Niels helped make Toki Tori 2, got all conflicted about his feelings for the game and went on about how elegantly its world conveys his story.
Sigh. I hope you’ll both excuse me while I don my schoolmaster’s cap and proceed to school you.
It’s telling Alper feels Moves offers more meaningful play than Ultratron. He’s stuck in what Sutton-Smith calls ‘the rhetorics of animal progress’. The idea that play is only meaningful when it contributes to ‘individual development and group culture’. Alper, you should lighten up and maybe submit to the rhetoric of frivolity. Put simply, you should allow yourself to play the fool. Because “unlike the rest of us, who are all losers in most of the conventional senses, and most surely in the mortal sense, the fool transcends triviality.”
Niels, on the other hand, should do himself a favor and read Remediation because he seems to think ‘immediacy’ is the holy grail of media. The medium should disappear, it should not get in the way of the audience’s experience of the message. Well Niels, I have news for you: immediacy is only one possible media mode and its drawbacks are considerable. Most importantly, it precludes critical engagement of an audience with a medium’s message. Hypermediacy, on the other hand, foregrounds the workings of media. It foregoes ‘immersion’ and ‘seamlesness’ in favor of bricolage and seamfulness (PDF). In doing so, it allows for active audience engagement. Don’t you wish that for your stories?
“Why should pocket calculators be put on a pedestal, and not Peggle?”
He writes about the need for games to be appreciated and critiqued as design objects. He points out that the creation of any successful game is “at least as complex and coordinated as that of a Jonathan Ive laptop”. He also speculates that reasons for games to be ignored is that they might be seen primarily as media, and that mainstream design critics lack literacy in games, which makes them blind to their design qualities.
“@kaeru re: #2 all meaning regardless of medium or media are derived at the human level.”
“@kaeru maybe this is semantics, but any channel that has an element of communicating a message, IMHO is media. Tag & tic-tac-toe also.”
“@kaeru wait, are you equating games to play to fun? But I’m limiting myself to games. I.e. role playing is play, but not always a game.”
At this point, I got frustrated by Twitter’s lack of support for a discussion of this kind. So I wrote:
“@daveixd Twitter is not the best place for this kind of discussion. I’ll try to get back to your points via my blog as soon as I can.”
And here we are. I’ll wrap up by addressing each of Dave’s points.
Although I guess Dave’s right about all meaning being derived at the human level, what I think makes games different from, say, a book or a film is that the thing itself is a context within which this meaning making takes place. It is, in a sense, a tool for making meaning.
Games can carry a message, and sometimes are consciously employed to do so. One interesting thing about this is on what level the message is carried — is it told through bits of linear media embedded in the game, or does it emerge from a player’s interaction with the game’s rules? However, I don’t think all games are made to convey a message, nor are they all played to receive one. Tic-Tac-Toe may be a very rough simulation of territorial warfare, and you could argue that it tells us something about the futility of such pursuits, but I don’t think it was created for this reason, nor is it commonly played to explore these themes.
I wasn’t equating games to play (those two concepts have a tricky relationship, one can contain the other, and vice-versa) but I do feel that thinking of games as media is a product of the recent video game era. By thinking of games as media, we risk forgetting about what came before video games, and what we can learn from these toys and games, which are sometimes nothing more than a set of socially negotiated rules and improvised attributes (Kick the can, anyone?)
Now that the IxDA has posted a video of my presentation at Interaction 09 to Vimeo, I thought it would be a good idea to provide a little background to the talk. I had already posted the slides to SlideShare, so a full write-up doesn’t seem necessary. To provide a little context though, I will summarize the thing.
The idea of the talk was to look at a few qualities of embodied interaction, and relate them to games and play, in the hopes of illuminating some design opportunities. Without dwelling on what embodiment really means, suffice to say that there is a school of thought that states that our thinking originates in our bodily experience of the world around us, and our relationships with the people in it. I used the example of an improvised information display I once encountered in the paediatric ward of a local hospital to highlight two qualities of embodied interaction: (1) meaning is socially constructed and (2) cognition is facilitated by tangibility.1
With regards to the first aspect — the social construction of meaning — I find it interesting that in games, you find a distinction between the official rules to a game, and the rules that are arrived at through mutual consent by the players, the latter being how the game is actually played. Using the example of an improvised manège in Habbo, I pointed out that under-specified design tends to encourage the emergence of such interesting uses. What it comes down to, as a designer, is to understand that once people get together to do stuff, and it involves the thing you’ve designed, they will layer new meanings on top of what you came up with, which is largely out of your control.
For the second aspect — cognition being facilitated by tangibility — I talked about how people use the world around them to offload mental computation. For instance, when people get better at playing Tetris, they start backtracking more than when they just started playing. They are essentially using the game’s space to think with. As an aside, I pointed out that in my experience, sketching plays a similar role when designing. As with the social construction of meaning, for epistemic action to be possible, the system in use needs to be adaptable.
To wrap up, I suggested that, when it comes to the design of embodied interactive stuff, we are struggling with the same issues as game designers. We’re both positioning ourselves (in the words of Eric Zimmerman) as meta-creators of meaning; as designers of spaces in which people discover new things about themselves, the world around them and the people in it.
I had several people come up to me afterwards, asking for sources, so I’ll list them here.
the significance of the social construction of meaning for interaction design is explained in detail by Paul Dourish in his book Where the Action Is
the research by Jean Piaget I quoted is from his book The Moral Judgement of the Child (which I first encountered in Rules of Play, see below)
the concept of ideal versus real rules is from the wonderful book Rules of Play by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman (who in turn have taken it from Kenneth Goldstein’s article Strategies in Counting Out)
for a wonderful description of how children socially mediate the rules to a game, have a look at the article Beyond the Rules of the Game by Linda Hughes (collected in the Game Design Reader)
for a discussion of pragmatic versus epistemic action and how it relates to interaction design, refer to the article How Bodies Matter (PDF) by Scott Klemmer, Björn Hartmann and Leila Takayama (which is rightfully recommended by Dan Saffer in his book, Designing Gestural Interfaces)
the “play is free movement…” quote is from Rules of Play
the picture of the guy skateboarding is a still from the awesome documentary film Dogtown and Z‑Boys
for a lot of great thinking on “loose fit” design, be sure to check out the book How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand
the “meta-creators of meaning” quote is from Eric Zimmerman’s foreword to the aforementioned Game Design Workshop, 2nd ed.
And that’s it. Interaction 09 was a great event, I’m happy to have been a part of it. Most of the talks seem to be online now. So why not check them out? My favourites by far were John Thackara and Robert Fabricant. Thanks to the people of the IxDA for all the effort they put into increasing interaction design’s visibility to the world.
For a detailed discussion of the information display, have a look at this blog post. [↩]
Recently a good friend of mine became a dad. It made me feel really old, but it also lead to an encounter with an improvised information display, which I’d like to tell you about, because it illustrates some of the things I have learnt from reading Paul Dourish’s Where the Action Is.
My friend’s son was born a bit too early, so we went to see him (the son) at the neonatology ward of the local hospital. It was there that I saw this whiteboard with stickers, writing and the familiar magnets on it:
(I decided to trace the photo I took of it and replace the names with fictional ones.)
Now, at first I only noticed parts of what was there. I saw the patient names on the left-hand side, and recognised the name of my friend’s son. I also noticed that on the right-hand side, the names of all the nurses on duty were there. I did not think much more of it.
Before leaving, my friend walked up to the whiteboard and said something along the lines of “yes, this is correct,” and touched one of the green magnets that was in the middle of the board as if to confirm this. It was then that my curiosity was piqued, and I asked my friend to explain what the board meant.
It turns out it was a wonderful thing, something I’ll call an improvised information display, for lack of a better word. What I had not seen the first time around, but were pointed out by my friend:
There is a time axis along the top of the board. By placing a green magnet at the height of a child’s name somewhere along this axis, parents can let the staff know when they intend to visit. This is important for many reasons. One being that it helps the nurses time the moment a child will be fed so that the parents can be present. So in the example, the parents of ‘Faramond’ will be visiting around 21:00 hours.
There are different colour magnets behind the children’s names, and behind the nurses’ names. This shows which nurse is responsible for which child. For instance, ‘Charlotte’ is in charge of ‘Once’s’ care.
Dourish’s book has influenced the way I look at things like this. It has made me more aware of their unique value. Whereas before I would think that something like this could be done better by a proper designer, with digital means, I now think the grasp-able aspect of such a display is vital. I also now believe that the prominent role of users in shaping the display is vital. Dourish writes:1
“What embodied interaction adds to existing representational practice is the understanding that representations are also themselves artefacts. Not only do they allow users to “reach through” and act upon the entity being represented, but they can also themselves be acted upon—picked up, examined, manipulated and rearranged.”
Parents and nurses reach through the display I saw in the neonatology ward to act upon the information about visiting times and responsibility of care. But they also act on the components of the display itself to manipulate the meaning they have.
In fact, this is how the display was constructed in the first place! The role of the designer in this display was limited to the components themselves. Designers were responsible for the affordances of the whiteboard, the magnets, the erasable markers and stickers, which enabled users to produce the information display they needed. In the words of Dourish:2
“Principle: Users, not designers, create and communicate meaning.”
“Principle: Users, not designers, manage coupling.”
It is the nurses and the parents and the social practice they together constitute that gives rise to the meaning of the display. What the board means is obvious to them, because they have ‘work’ that needs to be done together. It was not obvious to me, because I am not part of that group. It was not a designer that decided what the meaning of the different colours of the magnets were. It was a group of users who coupled meaning to the components they had available to them.
It might be a radical example, but I think this does demonstrate what people can do if the right components are made available to them, and they are allowed to make their own meaning with them. I think it is important for designers to realise this, and allow for this kind of manipulation of the products and services they shape. Clearly, Dourish’s notion of embodied interaction is a key to designing for adaptation and hacking. When it comes to this, today’s whiteboards, magnets and markers seem to do a better job than many of our current digital technologies.