There’s been a few posts from the UX community in the recent past on flow states (most notably at 37signals’s Signal vs. Noise). This got me thinking about my own experiences of flow and what this tells me about how flow states could be induced with interfaces.
A common example of flow states is when playing a game (the player forgets she is pushing buttons on a game pad and is only mindful of the action at hand). I’ve experienced flow while painting but also when doing work on a PC (even when creating wireframes in Visio!) However, the most interesting flow experiences were while practising martial arts.
The interesting bit is that the flow happens when performing techniques in partner exercises or even fighting matches. These are all situations where the ‘system’ consists of two people, not one person and a medium mediated by an interface (if you’re willing to call a paint brush an interface that is).
To reach a state of flow in martial arts you need to stop thinking about performing the technique while performing it, but in stead be mindful of the effect on your partner and try to visualize your own movements accordingly. When flow happens, I’m actually able to ‘see’ a technique as one single image before starting it and while performing it I’m only aware of the whole system, not just myself.
Now here’s the beef. When you try to translate this to interface design, it’s clear that there’s no easy way to induce flow. The obvious approach, to create a ‘disappearing’ interface that is unobtrusive, minimal, etc. is not enough (it could even be harmful). In stead I’d like to suggest you need to make your game, software or site behave more like a martial arts fighter. It needs to push or give way according to the actions of it’s partner. You really need to approach the whole thing as an interconnected system where forces flow back and forth. Flow will happen in the user when he or she can work in a harmonious way. Usually this requires a huge amount of mental model adaptation on the user’s part… When will we create appliances that can infer the intentions of the user and change their stance accordingly? I’m not talking about AI here, but what I would like to see is stuff more along the lines of flOw.
So I’ve been playing AC: WW for over a week now and I must say it has lived up to my expectations. It’s a cute and quirky game that does not follow conventional game design rules. There is no way to die, no (real) way to loose or even win. In a sense it’s more like a toy than a game; you can play with it endlessly, there is no goal to reach (apart from discovering all it’s little secrets).
One of those secrets was particularly fun to discover. After a few days of play I convinced my girlfriend to give it a try. So she put the cartridge in her pink DS Lite. While I was cooking dinner, she went through the beginning stages (driving to the town in a taxi, getting a job with Tom Nook). A bit later, I picked it up again and went about my business (I think it was fishing, I still have a large loan to pay off after the first house expansion).
After a while I went back into the house and found (shock! horror!) a bunch of cockroaches running around my carefully kempt interior. “We have cockroaches!” I shouted to my girlfriend while running around the house trying to squash them. The apparent source was some apples lying around. “Didn’t the animals tell you don’t leave stuff lying around the house?” I asked her. They had, but where should she put them (the apples) otherwise? Good point.
We had a good laugh after that episode. Be careful who you play this game with; it might be a challenge living together in the real world – Animal Crossing is no different! But the real genius of the game is in these things. It’s a rules based world for sure (leave apples around the house, get cockroaches) but the mini-narratives that it allows you to build in this way is crazy.
Another example is the letters I find myself writing to the animals. I’m sure they’d be happy with any kind of letter, as long as I mention some specific words maybe (like ‘happy’ and ‘friend’). In stead, I’m writing fully formed sentences, and include little details that would be appreciated by real people. In that way, it’s allowing for subtle role-playing.
On the subject of role-playing (and there not being a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ way to play the game); I know I should be hard at work paying off the aforementioned loan (to progress to the next ‘level’). But in stead I find myself spending a lot of time and money on present for the animals, and donations to the museum. That might be role-playing (or that might be my real personality influencing what I find pleasurable in the game) but the coolest bit is that it doesn’t matter; any way of playing is valid.
Have any other people had similar experiences with the game? Are there ways to apply this logic (the patterns inherent in the game) to other domains?