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?

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Kars Alfrink

Kars is a designer, researcher and educator focused on emerging technologies, social progress and the built environment.

3 thoughts on “Mirroring mental models — games modelling players”

  1. We’re def­i­nite­ly way ahead of the games indus­try in regard to “Web 2.0” style social think­ing. Con­cepts as straight­for­ward as tag­ging haven’t even real­ly been tak­en advan­tage of yet. I’m excit­ed about Lit­tleBig­Plan­et and Spore because these are the two “rev­o­lu­tion­ary” con­tent mod­els that reflect ele­ments of design I’m very famil­iar with. Cer­tain­ly Spore’s “mas­sive­ly sin­gle­play­er” approach is very inter­est­ing; I’d like to take some ele­ments from Spore, such as pro­ce­dur­al con­tent, and see how those could work in the web space. The games indus­try has always act­ed a bit tra­di­tion­al com­pared to web but that’s prob­a­bly because game devel­op­ers cre­ate soft­ware that is pub­lished once and infre­quent­ly changed after launch, where­as we have to deal with the con­se­quences (and advan­tages) of ship­ping things that need to be tweaked eter­nal­ly after­wards. Game devel­op­ers also have a hard time com­mu­ni­cat­ing direct­ly with their audi­ence; you can’t solic­it feed­back direct­ly from the play­er with­in your game and I think it’s some­thing some­one ought to start get­ting around to doing. Spore does this in its game­play by allow­ing you to manip­u­late the uni­verse, but that’s not real­ly a les­son from the web, it’s a les­son from the Sims.

    I’m not very good at sum­maris­ing thoughts like this in phras­es like “men­tal mod­els” but I like the way you’re think­ing. Do you think you could make a copy of the pre­sen­ta­tion avail­able here? I’d love to take a look at it.

  2. Pro­ce­dur­al gen­er­a­tion is one of the aspects of Spore that I find very inter­est­ing as well. It would be an inter­est­ing exper­i­ment to see how that tech­nique can be applied to web spaces…

    I agree the major­i­ty of the games indus­try is quite con­ser­v­a­tive when it comes to active­ly involv­ing play­ers as co-pro­duc­ers. Most of the exam­ples out there are quite limited.

    I will be pub­lish­ing the pre­sen­ta­tion slides (includ­ing notes) and hope­ful­ly a record­ing on this blog after the sum­mit. I’ll be very inter­est­ed to hear your comments.

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