this very academic style. The kind of style you would see in textbooks are journal articles, you know, top tier journal articles, where it was very stiff, matter of fact, there was no illustration. There were a little context a lot of times, I always kind of balked at that and to maybe to the point of having to revise some of my own papers based on feedback that my professors gave me. But once I got out there and was calling my own shots and doing stuff like this, I always just wanted to make it more entertaining because if it’s entertaining, it’s engaging and.

Understand it and recall it from memory more effectively. And it serves its purpose better, the extent to which people can remember it and understand it. As far as advice goes, the tone of, of the stuff that I’ve written always has sort of that jokey. Conversational style. We’re all make dumb jokes.

And the engagement game actually has a little less of that than some of the other stuff I’ve written like my previous book getting gamers, which is more broadly about the psychology of video games and then stuff that I wrote on the website. It’s psychology of games. I would do stupid jokes, and tell dumb stories to frame and a context for whatever it was that I’m trying to explain. And I would use examples mostly from video games because that’s what people were coming there for and what they were interested in. But, you know, for my life experiences or stories, I’d heard about other people.

 That’s one of the consistent things I’ve done. And probably one of the biggest pieces of advice to answer your question would be tell stories Are attracted to stories. We’re creatures that like to tell and hear stories. that’s one thing that I try to do throughout the book is each topic, you know, I would start with a story of a person I heard about, or if I was recalling an experiment, I would try to tell a story about what the researchers might’ve been doing or thinking.

Try to make sure that if I was joking, that that was apparent to people, I was getting inside the researcher’s head for the sake of a joke, make sure that was clear, but always in service of context and making people understand the larger point. So tell stories, don’t be afraid to take the space to do that.

[00:06:15] Ben Butina, Ph.D.: That’s great advice because everybody has different stories to share as well.

Their style might not be as humorous might be more straightforward or maybe they go for a warmer angle rather than a humorous one. I think there’s lots of ways to do this.

But I would encourage anybody listening to this to read this book or read some of the articles from your website and just get a feel for the way science can be communicated in that informal conversational way and still be serious.

Jumping back to the book for a minute. A lot of my listeners have written academic papers but they’ve never written a book for a popular audience. What would surprise us about that process of writing a popular book?

[00:07:01] Jamie Madigan, Ph.D.: I can only talk to my experiences. But I think one thing that surprised me was how much complete free reign I was given. The way it works for nonfiction books as a, you generally write a very detailed proposal that breaks down chapter by chapter two or three paragraphs about what that chapter is going to be like.

And then you have a bunch of information about your platform and why you’re an expert in this area and what you can do to market the book. once they sign off on that. And both of the books that I’ve written, like the editors were not in my business at all. And I would turn stuff in that has the tone that we’ve talked about so far where it’s entertaining and humorous and irreverent in some ways.

And nobody bought, they were just like, Hey, you’re, you’re the book writer, you’re the expert you know, do what you want. And the only thing I ever had, anybody pushed back on me, Wanting to do like the joke footnotes that I do on my blog all the time. And they were like, no, that’s not going to work for the formatting people.

But besides that, they just accepted what I sent in. And I, I guess I had had before my first book had expected a little bit more interaction and back and forth, then there was there maybe it’s like that for other authors and other publishers, but it wasn’t.

[00:08:14] Ben Butina, Ph.D.: Now another thing that’s part of science communication We get calls to be references for articles on websites or newspapers or magazines. I get those calls, but they’re infrequent. And so I don’t feel like I can get much better at them.

In fact, for me, it’s pretty much the same way with video games is that I will pick up my sons and I’ll play a little bit, but I never really get enough reps in, to get better at what I’m doing. And I feel it’s the same way with these kinds of interviews because I’ve had these experiences.

I feel like the interview part of it went well. And then when I read. The article that the journal has created, I’m disappointed in, not so much the quote that they picked, but the fact that it didn’t seem to convey what I shared with them, or it was presented in a context that made it seem like I was saying something I didn’t really intend.

when you only do that a half dozen times over the course of your life, you tend not to get a whole lot better at it. You’ve had significantly more reps than most of us ever. Wells you’ve been interviewed about the psychology of games. Tons and tons of times, can you think of any advice to offer us on how to better present ourselves to media requests?

[00:09:22] Jamie Madigan, Ph.D.: I usually ask the person ahead of time when they’re trying to set up the call or do an email interview what questions are you trying to answer? And to the extent that they can provide me with a list of questions that helps me prepare.

I’ll sit down, I’ll sketch out some answers. And a lot of times. They’ll not have anything specific. They just made me like, well, I want to know, like, why do people like video games and I’ll push back? That’s too broad a question for me to answer like that.

What specifically do you want to know about and get them to sort of narrow in? And sometimes those conversations proceed to a point where I say, I can’t help you. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had somebody reach out and say, What is my choice of character in Mario cart, say about my personality and the answer is nothing, because that’s the thing it says that you like donkey Kong.

There’s no hook for me to hang anything on there.

[00:10:13] Ben Butina, Ph.D.: So princess page for whatever amount matters.

[00:10:19] Jamie Madigan, Ph.D.: A lot of times , I’ll just say I can’t help you with that. Or maybe here’s a name of somebody else you might want to talk to. I’ve also gotten to the point where. Decline interviews on certain topics.

Like, I, I don’t really have anything new to say about the question of violence and violent media and violent games and the effects of those or video game addiction, that kind of stuff, you know, I’ll just refer them to other statements and other sources that, you know, that’s pretty much what there is to say about that topic.

And you can sometimes get an idea for what their agenda might be or what they want to say or what they’re fishing for. you just gotta have the conviction , to step back from that sort of situation where you’re not going to be able to contribute anything to the discussion, or if you do, it’s going to be diced and picked apart and presented in a different context like you were describing before.

[00:11:05] Ben Butina, Ph.D.: No your limitations. And when you think you can make a contribution versus repeating some more armed over crap that you’ve heard other people say,

[00:11:14] Jamie Madigan, Ph.D.: yeah. And I’ve definitely told people, like, I’m not an expert in that. People would hear like, oh, psychology and video games, and they’ll want to ask me about, mental health issues.

And I’ll say, I’m not that kind of psychologist. I’m a work psychologist. I’m an IO psychologist. And here’s the name of a couple of people that you might approach that do know about that.

[00:11:30] Ben Butina, Ph.D.: So knowing your limits, doing the prep work ahead of time. And it’s no problem to ask a journalist to send a list of questions ahead of time.

 Another piece of advice I heard from there is don’t be afraid to redirect if you think the question’s too broad or that it’s not really answerable in its current format, you can redirect and say, well, here’s the kind of question that I can answer. That might be more what you’re trying to do.

[00:11:55] Jamie Madigan, Ph.D.: Yeah, totally. And sometimes despite all that, they’ll still, cherry pick what you said or presented in a different context and something like that. And, you know, that’s just the way it goes sometimes. You can choose not to talk to that person again in the future, if you think that it was deliberate or gross, but otherwise you just kind of get.

[00:12:14] Ben Butina, Ph.D.: Thank you very much. I know I learned a lot and I’m sure my audience has as well. I’m going to encourage everyone listening to please check out the show notes for Jamie’s full bio, a transcript of today’s show and links to some of Jamie’s work, because I have to say that. It’s a specially going to be useful for anybody with any kind of connection to video games.

But I think it is going to be useful and enlightening for anyone who hopes to convey I-O psychology ideas to ordinary people. And hopefully that’s all of us. So thank you again, Jamie.

[00:12:47] Jamie Madigan, Ph.D.: Thank you, Ben. I appreciate it.