Sunday, June 24, 2007

Short thoughts on games and interaction design

For some odd reason, I've been chatting more with people that are interested creating web 2.0 applications that borrow substantially from online games. If you see games as a technique for teaching skills and maintaining attention in a pleasurable fashion, I would expect this crossbreeding to only expand in the future.

Why games are interesting to the web
Website developers are desperate to have their users enjoy the experience of using the website. If you look at traditional usability and interaction design literature, it says a lot about improving functionality, but almost nothing about making that functionality pleasurable. In the gap there as emerged a faith derived aesthetic where minimalist, highly efficient interfaces are described as the major source of user pleasure. If the only tool in your toolbox measures efficiency, that is what you as a designer value. Regardless of whether or not cold efficiency is what your users value.

Games are interesting to web developers because they demonstrate a rich set of techniques, proven over the course of thousands of projects to keep users heavily engaged. Experience points, in game currencies, mission, player housing, avatar creation, and guilds are some of the meta-game systems that are almost immediately applicable to practically any existing class of application. These keep users around longer, give them an increased sense of community and when used appropriately give them warm fuzzy feelings.

Another area of great interest is that game explicitly deal with the concept of user exploration and the acquisition of new skills. They are experts at giving users the freedom to explore at their own pace while still encouraging the user to master new techniques, tools and skills. At the end of a game of Zelda you've learned hundreds of new techniques and you've enjoyed doing it.

At the end of a few hundred hours of used Digg, you've learned perhaps one or two new techniques. If you are really lucky, you've figured out their commenting system. Modern interaction design has great difficulty with the topic of learning. The current rule of thumb is that users should never be forced to learn any new skills in order to use the application. This greatly limits the scope of potential designs and their ultimate usefulness to expert users. Game techniques, as systems that teach, allow designers to break free from the oppressive assumption that they must only design for the lowest common denominator.

The baggage of games
Games also bring with them some interesting baggage. There is an unfortunate tendency to copy wholesale a game design and merely reskin it with a new theme. Math Blasters is certainly not the high point of cross breeding interaction design and game design. We need a deeper understanding of game design that allows us to choose the right elements for the job at hand. Here are a couple of pitfalls.

Don't use spatial relationship if it isn't necessary
Most occur in concretely realized spatial environments, whereas most applications do not. You play a game in a world with walls and ledges and characters. Many of the core mechanics of existing genres are built around these constructs. Some designers immediately think "3D world like Second Life!" when they imagine a game-like application. One of my favorite 'horrible user experiences' was in the early days of VRML, some fellow had replaced the desktop with a virtual office you wandered about. You were forced to walk from shelf to shelf and fiddle with clumsy 3D notebooks in the vain hope of finding the right 3D model that represented your last used document.

Applications operate in an abstract land of concepts. The mapping between navigating a maze in Pacman and linking cells in a spreadsheet formula is not obvious, nor is it likely even desirable. Instead consider the dozens of other game design techniques such as point systems, power ups, skill trees, currency and more. There are plenty of useful techniques that don't involve wandering about a world.

Inappropriate use of theme for the application at hand
Two people in the past week have asked me, "Does including a rich game-like theme increase the number of users or scare them off?" Their worry was that creating a theme for their application that sported rich characters and a predefined world (in one case a fantasy-land and in the other case a soap opera-esque college scene) would create an immediate filter that knocked out a goodly number of people from even trying the app in the first place. If you look at MySpace, Facebook or Digg, none of them have an obvious theme and they are the gold standard of success. Admittedly, almost all web 2.0 projects adhere to a ruthlessly minimalist school of design so that absence of rich setting is by no means evidence that it doesn't work.

Yet, if you were building a game world, this isn't even a question you ask. Our assumption is that people need a theme (Pirates! Elves!) in order to engage the abstract mechanics of the game. The theme is both the initial hook and a way of creating a context for the actions that eases the learning curve. Game designers can point to Warcraft, Tomb Raider, Ultima, and Mario and practically any title except Tetris that setting is critical to success. We fixate on establishing a rich, unique world as the single most valuable element of a game's brand.

But truth be told, I don't know if a rich theme is always a good idea for every application and every audience. Perhaps more importantly, I don't have the analytics tools (beyond some informed guesses) that would provide the insight necessary to make a good decision.

An open field
I'll stop now since this is my attempt at shorter post and it is a rather enormous topic. We are in a place where there is obvious benefit to be gained from cross breeding the two worlds of traditional interaction design and game design. However, it is not completely clear what should be borrowed, what should questioned and what should be reinterpreted. It is a fascinating topic for further inquiry. :-)

take care


Interaction Design image source

I borrowed the picture above from this lecture on interaction design.

What is interaction design
"Interaction design aims to minimize the learning curve and increase the accuracy and efficiency of task completion, without diminishing the value of a product's useful functionality. The objective is to lead to less frustration, higher productivity, and higher satisfaction for users."

"Ideally, products would have no learning curve: users would walk up to them for the very first time and achieve instant mastery."

All wonderful stuff that I practice daily. What I find fascinating is how there is no direct representation of user pleasure in the process. There is instead an assumption that by solving a problem in a pragmatic fashion, the user will automatically become happy. Taken to an extreme, interaction designers seek to build a utopia where every action is transparent and effortless.

Yet online game designers know from painful practical experience that utopias result in angry, destructive users. In almost all game designs, the process of mastery is the source of user value. An acknowledgment of pleasure of doing is missing from modern interaction design.

PS: July 2nd, 2007: Updated post to clarify the structure a bit.