Short thoughts on games and interaction design

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For some odd reason, I’ve been chatting more with people that are interested creating web 2.0 applications that borrow substantially from online games. If you see games as a technique for teaching skills and maintaining attention in a pleasurable fashion, I would expect this crossbreeding to only expand in the future.

Why games are interesting to the web
Website developers are desperate to have their users enjoy the experience of using the website. If you look at traditional usability and interaction design literature, it says a lot about improving functionality, but almost nothing about making that functionality pleasurable. In the gap there as emerged a faith derived aesthetic where minimalist, highly efficient interfaces are described as the major source of user pleasure. If the only tool in your toolbox measures efficiency, that is what you as a designer value. Regardless of whether or not cold efficiency is what your users value.

Games are interesting to web developers because they demonstrate a rich set of techniques, proven over the course of thousands of projects to keep users heavily engaged. Experience points, in game currencies, mission, player housing, avatar creation, and guilds are some of the meta-game systems that are almost immediately applicable to practically any existing class of application. These keep users around longer, give them an increased sense of community and when used appropriately give them warm fuzzy feelings.

Another area of great interest is that game explicitly deal with the concept of user exploration and the acquisition of new skills. They are experts at giving users the freedom to explore at their own pace while still encouraging the user to master new techniques, tools and skills. At the end of a game of Zelda you’ve learned hundreds of new techniques and you’ve enjoyed doing it.

At the end of a few hundred hours of used Digg, you’ve learned perhaps one or two new techniques. If you are really lucky, you’ve figured out their commenting system. Modern interaction design has great difficulty with the topic of learning. The current rule of thumb is that users should never be forced to learn any new skills in order to use the application. This greatly limits the scope of potential designs and their ultimate usefulness to expert users. Game techniques, as systems that teach, allow designers to break free from the oppressive assumption that they must only design for the lowest common denominator.

The baggage of games
Games also bring with them some interesting baggage. There is an unfortunate tendency to copy wholesale a game design and merely reskin it with a new theme. Math Blasters is certainly not the high point of cross breeding interaction design and game design. We need a deeper understanding of game design that allows us to choose the right elements for the job at hand. Here are a couple of pitfalls.

Don’t use spatial relationship if it isn’t necessary
Most occur in concretely realized spatial environments, whereas most applications do not. You play a game in a world with walls and ledges and characters. Many of the core mechanics of existing genres are built around these constructs. Some designers immediately think “3D world like Second Life!” when they imagine a game-like application. One of my favorite ‘horrible user experiences’ was in the early days of VRML, some fellow had replaced the desktop with a virtual office you wandered about. You were forced to walk from shelf to shelf and fiddle with clumsy 3D notebooks in the vain hope of finding the right 3D model that represented your last used document.

Applications operate in an abstract land of concepts. The mapping between navigating a maze in Pacman and linking cells in a spreadsheet formula is not obvious, nor is it likely even desirable. Instead consider the dozens of other game design techniques such as point systems, power ups, skill trees, currency and more. There are plenty of useful techniques that don’t involve wandering about a world.

Inappropriate use of theme for the application at hand
Two people in the past week have asked me, “Does including a rich game-like theme increase the number of users or scare them off?” Their worry was that creating a theme for their application that sported rich characters and a predefined world (in one case a fantasy-land and in the other case a soap opera-esque college scene) would create an immediate filter that knocked out a goodly number of people from even trying the app in the first place. If you look at MySpace, Facebook or Digg, none of them have an obvious theme and they are the gold standard of success. Admittedly, almost all web 2.0 projects adhere to a ruthlessly minimalist school of design so that absence of rich setting is by no means evidence that it doesn’t work.

Yet, if you were building a game world, this isn’t even a question you ask. Our assumption is that people need a theme (Pirates! Elves!) in order to engage the abstract mechanics of the game. The theme is both the initial hook and a way of creating a context for the actions that eases the learning curve. Game designers can point to Warcraft, Tomb Raider, Ultima, and Mario and practically any title except Tetris that setting is critical to success. We fixate on establishing a rich, unique world as the single most valuable element of a game’s brand.

But truth be told, I don’t know if a rich theme is always a good idea for every application and every audience. Perhaps more importantly, I don’t have the analytics tools (beyond some informed guesses) that would provide the insight necessary to make a good decision.

An open field
I’ll stop now since this is my attempt at shorter post and it is a rather enormous topic. We are in a place where there is obvious benefit to be gained from cross breeding the two worlds of traditional interaction design and game design. However, it is not completely clear what should be borrowed, what should questioned and what should be reinterpreted. It is a fascinating topic for further inquiry. πŸ™‚

take care
Danc.

Reference

Interaction Design image source

I borrowed the picture above from this lecture on interaction design.
https://web.archive.org/web/20080803235207/http://ccrma.stanford.edu/courses/250a/lectures/interactiondesign/

What is interaction design
“Interaction design aims to minimize the learning curve and increase the accuracy and efficiency of task completion, without diminishing the value of a product’s useful functionality. The objective is to lead to less frustration, higher productivity, and higher satisfaction for users.”
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interaction_design

Ideally, products would have no learning curve: users would walk up to them for the very first time and achieve instant mastery.”
https://www.asktog.com/basics/firstPrinciples.html

All wonderful stuff that I practice daily. What I find fascinating is how there is no direct representation of user pleasure in the process. There is instead an assumption that by solving a problem in a pragmatic fashion, the user will automatically become happy. Taken to an extreme, interaction designers seek to build a utopia where every action is transparent and effortless.

Yet online game designers know from painful practical experience that utopias result in angry, destructive users. In almost all game designs, the process of mastery is the source of user value. An acknowledgment of pleasure of doing is missing from modern interaction design.

PS: July 2nd, 2007: Updated post to clarify the structure a bit.

11 Comments

  1. I\’ve made a game that sort of fits what you describe. It\’s a game/community that\’s in a pretty well defined setting. We haven\’t fleshed out the community bits as much as we want to yet, but it\’s a work in progress. I\’ve got a slightly longer writeup about it on my blog and the site\’s at argblargs.com.

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  2. Ok, this is such a misunderstanding about games, it both bothers me and perhaps frightens me, if the wider web interprets it as such: spatiality. Games are not inherently spatial. There is nothing about games, definitionally, that requires space. The reason the history of games has been dominated by spatial metaphors is because a) the earliest game designers were programmers who tend to operate with spatial reasoning more than linguistic reaonsing and b) the hype and business assumptions became such that space became axiomatic and indeed, the more the better became the assumption – the feedback loop between these two factors leads logically to the massive behemoth worlds that todays game industry produces. Forget about it. Set yourself free.Whats fundamental to games is choice along two orthagonal cognitive dynamics, optimization and differentiation. Optimization drives people to learn and is generally a homogenous attractor, while differentiation drive people to aestheticize in ways that are different from other forms of aestheticization, and is a heterogenous attractor. Use principles like that, forget about spatiality. Once you\’ve forgotten about spatiality being some fundamental wall to climb in adopting \”gameness\”, you can use it more sanely. Cozy spaces, constrained shared platforms, think about what you need and what you\’re trying to encourage and sprinkle. Also, rich setting can be about symbolic landscapes that don\’t have a spatial analogue: lore, collaborative storytelling, perhaps even feedback for users to see what other users are doing symbolically according to a spatial metaphor, like some kind of cleverly illustrated statistical filter. Sorry if this is a bit rantish, its late. Give us free!

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  3. Re: MartinFascinating to see how ArgBlarg works out. That\’s quite the impressive result for such a short development period. Out of curiosity, what has been the response to the artistic style from folks outside of the core development team? It made me…uncomfortable for some reason. πŸ™‚ Re: PatrickAbsolutely game do not need to be spacial. One needs only play a game of Poker, Charades or Werewolf to realize that there are many options for setting However, there is a tendency is to lean heavily on examples when \’borrowing\’ from a field you know poorly and *most* existing computer game examples that I\’ve found application developers mention have a strong spacial component. So the question arises during the design phase \”Should we have a spacial metaphor for this application? Other games do…maybe there is something attractive to the audience here that we should consider.\” Its always an interesting thought exercise to see how you can give an application a sense of place. But I agree with the sentiment that the concept of applying game design to applications is a lot broader than turning everything into FPS. πŸ™‚ take careDanc.

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  4. I can\’t imagine adding spatial metaphors to an application being all that useful. (I\’m considering apps apps, not a social network ect.) It seems like wasted overhead – and metaphors have typically done poorly in terms of the web and usability. In other words I would hate to have to walk over to the \’accounts\’ area to change my information rather than just clicking a link in .3 seconds ^__^.What IS useful about looking at root game design and how it would apply is the basic challenge / rewards and how that can emotionally engage someone in their task. For instance, you have an internal app where employees are supposed to create and file their TPS reports. You assign some points system and can have a leaderboard. Along with some nice bling animation each time they finish one. Off-the-cuff example, but it shows how the engagement a gamer has being applied to a goal for the company.No spatials needed, just taking the rules of the company / app and applying the fundamentals to them to encourage whatever the desired behavior is.

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  5. Because the default myspace layout is so vanilla, it offers a blank canvas for its users to express themselves. The more of a defined space that you create, the less room there is for users to create their own space.

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  6. I find it interesting that you look to Facebook, Myspace and Digg as examples… and not Second Life, There, etc.Maybe the parallels between the \”spatial\” and \”non-spatial\” communities are the link you\’re looking for?

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  7. Most people sit down with a game when they have time to waste – the same is often not the case with most websites

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  8. > But truth be told, I don\’t know if a rich theme is always a good idea for every application and every audience. Perhaps more importantly, I don\’t have the analytics tools (beyond some informed guesses) that would provide the insight necessary to make a good decision.A rich theme is always a bad idea for every application and every audience. I\’m actually very disappointed that you don\’t know this since you DO possess the analytics tool to solve this simple conundrum.What is a theme in your skill-chain model? A theme is an ocean of red herrings. An ocean of red herrings that will probably have nothing to do with the application and so will be distracting and cause interference. Put that way, themes are automatic losers.Furthermore, you\’ll recall what Chris Crawford said about learning. Metaphorical learning is strictly inferior learning. Only idiomatic learning is superior learning. What does that say about themes? Oh yeah, it says they\’re not idiomatic and so again they\’ve got to go.I also couldn\’t help but notice:> Whats fundamental to games is choice along two orthagonal cognitive dynamics, optimization and differentiation. Optimization drives people to learn and is generally a homogenous attractor, while differentiation drive people to aestheticize in ways that are different from other forms of aestheticization, and is a heterogenous attractor. Use principles like that, forget about spatiality.I hope you didn\’t buy into that crap. Plenty of people are driven by neither optimization nor differentiation. They just want to learn. And designers who think they can create skill chains with ever diminishing returns, just end up creating boring games. Of course, maybe I\’m only speaking about 1% of the population, who knows? But I\’m in that 1% and I resent not being recognized.

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  9. \”Game designers can point to Warcraft, Tomb Raider, Ultima, and Mario and practically any title except Tetris that setting is critical to success. We fixate on establishing a rich, unique world as the single most valuable element of a game\’s brand.\”Besides Tetris, another is Magic: The Gathering. (No rich, unique world. Just generic fantasy setting – so generic it\’s impossible to even describe.)

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  10. There\’s a popular argentinian site (taringa.net), which is basically a link sharing page (and almost a forum) with a twist: you get points for sharing stuff that is interesting to other users. I dont think this can be considered a game but surely uses one of the basic game concepts (scoring), and it works pretty well (according to alexa, its a top 1,000 page). This points are used for: 1) increase the quality of posts. Since there\’s a ranking and some people seem to be interested about being there, they try to get a pretty decent quality in the post, not only the information but even the presentation… because the better/more interesting your post is, the more points you might get for it2) eliminates most trolls. You cant even post in the main page until you\’ve reach a certain amount of points in the newbies pageThe points are born at the admins level, they are the ones that start distributing them down the tree. And since you can see who is giving points to you that might also somehow enforce the sense of community.

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