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. []

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?