Recess! 11 – Restate My Assumptions

Recess! is a cor­re­spon­dence series with per­son­al rumi­na­tions on games.

Dear Alper and Niels,

My apolo­gies, I fell off the Recess! horse there for a minute. But I’m back in the sad­dle. Let’s see, what were we talk­ing about again?

Alper obses­sive­ly played Ultra­tron for a while, got bored, stopped and felt guilty for spend­ing 11 hours on it.

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?

In short, let’s restate our assump­tions. I’ll go first:

  1. Play can be mean­ing­ful and use­less at the same time.
  2. Games can tell sto­ries with­out being immer­sive.

Kars

Are games media or design objects?

In a recent post on the Edge blog — which, if you con­sid­er your­self a games design­er, you absolute­ly must read — Matt Jones asks:

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.

Read­ing this, I recalled a dis­cus­sion I had with Dave Mal­ouf on Twit­ter a while back. It was sparked by a tweet from Matt, which reads:

it’s the 3rd year in a row they’ve ignored my sub­mis­sion of a game… hmmph (L4D, fwiw) — should games be seen as design objects? or media?”

I prompt­ly replied:

@moleitau design objects, for sure. I’m with mr Lantz on the games aren’t media thing.”

For an idea of what I mean by “being with Mr. Lantz”, you could do worse that to read this inter­view with him at the Tale of Tales blog.

At this point, Dave Mal­ouf joined the fray, post­ing:

@kaeru can a game be used to con­vey a mes­sage? We know the answer is yes, so doesn’t that make it a form of media? @moleitau”

I could not resist answer­ing that one, so I post­ed a series of four tweets:

@daveixd let me clar­i­fy: 1. some games are bits of con­tent that I con­sume, but not all are

@daveixd 2. ulti­mate­ly it is the play­er who cre­ates mean­ing, game design­ers cre­ate con­texts with­in which mean­ing emerges.

@daveixd 3. think­ing of games as media cre­ates a blind spot for all forms of pre-videogames era play”

@daveixd that’s about it real­ly, 3 rea­sons why I think of games more as tools than media. Some more thoughts: http://is.gd/5m5xa @moleitau”

To which Dave replied:

@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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?)

I think I’ll leave it at that.

Play in social and tangible interactions

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.

Sum­ma­ry

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

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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.

ix09-lightning-talk-presented015

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.

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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.

Sources

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)
  • the Will Wright quote is from an inter­view in Tra­cy Fullerton’s book Game Design Work­shop, sec­ond edi­tion
  • 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 Tetris research (which I first found in the pre­vi­ous­ly men­tioned arti­cle) is described in Epis­temic Action Increas­es With Skill (PDF), an arti­cle by Paul Maglio and David Kirsh
  • 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.

Thanks

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.

  1. For a detailed dis­cus­sion of the infor­ma­tion dis­play, have a look at this blog post. []

Embodied interaction and improvised information displays

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:

Tracing of a photo of an improvised information display in a hospital neonatology ward consisting of a whiteboard, magnets, stickers and writing

(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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

  1. Page 169 []
  2. Page 170 []