October 2007

Games, Play and Web Applications

by Andy Polaine on October 30, 2007

in General

[Dan Saffer’s](http://www.odannyboy.com/blog/new_archives/2007/10/presentation_ga.html] latest presentation called Gaming The Web: Using the structures of games to design better web apps is a great summary of many of the themes I’ve covered over the years, which is gratifying to see.

In his presentation Saffer looks at the way games are structured, the difference between games and toys and also interactivity and flow, which I also wrote about a while back.


The flow principle was developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and, amongst other things, looks as the border between boredom and anxiety. The idea being that when a task is perfectly pitched to our abilities – not too hard and not too easy – we become fully engaged in it. Games designers have been using this process for years building up these skill levels via game levels.

Toys, Play and Games

Much of what Saffer has to say about toys versus games is also really valuable and echoes what we were banging on about back in the 90s at Antirom. Toys are things without goals and rules in the way that games have them. There’s a lot to learn from toys because people simply pick them up and play with them, sometimes becoming quickly bored, but other times becoming absorbed and inventing games from that play. It’s a great way of getting people to explore and learn a new interface and it’s one of the things that Apple do very well.

Part of my ongoing PhD is about this very aspect of interactivity and uses OS X as an example. As Brenda Laurel argued way back in 1993 in Computers as Theatre, computers have grown from the paradigm of being a ‘tool’. Windows has always separated the ‘business’ side of computing from the gaming side and the OS itself (prior to Vista) has always had quite a utilitarian attitude. The Mac OS has always had a sense of humour and this leads to nosing around and playing and thus discovering its hidden secrets. That irritates those wanting to ‘just get the work done’ but it also emotionally engages people and is, I think, one of the reasons Mac fanboys (and girls) are so passionate about their emotional attachment to all things Apple.

Saffer breaks down the structure of games thus:

Mechanics create Dynamics which create Aesthetics

and argues that this is how most development works. The business or technical mechanics come first and then the aesthetics are bolted on top, when actually we should be thinking the other way around (or perhaps not thinking directionally at all):

we should really be designing like game designers do: you start from the opposite side of the equation. We should figure out the aesthetics–what should this feel like? what is the emotional response to this application?–and work backwards from there. What dynamics will create these feelings? And what mechanics will support that?

It’s one of the reasons the iPhone interface looks like it does and most other mobiles are a complete nightmare to navigate and configure

The point is that in a world where so many interfaces are competing for our attention those that fail to engage from the first contact (and this is usually an aesthetic, playful moment) fail entirely. Put simply, if someone can’t be bothered to play with your GUI all the technical wonders in the world behind it won’t ever get seen or used.

Cultural Play and Change

The main thrust of Saffer’s presentation is about web apps, of course. The last chapter of my PhD is about social play in this realm. A few months ago I wrote that StumbleUpon is the Antirom of the Web as an example. Social software is about play and discovery and ‘work’ or ‘business’ benefits are spin-offs from that, not the other way around.

I would go further than Saffer, though, an argue that it’s not just designers and developers who need to get playful with their design, but that corporate and company structures need to become more playful. In a presentation to Neue Digitale in Frankfurt last year I spoke about play and playfulness not only being useful design outcomes but also an essential design approach. But for this to happen the playfulness needs to be structured into the company workings not just bolted on in the same way as we argue that design should be integral to the entire process as it is in service design.

Much of this I’m going to be talking about next week in my session at Flash on the Beach in Brighton – if any of you are there, please come and say hello!

[tags]Dan Saffer, interactivity, play, design, flow, antirom, presentations[/tags]


New magneticNorth website

by Andy Polaine on October 18, 2007

in General


Check out magneticNorth’s new website. As Brendan (mN’s Creative Director) says “Look beyond the site you see and you may discover something…”. Great to see more irreverence and playfulness from the mN folks.

I’ll leave it as enigmatic as that and just hint that the background is not all that it seems….


Speaking at Icograda World Design Congress

October 18, 2007

I’ll be in Cuba this weekend (20th and 21st October) to give a presentation at the Icograda World Design Congress with my Omnium colleague, Rick Bennett. On the crazy off-chance that any of you who read Playpen are going to also be there in Cuba, do come and say hello! [tags]icograda, cuba, lectures, presentations, omnium[/tags]

Read the full article →

Use Designers Better

October 12, 2007

For several years I’ve been trying to express how design thinking can be used across a whole range of disciplines from sustainability to education to, well, design stuff. Service Designers like Live|Work do a great job of bringing much of these ideas under one discipline. It helps designers move up the chain of events in […]

Read the full article →

Omnium need a Sys Admin

October 11, 2007

Just a quickie to say that the Omnium Research Group with whom I work in Australia are looking to hire a sys-admin. So if you’re a Linux, Apache, PHP, MySQL and Shell scripting genius (pretty darn good will do) and want to work in a lively design studio at the [College of Fine Arts](http://cofa.unsw.edu.au] at […]

Read the full article →

IKEA Dream Kitchen

October 11, 2007

The multi-camera technique that freezes a moment in time, but allows you to pan around in space (popularised as bullet time in The Matrix, but it has quite a history) seems to be being used all over the place in Flash micro-sites now. Now that Flash handles video and images so well, it’s interesting to […]

Read the full article →

Interactive Gestures Wiki

October 11, 2007

Multitouch screens of all shapes and forms are really all the rage, but with them come whole new paradigms of interaction. Do you wave like a Wii or do the Minority Report hand swipe popular in many kinds of large-screen set-ups. Interaction designer, Dan Saffer, who also wrote Designing For Interaction has written a call […]

Read the full article →

Fix for Modifier Keys not working in Adobe CS2 Applications

October 9, 2007

It’s not really on-topic for Playpen, but I’m hoping this might help others out there who have had the same problem with modifier keys suddenly not working in Adobe’s CS2 applications like Illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign. I haven’t had a chance to try this with CS3 yet. It’s pretty dull unless you’ve been bugged with […]

Read the full article →

Steve Scott – animator and illustrator to the stars

October 8, 2007

My mate and erstwhile work compadre, Steve Scott, has finally updated his website with lots of new goodies. If you’re a fan of illustration and animation, check out is work. I just whiled away a nice chunk of precious time seeing what he’s been up to. Don’t be fooled by the Australian domain name either […]

Read the full article →

Podcast with Matt Clark from United Visual Artists

October 3, 2007

Following on from my last post about Hereafter, my podcast interview with Matt Clark from United Visual Artists is now online at Core77. We chat about a range of UVA’s work, process and interactivity. Matt gives some great insights into working across disciplines and the exciting and emerging field of interactive installations much more tightly […]

Read the full article →