A Playful Stance — my Game Design London 2008 talk

A while ago I was inter­viewed by Sam War­naars. He’s research­ing people’s con­fer­ence expe­ri­ences; he asked me what my most favourite and least favourite con­fer­ence of the past year was. I wish he’d asked me after my trip to Play­ful ’08, because it has been by far the best con­fer­ence expe­ri­ence to date. Why? Because it was like Toby, Richard and the rest of the event’s pro­duc­ers had tak­en a peek inside my brain and came up with a pro­gram encom­pass­ing (almost) all my fas­ci­na­tions — games, inter­ac­tion design, play, social­i­ty, the web, prod­ucts, phys­i­cal inter­faces, etc. Almost every speak­er brought some­thing inter­est­ing to the table. The audi­ence was com­posed of peo­ple from many dif­fer­ent back­grounds, and all seemed to, well, like each oth­er. The venue was love­ly and atmos­pher­ic (albeit a bit chilly). They had good tea. Drinks after­wards were tasty and fun, the tapas lat­er on even more so. And the whiskey after that, well let’s just say I was glad to have a late flight the next day. Many thanks to my friends at Pix­el-Lab for invit­ing me, and to Mr. Davies for the refer­ral.

Below is a tran­script plus slides of my con­tri­bu­tion to the day. The slides are also on SlideShare. I have been told all talks have been record­ed and will be pub­lished to the event’s Vimeo group.

Per­haps 1874 words is a bit too much for you? In that case, let me give you an exec­u­tive sum­ma­ry of sorts:

  1. The role of design in rich forms of play, such as skate­board­ing, is facil­i­ta­to­ry. Design­ers pro­vide tools for peo­ple to play with.
  2. It is hard to pre­dict what peo­ple will do exact­ly with your tools. This is OK. In fact it is best to leave room for unex­pect­ed uses.
  3. Under­spec­i­fied, play­ful tools can be used for learn­ing. Peo­ple can use them to explore com­plex con­cepts on their own terms.

As always, I am inter­est­ed in receiv­ing con­struc­tive crit­i­cism, as well as good exam­ples of the things I’ve dis­cussed.

Con­tin­ue read­ing A Play­ful Stance — my Game Design Lon­don 2008 talk

Playing with emergence is like gardening

It’s been a while since I fin­ished read­ing Steven Berlin John­son’s Emer­gence. I picked up the book because ever since I start­ed think­ing about what IxDs can learn from game design, the con­cept of emer­gence kept pop­ping up.

Johnson’s book is a pleas­ant read, an easy-going intro­duc­tion to the sub­ject. I start­ed and fin­ished it over the course of a week­end. There were a few pas­sages I marked as I went a long, and I’d like to quote them here and com­ment on them. In order, they are about:

  1. Prin­ci­ples that are required for emer­gence to hap­pen
  2. How learn­ing can be uncon­scious
  3. Unique skills of game play­ers
  4. Gar­den­ing as a metaphor for using (and mak­ing) emer­gent sys­tems

A cheat sheet

Let’s start with the prin­ci­ples.1

If you’re build­ing a sys­tem designed to learn from the ground lev­el, a sys­tem where macroin­tel­li­gence and adapt­abil­i­ty derive from local knowl­edge, there are five fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples you need to fol­low.”

These prin­ci­ples togeth­er form a use­ful crib sheet for design­ers work­ing on social soft­ware, MMOGs, etc. I’ll sum­marise each of Johnson’s prin­ci­ples here.

More is dif­fer­ent.”

You need to have a size­able amount of low-lev­el ele­ments inter­act­ing to get pat­terns emerg­ing. Also, there is a dif­fer­ence between the behav­iour you will observe on the microlev­el, and on the macrolev­el. You need to be aware of both.

Igno­rance is use­ful.”

The sim­ple ele­ments don’t have to be aware of the high­er-lev­el order. In fact, it’s best if they aren’t. Oth­er­wise nasty feed­back-loops might come into being.

Encour­age ran­dom encoun­ters.”

You need chance hap­pen­ings for the sys­tem to be able to learn and adapt.2

Look for pat­terns in the signs.”

Sim­ply put, the basic ele­ments can have a sim­ple vocab­u­lary, but should be able to recog­nise pat­terns. So although you might be work­ing with only one sig­nal, things such as fre­quen­cy and inten­si­ty should be used to make a range of mean­ings.

Pay atten­tion to your neigh­bours.”

There must be as much inter­ac­tion between the com­po­nents as pos­si­ble. They should be made con­stant­ly aware of each oth­er.

Now with these prin­ci­ples in mind look at sys­tems that suc­cess­ful­ly lever­age col­lec­tive intel­li­gence. Look at Flickr for instance. They are all present.

Chicken pox

I liked the fol­low­ing pas­sage because it seems to offer a nice metaphor for what I think is the unique kind of learn­ing that hap­pens while play­ing. In a way, games and toys are like chick­en pox.3

[…] learn­ing is not always con­tin­gent on con­scious­ness. […] Most of us have devel­oped immu­ni­ty to the vari­cel­la-zoster virus—also known as chick­en pox—based on our expo­sure to it ear­ly in child­hood. The immu­ni­ty is a learn­ing process: the anti­bod­ies of our immune sys­tem learn to neu­tral­ize the anti­gens of the virus, and they remem­ber those neu­tral­iza­tion strate­gies for the rest of our lives. […] Those anti­bod­ies func­tion as a “recog­ni­tion sys­tem,” in Ger­ald Edelman’s phrase, suc­cess­ful­ly attack­ing the virus and stor­ing the infor­ma­tion about it, then recall­ing that infor­ma­tion the next time the virus comes across the radar. […] the recog­ni­tion unfolds pure­ly on a cel­lu­lar lev­el: we are not aware of the vari­cel­la-zoster virus in any sense of the word, […] The body learns with­out con­scious­ness, and so do cities, because learn­ing is not just about being aware of infor­ma­tion; it’s also about stor­ing infor­ma­tion and know­ing where to find it. […] It’s about alter­ing a system’s behav­iour in response to those pat­terns in ways that make the sys­tem more suc­cess­ful at what­ev­er goal it’s pur­su­ing. The sys­tem need not be con­scious to be capa­ble of that kind of learn­ing.

Empha­sis on the last sen­tence mine, by the way.


John­son writes about his impres­sion of chil­dren play­ing video games:4

[…] they are more tol­er­ant of being out of con­trol, more tol­er­ant of that explorato­ry phase where the rules don’t all make sense, and where few goals have been clear­ly defined.”

This atti­tude is very valu­able in today’s increas­ing­ly com­plex world. It should be fos­tered and lever­aged in areas besides gam­ing too, IMHO. This point was at the core of my Play­ing With Com­plex­i­ty talk.


Inter­act­ing with emer­gent soft­ware is already more like grow­ing a gar­den than dri­ving a car or read­ing a book.”5

Yet, we still tend to approach the design of sys­tems like this from a tra­di­tion of mak­ing tools (cars) or media (books). I not only believe that the use of sys­tems like this is like gar­den­ing, but also their cre­ation. Per­haps they lie in each other’s exten­sion, are part of one nev­er-end­ing cycle? In any case, when design­ing com­plex sys­tems, you need to work with it “live”. Plant some seeds, observe, prune, weed, plant some more, etc.

I am going to keep a gar­den (on my bal­cony). I’m pret­ty sure that will teach me more about inter­ac­tion design than build­ing cars or writ­ing books.

  1. The fol­low­ing quotes are tak­en from pages 77–79. []
  2. This reminds me of Nas­sim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan, where­in he writes about max­imis­ing your chance of hav­ing serendip­i­tous encoun­ters. []
  3. Tak­en from pages 103–104. []
  4. Page 177. []
  5. Page 207. []

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. []

Metagames as viral loops

MtG: My Pride-n-Joys by AuE on Flickr

Metagames’Richard Garfield’s pre­sen­ta­tion for the 2000 Game Devel­op­ers Con­fer­enceis in today’s links, but I think it deserves a bit more atten­tion than that. Here are some quotes from the doc­u­ment that stood out for me.1

What a metagame is:

My def­i­n­i­tion of metagame is broad. It is how a game inter­faces with life.”

In oth­er words, metagame design is con­tex­tu­al. It forces you to think about when, where, how and by who your game will be played.

Why metagame design has not been get­ting as much atten­tion as game design itself:

…the major­i­ty of a game’s metagame is prob­a­bly unal­ter­able by game design­er or pub­lish­er.”

So, metagame design is a sec­ond order design prob­lem. Design­ers can only indi­rect­ly influ­ence how metagames play out. They facil­i­tate it, but do not direct it.

Garfield divides metagames in four broad cat­e­gories:

  • What you bring to a game
  • What you take away from a game
  • What hap­pens between games
  • What hap­pens dur­ing a game

Where “game” should be under­stood as a sin­gle play ses­sion of a game.

Garfield has inter­est­ing things to say about all these cat­e­gories, and I rec­om­mend read­ing the arti­cle in full, but I’d like to zoom in on one bit men­tioned under “from”:

It is worth not­ing that many things list­ed have a ‘cir­cu­lar’ val­ue to the play­er.”

Get­ting some­thing from a game that you can bring with you again to a game makes you care more and more about the game itself. One clear exam­ple of how metagames are a help­ful con­cept for mak­ing a game more self-sus­tain­ing.

Bet­ter yet, the ‘stuff’ that play­ers get from a game play ses­sion can be shared or passed on to oth­ers. In this man­ner, the metagame becomes a viral loop.2

  1. Richard Garfield is the design­er of the CCG Mag­ic: The Gath­er­ing. []
  2. Via Matt Webb. []

Second order design and play in A Pattern Language

Accord­ing to Mol­ly, archi­tects hate Christo­pher Alexander’s guts. Along with a lot of oth­er inter­ac­tion design­ers I hap­pen to think his book A Pat­tern Lan­guage is a won­der­ful resource. It has some inter­est­ing things to say about design­ing for emergence—or sec­ond order design—and also con­tains some pat­terns relat­ed to play. So fol­low­ing the exam­ple of Michal Migurs­ki (and many oth­ers after him) I’ll blog some dog eared pages.

In the intro­duc­tion Alexan­der encour­ages read­ers to trace their own path through the book. The idea is to pick a pat­tern that most close­ly fits the project you have in mind, and from there move through the book to oth­er ‘small­er’ pat­terns. It won’t sur­prise fre­quent read­ers of this blog that my eye was imme­di­ate­ly caught by the pat­tern ‘Adven­ture Play­ground’ (pat­tern num­ber 73). Let’s look at the prob­lem state­ment, on p.368:

A cas­tle, made of car­ton, rocks and old branch­es, by a group of chil­dren for them­selves, is worth a thou­sand per­fect­ly detailed, exact­ly fin­ished cas­tles, made for them in a fac­to­ry.”

And on the fol­low­ing two pages (p.369–370), the pro­posed solu­tion:

Set up a play­ground for the chil­dren in each neigh­bor­hood. Not a high­ly fin­ished play­ground, with asfalt and swings, but a place with raw mate­ri­als of all kinds—nets, box­es, bar­rels, trees, ropes, sim­ple tools, frames, grass, and water—where chil­dren can cre­ate and re-cre­ate play­grounds of their own.”

In the sec­tions enclosed by these two quotes Alexan­der briefly explains how vital play is to the devel­op­ment of chil­dren. He states that neat­ly designed play­grounds lim­it children’s imag­i­na­tion. In the coun­try­side, there is plen­ty of space for these adven­ture play­grounds to emerge with­out inter­ven­tion, but in cities, they must be cre­at­ed.

I’m remind­ed of the rich range of play­ful activ­i­ties teenagers engage in on Hab­bo Hotel, despite the lack of explic­it sup­port for them. At GDC 2008 Sul­ka Haro showed one exam­ple in par­tic­u­lar that has stuck with me: Teens enact­ed a manege by hav­ing some of them dress up in brown out­fits (the hors­es), and oth­er stand­ing next to them (the care­tak­ers).

What would the online equiv­a­lent of an adven­ture play­ground look like? What are the “kinds of junk” we can pro­vide for play (not only by chil­dren but by any­one who cares to play). In the phys­i­cal world, what hap­pens when con­nect­ed junk enters the play­ground? Food for thought.

Adven­ture play­ground is a pat­tern “of that part of the lan­guage which defines a town or a com­mu­ni­ty.” (p.3)

What I like the most about A Pat­tern Lan­guage is its almost frac­tal nature. Small pat­terns can be imple­ment­ed by one indi­vid­ual or a group of indi­vid­u­als. These small­er ones flow into ever larg­er ones, etc. Alexan­der does not believe large scale pat­terns can be brought into exis­tence through cen­tral plan­ning (p.3):

We believe that the pat­terns in this sec­tion [the largest scale pat­terns of towns] can be imple­ment­ed best by piece­meal process­es, where each project built or each plan­ning deci­sion made is sanc­tioned by the com­mu­ni­ty accord­ing as it does or does not help to form cer­tain large-scale pat­terns. We do not believe that these large pat­terns, which give so much struc­ture to a town or of a neigh­bor­hood, can be cre­at­ed by cen­tral­ized author­i­ty, or by laws, or by mas­ter plans. We believe instead that they can emerge grad­u­al­ly and organ­i­cal­ly, almost of their own accord, if every act of build­ing, large or small, takes on the respon­si­bil­i­ty for grad­u­al­ly shap­ing its small cor­ner of the world to make these larg­er pat­terns appear there.”

So to build an adven­ture play­ground, you’ll need small­er-scale pat­terns, such as ‘bike paths and racks’ and ‘child caves’. Adven­ture play­ground itself is encap­su­lat­ed by pat­terns such as ‘con­nect­ed play’. It is all beau­ti­ful­ly inter­con­nect­ed. On page xiii:

In short, no pat­tern is an iso­lat­ed enti­ty. Each pat­tern can exist in the world, only to the extent that is sup­port­ed by oth­er pat­terns: the larg­er pat­terns in which it is embed­ded, the pat­terns of the same size that sur­round it, and the small­er pat­terns which are embed­ded in it. This is a fun­da­men­tal view of the world. It says that when you build a thing you can­not mere­ly build that thing in iso­la­tion, but must repair the world around it, and with­in it, so that the larg­er world at the one place becomes more coher­ent, and more whole; and the thing which you make takes its place in the web of nature, as you make it.”

Won­der­ful. A sol­id descrip­tion of sec­ond order design and anoth­er piece of the Play­ful IAs puz­zle. The only way to know if some­thing “does or does not help to form cer­tain large-scale pat­terns” is by hav­ing a lan­guage like Alexander’s. The online equiv­a­lent of the largest scale pat­terns would be encom­pass more than just sin­gle sites, they would describe huge chunks of the inter­net.

In social soft­ware, in play­ful spaces, the large scale pat­terns can­not be designed direct­ly, but you must be able to describe them accu­rate­ly, and know how they con­nect to small­er scale pat­terns that you can design and build direct­ly. Final­ly, you need to be aware of even larg­er scale pat­terns, that make up the online ecosys­tem, and play nice­ly with them (or if your agen­da is to change them, con­scious­ly cre­ate pro­duc­tive fric­tion).

A great book. I would rec­om­mend any­one with a pas­sion for emer­gent design to buy it. As Adap­tive Path say:

This 1977 book is one of the best pieces of infor­ma­tion design we’ve come across. The book’s pre­sen­ta­tion — the lay­out of each item of the lan­guage, the nodal nav­i­ga­tion from item to item, the mix of text and image — is as inspir­ing as the top­ic itself.”

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. []

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. []

More than useful — outline of my Interaction 08 talk

Illustration from children's book

A while back I was hap­py to hear that my sub­mis­sion for Inter­ac­tion 08 is accept­ed. This will be the first con­fer­ence organ­ised by the IxDA. Obvi­ous­ly I’m proud to be part of that. I’ll prob­a­bly be build­ing my talk a post at a time on this blog, more or less like I did with the one for the Euro IA Sum­mit of this year. If you’re won­der­ing wether it’ll be worth fol­low­ing along, let me out­line the argu­ment I made in my sub­mis­sion:

There’s a gen­er­a­tion of ‘users’ expect­ing their dig­i­tal and phys­i­cal prod­ucts to be cus­tomiz­able, per­son­al­ize-able and re-com­bin­able. These users explore the poten­tial of these 3C prod­ucts through play. This is why I think it’s worth­while for inter­ac­tion design­er to get a bet­ter under­stand­ing of how to design for open-end­ed play. Obvi­ous­ly, it makes sense to do some shop­ping around in the the­o­ries of our col­leagues in game design. Why should design­ers both­er? Play­ful prod­ucts have deeply engaged users that can’t stop telling sto­ries about their expe­ri­ences with them.

The focus of this talk is firm­ly on design­ing sto­ries that emerge through play and enabling the retelling of those play expe­ri­ences.

Like I said, I’ll dive deep­er into these top­ics in the com­ing peri­od. If you have any views of your own on this — or use­ful resources that you think I should check out — do let me know.

Update: Today the full con­fer­ence pro­gram was announced and my name is actu­al­ly on there. The pro­gram looks real­ly cool, and I’m real­ly hap­py to see some talks relat­ed to mine in there as well. See you in Savan­nah!

Play, story and recombination

A bunch of Lego bricks

Dom­i­nant mod­els in IA: space + sto­ry” was one of the notes I took while at this year’s Euro IA Sum­mit. I’ll get into space some oth­er time. Con­cern­ing sto­ry: Basi­cal­ly it strikes me that for a dis­ci­pline involved with an inter­ac­tive medi­um, so often design­ing is likened to sto­ry­telling. I’m not sure this is always the most pro­duc­tive way to approach design, I actu­al­ly think it is very lim­it­ing. If you approach design not as embed­ding your sto­ry in the envi­ron­ment, but as cre­at­ing an envi­ron­ment where­in users can cre­ate their own sto­ries, then I’d say you’re on the right track. An exam­ple I tend to use is a game of pok­er: The design of the game pok­er was cer­tain­ly not an act of sto­ry­telling, but a play ses­sion of pok­er is expe­ri­enced as (and can be retold as) a sto­ry. Fur­ther­more, the com­po­nents of the game can be recom­bined to cre­ate dif­fer­ent vari­a­tions of the basic game, each cre­at­ing dif­fer­ent poten­tials for sto­ries to arise. I’d like to see more design­ers approach inter­ac­tive media (dig­i­tal, phys­i­cal or what­ev­er) like this: Don’t tell a sto­ry to your user, enable them to cre­ate their own.1 Real­ize users will want to recom­bine your stuff with oth­er stuff you might not know about (the notion of seam­ful design comes into play here). When you’ve done a prop­er job, you’ll find them retelling those sto­ries to oth­ers, which I would say is the biggest com­pli­ment you can get.

1. Or to put this in Marc LeBlanc’s terms: Don’t embed nar­ra­tive, let it emerge through play.

Summary of my Playful IAs argument

I thought I’d post a short sum­ma­ry of the argu­ment I made in my Euro IA Sum­mit 2007 talk, for those who weren’t there and/or are too lazy to actu­al­ly go through the notes in the slides. The pre­sen­ta­tion is basi­cal­ly bro­ken up into three parts:

  1. Future web envi­ron­ments are becom­ing so com­plex, they start to show emer­gent prop­er­ties. In this con­text a lot of tra­di­tion­al IA prac­tice doesn’t make sense any­more. Instead of direct­ly design­ing an infor­ma­tion space, you’re bet­ter off design­ing the rules that under­ly the gen­er­a­tive con­struc­tion of such spaces. In oth­er words, IA is becom­ing a sec­ond order design prob­lem.
  2. IAs tend to argue for the val­ue of their designs based sole­ly on how well they sup­port users in achiev­ing their end goals. I pro­pose sup­port­ing expe­ri­ence goals is just as impor­tant. From there I try to make the case that any pow­er­ful expe­ri­ence is a play­ful one, where the user’s fun fol­lows from the feel­ing that he or she is learn­ing new stuff, is kick­ing ass, is in flow.
  3. Game design is not black mag­ic (any­more). In recent years a lot has become under­stood about how games work. They are built up out of game mechan­ics that each fol­low a pat­tern of action, sim­u­la­tion, feed­back and mod­el­ling. Design­ing play­ful IAs means tak­ing care that you encour­age dis­cov­ery, sup­port explo­ration and pro­vide feed­back on mas­tery.

Get the the slides, and a list of sources for the talk in this ear­li­er post.