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. []

Space to play

Tree by Pocketmonsterd on Flickr

The languages you’ve mastered shape your thinking. Nouns, verbs, adjectives…if you think of your day-to-day interactions on the web it’s clear the language you’re using is (very) limited. Does that limit your range of thoughts, and the things you’re able to express? Certainly, I’d say.

A quote from an old Ben Cerveny bio found in the Doors of Perception museum:

‘Cerveny is interested in harnessing the computational power of platforms like Playstation2 to create simulations with basic rule-sets that allow complexities to emerge, forming patterns of behaviour and interaction that people instinctively parse. He believes that this essential human ability to find patterns in complex systems remains untapped by current “click on the smiley face to buy our product” interfaces. “There is a certain algorithmic lightness to a basic ruleset, like that of the game Go,” he argues. “Especially as it replaces a top-down specification for human-computer interactions.”‘

That was in 2001. Game-like interactions have the potential for expanding your thinking. Stamen—where I’m told Cerveny is spending part of his time—is doing this with datasets.

Recently, I’ve been asked by several people to come up with concrete examples for my “playful” shtick. I’m worried that people expect stuff that makes a typical UI more playful. Like a sauce. That’s never been my intention.

The examples I’m considering (which I intend to describe as patterns) are of a more structural kind. When I point to emergent behaviour in games, I’m not kidding—the idea here is to allow for surprising results. Results that you as a designer have not foreseen. Space to play. That’s what sets the typical web interaction apart from something like Digg Labs.

“Play is free movement within a more rigid structure”. There is (almost) no free movement in your typical web app. That’s why I would not call it playful. These apps are designed to fit predefined user scenarios and evaluated based on how well they support them. No surprise they turn out boring in stead of fun.

However: Not every web app has to be playful, because not every web app is trying to teach you something.

In DOET Norman writes on p.124:

“What are not everyday activities? Those with wide and deep structures, the ones that require considerable conscious planning and thought, deliberate trial and error: trying first this approach, then that—backtracking. Unusual tasks include […] intellectual games: bridge, chess, poker, crossword puzzles, and so on.”1

So that’s why I believe much of the foundations of human-centered design are not applicable to playful experiences—the teachings of Norman are aimed at everyday activities. The activities that are not aimed at making you smarter, at giving you new insights.

On the web (and in computing in general) we’ve moved beyond utility. If we keep designing stuff using methods derived from Donald Norman’s2 (and other’s) work, we’ll never get to playful experiences.

  1. Norman has a blind spot for digital games, although he does include a NES as an example in his book. About this he admits he made “a few attempts to master the game” (p.138). []
  2. I’ll be speaking at a conference that has Mr. Norman as keynote speaker. I mean no disrespect. []