The conference From Business to Buttons 2008 aimed to bring together the worlds of business and interaction design. I was there to share my thoughts on the applicability of game design concepts to interaction design. You’ll find my slides and a summary of my argument below.
I really enjoyed attending this conference. I met a bunch of new and interesting people and got to hang out with some ‘old’ friends. Many thanks to InUse for inviting me.
The topic is pretty broad so I decided to narrow things down to a class of product that is other-than-everyday — meaning both wide and deep in scope. Using Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things as a starting point, I wanted to show that these products require a high level of explorability that is remarkably similar to play. After briefly examining the phenomenon of play itself I moved on to show applications of this understanding to two types of product: customizable & personalizable ones, and adaptive ones.
For the former, I discussed how game design frameworks such as MDA can help with sculpting the parameter space, using ‘experience’ as the starting point. I also looked at how games support players in sharing stories and speculated about ways this can be translated to both digital and physical products.
For the latter — adaptive products — I focussed on the ways in which they induce flow and how they can recommend stuff to people. With adaptation, designers need to formulate rules. This can be done using techniques from game design, such as Daniel Cook’s skill chains. Successful rules-based design can only happen in an iterative environment using lots of sketching.
The presentation was framed by a slightly philosophical look at how certain games subliminally activate cognitive processes and could thus be used to allow for new insights. I used Breakout and Portal as examples of this. I am convinced there is an emerging field of playful products that interaction designers should get involved with.
Allowing people to change parts of your product is playful. It has also always ‘just’ seemed like a good thing to do to me. You see this with with people who become passionate about a thing they use often: They want to take it apart, see how it works, put it back together again, maybe add some stuff, replace something else… I’ve always liked the idea of passionate people wanting to change something about a thing I designed. And it’s always been a disappointment when I’d find out that they did not, or worse—wanted to but weren’t able to.
Apparently this is what people call adaptive design. But if you Google that, you won’t find much. In fact, there’s remarkably little written about it. I was put on the term’s trail by Matt Webb and from there found my way to Dan Hill’s site. There’s a lot on the topic there, but if I can recommend one piece it’s the interview he did for Dan Saffer’s book on interaction design. Read it. It’s full of wonderful ideas articulated 100 times better than I’ll ever be able to.
So why is adaptive design conducive to the playfulness of a user experience? I’m not sure. One aspect of it might be the fact that as a designer you explicitly relinquish some control over the final experience people have with your…stuff.1As Webb noted in an end-of-the-year post, in stead of saying to people: “Here’s something I made. Go on—play with it.” You say: “Here’s something I made—let’s play with it together.”
This makes a lot of sense if you don’t think of the thing under design as something that’ll be consumed but something that will be used to create. It sounds easy but again is surprisingly hard. It’s like we have been infected with this hard-to-kill idea that makes us think we can only consume whereas we are actually all very much creative beings.2 I think that’s what Generation C is really about.
A sidetrack: In digital games, for a long time developments have been towards games as media that can be consumed. The real changes in digital games are: One—there’s a renewed interest in games as activities (particularly in the form of casual games). And two—there’s an increase in games that allow themselves to be changed in meaningful ways. These developments make the term “replay value” seem ready for extinction. How can you even call something that isn’t interesting to replay a game?3
In Rules of Play, Salen and Zimmerman describe the phenomenon of transformative play—where the “free movement within a more rigid structure” changes the mentioned structure itself (be it intended or not). They hold it as one of the most powerful forms of play. Think of a simple house rule you made up the last time you played a game with some friends. The fact that on the web the rules that make up the structures we designed are codified in software should not be an excuse to disallow people to change them.
That’s true literacy: When you can both read and write in a medium (as Alan Kay would have it). I’d like to enable people to do that. It might be hopelessly naive, but I don’t care—it’s a very interesting challenge.
That’s a comfortable idea to all of the—cough—web 2.0 savvy folk out there. But it certainly still is an uncomfortable thought to many. And I think it’d surprise you to find out how many people who claim to be “hip to the game” will still refuse to let go. [↩]
Note I’m not saying we can all be designers, but I do think people can all create meaningful things for themselves and others. [↩]
It doesn’t say so on the site yet, but I am on the program for next year’s GDC Mobile.1 Yesterday I got the email that my talk — titled Designing a Casual Social Gaming Experience for Generation C — has been accepted. To be honest I was quite surprised. I work in the blurry overlap of the interaction design and game design fields, have no actual game titles under my belt and proposed a weird subject to boot. Who in their right mind would invite me to speak? Of course I am also really excited about this. GDC is the professional event for the games industry so I’m honored to be part of it.2
My talk will be closely related to the things I’ve been working on for Playyoo. I’ll discuss how short-session mobile games and a web based meta-game can interconnect to create a social game experience that allows different levels of player engagement. I’ll look at the ways you can align your game design with the expectations of Generation C: customization & personalization, recombination and connectedness. I might post the extended abstract sometime in the future, for now I’m just wondering: Who else is going to GDC? What would you like to see me discuss?
Don’t be scared by the big Orc in the header of their site. [↩]
Now I just need to figure out whether traveling to the US twice in one month is a feasible undertaking. [↩]