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. []

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Kars Alfrink

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

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