Playful Design Blog

Creating Game Experiences in Everyday Interfaces

Posts written by John Ferrara

  • Why should UX designers care about games? (Part 1)

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    Last week I tweeted this question out to the world.  Here are some of the great responses I’ve received so far, and with more coming in every day it looks like I’m going to have to make it into a series!  If you’d like to contribute to the next installment, just follow and tweet me.

    Kara Behnke
    Technology, Media, & Society PhD Program, University of Colorado Boulder
    User experience designers must pay attention to games because the gaming industry has been perfecting UX design for decades. In fact, effective UX design is the heart of the billion-dollar gaming industry. Why? Games are structured information systems that guide users’ actions and give them tools they need to reach specific goals. These systems provide users with immediate feedback on their choices and give them the support they need to progress forward to reach those goals. But game developers also know that UX design is not just about feedback loops and beautiful icons–it’s an art in and of itself to perfect user experience design. The greatest games are so effective at immersing users (players) in the design that players don’t even know they’re interacting with UX design–usability (game play) is intuitive, feels natural, and flows unconsciously. Players know immediately when UX works or doesn’t work in a game; they expect nothing but perfection. Therefore, developers know that effective UX design makes the difference between the AAA blockbuster hit or a million-dollar flop. Future UX designers would be wise to pay attention to the methodology and many hard-learned lessons from the gaming industry. Why relearn what’s already been learned?
    Shirley Man
    UX Designer / Program Manager, Electronic Arts (EA Tech)
    Game designers and researchers face the same challenges as UX practitioners, and they have been solving these problems with similar approaches.


    Cross-platform games need to have responsive and adaptive front-ends; levels and maps are carefully crafted to give gamers a sense of orientation and progressive disclosure; in-game tutorials and hints need to provide just enough information to get gamers up to speed without overwhelming them; immersive user experience can be achieved by means of believable animations, audio, physics, lighting, camera angles and effects; gameplay mechanics, controller schemes and user satisfaction are tested and measured using a variety of techniques such as playtesting, eye-tracking, telemetries… etc.


    If UX designers want to apply game design elements (aka gamification) to their work, they need to go far beyond just the use of badges, progress bars and leaderboards.

    Cheryl Platz
    Senior User Experience Designer, Microsoft (Server & Tools Division)
    Games have acted as a graceful interface to complex systems for decades. Game designers take these complex rule systems and layer interactions on top of those rules in ways that can be tremendously rewarding. Think of the SimCity games – teaching people the difficulty of city planning in a way that delighted players. Here at Microsoft, those moments of “delight” have been an increasingly important goal (yes, even at Microsoft) and I look to my experience with those games when designing for complexity.
    There is a tremendous amount we in user experience can learn from the world of game design: guiding human behavior, teaching new concepts, storytelling and communication, and the joy that humans find in progressive mastery. For those using natural interfaces, games are even more critical. Speech recognition has been in some games since the era of the Nintendo 64. Gesture in some form has been around since the Wii. The natural interface language “spoken” by our users will be learned within the context of gaming.
    Of course, not all games do things ‘right’, but we can learn from the good and the bad. “Gamification” as a word may leave a bad taste in your mouth, but this is something deeper – understanding the “why” and the “how” behind successful games, not just a paint-by-numbers approach to game mechanics.
    Cindy Ritzman
    Senior Graphic Designer, DomainTools
    Formerly Marketing Creative Director of WildTangent
    Gamers have shorter attention spans. They expect action and interaction. Certainly not inaction!
    Whether gamers are looking for  hidden objects, exploding jewels, racing cars, shooting missiles or killing zombies, every gamer expects some sort of immediate feedback for the choices he/she has made. 
    I’m not implying that UX Designers should build in a points to encourage users to click buttons and turn tasks into games. 
    However, I do think that UX Design should bring in the dimension of perceived time and immediate visual feedback as a design tool. Keep forms simple. Don’t overcomplicate choices. Ensure pages download quickly and work on the platform/browser the audience is using. Don’t make someone feel like he has to jump over a bunch of hurdles to accomplish an obviously simple task. Help keep a process moving until that goal is accomplished. Provide help along the way.
    If a user can’t immediately engage with a website, chances are that user won’t return. And  most gamers feel the same way about their favorite games: they enjoy playing by actively accomplishing goals within rules that are understandable.
    Companies who are tempted to collect customer data (with no benefit to customers), force customer to wait through splash screens, make customers read meaningless gobbledegook, make check-outs torturously slow and labyrinthine, and design pages that don’t work seamlessly across major browsers are the real losers.
    Kris Rockwell
    Developing an engaging user experience (UX) is, obviously, a crucial component of building a successful game. The entire experience is what keeps the player fully engaged and any bit of weakness often leads to negative reviews and poor ratings. The use of proper game mechanics, storytelling and all contribute to the experience and can draw a player in and keep them playing (evidence World of Warcraft, Skyrim, Angry Birds, etc…). UX designers can easily draw from the game development “toolbox” and use these mechanics to build applications/experiences with similar effect provided that they are used properly and carefully considered during the design process. Much like building a game, however, these design elements are best implemented from a ground up approach rather than trying to “bolt them on” after the initial design has been completed. This approach will ensure that the game elements are embedded in the overall experience as opposed to being added as an afterthought that may serve to annoy the users rather than engage them.
    Łukasz Tyrała
    Senior Interaction Designer, Pride and Glory Interactive 
    Games are about having fun. Some are complex, hard to master, contain hundred of pages to read or require lightning keystrokes; but all strive for low entry point, an easy to learn interface and perfect execution. Not all are for everyone, but anyone will find something for one’s self.
    Epic games make you smile, even when you think about them 10 years later. Some people change their wallpaper awaiting release of a sequel or stay awake until sunrise figuring out how to finish a level they are playing. All of that is true because games are all about experience.
    Gamification might be a buzzword, but fun is an emotion that most of us strive for. Game designers do not care about KPIs, conversion rates or databases full of e-mails. They care about fun, and so should UX designers working on websites and applications – at least for 50% of the time spent on a project.
    Sebastian Deterding
    Designer and Researcher, coding conduct
    To me, the rising interest in UX circles in games is driven by a deeper shift “from usability to motivation,” as Joshua Porter once put it: Especially online, business models transition from one-time transactions with consumers to continued participation of “produsers” contributing ideas, UGC, data, word-of-mouth etc. to your service – hence, companies need to motivate these contributions. Second, the core offering of many new product categories is facilitating motivation (think health, wellness, self-management, sustainability, employee engagement). And as utility and usability are increasingly commoditized, experience, emotion, motivation became the new market differentiators.
    In parallel, our understanding of motivation itself shifted. As popularized by the likes of Dan Pink or Teresa D. Amabile, time and again we see that intrinsic motivation – the joys innate in an activity – is more important and sustainable than extrinsic motivation. And what intrinsic motivation drives the most passionate users? Here I take my cue from Kathy Sierra: It is not enabling them to do something (utility) or making it a little easier (usability) – let alone coupons or sweepstakes (extrinsic motivation). It is growing their competence in achieving the deeper goals they pursue with your product. In short: “Don’t design a better X; design a better user of X.” Don’t give me a better camera – give me the experience of becoming a better photographer. 
    This, it turns out, is at the core of what makes playing well-designed games fun. As game designer Raph Koster puts it: “Fun from games arises out of mastery.” Solving a puzzle, crossing a chasm, shooting an alien: Games are machines for producing interestingly challenging interactions that give rise to feelings of progress, competence and mastery. So as UX designers, we should care about game design because it shows how to design such intrinsically motivating interactions. It teaches us that motivation is no magic sauce you can ‘just add.’ Gameful design, as I like to call it, is restructuring an interaction into a tight loop of goals, actions, and feedback around the innate learnable challenge of what the user wants to get better at in using your product – scaffolded over time to afford lasting depth, variety, and a continual sense of achievement and progress.
    The best we can take from game design are not patterns (by their nature transient, commoditized, and encouraging magic sauce thinking), nor methods (iterative prototyping is – or should be – as innate to UX design as to game design). It is, to follow Jesse Schell and Bill Scott, “lenses”: Ways of looking at our design, questions to ask of it, like “How does it unfold over time?”, or “How is autonomy supported?” There are many sources for learning how to design for motivation. But when it comes to mastery, game design is arguably the richest wellspring we have.
    Jonathan Shariat
    User experience designer,
    Before the iPhone and before the wheel, we learned how to survive by playing. Play is nature’s way of making learning enjoyable, just as a lion cub learns how to hunt as it wrestles its siblings. By studying games we can extract those mechanisms that turn learning into fun. Usually learning new software is the very opposite of fun. Games not only mitigate that pain but replace it with joy. For User Experience Designers, play is studying natures own, perfected, human interface. 
    Ale Muñoz
    Interaction Designer, Designit
    In a former life as a game developer, I learned a couple of things that I try not to forget in my current job as a UX designer. Obvious stuff, but interesting stuff anyway:
    Simple = good. Too simple = bad
    There are really simple games that are truly amazing: Tetris, Lemmings, Canabalt, Tiny Wings… They are easy to understand, yet take some time to master and never get old. They are timeless because extreme care was taken when choosing features and tuning difficulty. They keep the player in the flow zone. Make them a bit more complex and the player gets frustrated. Make them a bit simpler and the player gets bored.
    Likewise, the line that separates a “beautifully simple interface” from an “interface for dummies” is thin and easy to cross. Simplifying interaction requires great thought and extreme care.
    Games are memorable
    Ask gamers for their favorite old games and you’ll get a long list of classic titles: Mario, Pacman, Donkey Kong, Monkey Island…
    Do the same with users of desktop applications and you’ll get blank stares.
    Games are experiences that we remember. They make us feel joy, anger, excitement, fear… in a way that most computer interactions don’t. In a sense, they are truly “User Experience”, whereas Interaction Design is mostly “User Usage”. Whenever I’m designing an interaction, I try to ask myself:
    > Will anybody remember this in six months?
    If we try to not only design interaction, but also try to craft a memorable experience, we’ll increase our chances of emphatizing with our users and creating great design.
    Ana Escontrela
    Senior Interaction Designer, Tuenti
    UX design is about building relationships between products and users. It’s not just about how something should work, but what it means to the user’s life. Building a relationship means creating a unique connection between users and product. 
    So far, UX designers have learned to understand the user’s thinking and behaviour. But we have missed a key part of the puzzle: how do they feel? Because video games are focused on creating pleasure, they already know how to create memorable experiences and unique bonds with the user.
    Connecting the dots between the two fields doesn’t mean translating game elements, it is more like transferring principles. In fact, some dots are already connected. If you take a look at Nielsen’s heuristics you’ll find some points in common regarding the interface design. So, what have we missed? 
    It is *the gameplay principles* (storylines and winning strategies) that are such great tools for empathising with our users. Think about the possibilities of adding this layer to craft the workflow, at first run and with tutorials or complex tasks that involve several actions. Connecting every piece of our design to create a story definitely makes it more valuable. So, let’s play!
    Ana Redmond
    Founder, – Learning with Kids
    For the last year, I have been building kid’s educational games at I used to build enterprise and consumer web apps. Many aspects that seem specific to game design can help make other apps friendlier. 
    Designing for the novice and expert
    Games start with a low entry criteria, and gradually increase difficulty level for the player, keeping their engagement throughout. Enterprise apps usually have only two levels – tough and expert.
    Feelings matter
    Angry birds does not hide the birds emotion. We feel good getting rid of the pigs. Enterprise and consumer web apps today mostly hide any sense of achievement. When I hit the confirm button on an e-commerce site, I feel that sinking feeling of spending hard earnt money, instead of the joy and anticipation of a new thing coming my way.
    Advocate for the player
    That one seems obvious. But, so often, we end up adding more and more to please everyone, that we fail to please the only person that matters – the end user. After you design your first game, you’ll have a much stronger voice for the user. Try it.
    Binh Tran
    Freelance Visual Designer
    Games have always been one of the main sources of inspiration for me as a designer. Revisiting the older games from the past reveals insights on how to engage, motivate, and delight with simplicity and with strong storytelling (Legend of Zelda, Chrono Trigger, Super Mario Bros., to name a few). More complex games such as simulation (SimCity and Civilizations series) and role-playing games (EVE Online, World of Warcraft) are great examples of dashboard interfaces and control panels.
    What makes games important to UX designers is that most of the elements that are crucial in our line of work (UI, interaction, storytelling…) have been designed, tested, and improved a very large and extremely engaged audience/community. The success of games is testament to their effectiveness.

    A note to the Gamification Summit: Surviving the backlash

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    This week, scores of designers, developers, marketers, and venture capitalists are meeting up at the Gamification Summit in San Francisco. Since it appeared in the pop design lexicon a very few years ago, interest in “gamification” has exploded worldwide.

    But even as its popularity is surging, a growing cultural skepticism of gamification has started to emerge. There’s a creeping suspicion that “gamified” applications are exploitative, cynical, ill-conceived, simplistic, and ultimately unsustainable. Thought leaders who have advocated for the social benefits of games and play are careful to draw a line between their own views and gamification. These are just a few

    • Jane McGonigal declared in The New York Times that “I don’t do ‘gamification,’ and I’m not prepared to stand up and
      say I think it works. I don’t think anybody should make games to try to
      motivate somebody to do something they don’t want to do. If the game is
      not about a goal you’re intrinsically motivated by, it won’t work.”
    • Ian Bogost made his views reasonably clear in his blog post “Gamification is Bullshit“, elaborating that “[The term] ‘exploitationware’ captures gamifiers’ real intentions: a grifter’s game, pursued to capitalize on a cultural moment, through services about which they have questionable expertise, to bring about results meant to last only long enough to pad their bank accounts before the next bullshit trend comes along.”
    • Eric Zimmerman was a tad more subtle but no less critical in his keynote at GLS 7 asserting that “Stakeholders of all kinds are falling for fads like badges and gamification. Maybe we’re barking up the wrong trees — or even wandering in the wrong forest altogether.”
    • Jesse Schell (a speaker at this year’s Gamification Summit) expresses his concern that “A lot of times these efforts can have a kind of fake feeling to them, and it’s one of the real problems these efforts have” in an online video

    It must be said that all of these critiques do not come without very strong justification. We suffer a glut of implementations toting the “gamification” banner that amount to little more than points and badges tacked onto an underlying system that remains otherwise unchanged. These
    kinds of approaches will not survive because they do not value gameplay, so players will not value them.

    It’s hard to think that gamification is anything but overhyped at the moment, and that its cresting popularity isn’t headed for a crash. Gartner’s hype cycle illustrates how this happens predictably with hot new thing after hot new thing.


    I happen to believe that games can achieve great things in the real world. I’m sure that a lot of people at the Gamification Summit believe that too, but the overwhelming noise in the current market makes it difficult discern which projects have the real potential to effect meaningful change. The world needs to move toward a post-hype discussion of how games can make a difference in people’s lives. I’ll offer a few suggestions for things that I believe are important to that discussion.

    1. Conceive of these projects as games, first and foremost.
      Rather than creating things that are game-like or game-inspired, create things that are true games. You can’t bolt game elements onto something that isn’t a game and expect them to have the effect that an actual game would have. Much better to start with something that really is a game, through and through.
    2. Value the quality of the player experience. More than anything else, games need to be designed to be enjoyed. This is, after all, the reason why people play games in the first place. It’s not because they love your brand; they play because they value the experience. Designers should care about the design, and how it arouses feelings of engagement, fulfillment, pride, connectedness, and fun in players.
    3. Put the interests of players before your own. Any successful game experience must work in service of the interests of the player before it works in service of the interests of its designers. There’s an inherent selfishness to gameplay, and players will reject experiences that prioritize someone else’s agenda. To the extent that any design trades off enjoyable gameplay in service of real-world objectives, it is ultimately shooting itself in the foot.
    4. Focus on intrinsic rewards. Games must enjoyed in and of themselves, and not played only for the extrinsic rewards they offer. HopeLab’s ZamZee, for instance, pays kids real-world rewards for the number of steps they take in a day. This isn’t a game, because people would feel no motivation to play it if the bribes weren’t there. A true game stands on its own, and offers its own rewards.
    5. Do good. Much of the cynicism around gamification comes from its frequent association with the marketing of commercial products like Honey Nut Cheerios and Chicken McNuggets. Of course games can serve good too, as the impressive titles showcased at conferences like Games for Health and Games for Change demonstrate year after year. People are much more likely to have welcoming attitudes toward these kinds of games.
    6. Let’s stop talking about “using” games. I personally slip up on this a lot, but it’s important to realize that this particular turn of phrase is very off-putting. It has a sinister ring of manipulation, and alienates players who don’t want to feel like they’re being “used” for someone else’s ends.
    7. Drop the “g” word. In addition to sounding graceless and faddish, “gamification” completely emphasizes the wrong thing. It implies an experience that is by its nature something other than a game, but dressed up to resemble one. It’s also so imprecisely defined that it has been broadly applied to anything from Farmville to LinkedIn’s profile completeness bar. This is not a useful term, because it can’t make meaningful distinctions between meaningfully dissimilar things.

    Taking these suggestions would muddle contemporary thinking around gamification to the point that it’s not clear that it would continue to exist as a concept. Maybe that’s a good thing. We can’t get to the other side of the hype cycle, where the underlying idea finally finds productive mainstream adoption, without a major shift in the status quo. For games to realize their full potential to create meaningful change in the real world, maybe “gamification” has to die.

    Can exergames increase physical activity?

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    Earlier this year, a study published in the journal Pediatrics found that five games that are marketed with the promise of increasing players’ physical fitness produced no actual difference in activity.  78 kids between 9 and 12 were given Wii consoles, and then one group was given a couple of exergames while a control group was given “inactive” games like Madden and Mario Kart.  The kids wore devices to measure their physical activity, and they kept logs of when they played. 

    To be certain, the study was performed by a very accomplished group of researchers. The lead author, Tom Baranowski of Baylor College, is one of the most widely published researchers of health games.  And this was a very well-designed study, printed in the foremost journal on children’s health.
    Nevertheless, the study should not be read to mean that games can’t affect physical activity and can’t have a positive impact on public health. That’s because it didn’t account for the most influential factor in a health game’s impact — its design.  Five different exergames were included in the study:
    • Active Life – Extreme Challenge
    • EA Sports Active
    • Dance Dance Revolution – Hottest Party 3
    • Wii Fit Plus
    • Wii Sports
    Although all of these games are marketed with the promise of improving health, there’s no reason to believe that they’re actually designed to do so. If they can be sold on the basis of perception alone, that that’s all they really need to be commercially successful.
    And I don’t believe that these 5 games are sincere, well-informed efforts to truly motivate players to adopt active exercise routines. Dance Dance Revolution has players step backward and forward repeatedly, but the dances are not programmed with regard to the physical rigor of those motions. Many of the games in Wii Sports require very little body movement at all. Wii Fit has a few lightweight step routines, but the game as a whole doesn’t promote the kind of sustained physical exertion you would expect from a real trainer’s program.
    Design makes all the difference. Yes, Baranowski et al. demonstrates that the designs of these five games in particular have no effect on physical activity. No surprise there, I don’t believe that was the intention behind them. Games that are specifically designed to persuade players to get up and move, rigorously, on a long-term basis are much more likely to have a real imact on health. I don’t know of any exergames that are doing this really well right now, but it’s a great opportunity for designers who want to make a real difference.

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    When it started, I have to admit that I was really excited.

    As I was in the process of writing this book, out of pure coincidence interest in the positive effects that video games can have in the real world spontaneously erupted within the general culture. Although this was an idea that a lot of people had been promoting for some time, it had mostly flown under the public’s radar. Back in 2008, I had been a little worried that a UX book about solving real-world problems through games would be seen as a bit fringe. So when interest started to gather entirely of its own accord, I thought it was a great thing.
    Then it started getting scary.

    Things labeled “games” are springing up everywhere, and many them can be seen as games in only the most superficial ways. The pervasive problem with these implementations has been that they are designed with insufficient regard for the quality of the player experience. They contain none of the joy, fascination, and complexity that makes games the beautiful interactions they are. In the worst cases, they demonstrate an impoverished, cynical, and exploitative view of games and the innate human drive to engage in play.
    Take, for example, the McNuggets Saucy Challenge, a Flash game on McDonald’s public website. The challenge in question is to dip your McNugget into six different sauces mirroring a pattern that increments by one sauce for every successful cycle (like Simon). When your memory inevitably falters, you’re invited to post your score–with McAdvertising–to Facebook as a prerequisite to being ranked on a leaderboard. This design is impoverished because it doesn’t offer meaningful play. It is cynical because it shows no regard for the legitimacy of play as a human endeavor. It is exploitative because it pursues self-serving ends that are disproportionate to the value of the gameplay experience it offers in return. I wish I could say that this example is an exception, but today it’s much closer to being the norm.

    Then, a graceless and overly memorable buzzword crashed into the culture: gamification. The name itself betrays the conceptual flaw of this fad, implying an experience that is by its nature something other than a game but dressed up to resemble one. And indeed, many implementations that fall under the “gamification” banner amount to little more points and leaderboards tacked onto an underlying system that remains otherwise unchanged. These kinds of approaches will not survive, because they do not value gameplay, so players will not value them.

    Making matters worse, “gamification” also has a troublingly imprecise definition that seems to vary by the person using it. It has been applied to any game that attempts to achieve something beyond its virtual margins. It is terribly misleading to use the same word to describe the successful work being done by designers like Ian Bogost, Scot Osterweil, and Jane McGonigal to also describe the McNuggets game and similar follies. As the reach of the inevitable backlash grows, a mounting cultural skepticism of gamification threatens to stifle other, innovative applications of game design.
    It’s all turned into a big mess.

    This ballooning enthusiasm around games closely mirrors Gartner’s “hype cycle,” which describes the typical pattern of adoption for a new technology (Figure 0.1 ). After initially arriving on the scene, a new technology’s visibility increases quickly until it reaches the peak of inflated expectations–where people rush to the technology without a realistic strategy for putting it to its most effective use. Then a preponderance of early adopters discover that, surprise surprise, the technology doesn’t deliver what they thought it would, and the hype collapses into the trough of disillusionment. As of early 2012, I believe that the hype cycle for games has crested and is plunging headlong toward this low point.

    ***Insert Gartner_hype_cycle_Ch_00.gif (Gartner hype cycle)***
    FIGURE 0.1

    Following the typical path of the Gartner hype cycle, in early 2012 gamification was somewhere just past the peak of inflated expectations.

    The good news is that after bottoming out, the cycle turns upward again. People start to discover and embrace best practices for using the technology, more success stories start to emerge, and the technology eventually finds productive mainstream adoption. With this book, I hope to start moving toward a post-hype discussion of how games can most effectively achieve great things in the real world.
    If there’s one message I would like to convey through this book, it is that designers who are creating games must be centrally concerned with the quality of the player experience. That is, after all, the reason why people invest their time in games in the first place. It’s important to realize that there’s an innate selfishness to gameplay. People don’t play games out of loyalty to your brand or because they want to solve world hunger. They play because they value the experience. Trading off enjoyable gameplay in service of external objectives is always self-defeating.
    To create high-quality player experiences, UX designers must develop a fundamental competency with game design. The largest part of this book, then, is dedicated to the theory, skills, and practices that will lead practitioners to more successful outcomes. Part I provides a framework for thinking about games. Part II takes a deeper dive into design methods. Part III reviews how games have been designed to effect meaningful change in people and concludes by looking toward the future of games.

    Good game design in the real world

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    This is an excerpt from an interview with me by Jenn Webb.  You can read the complete interview on O’Reilly Radar.

    In your book’s introduction, you say, “I hope to start moving toward a post-hype discussion of how games can most effectively achieve great things in the real world.” Who is leading the way — or at least moving in the right direction — and what are they doing?

    There’s so much really inventive work being done right now. Recently, I’ve been playing a lot of “Zombies, Run!,” and I think it’s kind of great. This is a game for smartphones that overlays a narrative about survivors in a zombie apocalypse onto your daily run. As you’re out getting your exercise, you’re listening to the game events as they unfold, and you can hear the zombies closing in. It’s a great use of fantasy, and it plays as a true game with meaningful choices and conflict.

    There’s also a great group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that’s developed a smartphone app called ARIS, which builds game scenarios into physical locations, and they’ve developed dozens of applications for it. One of them is being developed as a museum tour for the Minnesota Historical Center, giving people quests to complete by scanning objects in the exhibit and then using them to complete objectives in a story line. The museum is actually changing the way the exhibit is laid out to better accommodate the gameplay, moving away from the traditional snaking path to more of an open layout that allows players to move more freely between the interacting displays to solve the game’s challenges.

    Some of the thought leaders who I really admire include Eric Klopfer and Scot Osterweil at MIT, Ian Bogost at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and Jane McGonigal. A common current among these thinkers is their emphasis on games themselves as a force of cultural transformation, rather than simplistic “gamification” of software applications that lead to little or no meaningful change.

    Games at work

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    This is an excerpt from an interview with me by Jenn Webb.  You can read the complete interview on O’Reilly Radar.

    How do you see the social media aspects of gaming seeping into day-to-day life could social media based games some day have a place in job training or other areas of the workplace, for instance?

    Games certainly can transform the workplace, though I want to caution that it’s very easy to make the mistake of dressing up everyday work activities as games by just tacking on some points and badges. That’s not game design, and people will recognize that it’s not. In the process of failing, approaches like this generate cynicism toward the effort. Games need to be designed to be games first and foremost. They must be intrinsically rewarding, enjoyed for their own sake.

    That said, I absolutely believe that games can work at work. As you suggest, for example, they have great strengths for training. Games create a safe space for people to test out their mastery of a set of skills in ways that aren’t possible or practical in the real world. They can also help people figure out how best to handle different situations. Say, for example, that you created a game to develop management skills. You might allow players to assign values to their in-game avatars like “nurturing,” “autocratic,” or “optimistic,” which lead to different behavior paths. Players could then examine how these traits play out in a situation filled with characters who have different values like “dependability,” “autonomy,” and “efficiency.” A structure like this could not only impart insight about management styles, but also invite introspection about how an individual’s own personality traits may lead to success and failure in the real world.

    How mobile & social tech are changing games

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    This is an excerpt from an interview with me by Jenn Webb.  You can read the complete interview on O’Reilly Radar.
    How are mobile and social technologies affecting game design and the evolution of gaming technology?

    One of the really surprising things about modern smartphones and tablets is that they’ve turned out to be such credible gaming platforms. They open doors to new ways of experiencing games by giving designers access to touchscreens, accelerometers, cameras, microphones, GPS, and Internet connectivity through a single device. They also allow games to be experienced in new contexts, enjoyed on the train to work, in the minutes between meetings, and while you’re out with friends. The traditional gaming model, where players sit passively in one place in the home and stare at a fixed screen, seems stodgy and limiting by comparison.

    The funny thing about social technology is that before we had video games, gaming was almost always a social activity. You needed to have multiple people to play most board games, card games, and sports — in fact, the game was often just a pretense for people to get together. But then video games made solitary experiences more of the norm. Now social technology is bringing gaming back to its multiplayer roots, but it’s also going beyond what was ever possible before by enabling hyper-social experiences where you’re playing with dozens of friends and family at once. Even though you may be separated from these people in space and time, you have an intimate sense of shared presence and community when you’re playing. That’s revolutionary.

    Interview with Mike Ambinder of Valve Software

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    Valve Software has designed top-selling games including Left 4 Dead, Half-Life, and Team Fortress.  I recently spoke with Mike Ambinder, PhD, the company’s
    full-time experimental psychologist, to discuss the professional practices that
    ensure high-quality game experiences.

    Q: What’s your role at Valve?
    A: My job is to apply knowledge and methodologies from psychology to game
    design.  That means performing statistical analyses, developing
    playtesting methodologies, conducting  design experiments, a little bit of interface
    design, and investigating alternative hardware among other things.

    Q: How can psychology guide game design?

    A: Well for example, in the Left 4 Dead series there are several predetermined
    locations in the game called “drop points” where health items or
    weapons will spontaneously appear.  To decide what’s dropped, where, and
    when we considered reward and reinforcement schedules, which are elements of
    behavioral psychology.  You can put things on a fixed schedule so that
    they’ll appear at regular intervals.  This makes the gameplay experience
    more predictable, and there can be real value in that.  Or you can use a
    variable schedule so that you don’t know what’s going to show up or when it’ll
    pop in.  Variable schedules can create a higher rate of engagement in the
    game and make the experience more enjoyable as uncertainty of occurrence can
    increase arousal.  A large component of the gameplay in the Left 4 Dead series
    is the use of these variable reinforcement schedules.

    Q: How is testing integrated into the design process?
    A: We’re constantly playtesting.  Our philosophy is to playtest as much as
    possible, and to start it as soon as we have a playable prototype.  Of
    course our designers are experienced and generally make good decisions about
    gameplay, but we don’t want to just assume we’ve got it right.  Game
    designs are hypotheses, and every instance of play is an experiment.

    Q: What’s your standard testing method?

    A: We use a variety of methods, but the most favored is direct observation of
    real players working their way through the game.  I’m not a fan of the
    think-aloud protocol, in part because the constant prompting detracts from the
    gameplay experience and can introduce inadvertent bias, and in part because
    people can be really bad at explaining why they do what they do.  Better
    to just sit back, watch, say nothing, and try to understand the player’s
    actions.  So quiet, direct observation is our preferred method, but we
    combine that with player Q&As, surveys, quantitative metrics, eyetracking, and
    design experiments, and we’re investigating methods of measuring the player’s
    emotional experience during gameplay.

    Q: How can eyetracking help to inform game design?
    A: Generally, you want to eliminate frequent long eye movements because they
    lead to fatigue.  For example, if the area map is in the bottom right
    corner of the display and your progress through that map is shown in the upper
    left, you’ll see the player’s eyes transiting the screen a lot.  The
    proximity compatibility principle tells us that things which are mentally
    proximal should also be physically proximal, and eyetracking can tell us which
    things are mentally proximal.  By arranging related information together,
    you can reduce fatigue and make the interface more efficient to use.

    Q: And how can you measure the emotional experience of gameplay?

    A: This is still early on, but we’re looking at biometric methods like EEGs
    which measure brainwaves, and EMGs which measure the electrical activity of
    muscles.  But there are questions of their cost and efficacy. 
    They’re also both very intrusive methods, requiring either a cap that’s wired
    into a machine or electrodes attached to the face.  In testing you want to
    mimic the home experience as much as possible, and EEGs and EMGs both make it
    feel more like a lab environment.  But new technologies are emerging that
    could change that.  Remote detection of facial expression seems promising;
    these systems produce data along the lines of an EMG but only use a camera to
    measure muscle activity in the face.

    Emotion can be viewed as a vector and measured along two scales: magnitude and
    valence.  Magnitude describes the intensity of the emotion, while valence
    describes its quality (either positive or negative).  You can measure the
    magnitude pretty reliably using something like heart rate, but understanding
    the valence is the tricky part.  How do you know if that intense emotional
    response is good or bad?  Of course you could just ask, but again that’s not
    a preferred method because people don’t describe their own experiences reliably
    and you’re introducing bias into the response.  Context is a better
    basis.  If someone is getting killed repeatedly, you can assume that
    they’re experiencing a negative emotion. 
    However, to validate we’d love to have a system which quantifies valence
    in real time. 

    Once we can measure these qualities reliably, we can start asking what the
    ideal emotional experience should look like over the course of the player’s
    interaction with the game.  Maybe that would be something like a pattern
    of peaks and valleys that steadily rises over time, as opposed to a prolonged
    burst of emotion that’s experienced all at once.  That seems like a
    plausible theory, but we won’t know until we’ve measured it.

    Q: What are some of the design elements that you’ve found make better player
    A: I can suggest a few things.  First, the player needs to be able to
    understand the experience.  If you die, you need to understand why you
    died.  If you reach a decision point, you need to understand what the
    implications are of taking path A or path B.  The designer needs to
    provide a sensible environment.

    Variety is also really important.  Don’t give people the same monsters
    again and again, or force them to traverse the same levels over and over. There
    are obvious counterpoints to this, and the constructs of the game may dictate a
    lack of variety, so it’s not a hard and fast rule (none of these are), but it
    is something we try and emphasize.  The Left 4 Dead series is a great
    example, because you’re always interacting with a new set of players with
    different skill levels and different tactics, and that will completely change
    the dynamic of the game.  It doesn’t play the same way twice.

    Third, you want to provide people with a feeling of continuous
    advancement.  People prize rewards if they increase in perceived
    value.  They want to feel that the required level of skill builds
    gradually as the game progresses.

    Finally, have the player make interesting choices.  Which weapon should I
    choose?  Which armor should I take?  If these decisions don’t involve
    meaningful tradeoffs, then you’re probably not creating an enjoyable

    Q: How do you foster collaboration in multiplayer games?
    A: Left 4 Dead is really designed to force players to cooperate.  If you
    go out on your own, for example, you’ll get incapacitated very quickly. 
    The game doesn’t prevent you from doing that — it’s a choice you can exercise,
    but it’s inevitably a losing strategy.  If you have other players near you
    then you can collectively put up a stronger fight, and when you fall then they
    can easily revive you.

    Testing helped us improve collaboration in Left 4 Dead as well.  In the
    original design, the thinking was that players would build awareness of each
    others’ locations just through verbal cues, speaking to one another through a
    headset.  But it turned out that in the midst of gameplay that doesn’t
    work well.  When a teammate fell and needed to be revived, the other
    players had a difficult time finding him or her.  They needed another cue,
    so we introduced glowing outlines that appear around your teammates’ bodies, and
    which are visible through walls.  We found that really increased the
    players’ situational awareness, facilitated cooperation, and created a better
    gameplay experience.

    Q: What kinds of quantitative metrics do you use to inform design?
    A: We work with tons of data.  We can track any variable available in
    the game.  We’ll take information about where people die in each level,
    then overlay it on an image of the level to show whether people are dying in
    the right places, and in the right numbers.  We can examine the growth in
    players’ skill levels over time by any of various measures, depending upon the
    needs of the game’s design.  That may be a fairly coarse metric such as
    the ratio of kills to deaths, who gets the most kills, who stays alive the
    longest, and so on.  Or you can apply several measured in combination to
    satisfy a very precise definition of the ideal skill level, such as players who
    have a moderately high rate of kills but who win a lot and stay alive for a
    very long time.

    I really appreciate your time.  I’d wish you luck, but with these kinds
    of practices it really doesn’t sound like you need it.

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    Posted on

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