Dr. Stuart Hallifax on his journey from an MA in France to UX at Ubisoft Montreal

Tuesday, June 21, 2022
by Sid Heeg

Dr. Stuart Hallifax (HCI Games Group) would describe his life as “falling backwards into every opportunity I've been given.” So, how did he fall backwards into joining the Games Institute (GI)? Dr. Hallifax’s journey started in Leon, France, where he studied artificial intelligence (AI) for his Master’s in Computer Science. At first, he hoped it would allow him to program and participate in building AI, but often, he found himself doing activities he didn’t really enjoy, like conducting literature reviews.

He wasn't completely sold on the idea of pursuing academia further, so after his Masters, Dr. Hallifax worked as both an intern for a local research team and a software engineer at a friend’s games company. With this brief foray into the world of games, he decided to take up a PhD with a focus on gamification, an attempt to bring together his passion for games and his experience with academia.

What brought him to the GI, though, was a run-in with Dr. Lennart Nacke (Stratford School of Interaction Design and Business) for the first time at CHI 2018 in Montreal, a common experience for postdocs and graduate students being supervised by Dr. Nacke. While Dr. Hallifax was able to present his PhD research on understanding player types and preferences at CHI, his supervisors organized for him to Visit Canada and work with Dr. Nacke during the summer of 2019 to allow him to further his skills as a budding researcher. He fit in well at the GI and became a staple member of the office, always up for playing a game or chatting about research. Dr. Hallifax’s favourite memories at the GI were the fun experiences between bouts of work, like the weekly Coffee and Toast socials before the pandemic, which he often ran himself.

Not long after he returned to France and finished his PhD, Dr. Nacke asked Dr. Hallifax if he would come back to Canada as a postdoctoral fellow, focusing on gamification and education, which he accepted, returning to the GI in September 2021. He was most proud of the systematic literature review of game element definitions that he worked on over the past two years. He felt good that this was the sort of work that could be used as a “stepping stone” for other researchers to go further and “do the things that I didn’t have time to do.”

Dr. Hallifax was a fantastic mentor to many GI members and was a huge part of the HCI Games Group and GI community. His time at the GI and as part of a lab, helped him focus on “the managerial side of research” such as guiding students in their work. He credited these experiences with giving him management skills and tools that he didn’t have the chance to gain during his PhD. He explained that one of the strengths of the GI space and community was “access to tons of people who have done all these things before and failed” and could help students avoid the same pitfalls.

Throughout his postdoc, Dr. Hallifax wondered if he should stay in academia or move to industry. Eventually, he applied for a job posting at Ubisoft Montreal as a User Research Analyst to see what would happen. Oddly enough, he had never been so nervous before. While he knew he was a good researcher, and he knew he’d be good at the job, there was still the possibility that Ubisoft would pass over him for someone else. Luckily for Dr. Hallifax, and unsurprising to those at the GI, he got the job. Dr. Hallifax will be working with the development teams of Ubisoft’s IPs and implementing his experience on player types and preferences.

During his postdoc, Dr. Hallifax discovered that while he liked the research itself, he disliked the academic process of trying to convince people that the research was important and worthy of funding before being able to start, almost like “doing the work backwards.” He is excited to be in a position where his research is already seen as inherently important, where he can do the work “forwards” starting with a problem that needs to be solved. Despite moving on from academia, Dr. Hallifax is excited to present his work, new and old, at conferences like the Game Developer's Conference (GDC) and CHI in a format where game designers and academics alike can benefit.