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.

Mirroring mental models — games modelling players

Will Wright demoing Spore at TED 2007

Today I sent in the slides of my Euro IA Summit presentation for the proceedings. The rough outline of my talk is done, the most important thing now is to find the proper examples to illustrate all the fuzzy theoretical thinking. That means (at least for me) doing a lot of Flickr photo searches. This time I’ll also be experimenting with using some short video-clips. Games are better seen in motion after all (and best experienced through play of course). Chronicling my thinking on the subject of playful IAs on this blog has been very helpful in organising my thoughts by the way, I’ll definitely try it again the next time I need to do a talk.

On mental models

One idea I managed to squeeze into the presentation in addition to the stuff I’ve been blogging about so far is about mental models. I think it was Ben Cerveny who mentioned in his Reboot 7.0 talk (MP3) that some of the pleasure of playing games is derived from the gradual mental model building a player goes through. The player uses the visual layer of a game to learn about the underlying structures. When a player masters a game, the visual layer more or less fades away and becomes a symbolic landscape through which he manipulates a far richer model of the game in his mind.

From a UX perspective because usually when designing web sites and apps we try to adhere to existing mental models as much as possible to prevent confusion and frustration. This is a very valid approach of course. However, regardless of how well done the UX design, there will always be some mental modelling on the user’s part. Best make this as engaging as possible I guess. This, again, is where games come in.

Will Wright acknowledges the fact that players build models of a game but he proposes to take it one step further. In an old(ish) talk at Accelerating Change 2004 he proposed the idea that a game can construct a model of the player as well. Parallels with online recommendation engines are apparent here. As Wright points out, in games (as in web environments) everything can be measured. This way, the experience can be tailored to a player/user. He’s applying this principle in the upcoming Spore, where game content (created by other players) is dynamically included based on inferred player preferences.

It can be argued that certain web professionals are way ahead of the games industry in this field. Perhaps there are some interesting opportunities for collaboration or career moves here?

Possibility spaces and algorithmic architectures

A screenshot of Sim City.

One of the concepts I plan on exploring in my talk at the Euro IA Summit in Barcelona is ‘possibility spaces’. It’s a term used by Will Wright to describe his view of what a game can be – a space that offers multiple routes and outcomes to its explorer. That idea maps nicely with one definition of play that Zimmerman and Salen offer in Rules of Play: ‘free movement within a rigid structure’. Some examples of possibility spaces created by Wright are the well-known games Sim City and The Sims.

I think the idea of possibility spaces can help IAs to get a firmer grip on ways to realize information spaces that are multi-dimensional and (to use a term put forward by Jesse James Garrett) algorithmic. Algorithmic architectures according to Garrett are created ‘on the fly’ based on a set of rules (algorithms) that get their input (ideally) from user behaviour. The example he uses to explain this concept is Amazon.

I’ve found myself in several projects recently that would have benefited from an algorithmic approach. The hard thing is to explain its charms to clients and to get a unified vision of what it means across to the design team. I believe games might be a useful analogy. What do you think?

Spatial metaphors in IA and game design

Looking at dominant metaphors in different design disciplines I’m in some way involved in, it’s obvious to me that most are spatial (no surprises there). Here’s some thoughts on how I think this is (or should be) changing. Information architecture tends to approach sites as information spaces (although the web 2.0 hype has brought us a few ‘new’ ones, on which more later.) I do a lot of IA work. I have done quite a bit of game design (and am re-entering that field as a teacher now.) Some of the designers in that field I admire the most (such as Molyneux and Wright) approach games from a more or less spatial standpoint too (and not a narrative perspective, like the vast majority do). I think it was Molyneux who said games are a series of interesting choices. Wright tends to call games ‘possibility spaces’, where a player can explore a number of different solutions to a problem, more than one of which can be viable.

I don’t think I’m going anywhere in particular here, but when looking at IA again, as I just said, the field is currently coming to terms with new ways of looking at the web and web sites; the web as a network, web as platform, the web of data, and so on. Some of these might benefit from a more procedural, i.e. game design-like, stance. I seem to remember Jesse James Garrett giving quite some attention to what he calls ‘algorithmic architecture’ (using Amazon as an example) where the IA is actually creating something akin to a possibility space for the user to explore.

Perhaps when we see more cross-pollination between game design and information architecture and interaction design for the web, we’ll end up with more and more sites that are not only more like desktop applications (the promise of RIA’s) but also more like games. Wouldn’t that be fun and interesting?