The experience of playful IAs

Solving a Rubik's Cube

It’s time for a short update on my think­ing about Play­ful IAs (the top­ic of my Euro IA Sum­mit talk). One of the under-served aspects so far is the actu­al user expe­ri­ence of an archi­tec­ture that is play­ful.

Bri­an Sut­ton-Smith describes a mod­el describ­ing the ways in which games are expe­ri­enced in his book Toys as Cul­ture. I first came across this book in (not sur­pris­ing­ly) Rules of Play. He lists five aspects:

  1. Visu­al scan­ning
  2. Audi­to­ry dis­crim­i­na­tion
  3. Motor respons­es
  4. Con­cen­tra­tion
  5. Per­cep­tu­al pat­terns of learn­ing

Of most impor­tance to my sub­ject is the 5th one.

Game design, like the design of emer­gent IAs is a 2nd order design prob­lem. You can only shape the user’s expe­ri­ence indi­rect­ly. One of the most impor­tant sources of plea­sure for the user is the way you offer feed­back on the ways he or she has explored and dis­cov­ered the infor­ma­tion space.

Obvi­ous­ly, I’m not say­ing you should make the use of your ser­vice delib­er­ate­ly hard. How­ev­er, what I am say­ing is that if you’re inter­est­ed in offer­ing a play­ful expe­ri­ence on the lev­el of IA, then Sutton-Smith’s per­cep­tu­al pat­terns of learn­ing is the best suit­ed expe­ri­en­tial dimen­sion.

Possibility spaces and algorithmic architectures

A screenshot of Sim City.

One of the con­cepts I plan on explor­ing in my talk at the Euro IA Sum­mit in Barcelona is ‘pos­si­bil­i­ty spaces’. It’s a term used by Will Wright to describe his view of what a game can be — a space that offers mul­ti­ple routes and out­comes to its explor­er. That idea maps nice­ly with one def­i­n­i­tion of play that Zim­mer­man and Salen offer in Rules of Play: ‘free move­ment with­in a rigid struc­ture’. Some exam­ples of pos­si­bil­i­ty spaces cre­at­ed by Wright are the well-known games Sim City and The Sims.

I think the idea of pos­si­bil­i­ty spaces can help IAs to get a firmer grip on ways to real­ize infor­ma­tion spaces that are mul­ti-dimen­sion­al and (to use a term put for­ward by Jesse James Gar­rett) algo­rith­mic. Algo­rith­mic archi­tec­tures accord­ing to Gar­rett are cre­at­ed ‘on the fly’ based on a set of rules (algo­rithms) that get their input (ide­al­ly) from user behav­iour. The exam­ple he uses to explain this con­cept is Ama­zon.

I’ve found myself in sev­er­al projects recent­ly that would have ben­e­fit­ed from an algo­rith­mic approach. The hard thing is to explain its charms to clients and to get a uni­fied vision of what it means across to the design team. I believe games might be a use­ful anal­o­gy. What do you think?