Tools for having fun

ZoneTag Photo Friday 11:40 am 4/18/08 Copenhagen, Hovedstaden

One of the nicer things about GDC was the huge stack of free mag­a­zines I took home with me. Among those was an issue of Edge, the glossy games mag­a­zine designed to look good on a cof­fee table next to the likes of Vogue (or what­ev­er). I was briefly sub­scribed to Edge, but end­ed up not renew­ing because I could read reviews online and the arti­cles weren’t all that good.

The jan­u­ary 2008 issue I brought home did have some nice bits in it—in par­tic­u­lar an inter­view with Yoshi­nori Ono, the pro­duc­er of Street Fight­er IV. This lat­est incar­na­tion of the game aims to go back to what made Street Fight­er II great. What I liked about the inter­view was Ono’s clear ded­i­ca­tion to play­ers, not force feed­ing them what the design­ers think would be cool. Some­thing often lack­ing in game design.

“First of all, the most impor­tant thing about SFIV is ‘fair rules’, and by that I mean fair and clear rules that can be under­stood by every­one very eas­i­ly.” A les­son learned from the birth of mod­ern videogam­ing: ‘Avoid miss­ing ball for high score’.”

This of course is a ref­er­ence to PONG. Allan Alcorn (the design­er of the arcade coin oper­at­ed ver­sion of PONG) famous­ly refused to include instruc­tions with the game because he believed if a game need­ed writ­ten instruc­tions, it was crap.

Lat­er on in the same arti­cle, Ono says:

[…] what the game is — a tool for hav­ing fun. A tool to give the play­ers a vir­tu­al fight­ing stage — an imag­i­nary are­na, if you like.”

(Empha­sis mine.) I like the fact that he sees the game as some­thing to be used, as opposed to some­thing to be con­sumed. Admit­ted­ly, it is eas­i­er to think of a fight­ing game this way than for instance an adven­ture game—which has much more embed­ded narrative—but in any case I think it is a more pro­duc­tive view.

While we’re on the top­ic of mag­a­zines. A while back I read an enjoy­able lit­tle piece in my favorite free mag­a­zine Vice about the alleged clash between ‘hard­core’ and ‘casu­al’ gamers:

Casu­al games are tak­ing off like nev­er before, with half of today’s games being lit­tle fun quizzes or about play­ing ten­nis or golf by wav­ing your arms around. The Hard­core crowd are shit­ting them­selves that there might not be a Halo 4 if girls and old peo­ple car­ry on buy­ing sim­ple games where everyone’s a win­ner and all you have to do is wave a mag­ic wand around and press a but­ton every few times.”

Only half seri­ous, to be sure, but could it be at least part­ly true? I wouldn’t mind it to be so. I appre­ci­ate the rise of the casu­al game main­ly for the way it brings focus back to play­er cen­tred game design. Sim­i­lar to Yoshi­nori Ono’s atti­tude in redesign­ing Street Fight­er.

links for 2008-04-18

Notes on play, exploration, challenge and learning

(My read­ing notes are pil­ing up so here’s an attempt to clear out at least a few of them.)

Part of the play expe­ri­ence of many dig­i­tal games is fig­ur­ing out how the damn thing works in the first place. In Rules of Play on page 210:

[…] as the play­er plays with FLUID, inter­ac­tion and obser­va­tion reveals the under­ly­ing prin­ci­ples of the sys­tem. In this case the hid­den infor­ma­tion grad­u­al­ly revealed through play is the rules of the sim­u­la­tion itself. Part of the play of FLUID is the dis­cov­ery of the game rules as infor­ma­tion.”

(Sad­ly, I could not find a link to the game men­tioned.)

I did not give Don­ald Nor­man all the cred­it he was due in my ear­li­er post. He doesn’t have a blind spot for games. Quite the con­trary. For instance, he explains how to make sys­tems eas­i­er to learn and points to games in the process. On page 183 of The Design of Every­day Things:

One impor­tant method of mak­ing sys­tems eas­i­er to learn and to use is to make them explorable, to encour­age the user to exper­i­ment and learn the pos­si­bil­i­ties through active explo­ration.”

The way to do this is through direct manip­u­la­tion, writes Nor­man. He also reminds us that it’s not nec­es­sary to make any sys­tem explorable.1 But (on page 184):

[…] if the job is crit­i­cal, nov­el, or ill-spec­i­fied, or if you do not yet know exact­ly what is to be done, then you need direct, first-per­son inter­ac­tion.”

So much writ­ten after DOET seems to have added lit­tle to the con­ver­sa­tion. I’m sur­prised how use­ful this clas­sic still is.

I’m remind­ed of a sec­tion of Matt Jones’s Inter­ac­tion 08 talk—which I watched yes­ter­day. He went through a num­ber of infor­ma­tion visu­al­i­sa­tions and said he’d like to add more stuff like that into Dopplr, to allow peo­ple to play with their data. He even com­pared this act of play to Will Wright’s con­cept of pos­si­bil­i­ty space.2 He also briefly men­tioned that eas­i­ly acces­si­ble tools for cre­at­ing infor­ma­tion visu­al­i­sa­tions might become a valu­able tool for design­ers work­ing with com­plex sets of data.

Nor­man actu­al­ly points to games for inspi­ra­tion, by the way. On page 184 just before the pre­vi­ous quote:

Some com­put­er sys­tems offer direct manip­u­la­tion, first-per­son inter­ac­tions, good exam­ples being the dri­ving, fly­ing, and sports games that are com­mon­place in arcades and on home machines. In these games, the feel­ing of direct con­trol over the actions is an essen­tial part of the task.”

And so on.

One of the most use­ful parts of Dan Saffer’s book on inter­ac­tion design is where he explains the dif­fer­ences between cus­tomi­sa­tion, per­son­al­i­sa­tion, adap­ta­tion and hack­ing. He notes that an adap­tive sys­tem can be designed to induce flow—balancing chal­lenge with the skill of the user. In games, there is some­thing called dynam­ic dif­fi­cul­ty adjust­ment (DDA) which has very sim­i­lar aims.

Salen and Zim­mer­man have their doubts about DDA though. In Rules of Play on page 223 they write:

Play­ing a game becomes less like learn­ing an expres­sive lan­guage and more like being the sole audi­ence mem­ber for a par­tic­i­pa­to­ry, impro­vi­sa­tion­al per­for­mance, where the per­form­ers adjust their actions to how you inter­act with them. Are you then play­ing the game, or is it play­ing you?”

Per­haps, but it all depends on what DDA actu­al­ly adjusts. The tech­nique might be objec­tion­able in a game (where a large part of the point is over­com­ing chal­lenge) but in oth­er sys­tems many of these objec­tions do not apply.

With a suc­cess­ful adap­tive design, the prod­uct fits the user’s life and envi­ron­ment as though it were cus­tom made.”

(Design­ing for Inter­ac­tion, page 162.)

Adap­tive sys­tems explic­it­ly antic­i­pate trans­for­ma­tive play. They allow them­selves to be changed through a person’s inter­ac­tions with it.3

A char­ac­ter­is­tic of good inter­ac­tion design is play­ful­ness, writes Mr. Saf­fer in his book on page 67:

Through seri­ous play, we seek out new prod­ucts, ser­vices and fea­tures and then try them to see how they work. How many times have you pushed a but­ton just to see what it did?”

The fun­ny thing is, the con­di­tions for play accord­ing to Saf­fer are very sim­i­lar to some of the basic guide­lines Nor­man offers: Make users feel com­fort­able, reduce the chance for errors and if errors do occur, make sure the con­se­quences are small—by allow­ing users to undo, for instance.

Mr. Nor­man writes that in games “design­ers delib­er­ate­ly flout the laws of under­stand­abil­i­ty and usabil­i­ty” (p.205). Although even in games: “[the] rules [of usabil­i­ty] must be applied intel­li­gent­ly, for ease of use or dif­fi­cul­ty of use” (p.208).

By now, it should be clear mak­ing inter­ac­tions play­ful is very dif­fer­ent from mak­ing them game-like.

  1. Appar­ent­ly, “explorable” isn’t a prop­er Eng­lish word, but if it’s good enough for Mr. Nor­man it’s good enough for me. []
  2. I blogged about pos­si­bil­i­ty space before here. []
  3. Yes, I know I blogged about adap­tive design before. Also about flow and adap­ta­tion, it seems. []

links for 2008-04-17

Blank banners — see me speak at TWAB 2008

Provo protesting with blank banner

In 1966 Pro­vo took to the streets of Ams­ter­dam with blank protest ban­ners.1 The use of rous­ing slo­gans had been out­lawed by the city’s may­or. The ‘pro­test­ers’ were arrest­ed. Pro­vo achieved their goal of mak­ing the author­i­ties look sil­ly by play­ing at protest­ing.

They took exist­ing rules and decid­ed to play with­in them, to see how far they could push the lim­its of those rules. They were not allowed to use actu­al slo­gans, so they decid­ed to use unwrit­ten ban­ners. They made use of the ambigu­ous nature of play: They were protest­ing, but at the same time not protest­ing. There were no for­bid­den slo­gans on their ban­ners, but at the same time, the slo­gans were ever so present through their absence.

The police were not will­ing to take on Provo’s ludic atti­tude. They refused to step into their mag­ic cir­cle and play at oppos­ing them. In stead they broke the rules, arrest­ed them for real, and by doing so, lost—at least in the public’s eye.

This example—and hope­ful­ly a few others—I will dis­cuss at The Web and Beyond 2008: Mobil­i­ty. In 20 min­utes or so, I hope to inspire design­ers to think about what the near future’s blank ban­ners could be. My ses­sion is titled ‘Mobile com­po­nents for play­ful cul­tur­al resis­tance’ (an unwieldy title in des­per­ate need of improve­ment) and will prob­a­bly be in Dutch.

The con­fer­ence is organ­ised by Chi Ned­er­land and will take place May 22 in the beau­ti­ful Beurs van Berlage in Ams­ter­dam. Keynote speak­ers include Ben Cer­ve­ny, Jyri Engeström and Adam Green­field. It looks like this will be a very spe­cial con­fer­ence indeed.

Image source: Gram­schap.

  1. Pro­vo was a Dutch coun­ter­cul­ture move­ment in the mid-1960s that focused on pro­vok­ing vio­lent respons­es from author­i­ties using non-vio­lent bait. Read more about them at Wikipedia. []

links for 2008-04-10

links for 2008-04-09