Playing With Complexity — slides and notes for my NLGD Festival of Games talk

When the NLGD Foundation invited me to speak at their anual Festival of Games I asked them what they would like me to discuss. “Anything you like,” was what they said, essentially. I decided to submit an abstract dealing with data visualization. I had been paying more and more attention to this field, but was unsuccessful in relating it the other themes running through my work, most notably play. So I thought I’d force myself to tackle this issue by promising to speak about it. Often a good strategy, I’ve found. If it worked out this time I leave for you to judge.

In brief, in the presentation I argue two things: one — that the more sophisticated applications of interactive data visualization resemble games and toys in many ways, and two — that game design can contribute to the solutions to several design issues I have detected in the field of data visualization.

Below are the notes for the talk, slightly edited, and with references included. The full deck of slides, which includes credits for all the images used, is up on SlideShare.

Hello everyone, my name is Kars Alfrink. I am a Dutch interaction designer and I work freelance. At the moment I work in Copenhagen, but pretty soon I will be back here in Utrecht, my lovely hometown.

In my work I focus on three areas: mobility, social interactions, and play. Here is an example of my work: These are storyboards that explore possible applications of multitouch technology in a gated community. Using these technologies I tried to compensate for the negative effects a gated community has on the build-up of social capital. I also tried to balance ‘being-in-the-screen’ with ‘being-in-the-world’ — multitouch technologies tend to be very attention-absorbing, but in built environments this is often not desirable.1

I am not going to talk about multitouch though. Today’s topic is data visualization and what opportunities there are for game designers in that field. My talk is roughly divided in three parts. First, I will briefly describe what I think data visualization is. Next, I will look at some applications beyond the very obvious. Third and last, I will discuss some design issues involved with data visualization. For each of these issues, I will show how game design can contribute.

Right, let’s get started.

Continue reading Playing With Complexity — slides and notes for my NLGD Festival of Games talk

  1. For more background on this project please see this older blog post. More examples of my recent work can be found in my portfolio. []

What should a casual MMOG feel like?

The prims are always greener by yhancik on Flickr

I’m finding myself in the starting phases of designing a casual MMOG (or virtual world, if you prefer that term). When I say design, I mean determining the structure and behaviour of the world — interaction design, in other words.

It’s an interesting challenge (and a significant change from designing mobile games, to say the least). I can’t think of a class of games that has the potential for more emergent phenomena, both social and economic. This is truly a second order design challenge.

Of course, the same old player needs still hold true, and tools and techniques such as scenarios and storyboards are just as useful here as in any other project. But the need for an iterative, test driven design and development process becomes hugely apparent once you start to think about all the effects you simply cannot design directly.

You might think I’m involved with a WoW– or SL-like endeavour. On the contrary! The aim of the project is to bring some of the unique pleasures of a virtual world to a mass (adult) audience.1 That means making the experience more casual, more short-session.

Our players will still want to feel related and socialise, but on their own terms. They’ll still want to feel autonomous and explore, but in short bursts of activity. They’ll still want to feel competent and achieve, but without having to make too huge an effort…

There’s plenty of movement in the space of casual, short-session MMOG’s. Some have dubbed them PMOGs — Passively Multiplayer Online Games — and focus on making them open systems that interact with daily life. I’m trying to imagine what — as a closed system — a casual MMO should feel like, what its aesthetics (PDF) need to be. What, in other words, would WoW or SL have turned out to be if Miyamoto-san had designed it?

  1. Plus some other more unique goals, that I won’t talk about just yet. []

UX and the aesthetics of interactivity

Tetris cookies

I’ve been trying to regularly post some thoughts on the topic of playful IA here. Previously I blogged about how games could be a useful frame for thinking about complex algorithmic architectures. Last week I posted some thoughts on the application of game mechanics in web apps. There, Rahul was kind enough to point me to the fascinating blog of ‘Danc’ Daniel Cook, titled Lost Garden, where there is one post in particular that resonates with my own pre-occupations lately.

In ‘Short thoughts on games and interaction design‘ (which honestly isn’t that short) Danc Cook looks at some of the ways game design techniques can be applied to the interaction design of web apps. In summary, according to Danc Cook game design techniques allow you to:

  1. Create an engaging experience that goes beyond simply completing a task efficiently.
  2. Support free and deep exploration and introduce and teach new interactions that violate conventions.

Some things you shouldn’t borrow from games without giving it a lot of thought are:

  1. Spatial metaphors
  2. Visual themes

These are some of the things most people think of first as characteristic of games but really, they are only surface, superficial, not determinant of the actual interactivity of the system.

I think one of the greatest arguments for a deeper understanding of games by interaction designers, information architects and other user experience specialists is that they are the medium that is all about the aesthetics of interactivity. It is true that they have no utilitarian character, they aim to create a pleasurable experience through systems of risks and rewards, restraints and freedoms, nested feedback loops and on and on. As a UX practitioner, it can never hurt to have a deep appreciation of the aesthetics of the medium you work in daily (beyond simply supporting user goals, or selling product, or whatever).