Where social software should go next — Habitat’s lessons

MMOGs have not progressed since 1990. Neither has social software.

Well maybe a little, but not much. At least that’s what I’m lead to believe after reading another wonderful essay in The Game Design Reader—a book I like to dip into once in a while to read whatever catches my fancy.

In The Lessons of Lucasfilm’s Habitat1 Messrs Farmer and Morningstar share their experiences building possibly one of the first graphical MMOGs ever. The game’s front-end ran on a Commodore 64 and looked something like this:

Screenshot of Lucasfilm's Habitat

It’s striking how many of the lessons summed up by the authors have not been (fully) taken to heart by MMOG designers. Bitching aside, their article offers as much useful advice to game designers as to designers of any piece of social software. Since this post has grown unexpectedly long (again). I’ll sum them up here:

  • “The implementation platform is relatively unimportant.” — on loosely coupling a world’s conceptual model and its representation
  • “Detailed central planning is impossible; don’t even try.” — on relinquishing control as designers, co-design and evolutionary systems
  • “Work within the system.” — on facilitating world creation by players and moderation from within the world

Let’s look at each in more detail:

Loosely coupled

“The implementation platform is relatively unimportant.”

Meaning that how you describe the world and how you present it can or should be loosely coupled. The advantage of this is that with one world model you can serve clients with a wide range of (graphical) capabilities and scale into the future without having to change model. Their example is of a tree, which can be rendered to one user as a string of text: “There is a tree here.” And to another user as a rich high resolution 3D animated image accompanied by sound.

“And these two users might be looking at the same tree in the same place in the same world and talking to each other as they do so.”

When I read this I instantly thought of Raph Koster‘s Metaplace and wondered if the essay I was reading served as some sort of design guideline for it. What I understood from Raph’s GDC 2008 presentation2 was that they are trying to achieve exactly this, by applying the architectural model of the internet to the design of MMOGs.

Looking at social software in general, how many examples can you give of the current wave of social web apps that apply this principle? I’m reminded of Tom Coates’s Native to a Web of Data presentation—in which he argues that a service’s data should ideally be accessible through any number of channels.3

Similarly, web 2.0 poster child Dopplr is designed to be “a beautiful part of the web”, “a feature of a larger service, called the internet”.4 And they want to be everywhere, adding a little bit of value where it is most needed. Perhaps not exactly the same thing as what Farmer and Morningstar are alluding to, but based on similar principles.

As an aside, in MMOG land, there is one other major concern with this:

“Making the system fully distributed […] requires solving a number of difficult problems. The most significant of these is the prevention of cheating.”

Cheating might be of less concern to social software than to games (although there are exceptions, take Digg for example). For those interested in more about this, Raph Koster recently posted an elaborate examination of hacking and cheating in MMOGs.

Control, co-design, evolution

Cheating aside, there is more useful (albeit familiar) advice for social software designers in the piece. For instance on the need to hand over (part of) the control over the system’s design to its users:

“Again and again we found that activities based on often unconscious assumptions about player behaviour had completely unexpected outcomes (when they were not simply outright failures). “

They go on to say that they found it was more productive to work with the community:

“We could influence things, we could set up interesting situations, we could provide opportunities for things to happen, but we could not dictate the outcome. Social engineering is, at best, an inexact science […] we shifted into a style of operations in which we let the players themselves drive the direction of the design.”

Again, familiar advice perhaps, but they describe in some detail how they actually went about this, which makes for enlightening reading. That this practice of co-design goes against ‘common’ software development practices is not left unaddressed either:

“[…] the challenge posed by large systems are prompting some researchers to question the centralized, planning dominated attitude that we have criticized here, and to propose alternative approaches based on evolutionary and market principles. These principles appear applicable to complex systems of all types […]”

(Emphasis mine.) I am intrigued by this evolutionary model of web development. In the abstract for Movement, Matt Webb writes:

“the Web in 2008 has some entirely new qualities: more than ever it’s an ecology of separate but highly interconnected services. Its fiercely competitive, rapid development means differentiating innovations are quickly copied and spread. Attention from users is scarce. The fittest websites survive.

(Again, emphasis mine.) I think the challenge that now lies before us is to not only as designers practice co-design with our users, but to go one step further, and encode rules for autonomous evolution into our systems. These are the adaptive systems I’ve been blogging about recently. An important note is that systems can adapt to individual users, but also—in the case of social software—to aggregate behaviour of user groups.5

This can be extended to a world’s governance. Here is one of the ideas I find most exciting in the context of social software, one I have seen very few examples of so far.

“[…] our view is that a virtual world need not be set up with a “default” government, but can instead evolve as needed.”

I cannot think of one MMOG that is designed to allow for a model of governance to emerge from player interactions. The best example I can think of from the world of social software is this article by Tom Coates at the Barbelith wiki. Barbelith is a somewhat ‘old school’ online community comprised of message boards (remember those?). In the piece (titled TriPolitica) he writes:

“Imagine a message board with three clear identities, colour-schemes and names. Each has a generic set of basic initial forums on a clearly defined range of subjects (say – Politics / Science / Entertainment). Each forum starts with a certain structure – one Monarchic, one Parliamentary Democracy and one Distributed Anarchy. All the rules that it takes to run each community have been sufficiently abstracted so that they can be turned on or off at will BY the community concerned. Moreover, the rules are self-reflexive – ie. the community can also create structures to govern how those rules are changed. This would operate by a bill-like structure where an individual can propose a new rule or a change to an existing rule that then may or may not require one or more forms of ratification. There would be the ability to create a rule governing who could propose a new bill, how often and what areas it might be able to change or influence.”

He goes on to give examples of how this would work—what user types you’d need and what actions would need to be available to those users. I’m pretty sure this was never implemented at Barbelith (which, by the way, is a fun community to browse through if you’re into counter cultural geekery). Actually, I’m pretty sure I know of no online space that has a system like this in place. Any interaction designers out there who are willing to take up the gauntlet?

Creativity, moderation

“Work within the system.”

This is the final lesson offered in the essay I’d like to look at, one that is multifaceted. On the one hand, Messrs Farmer and Morningstar propose that world building should be part of the system itself (and therefore accessible to regular players):

“One of the goals of a next generation Habitat-like system ought to be to permit far greater creative involvement by the participants without requiring them to ascend to full-fledged guru-hood to do so.”

And, further on:

“This requires finding ways to represent design and creation of regions and objects as part of the underlying fantasy.”

I do not think a MMOG has achieved this in any meaningful sense so far. Second Life may offer world creation tools to users, but they are far from accessible, and certainly not part of the “underlying fantasy”. In web based social software, suspension of disbelief is of less concern. It can be argued that Flickr for instance successfully offers world creation at an accessible level. Each Flickr user contributes to the photographic tapestry that is the Flickr ‘photoverse’. Wikipedia, too offers relatively simple tools for contribution, albeit text based. In the gaming sphere, there are examples such as SFZero, a Collaborative Production Game, in which players add tasks for others to complete, essentially collaboratively creating the game with the designers.

Like I said, the lesson “work within the system” applies to more than one aspect. The other being moderation. The authors share an amusing anecdote about players exploiting a loop hole introduced by new characters and objects (the players gained access to an unusually powerful weapon). The anecdote shows that it is always better to moderate disputes within the shared fantasy of the world, in stead of making use of external measures that break the player’s suspension of disbelief. Players will consider the latter cheating on the part of administrators:

“Operating within the participants’ world model produced a very satisfactory result. On the other hand, what seemed like the expedient course, which involved violating this model, provoked upset and dismay.”

Designers should play with users, not against them. This applies to social software on the web equally. It is this attitude that sets Flickr apart from many other online communities. Flickr‘s designers understand the principle of “operating within the participants’ world model”. For example, look at how they handled confusion and irritation around the last Talk Like A Pirate Day gag.6


In summary, dear reader, if you got this far, I would love to see examples of social software that:

  • Are accessible in a number of ‘representations’
  • Are co-designed with users, or better yet, apply evolutionary principles to its design
  • Allow users to develop their own model of governance
  • Allow users to easily add to the system, in an integrated way
  • Are moderated from within the system

If you—like me—can’t think of any, perhaps it’s time to build some?

Image credits: © 1986 LucasArts Entertainment Company.

  1. The essay can be read online over here. []
  2. More about my GDC 2008 experiences. []
  3. This principle is now being applied to the extreme in Yahoo!’s Fire Eagle. []
  4. The former quote I first encountered in Matt Jones’s presentation RuleSpace, the latter is from this BBC article on Reboot 9.0. []
  5. For more on aggregating user behaviour in social software also see Greater than the sum of its parts by Tom Coates (yes him again). []
  6. Tom Armitage has some good thoughts on the Talk Like A Pirate Day debacle. []

Game player needs and designing architectures of participation

How do you create a corporate environment in which people share knowledge out of free will?1 This is a question my good friends of Wemind2 are working to answer for their clients on a daily basis.3 We’ve recently decided to collaboratively develop methods useful for the design of a participatory context in the workplace. Our idea is that since knowledge sharing is essentially about people interacting in a context, we’ll apply interaction design methods to the problem. Of course, some methods will be more suited to the problem than others, and all will need to be made specific for them to really work. That’s the challenge.

Naturally I will be looking for inspiration in game design theory. This gives me a good reason to blog about the PENS model. I read about this in an excellent Gamasutra article titled Rethinking Carrots: A New Method For Measuring What Players Find Most Rewarding and Motivating About Your Game. The creators of this model4 wanted to better understand what fundamentally motivates game players as well as come up with a practical play testing model. What they’ve come up with is intriguing: They’ve demonstrated that to offer a fun experience, a game has to satisfy certain basic human psychological needs: competence, autonomy and relatedness.5

I urge anyone interested in what makes games work their magic to read this article. It’s really enlightening. The cool thing about this model is that it provides a deeper vocabulary for talking about games.6 In the article’s conclusion the authors note the same, and point out that by using this vocabulary we can move beyond creating games that are ‘mere’ entertainment. They mention serious games as an obvious area of application, I can think of many more (3C products for instance). But I plan on applying this understanding of game player needs to the design of architectures of participation. Wish me luck.

  1. Traditionally, sharing knowledge in large organisations is explicitly rewarded in some way. Arguably true knowledge can only be shared voluntarily. []
  2. Who have been so kind to offer me some free office space, Wi-Fi and coffee since my arrival in Copenhagen. []
  3. They are particularly focused on the value of social software in this equation. []
  4. Scott Rigby and Richard Ryan of Immersyve []
  5. To nuance this, the amount to which a player expects each need to be satisfied varies from game genre to genre. []
  6. Similar to the work of Koster and of Salen & Zimmerman. []

Work with me in Copenhagen (or where-ever)

Panorama of Copenhagen harbour

Now that I’m over three months into my stay in Copenhagen I thought it would be good to post a short update. Here are the facts, bullet-wise (with apologies to Mr. Tufte):

  • I have been in Copenhagen, Denmark since July 1st 2007
  • Until now I have mostly been working on Playyoo, doing interaction and game design
  • I also presented on Playful IAs at the Euro IA Summit in Barcelona
  • No later than July 1st 2008, I will return to Utrecht, the Netherlands
  • Yes, I intend to continue freelancing when I get back (I officially left Info.nl on October 1st 2007)
  • I am available for freelance interaction design gigs that involve social media, mobile technology and/or gaming
  • You can also invite me to speak at your event or company, particularly on the topic of applying game design principles to the user experience of products and services

Oh and of course, if you happen to be in Copenhagen, don’t hesitate to drop me a line when you feel like going out for some drinks!

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 del.icio.us 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.

The toy-like nature of social media

A Barbie doll

I’ve been meaning to write about this for quite a while: I think a lot of social media are like toys. I think what we see with people (adults!) using them is a lot like the open-ended play we know from playground games in school. A lot of these games are about exploring (the possibilities of) social relationships in a ‘safe’ context. Social media offer this same potential. In playground games there is a natural understanding that what happens within the magic circle of the game is not really real (but the notion is blurred.) A lot of discussion about the virtuality of relationships in social media does not acknowledge the existence of such a thing: Either the relationship you have with someone is real (he’s a real friend, or even real family) or not, in which case the relationship is often seen as value-less. I’d argue that a lot of people use social media to explore the potential of a relationship in a more or less safe way, to later either transition it into realness or not (note that I do not mean it needs to be taken offline into meat-space to make it real!)

I think social media are so compelling to so many people for this reason. They allow them to play with the very stuff social relations are made of. I think this fascination is universal and virtually timeless. At the same time I think the notion of using social play as the stuff of entertainment has seen a tremendous rise over the past decade. (I tend to illustrate this point with the rise of reality TV.)

If you think of the design of social software as the design of a toy (in contrast to thinking of it as a game) you can design for open-ended play. Meaning there is no need for a quantifiable end-state where one person (or a number of people) are said to be the winner. You can however create multiple feedback mechanisms that communicate potential goals to be pursued to the player. Amy Jo Kim has a worthwhile presentation on the kind of game mechanics to use in such a case (and also in the more game-like case.)

Finally, two things to think about and design for:

  1. Play in social media happens according to rules encoded in the software, but also very much following external rules that players agree upon amongst themselves.
  2. You will have people gaming te game. Meaning, there will be players who are interested in creating new external rules for social interactions. Think of the alternative rules players enforce in games of street soccer, for instance.

Update: Just thought this small quote of Michal Migurski defending the recent Twitter Blocks nicely complements my argument:

“There are plenty of but-useless things in the world that serve as emotional bonding points, amusements, attractions, and macguffins. Practically all of social media falls under this category for me, a form of mediated play that requires a suspension of disbelief in rational purpose to succeed.”

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.

Social — second of five IA Summit 2007 themes

(Here’s the second post on the 2007 IA Summit. You can find the first one that introduces the series and describes the first theme ‘tangible’ here.)

The recent web revival, that I will not name, pushed one trend to the forefront – social software. The most challenging aspect of designing social sites and applications is that you’re not ‘just’ designing for single users, but also for groups as a whole. The IA community is still in the beginning phases of creating a body of knowledge about how to best go about this.

Andrew Hinton gave one of the best talks of the event, first describing the unique properties of network-like communities of practice and how to design for them. From there he made the point that IA itself is a community of practice, not a formal discipline, which means it should try to stay open and flexible.

Bonus: Gene Smith took a stab at the building blocks of social information architectures and came up with this nice model.

Mobile Social Play — my Reboot 9.0 proposal


I’ve just submitted my proposal for a talk at Reboot 9.0. It’s on the three areas I am most fascinated with at the moment: mobile, social software and gaming/play. After attending this great conference twice it’d be really cool to get the opportunity to present there.1

Take a look at it and let me know what you think2, I’d love to get some feedback up-front so I can maybe work that in there. What do you want to know about this topic?

Curious what this might be like? Take a look at the Pecha Kucha I delivered on mobile gaming for a taste of what’s to come.

  1. If it doesn’t work out I can always turn it into a micro presentation.
  2. If you like it, vote it up!

Using concept models to design for the web of data

Flickr concept model by mApplogic

I’m lucky enough to be doing some concepting and interaction design work for a social web site. This presented me with the opportunity to integrate some stuff I found while reading on social software, and the web as platform/network. Here’s how I’ve been integrating some of it.

I was inspired by the concept model of the Flickr ecosystem I saw in Luke Wroblewski’s presentation on social interaction design (which was done by Bryce Glass) to try and create one myself. Coincidentally there’s a whole chapter in Dan Brown’s book (which Peter was smart enough to purchase and was lying around the office) on creating concept models.

One of the things I wanted to do is make the site play nice with the web of data. To that end, I decided to apply Tom Coates’ 3 basic page types to the design of the site. So what I did was first create a concept model (of course following some research of the site’s business and user goals) and then look at the nouns and verbs in the model. For each noun I created a single object view page and a list view page. For each verb I created a manipulation interface page. Of course, all list type pages would get RSS feeds in the eventual site.

For instance if you have a model that states ‘Reviewer rates Book’ then you’d end up with a page for each reviewer and book, a page to list reviewers, a page to list books and a manipulation interface for rating a book.

Doing this resulted in a nice list of pages that I could then analyse for completeness and/or redundancy. Of course this only works if your concept model accurately reflects what the site should achieve. If your model sucks, your list of pages will too.

Another caveat lies in the fact that a concept model tends to be very effective for mapping the functional aspects of a site, but not very suitable for creating an overview of its content (which is often more push oriented). If the kind of site you’re creating involves more information architecture than interaction design you might want to do some additional content inventory work and fold that into the page list.

One last challenge would be organizing these pages in a coherent whole (beyond coupling lists to single items to interfaces). I can imagine I’d attempt some card sorting to achieve that.

Finally, for creating the concept model I used the specialized (and free) tool CmapTools which is pretty nice in that it goes beyond visually modelling the concepts but actually tracking the statements you implicitly make when linking concepts to each other.

Anyone else have experience with trying to integrate some of the stuff Coates was talking about in their design of a site?

Surprises in Animal Crossing: Wild World


So I’ve been playing AC: WW for over a weeks now and I must say it has lived up to my expectations. It’s a cute and quirky game that does not follow conventional game design rules. There is no way to die, no (real) way to loose or even win. In a sense it’s more like a toy than a game; you can play with it endlessly, there is no goal to reach (apart from discovering all it’s little secrets).


One of those secrets was particularly fun to discover. After a few days of play I convinced my girlfriend to give it a try. So she put the cartridge in her pink DS Lite. While I was cooking dinner, she went through the beginning stages (driving to the town in a taxi, getting a job with Tom Nook). A bit later, I picked it up again and went about my business (I think it was fishing, I still have a large loan to pay off after the first house expansion).

After a while I went back into the house and found (shock! horror!) a bunch of cockroaches running around my carefully kempt interior. “We have cockroaches!” I shouted to my girlfriend while running around the house trying to squash them. The apparent source was some apples lying around. “Didn’t the animals tell you don’t leave stuff lying around the house?” I asked her. They had, but where should she put them (the apples) otherwise? Good point.

We had a good laugh after that episode. Be careful who you play this game with; it might be a challenge living together in the real world – Animal Crossing is no different! But the real genius of the game is in these things. It’s a rules based world for sure (leave apples around the house, get cockroaches) but the mini-narratives that it allows you to build in this way is crazy.


Another example is the letters I find myself writing to the animals. I’m sure they’d be happy with any kind of letter, as long as I mention some specific words maybe (like ‘happy’ and ‘friend’). In stead, I’m writing fully formed sentences, and include little details that would be appreciated by real people. In that way, it’s allowing for subtle role-playing.


On the subject of role-playing (and there not being a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ way to play the game); I know I should be hard at work paying off the aforementioned loan (to progress to the next ‘level’). But in stead I find myself spending a lot of time and money on present for the animals, and donations to the museum. That might be role-playing (or that might be my real personality influencing what I find pleasurable in the game) but the coolest bit is that it doesn’t matter; any way of playing is valid.

Have any other people had similar experiences with the game? Are there ways to apply this logic (the patterns inherent in the game) to other domains?

Some closing links: