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. []

Notes on play, exploration, challenge and learning

(My reading notes are piling up so here’s an attempt to clear out at least a few of them.)

Part of the play experience of many digital games is figuring out how the damn thing works in the first place. In Rules of Play on page 210:

“[…] as the player plays with FLUID, interaction and observation reveals the underlying principles of the system. In this case the hidden information gradually revealed through play is the rules of the simulation itself. Part of the play of FLUID is the discovery of the game rules as information.”

(Sadly, I could not find a link to the game mentioned.)

I did not give Donald Norman all the credit he was due in my earlier post. He doesn’t have a blind spot for games. Quite the contrary. For instance, he explains how to make systems easier to learn and points to games in the process. On page 183 of The Design of Everyday Things:

“One important method of making systems easier to learn and to use is to make them explorable, to encourage the user to experiment and learn the possibilities through active exploration.”

The way to do this is through direct manipulation, writes Norman. He also reminds us that it’s not necessary to make any system explorable.1 But (on page 184):

“[…] if the job is critical, novel, or ill-specified, or if you do not yet know exactly what is to be done, then you need direct, first-person interaction.”

So much written after DOET seems to have added little to the conversation. I’m surprised how useful this classic still is.

I’m reminded of a section of Matt Jones’s Interaction 08 talk—which I watched yesterday. He went through a number of information visualisations and said he’d like to add more stuff like that into Dopplr, to allow people to play with their data. He even compared this act of play to Will Wright’s concept of possibility space.2 He also briefly mentioned that easily accessible tools for creating information visualisations might become a valuable tool for designers working with complex sets of data.

Norman actually points to games for inspiration, by the way. On page 184 just before the previous quote:

“Some computer systems offer direct manipulation, first-person interactions, good examples being the driving, flying, and sports games that are commonplace in arcades and on home machines. In these games, the feeling of direct control over the actions is an essential part of the task.”

And so on.

One of the most useful parts of Dan Saffer’s book on interaction design is where he explains the differences between customisation, personalisation, adaptation and hacking. He notes that an adaptive system can be designed to induce flow—balancing challenge with the skill of the user. In games, there is something called dynamic difficulty adjustment (DDA) which has very similar aims.

Salen and Zimmerman have their doubts about DDA though. In Rules of Play on page 223 they write:

“Playing a game becomes less like learning an expressive language and more like being the sole audience member for a participatory, improvisational performance, where the performers adjust their actions to how you interact with them. Are you then playing the game, or is it playing you?”

Perhaps, but it all depends on what DDA actually adjusts. The technique might be objectionable in a game (where a large part of the point is overcoming challenge) but in other systems many of these objections do not apply.

“With a successful adaptive design, the product fits the user’s life and environment as though it were custom made.”

(Designing for Interaction, page 162.)

Adaptive systems explicitly anticipate transformative play. They allow themselves to be changed through a person’s interactions with it.3

A characteristic of good interaction design is playfulness, writes Mr. Saffer in his book on page 67:

“Through serious play, we seek out new products, services and features and then try them to see how they work. How many times have you pushed a button just to see what it did?”

The funny thing is, the conditions for play according to Saffer are very similar to some of the basic guidelines Norman offers: Make users feel comfortable, reduce the chance for errors and if errors do occur, make sure the consequences are small—by allowing users to undo, for instance.

Mr. Norman writes that in games “designers deliberately flout the laws of understandability and usability” (p.205). Although even in games: “[the] rules [of usability] must be applied intelligently, for ease of use or difficulty of use” (p.208).

By now, it should be clear making interactions playful is very different from making them game-like.

  1. Apparently, “explorable” isn’t a proper English word, but if it’s good enough for Mr. Norman it’s good enough for me. []
  2. I blogged about possibility space before here. []
  3. Yes, I know I blogged about adaptive design before. Also about flow and adaptation, it seems. []