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.

Flow

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]

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 tim buesing October 31, 2007 at 12:29 am

I remember that in your preso at Neue Digitale, you were asked whether the agency should have a “playful zone”, some area in which (I suppose) non-serious work gets done, or thoughts can flow more freely. That seems to be a bolted-on solution as you say. Where do you see good architectural expressions of playfulness in agencies (places that are normally considered to be a less rigid working environment)?

2 Andy Polaine October 31, 2007 at 8:56 am

I think it’s something that designers tend to do naturally, at least in the early stages of their careers, but the life can get sucked out of it very easily. Most of the time ‘play’ time is bolted on – Friday evening drinks, days out, table-tennis tables, etc. – but it’s usually quarantined from the ‘real’ work. I think it’s evident in companies like Pixar that have a play culture through-and-through that this doesn’t have to be the case. Pat Kane’s ThePlayEthic covers this in great depth, but there’s also an interesting article by Trizle called Should you really be playing?

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