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. []

Summary of my Playful IAs argument

I thought I’d post a short summary of the argument I made in my Euro IA Summit 2007 talk, for those who weren’t there and/or are too lazy to actually go through the notes in the slides. The presentation is basically broken up into three parts:

  1. Future web environments are becoming so complex, they start to show emergent properties. In this context a lot of traditional IA practice doesn’t make sense anymore. Instead of directly designing an information space, you’re better off designing the rules that underly the generative construction of such spaces. In other words, IA is becoming a second order design problem.
  2. IAs tend to argue for the value of their designs based solely on how well they support users in achieving their end goals. I propose supporting experience goals is just as important. From there I try to make the case that any powerful experience is a playful one, where the user’s fun follows from the feeling that he or she is learning new stuff, is kicking ass, is in flow.
  3. Game design is not black magic (anymore). In recent years a lot has become understood about how games work. They are built up out of game mechanics that each follow a pattern of action, simulation, feedback and modelling. Designing playful IAs means taking care that you encourage discovery, support exploration and provide feedback on mastery.

Get the the slides, and a list of sources for the talk in this earlier post.

Playful IAs — slides for my Euro IA Summit 2007 talk

After a considerable amount of fiddling with SlideShare I’ve finally managed to upload a version of the slides that go with my Playful IAs presentation. This more or less as I presented it at the Euro IA Summit 2007 and includes an approximate transcript of my talk. I hope to get an audio/video recording of most of it in the near future as well. When I do I’ll update this page.

Update: I’ve posted a short summary of the central argument of my talk.

Download a version including an approximate transcript (14,5 MB).

I had some great reactions to this talk and I want to thank all the people who engaged with me in discussions afterwards. It’s given me a good picture of what areas I should develop further in future subsequent talks. I’m also pleasantly surprised to see that contrary to what some people think, the IA community (the European one at least) is very much open to new ideas. That’s really nice to experience firsthand.

A lot of people asked for a list of books and other good sources on the topics I covered. Here’s an incomplete list of stuff I’ve used at some stage to inform my thinking:

If that doesn’t keep you busy for a while, you could always have a dig through my links. There’s plenty of good stuff there. Of course of if you ever find anything you think would be of interest to me, do let me know. Just tag it for:kaeru.

Design challenges for short-session gaming

Screenshot of a particularly funny Elite Beat Agents sequence

I’ve just finished reading an excellent series of post by two video game journalists on the apparent revival of short-session games. (What’s not to love about an article that finishes by asserting that Desktop Tower Defense beats BioShock at its own mechanic?) It’ll be in tomorrow’s link post but here’s the link anyway. Being involved with a casual gaming project myself lately, I’ve spent a some time thinking about what the design challenges for this sub-genre are. In other words: what make short-session games hard to pull off? I think it breaks down to these things:

  1. You need to get the player in flow as soon as possible. This means you can’t bother him with lengthy intros (or even menus). It also means the game’s mechanics should be as self-explanatory as possible. I’m reminded of the first time I started up Elite Beat Agents the other day and was given a super-short tutorial on how to play the game, then was dumped into the action right away (this is good).
  2. No stories please. Short-session gaming forces you to design for play, not for narrative (as it should be, in my opinion). It’s about giving the player an engaging activity and interesting choices, nothing more.
  3. Traditional distribution models make no sense for small games. Luckily, we now have network connectivity on virtually all gaming devices (not to mention PCs and mobile phones). The wait is for an open platform for game developers to experiment on while at the same time being able to make a buck. But even now, networked marketplaces on consoles have encouraged experimentation.
  4. The visual layer does not have to be retro. Although most short-session game experiences remind us of the good old games from the beginning days of electronic gaming, there’s no reason why these games should look retro.
  5. Throw some of that processing at the rules, not the visuals. Short-session, small and simple don’t necessarily mean crude. Don’t go all-out on my 4th point’s visuals without forgetting about all the cool complex behaviours you can create with today’s processors.

There’s much more to think and talk about, but I think these are the highlights. Particularly getting people into flow ASAP and coupling this with interesting distribution mechanisms is I think worth some more discussion.

Reboot 9.0 day 2

(Waiting for my train home to arrive, I finally have the opportunity to post this.)

So with Reboot 9.0 and the after-party done, I think I’ll briefly write up my impressions of the second day.

Stowe Boyd – Good talk as always, offering a new definition of ‘flow’. I guess his attempt to have people open themselves up to the beneficial sides of being intermittently connected was a success.

Marko Ahtisaari – Interesting character with a good story to tell. His free mobile operator for teenagers scheme made a lot of people curious. (Free stuff always does that, it seems.)

Lee Bryant – Very fitting to the theme of human?, a touching story of how former inhabitants of a Bosnian town used social software to reconnect and rebuild the town.

Julian Bleecker – Cool stuff on new ways to interact with computing technology beyond the utilitarian and efficient, into the realm of play.

Dave Winer – An interesting character having a nice conversation with Thomas. I enjoyed his offbeat remarks and dry wit.

Guy Dickinson – Another round of micropresentations, this time with me participating. I stumbled several times. Next time I’ll prepare a custom talk for this. The other presenters were awesome.

Rasmus Fleischer and Magnus Eriksson – Two cool young anarchists with interesting ideas about file sharing and the future of music. Too bad large parts of their presentation were read from a sheet.

Leisa Reichelt – A carefully put together overview of ambient intimacy, what it is and what it’s for. Next step: coming up with design guidelines for these types of ‘tools’.

Matt Webb – Delivered on the expectations raised by his performances previous years. Interesting to see him move into experience design territory and hear his take on it. Very much applicable to my daily work in designing web services.

Dinner and the after-party were great (although it seemed that the reservations scheme had gone awry, they had no place for us at our chosen restaurant). I guess drinking and talking into the night at Vega with a lot of confused locals around was a fitting way to end another great Reboot.

Harmonious interfaces, martial arts and flow states

Screenshot of the game flOw

There’s been a few posts from the UX community in the recent past on flow states (most notably at 37signals’s Signal vs. Noise). This got me thinking about my own experiences of flow and what this tells me about how flow states could be induced with interfaces.

A common example of flow states is when playing a game (the player forgets she is pushing buttons on a game pad and is only mindful of the action at hand). I’ve experienced flow while painting but also when doing work on a PC (even when creating wireframes in Visio!) However, the most interesting flow experiences were while practising martial arts.

The interesting bit is that the flow happens when performing techniques in partner exercises or even fighting matches. These are all situations where the ‘system’ consists of two people, not one person and a medium mediated by an interface (if you’re willing to call a paint brush an interface that is).

To reach a state of flow in martial arts you need to stop thinking about performing the technique while performing it, but in stead be mindful of the effect on your partner and try to visualize your own movements accordingly. When flow happens, I’m actually able to ‘see’ a technique as one single image before starting it and while performing it I’m only aware of the whole system, not just myself.

Now here’s the beef. When you try to translate this to interface design, it’s clear that there’s no easy way to induce flow. The obvious approach, to create a ‘disappearing’ interface that is unobtrusive, minimal, etc. is not enough (it could even be harmful). In stead I’d like to suggest you need to make your game, software or site behave more like a martial arts fighter. It needs to push or give way according to the actions of it’s partner. You really need to approach the whole thing as an interconnected system where forces flow back and forth. Flow will happen in the user when he or she can work in a harmonious way. Usually this requires a huge amount of mental model adaptation on the user’s part… When will we create appliances that can infer the intentions of the user and change their stance accordingly? I’m not talking about AI here, but what I would like to see is stuff more along the lines of flOw.