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. []

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. []