Playing With Complexity — slides and notes for my NLGD Festival of Games talk

When the NLGD Foun­da­tion invit­ed me to speak at their anu­al Fes­ti­val of Games I asked them what they would like me to dis­cuss. “Any­thing you like,” was what they said, essen­tial­ly. I decid­ed to sub­mit an abstract deal­ing with data visu­al­iza­tion. I had been pay­ing more and more atten­tion to this field, but was unsuc­cess­ful in relat­ing it the oth­er themes run­ning through my work, most notably play. So I thought I’d force myself to tack­le this issue by promis­ing to speak about it. Often a good strat­e­gy, I’ve found. If it worked out this time I leave for you to judge.

In brief, in the pre­sen­ta­tion I argue two things: one — that the more sophis­ti­cat­ed appli­ca­tions of inter­ac­tive data visu­al­iza­tion resem­ble games and toys in many ways, and two — that game design can con­tribute to the solu­tions to sev­er­al design issues I have detect­ed in the field of data visu­al­iza­tion.

Below are the notes for the talk, slight­ly edit­ed, and with ref­er­ences includ­ed. The full deck of slides, which includes cred­its for all the images used, is up on SlideShare.

Hel­lo every­one, my name is Kars Alfrink. I am a Dutch inter­ac­tion design­er and I work free­lance. At the moment I work in Copen­hagen, but pret­ty soon I will be back here in Utrecht, my love­ly home­town.

In my work I focus on three areas: mobil­i­ty, social inter­ac­tions, and play. Here is an exam­ple of my work: These are sto­ry­boards that explore pos­si­ble appli­ca­tions of mul­ti­touch tech­nol­o­gy in a gat­ed com­mu­ni­ty. Using these tech­nolo­gies I tried to com­pen­sate for the neg­a­tive effects a gat­ed com­mu­ni­ty has on the build-up of social cap­i­tal. I also tried to bal­ance ‘being-in-the-screen’ with ‘being-in-the-world’ — mul­ti­touch tech­nolo­gies tend to be very atten­tion-absorb­ing, but in built envi­ron­ments this is often not desir­able.1

I am not going to talk about mul­ti­touch though. Today’s top­ic is data visu­al­iza­tion and what oppor­tu­ni­ties there are for game design­ers in that field. My talk is rough­ly divid­ed in three parts. First, I will briefly describe what I think data visu­al­iza­tion is. Next, I will look at some appli­ca­tions beyond the very obvi­ous. Third and last, I will dis­cuss some design issues involved with data visu­al­iza­tion. For each of these issues, I will show how game design can con­tribute.

Right, let’s get start­ed.

Con­tin­ue read­ing Play­ing With Com­plex­i­ty — slides and notes for my NLGD Fes­ti­val of Games talk

  1. For more back­ground on this project please see this old­er blog post. More exam­ples of my recent work can be found in my port­fo­lio. []

What should a casual MMOG feel like?

The prims are always greener by yhancik on Flickr

I’m find­ing myself in the start­ing phas­es of design­ing a casu­al MMOG (or vir­tu­al world, if you pre­fer that term). When I say design, I mean deter­min­ing the struc­ture and behav­iour of the world — inter­ac­tion design, in oth­er words.

It’s an inter­est­ing chal­lenge (and a sig­nif­i­cant change from design­ing mobile games, to say the least). I can’t think of a class of games that has the poten­tial for more emer­gent phe­nom­e­na, both social and eco­nom­ic. This is tru­ly a sec­ond order design chal­lenge.

Of course, the same old play­er needs still hold true, and tools and tech­niques such as sce­nar­ios and sto­ry­boards are just as use­ful here as in any oth­er project. But the need for an iter­a­tive, test dri­ven design and devel­op­ment process becomes huge­ly appar­ent once you start to think about all the effects you sim­ply can­not design direct­ly.

You might think I’m involved with a WoW- or SL-like endeav­our. On the con­trary! The aim of the project is to bring some of the unique plea­sures of a vir­tu­al world to a mass (adult) audi­ence.1 That means mak­ing the expe­ri­ence more casu­al, more short-ses­sion.

Our play­ers will still want to feel relat­ed and socialise, but on their own terms. They’ll still want to feel autonomous and explore, but in short bursts of activ­i­ty. They’ll still want to feel com­pe­tent and achieve, but with­out hav­ing to make too huge an effort…

There’s plen­ty of move­ment in the space of casu­al, short-ses­sion MMOG’s. Some have dubbed them PMOGs — Pas­sive­ly Mul­ti­play­er Online Games — and focus on mak­ing them open sys­tems that inter­act with dai­ly life. I’m try­ing to imag­ine what — as a closed sys­tem — a casu­al MMO should feel like, what its aes­thet­ics (PDF) need to be. What, in oth­er words, would WoW or SL have turned out to be if Miyamo­to-san had designed it?

  1. Plus some oth­er more unique goals, that I won’t talk about just yet. []

UX and the aesthetics of interactivity

Tetris cookies

I’ve been try­ing to reg­u­lar­ly post some thoughts on the top­ic of play­ful IA here. Pre­vi­ous­ly I blogged about how games could be a use­ful frame for think­ing about com­plex algo­rith­mic archi­tec­tures. Last week I post­ed some thoughts on the appli­ca­tion of game mechan­ics in web apps. There, Rahul was kind enough to point me to the fas­ci­nat­ing blog of ‘Danc’ Daniel Cook, titled Lost Gar­den, where there is one post in par­tic­u­lar that res­onates with my own pre-occu­pa­tions late­ly.

In ‘Short thoughts on games and inter­ac­tion design’ (which hon­est­ly isn’t that short) Danc Cook looks at some of the ways game design tech­niques can be applied to the inter­ac­tion design of web apps. In sum­ma­ry, accord­ing to Danc Cook game design tech­niques allow you to:

  1. Cre­ate an engag­ing expe­ri­ence that goes beyond sim­ply com­plet­ing a task effi­cient­ly.
  2. Sup­port free and deep explo­ration and intro­duce and teach new inter­ac­tions that vio­late con­ven­tions.

Some things you shouldn’t bor­row from games with­out giv­ing it a lot of thought are:

  1. Spa­tial metaphors
  2. Visu­al themes

These are some of the things most peo­ple think of first as char­ac­ter­is­tic of games but real­ly, they are only sur­face, super­fi­cial, not deter­mi­nant of the actu­al inter­ac­tiv­i­ty of the sys­tem.

I think one of the great­est argu­ments for a deep­er under­stand­ing of games by inter­ac­tion design­ers, infor­ma­tion archi­tects and oth­er user expe­ri­ence spe­cial­ists is that they are the medi­um that is all about the aes­thet­ics of inter­ac­tiv­i­ty. It is true that they have no util­i­tar­i­an char­ac­ter, they aim to cre­ate a plea­sur­able expe­ri­ence through sys­tems of risks and rewards, restraints and free­doms, nest­ed feed­back loops and on and on. As a UX prac­ti­tion­er, it can nev­er hurt to have a deep appre­ci­a­tion of the aes­thet­ics of the medi­um you work in dai­ly (beyond sim­ply sup­port­ing user goals, or sell­ing prod­uct, or what­ev­er).