Game design is ‘just’ specialised interaction design

First of all my best wish­es to you for 2008. It’s been a bit qui­et around here lately—the last prop­er post was pub­lished Decem­ber 19. Shame on me. The usu­al apolo­gies apply: I’ve been busy doing work, but also spend some time catch­ing up with friends and fam­i­ly in the Nether­lands around the hol­i­days.

I was con­sid­er­ing doing the tra­di­tion­al look back at 2007 and per­haps post some res­o­lu­tions for the com­ing year, but I won’t. 2007 has segued into 2008. There­fore I feel it’s best to just dive in and tell you what’s been occu­py­ing my mind late­ly.

How exact­ly do the fields of game design and inter­ac­tion design relate? I’ve found myself strad­dling the line between the two more and more often. And what I’ve been won­der­ing: Can game design be con­sid­ered a spe­cialised sub-dis­ci­pline of inter­ac­tion design, or are the two equals with some over­lap? (Or can inter­ac­tion design per­haps even be con­sid­ered part of game design?)

Here’s a dia­gram of how I tend to think of the rela­tion­ship between the two fields:

Venn diagram of IxD and GD as equals with some overlap

Seen this way, inter­ac­tion design and game design each have their own body of knowl­edge with some over­lap. From this per­spec­tive you could con­sid­er my work to be bro­ker­ing of some sort—passing infor­ma­tion back and forth between the two. I tend to place myself in the inter­ac­tion design cir­cle, mak­ing the occa­sion­al for­ay into game design ter­ri­to­ry and bring­ing back inter­est­ing stuff I find.

But there’s at least one oth­er way of look­ing at these two fields:

Venn diagram of GD as part of IxD

I was trained to be an inter­ac­tion design­er. But part of the cur­ricu­lum con­sist­ed of game design. Nowa­days inter­ac­tion design’s empha­sis on effi­cien­cy nat­u­ral­ly makes it irrec­on­cil­able with game design. At the Utrecht School of Arts, these two were not seen as being at odds with each oth­er. You can con­sid­er this a gross over­sight, or alter­na­tive­ly as proof of a far-reach­ing vision. What­ev­er.

In any case, it can be argued that (dig­i­tal) game design is sim­ply a very spe­cialised sub-dis­ci­pline of inter­ac­tion design. This is not to say it is in any way less valu­able than ‘reg­u­lar’ inter­ac­tion design. How­ev­er, it might help peo­ple in both fields to advance their prac­tice if they look at each oth­er this way. Which is more or less a sum­ma­ry of what I’ve been argu­ing ever since I went free­lance last year.

The prob­lem is of course that in real­i­ty the two fields—or to be more exact the two com­mu­ni­ties of prac­tice—are very much sep­a­rate from each oth­er. I’ve been try­ing to make some change there, in my own lit­tle way.

On the oth­er hand this might just be me try­ing to jus­ti­fy my inter­est in game design as an inter­ac­tion design­er…

But per­haps there’s some­thing more than just pro­fes­sion­al guilt at play here. I’m not sure yet. Some obser­va­tions that might sup­port one or the oth­er view:

  • Although their def­i­n­i­tion of games is very exact, Salen & Zim­mer­man’s def­i­n­i­tion of play is broad­er: “Play is free move­ment with­in a more rigid struc­ture.” Isn’t that an apt descrip­tion of what peo­ple do with any­thing inter­ac­tive?
  • The Inter­ac­tion Design Asso­ci­a­tion defines inter­ac­tion design on their site and says it con­cerns: “the struc­ture and behav­ior of inter­ac­tive prod­ucts and ser­vices”. Sure­ly that includes dig­i­tal games?
  • I don’t have the book with me at the moment, but I seem to remem­ber Koster men­tion some­thing about game design ulti­mate­ly being about putting peo­ple in touch with each oth­er. Sounds like inter­ac­tion design to me.

In any case, as long as I need 400+ words to explain why I want to do both inter­ac­tion design and game design, I’ll be in trou­ble. Can you boil it down for me?

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Kars Alfrink

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

15 thoughts on “Game design is ‘just’ specialised interaction design”

  1. Inter­est­ing thoughts. I sup­port you view that game design and inter­ac­tion design are very alike. Or bet­ter said, can­not live with­out eachother. As you know, in our prin­ci­ples of the vir­tu­al warmth and asyn­chrone inter­ac­tion mod­el it is impor­tant to design in dif­fer­ent way; shap­ing sto­ries, script­ing expe­ri­ences in stead of design­ing struc­tures. This is espe­cial­ly impor­tant in the design of social sys­tems I think. I nev­er designed a game but I expect that the way you need to think about these, will be a good way to design mod­ern inter­ac­tive appli­ca­tions. So I don’t think that game design is part of IxD, or a spe­cial­ized form, but inter­ac­tion design will evolve to a new form were the prin­ci­ples of game design will be a impor­tant inspi­ra­tion and asset.

    So I hope you’re preach­ing will be heard. And you can be a role mod­el for the new inter­ac­tion design­er. If it is pos­si­ble to trans­late your expe­ri­ences into new guide­lines and meth­ods, you can con­tribute a lot to the IxD-dis­ci­pline. Keep me post­ed!

  2. Thanks for com­ment­ing Raph. “Games are made out of mak­ing choic­es aka Inter­ac­tion Design” I’d seen the talk but had com­plete­ly for­got­ten about it. If you’re still fol­low­ing along, here’s a ques­tion: When design­ing a game gram­mar (or skill chain, or what­ev­er you want to call it) would you start with the low­est or high­est lev­el atoms?

    And thanks to Iskan­der for the decid­ed­ly dif­fer­ent view: “inter­ac­tion design will evolve to a new form were the prin­ci­ples of game design will be a impor­tant inspi­ra­tion”. It seems I real­ly need to start com­ing up with some tech­niques for apply­ing these ideas. Per­haps that’ll be 2008’s mis­sion.

  3. I recent­ly devel­oped the idea that in Game design the Real World plays a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent role than in inter­ac­tion design, this was root­ed by the dif­fer­ent cul­tures of inter­ac­tion and game design stu­dents.. For me you were one of the stu­dents with strong roots in the real world, and maybe the exp­cep­tion on the rule..

  4. Gee thanks Joost, I con­sid­er that a com­pli­ment. To be hon­est I think that there’s a lot of things in the real world left unex­plored by game design. All kinds of activ­i­ties can be turned into games. This would broad­en the appeal of games as well. If I can con­tribu­tie to that in some way, I’ll be more than hap­py.

  5. By name, game design includes all social activ­i­ties, as they can be con­sid­ered “games”. The real issue is what “inter­ac­tion design” con­tains already, and whether that relates use­ful­ly to mak­ing com­put­er enter­tain­ment for peo­ple. To be hon­est good games design­ers should already be talk­ing to nov­el­ists, musi­cians, direc­tors, play­writes, pro­gram­mers, math­meti­cians, soci­ol­o­gists, psy­chol­o­gists, sci­en­tists and archi­tects. Because knowl­edge doesn’t have sub­ject mark­ers on it, you can use it for what­ev­er you want, although it must be applied wise­ly, and some­thing are more read­i­ly use­ful than oth­ers. Intel­lec­tu­al divides are caused when peo­ple can­not see the val­ue of some­one else’s expe­ri­ences to them­selves, or theirs to some­one else, or don’t think it worth the both­er. So how to bridge the gap? Find an exam­ple where inter­face design prin­ci­ples inter­act with game design prin­ci­ples, or just apply them out­side their nor­mal con­text. When peo­ple see them in action, they will be more con­vinced that crossover is worth it.

  6. Such a thought­ful com­ment, too bad you felt the need to remain anony­mous!

    In any case, you make some inter­est­ing points. Although I’m not sure all social activ­i­ties can be con­sid­ered games, I think I con­sid­er them all a form of play.

    I agree with your obser­va­tion of how “intel­lec­tu­al divides” come into being. Some­times I think my prob­lem is the opposite—that I think all oth­er people’s expe­ri­ences are poten­tial­ly valu­able to my own work.

    I’m hap­py to take you up on your chal­lenge. Expect to see a post here at some point about a project where I com­bined IxD with GD. I’d love to hear your thoughts when I do!

  7. Hi there Kars Alfrink ! I am Rajas Rane, a Stu­dent of Busi­ness Design course in India. I am cur­rent­ly study­ing the inter­ac­tion design sub­ject and also doing my dis­ser­ta­tion project in the same sub­ject. Since I have a strong lik­ing for gam­ing, I was plan­ning to focus my project on the inter­ac­tion design for game design­ing. When I was search­ing on the net for dif­fer­ent views on this top­ic, I liked the view which you have put up. Till now i was only look­ing at this top­ic as inter­ac­tion design help­ing to mold up game design­ing. But i liked you view which says that as these field are evolv­ing even game design­ing would be help­ing to devel­op inter­ac­tion design. Since i am still very new and arma­ture (though hav­ing strong lik­ing and inter­est :) ) to this top­ic, i would like if you help me with some fur­ther inputs in this top­ic or some par­tic­u­lar top­ic which requires some more in depth research in this field. Do write to me at rajasrane@gmail.com and let me know about it Best Regards Rajas

  8. I have do dis­agree. I think inter­ac­tion design and game­play design are fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines. If I build a web appli­ca­tion that relies upon a data­base is the data­base design part of inter­ac­tion design? Same with game­play and inter­ac­tion design. Usabil­i­ty and acces­si­bil­i­ty as goals of inter­ac­tion design are exter­nal qual­i­ties of a game where­as game­play is an inter­nal qual­i­ty. Game­play only defines in game actions (such a mov­ing). Inter­ac­tion design con­cerns how these actions are made avail­able to the user (arrow keys or mouse clicks). I don’t real­ly under­stand why game­play and inter­ac­tion design are often mixed in user test­ing.

  9. Thanks for com­ment­ing Eelke. You have some inter­est­ing points. Let me address them briefly.

    I think inter­ac­tion design and game­play design are fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines.

    I think so too, but I feel that GD deals with a nar­row­er but deep­er sub­set of IxD.

    If I build a web appli­ca­tion that relies upon a data­base is the data­base design part of inter­ac­tion design?

    Clear­ly not.

    Same with game­play and inter­ac­tion design.

    I fail to see the anal­o­gy.

    Usabil­i­ty and acces­si­bil­i­ty as goals of inter­ac­tion design are exter­nal qual­i­ties of a game where­as game­play is an inter­nal qual­i­ty.

    The things you men­tion are qual­i­ties of an inter­ac­tive prod­uct that might be of impor­tance to an IxD, depend­ing on a project’s pri­or­i­ties. I do not under­stand what you mean by “exter­nal” and “inter­nal” though.

    Game­play only defines in game actions (such a mov­ing).

    I dis­agree. Game­play emerges from a game’s mechan­ics, which are direct­ly defined by a design­er. Game­play can only be indi­rect­ly designed.

    Inter­ac­tion design con­cerns how these actions are made avail­able to the user (arrow keys or mouse clicks).

    One aspect of inter­ac­tion design (the most con­crete one) deals with inter­face, yes. But oth­er, more abstract aspects deal with con­cepts (what val­ue a prod­uct should offer to users and busi­ness­es) and behav­iour (how that val­ue is deliv­ered). Inter­face is the expres­sion of a product’s behav­iour.

    I don’t real­ly under­stand why game­play and inter­ac­tion design are often mixed in user test­ing.

    Are you talk­ing about test­ing prac­tices in the games indus­try? In any case, I don’t see why one would not want to test sev­er­al aspects of a prod­uct. It might be a good idea to sep­a­rate them across test­ing ses­sions though.

  10. Inter­est­ing dis­cus­sion. I’ve been giv­ing these con­cepts a lot of thought late­ly.

    The things you men­tion are qual­i­ties of an inter­ac­tive prod­uct that might be of >impor­tance to an IxD, depend­ing on a project’s pri­or­i­ties. I do not under­stand what >you mean by “exter­nal” and “inter­nal” though.

    Let me explain it with an exam­ple. Lets say you are design­ing a game. First and fore­most we must find a way to inter­act with a com­put­er that is fun which is the main goal of game design. Lets say we decide to build a ten­nis sim­u­la­tor like pong. Being able to deflect a ball with a pad­dle is a fun way of inter­act­ing with a com­put­er. In the­o­ry it does not spec­i­fy any­thing about how the user will con­trol the pad­dle. You have designed the game­play by defin­ing the actions in your sim­u­la­tion. Game­play is an inter­nal qual­i­ty of the game itself. HCI decides how these inputs are made avail­able to the user by gen­er­at­ing and explor­ing dif­fer­ent con­trol schemes. HCI should define an inter­face such that the user expects it (usabil­i­ty) or requires it (acces­si­bil­i­ty). You could use direct manip­u­la­tion like the arrow keys or indi­rect by click­ing with the mouse where you want the pad­dle to go. Alter­na­tive­ly for severe­ly motor impaired users you could imple­ment a scan­ning mech­a­nisms that allows the play­er to con­trol the pad­dle with one switch input. User stud­ies should eval­u­ate the best mech­a­nism to use for par­tic­u­lar users and if pos­si­ble dif­fer­ent con­trol schemes could be imple­ment­ed while the game is kept fair. In this respect HCI is dif­fer­ent from design­ing a game because it is mere­ly con­cerned with find­ing the best way to break high lev­el game actions (mov­ing the pad­dle) into spe­cif­ic user pro­vid­ed inputs (up/down) or (click). I con­sid­er this an exter­nal prop­er­ty of the game, as you can define dif­fer­ent types of inter­faces with­out chang­ing the game­play. The pong exam­ple is triv­ial but you could eas­i­ly replace it with a first per­son shoot­er where a num­ber of high lev­el actions are defined (such as nav­i­ga­tion, com­bat, com­mu­ni­ca­tion) which are then mapped onto user spe­cif­ic actions (for­ward, shoot etc).

    Game­play emerges from a game’s mechan­ics, which are direct­ly defined by a >design­er. Game­play can only be indi­rect­ly designed.

    Hmm­mm… game mechan­ics just describe the build­ing blocks of game and are use­ful for analy­sis but are not that use­ful from a design per­spec­tive. You can­not just ran­dom­ly throw game mechan­ics togeth­er and expect a good game. It’s the over­all game­play that counts but then again its kind of like a catch 21 ;-) Good thing 95% of the games being pub­lished are genre based games with well defined game play & mechan­ics.

    Its an inter­est­ing point you bring up that GD is a sub­set of HCI. Most usabil­i­ty def­i­n­i­tions mod­els (Nielsen/Shackel/ ISO) decom­pose usabil­i­ty into an objec­tive com­po­nent (learn­abil­i­ty / effi­cien­cy / reli­a­bil­i­ty) and a sub­jec­tive com­po­nent (sat­is­fac­tion). Do you think this sub­jec­tive com­po­nent express­es game­play?

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