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.

Announcing a hybrid game opera for Monster

I nev­er thought I would make an opera. But now I have.

A bit of Monster

In a few weeks time the above mar­ket square in the town of Mon­ster will be trans­formed into an are­na where fight­ers duel each oth­er using their pet mon­sters. If this sounds famil­iar, it is no coin­ci­dence.

Mega Mon­ster Bat­tle Are­na is one of 11 operas pro­duced by Dario Fo to cel­e­brate the fifth anniver­sary of the West­land munic­i­pal­i­ty. Dario Fo spe­cial­ize in cre­at­ing music the­atre in close col­lab­o­ra­tion with the local com­mu­ni­ty. They asked com­pos­er Daniël Ham­burg­er to cre­ate the opera for Mon­ster. The brief was to do ‘some­thing’ with the town’s curi­ous name, and to make it a pro­duc­tion that would appeal to youth by ref­er­enc­ing games cul­ture.1

Daniël in turn approached me, since he had lit­tle affin­i­ty for games, and want­ed the piece to not only be about games, but to be a game itself. So that’s what I helped do. By turn­ing the game design prin­ci­ple of embed­ded nar­ra­tive inside-out, we’ve man­aged to cre­ate a struc­ture in which we can both tell a sto­ry using a script, and have per­form­ers impro­vise using game rules. Those rules I designed as a prop­er game. I could give you those rules and you would be able to play it your­self.

So there will be fights, and they’ll not be script­ed. You won’t know before­hand who will win, and nei­ther will we. There will also be a sto­ry, about a hero­ine fac­ing off with a bad guy, in the best game and mar­tial arts film tra­di­tion. Sieger M.G. was our third man, the piece’s writer. A rap­per turned poet with a life-long games addic­tion, there could be no bet­ter fit.

What’s prob­a­bly most excit­ing to me is that on top of the impro­vi­sa­tion­al chore­og­ra­phy of the duels, a live band will use a rule set of their own, com­posed by Daniël, that takes the game as it unfolds as its input to impro­vise. How’s that for adap­tive music?2

It might all go hor­ri­bly wrong, or it might become a won­der­ful spec­ta­cle. If you are like me and would like to find out which it will be, head to Mon­ster for one of the shows. They’re sched­uled for:

  • Thurs­day 18 June 20:30 (try­out)
  • Fri­day 19 June 20:30
  • Sat­ur­day 20 June 20:30

Tick­ets are 15 Euro and can be bought at the venue. Once the show is over, I’ll post some more detailed stuff about the actu­al work I did. Stay tuned.

Mega Moster Battle Arena flyer

  1. There would be tons of kids from local high schools to work with. They also want­ed to use the local fire­men choir. Oh, and aer­i­al work plat­forms too… []
  2. One of the sources of inspi­ra­tion for Daniël was John Zorn. []

Notes on play, exploration, challenge and learning

(My read­ing notes are pil­ing up so here’s an attempt to clear out at least a few of them.)

Part of the play expe­ri­ence of many dig­i­tal games is fig­ur­ing out how the damn thing works in the first place. In Rules of Play on page 210:

[…] as the play­er plays with FLUID, inter­ac­tion and obser­va­tion reveals the under­ly­ing prin­ci­ples of the sys­tem. In this case the hid­den infor­ma­tion grad­u­al­ly revealed through play is the rules of the sim­u­la­tion itself. Part of the play of FLUID is the dis­cov­ery of the game rules as infor­ma­tion.”

(Sad­ly, I could not find a link to the game men­tioned.)

I did not give Don­ald Nor­man all the cred­it he was due in my ear­li­er post. He doesn’t have a blind spot for games. Quite the con­trary. For instance, he explains how to make sys­tems eas­i­er to learn and points to games in the process. On page 183 of The Design of Every­day Things:

One impor­tant method of mak­ing sys­tems eas­i­er to learn and to use is to make them explorable, to encour­age the user to exper­i­ment and learn the pos­si­bil­i­ties through active explo­ration.”

The way to do this is through direct manip­u­la­tion, writes Nor­man. He also reminds us that it’s not nec­es­sary to make any sys­tem explorable.1 But (on page 184):

[…] if the job is crit­i­cal, nov­el, or ill-spec­i­fied, or if you do not yet know exact­ly what is to be done, then you need direct, first-per­son inter­ac­tion.”

So much writ­ten after DOET seems to have added lit­tle to the con­ver­sa­tion. I’m sur­prised how use­ful this clas­sic still is.

I’m remind­ed of a sec­tion of Matt Jones’s Inter­ac­tion 08 talk—which I watched yes­ter­day. He went through a num­ber of infor­ma­tion visu­al­i­sa­tions and said he’d like to add more stuff like that into Dopplr, to allow peo­ple to play with their data. He even com­pared this act of play to Will Wright’s con­cept of pos­si­bil­i­ty space.2 He also briefly men­tioned that eas­i­ly acces­si­ble tools for cre­at­ing infor­ma­tion visu­al­i­sa­tions might become a valu­able tool for design­ers work­ing with com­plex sets of data.

Nor­man actu­al­ly points to games for inspi­ra­tion, by the way. On page 184 just before the pre­vi­ous quote:

Some com­put­er sys­tems offer direct manip­u­la­tion, first-per­son inter­ac­tions, good exam­ples being the dri­ving, fly­ing, and sports games that are com­mon­place in arcades and on home machines. In these games, the feel­ing of direct con­trol over the actions is an essen­tial part of the task.”

And so on.

One of the most use­ful parts of Dan Saffer’s book on inter­ac­tion design is where he explains the dif­fer­ences between cus­tomi­sa­tion, per­son­al­i­sa­tion, adap­ta­tion and hack­ing. He notes that an adap­tive sys­tem can be designed to induce flow—balancing chal­lenge with the skill of the user. In games, there is some­thing called dynam­ic dif­fi­cul­ty adjust­ment (DDA) which has very sim­i­lar aims.

Salen and Zim­mer­man have their doubts about DDA though. In Rules of Play on page 223 they write:

Play­ing a game becomes less like learn­ing an expres­sive lan­guage and more like being the sole audi­ence mem­ber for a par­tic­i­pa­to­ry, impro­vi­sa­tion­al per­for­mance, where the per­form­ers adjust their actions to how you inter­act with them. Are you then play­ing the game, or is it play­ing you?”

Per­haps, but it all depends on what DDA actu­al­ly adjusts. The tech­nique might be objec­tion­able in a game (where a large part of the point is over­com­ing chal­lenge) but in oth­er sys­tems many of these objec­tions do not apply.

With a suc­cess­ful adap­tive design, the prod­uct fits the user’s life and envi­ron­ment as though it were cus­tom made.”

(Design­ing for Inter­ac­tion, page 162.)

Adap­tive sys­tems explic­it­ly antic­i­pate trans­for­ma­tive play. They allow them­selves to be changed through a person’s inter­ac­tions with it.3

A char­ac­ter­is­tic of good inter­ac­tion design is play­ful­ness, writes Mr. Saf­fer in his book on page 67:

Through seri­ous play, we seek out new prod­ucts, ser­vices and fea­tures and then try them to see how they work. How many times have you pushed a but­ton just to see what it did?”

The fun­ny thing is, the con­di­tions for play accord­ing to Saf­fer are very sim­i­lar to some of the basic guide­lines Nor­man offers: Make users feel com­fort­able, reduce the chance for errors and if errors do occur, make sure the con­se­quences are small—by allow­ing users to undo, for instance.

Mr. Nor­man writes that in games “design­ers delib­er­ate­ly flout the laws of under­stand­abil­i­ty and usabil­i­ty” (p.205). Although even in games: “[the] rules [of usabil­i­ty] must be applied intel­li­gent­ly, for ease of use or dif­fi­cul­ty of use” (p.208).

By now, it should be clear mak­ing inter­ac­tions play­ful is very dif­fer­ent from mak­ing them game-like.

  1. Appar­ent­ly, “explorable” isn’t a prop­er Eng­lish word, but if it’s good enough for Mr. Nor­man it’s good enough for me. []
  2. I blogged about pos­si­bil­i­ty space before here. []
  3. Yes, I know I blogged about adap­tive design before. Also about flow and adap­ta­tion, it seems. []