The Data Visualization-ification of Video Games

November 20, 2013 Jon Hazell

What do SimCity, Civilization, Street Fighter, Twisted Metal, Wii Sports, and Rollercoaster Tycoon all have in common? Well besides being video games, they all feature some form of data visualization. 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 display attributes and track your progress as an individual or team.

Data Visualization Example from SimCity 2013 courtedy of

Unfortunately, material available on data visualization within games is sorely lacking. Aside from Nathan Yau's shout out to SimCity 2013 on his Flowing Data blog, searching for anything related is a bust; tumbleweed might as well roll across your screen. Why is there so little information on something that has become so prevalent within the gaming industry?

What are the possible consequences of this lack of info? If one is 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 also all using data visualization. Some use them for displaying character or player attributes. 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 initial release, and now 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 data visualizations follow best practices, SimCity has used line charts to display trends and its use of color has taken into consideration those who are color blind. 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 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 even 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.

How do you think data visualization can enhance games, and be enhanced within them? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below!


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