Understanding Interactivity Through Play

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Some months ago I officially became Dr. Polaine (Andy Polaine, PhD. for you Americans) and have been planning to write a series of posts about the main themes of my thesis, Developing A Language Of Interactivity Through The Theory Of Play, for some time.

So to coincide with a post over at Core77 about the journey of doing a design PhD, this is the first installment to introduce the main themes and to provide a link to download the entire thesis (5.9MB).

The background to doing the PhD was largely everything I had learned since the early Antirom days when we were trying to discover and uncover the essence of interactive media and really trying to understand what makes it different from other media. At the same time I was getting more and more interested in storytelling and was fascinated by fact that great stories, regardless of their content and style, tended to adhere to clearly defined structures that had been honed over thousands of years.

These converging interests gave rise to some apparently simple questions: What makes one interactive experience more engaging than another? What makes an interactive experience engaging? Why are some simple interactions so satisfying and others so dull? Why do technological marvels sometimes fail to satisfy whilst a cardboard box can provide hours of entertainment?

They sound trivial, but turned out to be very difficult to answer in a rigorous way. The easy answer is, like love and pornography, “I know it when I see it,” but that doesn’t really help anyone develop a strategy to analyse or create new interactive works. New Media (to use an uncomfortable term) has had its fair share of academic attention, but most of it I have found pretty tedious and often distanced from my own experience of creating and using interactive media. So at the one end we have the media and cultural theorists and at the other we have the HCI folk. In the middle somewhere are the media art aficionados.

At Antirom we were playing with the affordances of the tools, playing with our understanding of narrative structure, playing games and, most importantly, playing at making interactive ‘things’. We were not terribly sure what one should call these ‘things’ that we were making. Sometimes it was tempting to refer to the medium itself, such as CD-ROMs, but this only described the storage format, not the interactive experiences. Partly because many of these interactive experiments were incomplete and partly because we felt they were experiments in play in both their creation and usage, we settled on calling them ‘toys’ for the most part. Sometimes we would take the code guts of one ‘toy’ and re-use or re-combine it with another and these guts we would call an ‘engine’.

Thus, within the same breath, we would use both non-industrial and industrial terminology for the same ‘thing’. It soon became clear to us that the “interactives” (as we now describe them) we were making a marked departure from the media forms that had gone before and that a language to describe them, think about them and create them also had to be invented. The media theory we had imbibed as students, that helped us deconstruct the complex layers of semiotics in traditional media, was rendered weak and impotent.

I couldn’t use HCI or common user-experience frameworks to examine an interactive artwork and at the same time I couldn’t view a commercial website or application design with a media arts lens. Yet I felt I could understand an interactive artwork with the same sensibility as a might analyse a piece of iPhone UI design, but there wasn’t a framework for me to articulate that understanding.

This is what became the subject of my PhD, which explores a still-developing discipline and thus borrows from a wide range of existing, established and not-so-established disciplines. Art and media historians and theorists may feel it does not draw upon enough cultural theory, nor does it draw on the often opaque language of those disciplines. HCI proponents will want more empirical and technical data. Behavioural psychologists may also have wished for more direct experimental data and linguists a deeper examination of the semiotics, semantics and syntax of interactivity.

The key to the whole exploration is play. Understanding how play and playfulness work, what constitutes play (still undefinable) and how much everyone like to engage in play when given the chance, is central to the thesis. But along the way it was necessary to draw upon a wide range of disciplines – from design, art, cognitive science, linguistics and more.

I argue that play is such a fundamental building block of culture, society, technology and cognition that it is the ideal lens through which to examine the interactive experience. It is versatile enough to cross boundaries and fundamental enough to be understood intuitively. Through an understanding of the intersection between movement, embodied cognition, metaphor and play, a set of principles of interactivity are developed that are flexible enough to analyse and be applied to a broad spectrum of interactive experiences, from interactive artworks to services to individual user interface elements.

The four main principles are a deconstruction of the interactive experience, which might last a second or several days. You can squash or stretch the timescale, but I have found the principles to hold true regardless of the context. I’ll post more detail on each one in coming weeks, but here they are for now:

  1. The Invitation to Play
  2. The Playing Field & the Rules
  3. Challenge, Boredom and Anxiety
  4. Triviality, Open-endedness, Promises

Writing a thesis like this is like painting a large bridge – once you get to the end, you have to start all over again. Naturally, in the six years it took me to write the thesis (part-time!), technology and culture moved on rapidly. The iPod was in its second generation when I started and the iPad was just about to be released when I finished. The latter was important because it confirmed my thoughts on “the disappearing interface” and the need for a deep understanding of metaphor when examining interactivity.

Social networks also exploded onto the scene as I was writing my PhD. The final section of the thesis is somewhat of a postscript and proposes that these principles provide a way to examine the phenomenal growth of social networks and the fundamental cultural shifts we are experiencing today as a result of the friction generated between emerging networked technologies and the industrial age structures they are dismantling.

In future posts I’ll go into more detail on the various sections, but in the meantime I’d welcome your feedback via the comments or Twitter.

Playful Interactivity

Musical Chairs

I have just read great paper called Adding Playful Interaction to Public Spaces by Amnon Dekel et al. from The Hebrew University Jerusalem and The Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, Jerusalem.

In it they describe three projects that involve physical interaction with fairly everyday objects, but that are all playful. My favourite two are probably the Musical Chairs that consists of a set of stools set up in a row. When sat upon the stool creates some audio-visual feedback, but the best part happens when someone sits on another stool as a kind of circuit is set up between them. When someone then sits in-between, the person on the end is cut out of the circuit – so of course people start playing musical chairs.

I thought this quote was a very good summary of the central principles of interactivity:

Our observations brought us to the realization that as long as the interactive vocabulary of such systems is simple enough to be understood quickly by viewers and participants, then they can be effective. This is a clear barrier – a system that is too complicated to understand within a 30 second window will go unused in most cases. We view effectiveness in this context as a situation in which casual participants, who do not have much time on their hands, will successfully negotiate and understand the interaction model of the object and thus enter into an enjoyable and playful session with it.

I’ll see if I can get some decent images and video from Amnon (perhaps he could upload to YouTube?). in the meantime, read the paper.

Playful Measuring Jug

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Metric is so passé. Just how much is a hill of beans? I’m not sure, but I know the problems of three little people don’t amount to one.

On the other hand, this very amusing “Domestic Science” measuring jug from Harry White Design will at least measure 100 penne pasta, ten billion grains of icing sugar or half a human brain.

I like things like this that make everyday tasks a bit more playful and pleasurable. Maybe car speedometers should have a scale from zero to “enough CO2 to melt the ice-caps”.

You can buy the jug on Amazon from Fred.

[tags]playful, everyday[/tags].

Wii remote for a head tracking display

Here’s an interesting video of inverting the Wiimote and infrared sensors to create a surprisingly realistic optical illusion for a single user:

A lot of interaction and GUI design is about optical illusion and willing suspension of disbelief, something usually talked about in fiction. It’s tempting to try and make things ‘for real’ sometimes, when actually a fake or a bit of smoke and mirrors works better.

Driving games aren’t really using realistic physics, they’re usually souped up to make things more exciting. Those aren’t really files and folders on your desktop there and this isn’t really a page. Of course you know that in the back of your mind, but you willingly ignore it in order to utilise the illusion.

When you try and make a metaphor real, you get all caught up in knots sometimes and lose the benefits of the abstracted version. Bumptop is a classic example of this – by mimicking a physical desktop you end up with all the same hassles, such as too little space for all the junk. I wrote more about this at length before.

What’s interesting about Johnny Lee’s approach above is that it’s so low-tech. Another example of the openness and cheapness of the Wiimote producing innovation. The other aspect is that it doesn’t really require much in the way of a headset, unlike other VR systems whose kit only serves to constantly break the suspension of disbelief.

Although plenty of research grant applications seem to thrive on making things much more complicated than they need to be, it is generally good to remember the KISS principle.

Can you think of some other good examples of these kinds of simple illusions in interface/interaction design?

[tags]interactivity, VR, Wii, tracking[/tags]

Games, Play and Web Applications

[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]

The playfulness of everyday things

Swing Lamp by BCXSY

As if they had been the perfect students of my Interactivity, Play and the Everyday project at the Bauhaus, art/design cooperative, BCXY have been working on a project called PLAY!.

BCXY are Boaz Cohen and Sayaka Yamamoto and PLAY! “consists of a collection of products that was conceived out of a desire to bring a sense of nostalgia and playfulness into the grown-up environment.”

Mark Pesce once described a swing as the ultimate “invitation to play” – something that’s formed part of my research and work on interactivity ever since. So, naturally, I liked the glowing “Swing Lamp” – even if it is a bit spooky.

(via Pixelsumo)

The Changing Nature of Play

I just stumbled upon Matt Locke’s post about play and technology, which is very much worth a read if you are interested in the intersection of play, culture and interactivity. It is basically a summary of his thoughts after having chaired a panel at the We Love Technology conference.

He makes a good argument about technological art moving away from the artistic elite as the costs of the technology come down and the skills required to use it become more commonplace. It’s very much the same line of thinking that fuelled my “Why Big Fine Art Doesn’t Understand Interactivity” essay:

Play has now crossed the line from R&D, and become an integral part of a mass-design process – the cliched ‘perpetual beta’ of all web 2.0 companies. Rather than a single artist imagining a future and delivering it as a purely aesthetic experience, playful interaction designs are launched onto a market with the understanding than users will invent their own futures for them.

There are lots of useful links in his post too. Go there.

The Play Ethic and Sustainability

For a very long time now (since 2005 in fact), Pat Kane’s book, The Play Ethic has been on my Amazon Wishlist (hint, hint) along with several other books on Play for my PhD research into interactivity and play.

The Play Ethic by Pat Kane   Cradle to Cradle - by William McDonough and Michael Braungart

Having persuaded my brother that I really like books as birthday presents he sent me three at once, two of which were co-incidentally The Play Ethic and Cradle to Cradle: Re-making the way we make things by William McDonough and Michael Braungart (those two are the links to Amazon’s catalogue by the way – I couldn’t recommend two purchases more). This led me to read them back-to-back and I realised what a set of connections there are between the two ways of thinking.

Kane’s Play-Ethic is a fascinating and well-researched literature review, Protestant work-ethic critique and manifesto for a new way of thinking and living. Cradle to Cradle is equally so – a manifesto for a new way of thinking and living as well as a rejection of the past 250 years or so of the industrial society. Both require an enormous about-turn in thinking as the only possible way to combat the ever growing stresses and strains on society and the planet. Both speak of abundance – Kane in terms of the ‘player’ always finding joy and energy in life (and work when need be) and McDonough and Braungart in terms of thinking like nature. They use the example of a cherry tree which produces more blossoms and fruit that it ‘needs’ but that contributes more to local ecosystem than it uses.

Wase = Food = Sustainability.

It’s exactly this sustainability which is also required from our working (read: waking) lives. The current trend towards ever-increasing work hours and less ‘play time’ is unstainable and we’re already seeing the cracks in the system and experiences them personally. I know that ‘downtime’ (and by that I don’t just mean leisure time) is crucial to allowing the space to create connections between ideas and come up with new ones. In short, ‘creativity’ – to invoke that over-used word.

The drive for ‘efficiency’ (a product of the Industrial Revolution) that McDonough and Braungart speak against would have that downtime labeled as ‘inefficient’. They describe the difference between eco-efficient systems (things that are ‘less bad’) and eco-effective (things that actually add to their environment positively – think cars that clean the air as you drive, buildings that generate more energy than they use or products that benefit the environment when you throw them away). An ‘efficient’ cherry tree would have just one blossom and one fruit (that of course would hopefully turn into another tree). There’s not much fun or play in that for starters, nor would the resources used to grow the tree be very well returned to the local environment.

Now think of the ‘efficiencies’ of the modern workplace – do more with less. Work harder, make it cheaper, make it more efficient. Never mind the quality. I’m sure the stresses that places on people are quite well know to most of you. Yet think of a time (maybe not in paid work) when you worked on something because you really loved doing it, because you felt nurtured and fulfilled. For a start it doesn’t feel like ‘work’ in the way that we have come to know it (i.e., stuff we don’t like doing and that people have to pay us off to do). It feels more like play and it has a whole load of positive knock-on effects in your life, society and culture that efficiency rubs out. Basically it’s a sustainable way of living your life instead of one that sucks all your energy dry and spits you out the other end of the factory.

Both books have made me radically re-think the shape and (dis)organization of my own institution, in what shape universities might be in five, ten or fifty years and re-thinking education (in particular design education). I also found it inspiring that the two areas I’m interested and involved in (play and interactivity, sustainable design and ethics ) have so many connections. I’ll post more about that soon.