Sketching the experience of toys

A frame from the Sketch-A-Move video

Play is the high­est form of research.”

—Albert Ein­stein1

That’s what I always say when I’m play­ing games, too.

I real­ly liked Bill Bux­ton’s book Sketch­ing User Expe­ri­ences. I like it because Bux­ton defends design as a legit­i­mate pro­fes­sion sep­a­rate from oth­er disciplines—such as engineering—while at the same time show­ing that design­ers (no mat­ter how bril­liant) can only suc­ceed in the right ecosys­tem. I also like the fact that he iden­ti­fies sketch­ing (in its many forms) as a defin­ing activ­i­ty of the design pro­fes­sion. The many exam­ples he shows are very inspir­ing.

One in par­tic­u­lar stood out for me, which is the project Sketch-A-Move by Anab Jain and Louise Klink­er done in 2004 at the RCA in Lon­don. The image above is tak­en from the video they cre­at­ed to illus­trate their con­cept. It’s about cars auto-mag­i­cal­ly dri­ving along tra­jec­to­ries that you draw on their roof. You can watch the video over at the book’s com­pan­ion web­site. It’s a very good exam­ple of visu­al­iz­ing an inter­ac­tive prod­uct in a very com­pelling way with­out actu­al­ly build­ing it. This was all faked, if you want to find out how, buy the book.2

The great thing about the video is not only does it illus­trate how the con­cept works, it also gives you a sense of what the expe­ri­ence of using it would be like. As Bux­ton writes:3

You see, toys are not about toys. Toys are about play and the expe­ri­ence of fun that they help fos­ter. And that is what this video real­ly shows. That, and the pow­er of video to go beyond sim­ply doc­u­ment­ing a con­cept to com­mu­ni­cat­ing some­thing about expe­ri­ence in a very vis­cer­al way.”

Not only does it com­mu­ni­cate the fun you would have play­ing with it, I think this way of sketch­ing actu­al­ly helped the design­ers get a sense them­selves of wether what they had come up with was fun. You can tell they are actu­al­ly play­ing, being sur­prised by unex­pect­ed out­comes, etc.

The role of play in design is dis­cussed by Bux­ton as well, although he admits he need­ed to be prompt­ed by a friend of his: Alex Manu, a teacher at OCAD in Toron­to writes in an email to Bux­ton:4

With­out play imag­i­na­tion dies.”

Chal­lenges to imag­i­na­tion are the keys to cre­ativ­i­ty. The skill of retriev­ing imag­i­na­tion resides in the mas­tery of play. The ecol­o­gy of play is the ecol­o­gy of the pos­si­ble. Pos­si­bil­i­ty incu­bates cre­ativ­i­ty.”

Which Bux­ton rephras­es in one of his own per­son­al mantras:5

These things are far too impor­tant to take seri­ous­ly.”

All of which has made me real­ize that if I’m not hav­ing some sort of fun while design­ing, I’m doing some­thing wrong. It might be worth con­sid­er­ing switch­ing from one sketch­ing tech­nique to anoth­er. It might help me get a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive on the prob­lem, and yield new pos­si­ble solu­tions. Buxton’s book is a trea­sure trove of sketch­ing tech­niques. There is no excuse for being bored while design­ing any­more.

  1. Sketch­ing User Expe­ri­ences p.349 []
  2. No, I’m not get­ting a com­mis­sion to say that. []
  3. Ibid. 1, at 325 []
  4. Ibid., at 263 []
  5. Ibid. []

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.

Spectra of learnability

They gave us Don­ald Norman’s The Design of Every­day Things1 to read in inter­ac­tion design school. I remem­ber read­ing it and—being young an cocky—finding it all very com­mon sense and “Why do they ask us to read this stuff?” And so on.2

I am reread­ing it now, in the hopes of sharp­en­ing my argu­ment for play­ful user expe­ri­ences.

(There are a lot of things I want to blog about actu­al­ly, such as how Hill and Webb’s adap­tive design reminds me of Salen & Zim­mer­man’s trans­for­ma­tive play, why Cook rejects MDA while Saf­fer embraces it and more.)

Any­way, my new copy of DOET has a nice intro­duc­tion by Nor­man in which he sum­ma­rizes a few core con­cepts form the book. On page xi—writing on con­cep­tu­al models—he writes:

[G]ood design is … an act of com­mu­ni­ca­tion between the design­er and the user, … all the com­mu­ni­ca­tion has to come about by the appear­ance of the device itself.”

In oth­er words, if you can’t fig­ure “it” out by just look­ing at it, it’s not well designed. Where “fig­ure it out” basi­cal­ly means under­stand how to oper­ate “it” suc­cess­ful­ly. Of course this is an impor­tant con­cept, but I think something’s miss­ing.

In games, it’s not enough just to be able to fig­ure out how to make Mario jump—for instance—you want to learn how to jump well.

It’s about skill and mas­tery in oth­er words. A “Nor­man Door” (a door that is dif­fi­cult to open) can be fixed so that peo­ple can open the door eas­i­ly. But a door has a nar­row spec­trum of learn­abil­i­ty. Or as Koster would prob­a­bly say: The pat­tern to “grok” is real­ly sim­ple.

Figure 1: A door’s spectrum of learnability

And any­way, why would you want to become a mas­ter at open­ing doors, right?

But a lot of the things I’m work­ing on (for instance cre­ative tools, but also toy-like envi­ron­ments) have more com­plex pat­terns and there­fore (wether I like it or not) have a wider spec­trum of learn­abil­i­ty. And that’s where usabil­i­ty alone is not enough. That’s where in test­ing, I’d need to make sure peo­ple don’t just under­stand how to do stuff by look­ing at it. (That’s the start, for sure.) But I also want to be able to tell if peo­ple can get bet­ter at doing stuff. Because if they get bet­ter at it, that’s when they’ll be hav­ing fun.

Figure 2: A toy’s spectrum of learnability

  1. Or The Psy­chol­o­gy of Every­day Things as it was then titled. []
  2. I still con­sid­er myself young, only slight­ly less cocky. []

Game player needs and designing architectures of participation

How do you cre­ate a cor­po­rate envi­ron­ment in which peo­ple share knowl­edge out of free will?1 This is a ques­tion my good friends of Wemind2 are work­ing to answer for their clients on a dai­ly basis.3 We’ve recent­ly decid­ed to col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly devel­op meth­ods use­ful for the design of a par­tic­i­pa­to­ry con­text in the work­place. Our idea is that since knowl­edge shar­ing is essen­tial­ly about peo­ple inter­act­ing in a con­text, we’ll apply inter­ac­tion design meth­ods to the prob­lem. Of course, some meth­ods will be more suit­ed to the prob­lem than oth­ers, and all will need to be made spe­cif­ic for them to real­ly work. That’s the chal­lenge.

Nat­u­ral­ly I will be look­ing for inspi­ra­tion in game design the­o­ry. This gives me a good rea­son to blog about the PENS mod­el. I read about this in an excel­lent Gama­su­tra arti­cle titled Rethink­ing Car­rots: A New Method For Mea­sur­ing What Play­ers Find Most Reward­ing and Moti­vat­ing About Your Game. The cre­ators of this mod­el4 want­ed to bet­ter under­stand what fun­da­men­tal­ly moti­vates game play­ers as well as come up with a prac­ti­cal play test­ing mod­el. What they’ve come up with is intrigu­ing: They’ve demon­strat­ed that to offer a fun expe­ri­ence, a game has to sat­is­fy cer­tain basic human psy­cho­log­i­cal needs: com­pe­tence, auton­o­my and relat­ed­ness.5

I urge any­one inter­est­ed in what makes games work their mag­ic to read this arti­cle. It’s real­ly enlight­en­ing. The cool thing about this mod­el is that it pro­vides a deep­er vocab­u­lary for talk­ing about games.6 In the article’s con­clu­sion the authors note the same, and point out that by using this vocab­u­lary we can move beyond cre­at­ing games that are ‘mere’ enter­tain­ment. They men­tion seri­ous games as an obvi­ous area of appli­ca­tion, I can think of many more (3C prod­ucts for instance). But I plan on apply­ing this under­stand­ing of game play­er needs to the design of archi­tec­tures of par­tic­i­pa­tion. Wish me luck.

  1. Tra­di­tion­al­ly, shar­ing knowl­edge in large organ­i­sa­tions is explic­it­ly reward­ed in some way. Arguably true knowl­edge can only be shared vol­un­tar­i­ly. []
  2. Who have been so kind to offer me some free office space, Wi-Fi and cof­fee since my arrival in Copen­hagen. []
  3. They are par­tic­u­lar­ly focused on the val­ue of social soft­ware in this equa­tion. []
  4. Scott Rig­by and Richard Ryan of Immer­syve []
  5. To nuance this, the amount to which a play­er expects each need to be sat­is­fied varies from game genre to genre. []
  6. Sim­i­lar to the work of Koster and of Salen & Zim­mer­man. []

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.

Playful IAs — slides for my Euro IA Summit 2007 talk

After a con­sid­er­able amount of fid­dling with SlideShare I’ve final­ly man­aged to upload a ver­sion of the slides that go with my Play­ful IAs pre­sen­ta­tion. This more or less as I pre­sent­ed it at the Euro IA Sum­mit 2007 and includes an approx­i­mate tran­script of my talk. I hope to get an audio/video record­ing of most of it in the near future as well. When I do I’ll update this page.

Update: I’ve post­ed a short sum­ma­ry of the cen­tral argu­ment of my talk.

Down­load a ver­sion includ­ing an approx­i­mate tran­script (14,5 MB).

I had some great reac­tions to this talk and I want to thank all the peo­ple who engaged with me in dis­cus­sions after­wards. It’s giv­en me a good pic­ture of what areas I should devel­op fur­ther in future sub­se­quent talks. I’m also pleas­ant­ly sur­prised to see that con­trary to what some peo­ple think, the IA com­mu­ni­ty (the Euro­pean one at least) is very much open to new ideas. That’s real­ly nice to expe­ri­ence first­hand.

A lot of peo­ple asked for a list of books and oth­er good sources on the top­ics I cov­ered. Here’s an incom­plete list of stuff I’ve used at some stage to inform my think­ing:

If that doesn’t keep you busy for a while, you could always have a dig through my del.icio.us links. There’s plen­ty of good stuff there. Of course of if you ever find any­thing you think would be of inter­est to me, do let me know. Just tag it for:kaeru.

Game mechanics in web apps

A while ago there was a dis­cus­sion on the IAI mem­bers list about game mechan­ics on web sites. Andrew Hin­ton point­ed to the Google Image Label­er and LinkedIn’s ‘pro­file com­plete­ness’ sta­tus bar and asked: “Can any­one else think of a use of a game mechan­ic like this to jump-start this kind of activ­i­ty?” (Where “this kind of activ­i­ty” is basi­cal­ly defined as some­thing peo­ple wouldn’t nor­mal­ly do for its own sake, like say tag­ging images.)

I was think­ing about this for a while the past week and seem to have end­ed up at the fol­low­ing:

Profile completeness status bar on LinkedIn

On LinkedIn, hav­ing a (more or less com­plete) pro­file pre­sum­ably serves some extrin­sic goal. I mean, by doing so you maybe hope you’ll land a new job more eas­i­ly. By slap­ping a sta­tus bar onto the pro­file that gives feed­back on its com­plete­ness, the assump­tion is that this will stim­u­late you to fill it out. In oth­er words, LinkedIn seems unsure about the pres­ence of extrin­sic moti­va­tions and is intro­duc­ing an intrin­sic one: get­ting a 100% ‘com­plete’ pro­file and as such mak­ing a game (in a very loose sense of the term) out of its pro­fes­sion­al net­work ser­vice. A good idea? I’m not sure…

Screenshot of Google Image Labeler

On Google Image Label­er, the start­ing point for its design was to come up with a way to have peo­ple add meta-data to images. Google actu­al­ly ‘bought’ the game (orig­i­nal­ly called The ESP Game) from CAPTCHA inven­tor Luis von Ahn, who before that did reCAPTCHA and after went on to cre­ate Peek­a­boom and Phetch. Any­way, in the case of the Image Label­er (con­trary to LinkedIn) there was no real extrin­sic goal to begin with so a game had to be cre­at­ed. Sim­ply hav­ing fun is the only rea­son peo­ple have when labelling images.

Note that Flickr for instance has found oth­er ways to get peo­ple to tag images. What hap­pened there is (I think) a very nice way of align­ing extrin­sic goals with intrin­sic (fun, game-like) ones.

Pure’ games by their very nature have only intrin­sic goals, they are arti­fi­cial and non-util­i­tar­i­an. When you con­sid­er intro­duc­ing game-like mechan­ics into your web site or appli­ca­tion (which pre­sum­ably serves some exter­nal pur­pose, like shar­ing pho­tos) think care­ful­ly about the extrin­sic moti­va­tions your users will have and come up with game-like intrin­sic ones that rein­force these.

Update: Alper fin­ished the LinkedIn pro­file com­plete­ness game and was dis­ap­point­ed to find there is no pot of gold at the end of the rain­bow, mir­ror­ing the expe­ri­ence many play­ers of real games have when fin­ish­ing a game.