Archive for the ‘games’ Tag

Interview with Jesse Schell

Last week I spoke with game designer Jesse Schell, the highly influential author of “The Art of Game Design”, professor at Carnegie Mellon, and CEO of Schell Games.  His presentation from the 2010 DICE Summit, in which he mapped out a future where gamelike experiences will be integrated into everything from toothbrushes to bus rides, went viral and sparked widespread controversy.  We talked about the presentation, the promise for games to do good in the world, and how UX designers should approach game-related projects.

The second chapter of your book is dedicated to discussing games as enablers of experiences.  Why the emphasis on that idea right at the beginning of the book?
It’s important because people who are trying to design games are so quick to go to anything tangible.  They want to talk about the particulars of the design right away, how it works and what it looks like.  But what the designer’s actually doing is building an experience, and we should never lose sight of that.  That’s the real goal.

Your DICE presentation predicted that in the future gameplay will be thoroughly mashed into everyday user experiences.  Do you envision the impetus for that coming from the game designers, or from the designers of conventional user experiences?
I see it coming from both directions.  Reality and games are really reaching out to each other right now, and meeting in the middle.

So what core competencies would conventional user experience designers need to develop to game up their interfaces?
Core competencies isn’t the right way to think about it — it’s not learn a little about this or that.  You’d first need to make a fundamental shift in your perspective, and then you’d need to practice.  You’d need to turn away from efficiency and toward entertainment.  So for example, if I were to give you a tax application with just one big red button that you pressed and boom, your taxes were all done, that would be ideal.  If you did the same thing for Gears Of War, that would be the worst game ever.  So people who are gameifying conventional interfaces can get themselves into trouble.

What advice would you give to someone who’s thinking about incorporating a gamelike experience into a conventional UI?
You can’t just say “Hey, people like games, therefore people will like this.”  That isn’t necessarily true.  And people don’t necessarily want a user interface to be a game per se, but to have gamelike qualities.  There are many things that games are especially good at.  They can provide clear feedback, the possibility of success, mental and in some cases physical exercise, the opportunity to satisfy your curiosity, a chance to do problem solving, or a feeling of freedom.  So you should be asking “What are the elements of games that people find pleasurable?”

Some of the reaction to your presentation has seemed fearful, with speculation of Orwellian implications.  Did you anticipate that response?

Well I think there is some reason for concern, and I really wanted people to have that discussion.  This is something that’s definitely going to happen and it can be a very good thing, but it can also be misused.  For example, you start getting into a lot of ethical problems with advertising because games can be such a powerful medium to influence buying behavior.  It’s one thing when you use a compelling game mechanic to create an experience that you really get into, but it’s another if you’re using it to get people to buy something that could be damaging to their health.

Can games can be used to achieve positive social ends?
Absolutely.  Certainly educational.  If you have the ability to ability to influence behavior in a negative way, then you also have the ability to influence it in a positive way.

Do you think that video games have a place in the classroom?
Sure.  There are a lot of challenges with games in the classroom.   In general they’re best suited for use outside the classroom because games tend not to work well under time constraints.  They’re better as homework.  But there is a place for them in the classroom, and it’s probably best when the teacher serves as a game master.  So let’s say you do a live simulation in class where the teacher sets up the situation then observes and augments it as it goes, with the goal of creating a teachable moment.  That’s something that simulations are really good at.  Teachers know you don’t just pour something into the student’s ear, you have to pry their brains open so that they actually care.  The teacher can use games to engineer that moment, and then drive discussion about how it could be done differently.  I’ve seen this done a few times in training games for firefighters, doctors, and nurses, but it can happen almost anywhere.  The key is to shift from games as a replacement for the teacher and to something that empowers the teacher.

Can games be persuasive?
Games are best at being persuasive when they’re persuading you of the truth.  They can be particularly good at illustrating complex systems.  If you have an argument about whether a nuclear reactor is safe, people may or may not give credence to your words.  But a simulation can prove that it is or isn’t safe because you can actually experience it.

This property of games can also make them very useful in, say, political situations where people need to make decisions about complex systems that are difficult to understand. A team from CMU made a game called Peacemaker, intended for Israeli and Palestinean students.  People on either side of the conflict tend to assume that the whole thing will go away if the guys on the other side just stop being jerks.  Then the students get in the game and start working on solutions, and they discover that what they thought was simple is actually unbelievably complex.  So it elevated their point of view on the conflict.

In your mind, what’s the most exciting work being done in line with the ideas from your DICE presentation?
I like cool entertainment experiences that make people’s lives better. Some of the charity-based ones are really interesting, and can even be meaningful and important.  Looking forward, I’m really excited to see it incorporated in theme park experiences.  You don’t really see interactive vacations, and I think there’s a lot that can be done there.

But many of the attempts out there are boring.  There’s a glut of self-improvement games that are just flops and failures.  Most of them don’t really get the idea of rewards.  There’s a great book called “Punished by Rewards” that I encourage everyone trying this to read.  We have 30-40 years of psychological research proving that if you bribe someone to do something, people will come to despise doing that thing.  Why?  Because of the tricky nature of freedom: when someone pays you to do something, you’re not doing it for the intrinsic benefit anymore. An awful lot of things that will fall into that trap.

You’ve been critical of Foursquare in the past.  Do you take issue with its execution?
No, I think that Foursquare is inherently flawed.  The challenge curve is messed up.  It’s very similar to Tamagotchi, and it’ll probably will have a lifespan similar to the Tamagotchi.  The game as it stands requires no skill.  It also doesn’t fit conveniently into your life; you have to fit your life into it.  So if you’re in random places at random times, you’re going to lose at Foursquare.  You can only win by engaging in boring repetitive behavior, and it’s not fun to actually do that.  You’re always rating yourself against the most obsessed people in the world.

But wasn’t Tamagotchi an important forerunner to other virtual pet games, like the Sims?  Doesn’t that show that there’s some potential there?
Tamagotchi took a simple fantasy, the Sims turned it into an elaborate fantasy.  When you think about it, almost all indoor games have some kind of fantasy component to them, even simple things like chess and checkers.  Foursquare has no fantasy in it, so there’s just not much to expand.  If you take Foursquare and add fantasy, you get larping.

Fifteen years from now, what do you think games are going to be like?
The future of games is going everywhere.  They’re creeping into every aspect of our lives.  Over the long term, one of the big trends will be game worlds with many points of entry.  You won’t only get into World of Warcraft from the PC, but also from mobile and console systems and maybe even in your car or in a theme park.  I also think that speech, where you can talk to a game and it can understand and respond to you, will really change gaming by bringing in real expressive emotion.

Thanks so much for your time Jesse.


And the Nobel prize for video games goes to…

One of the most interesting practical applications of video game design I’ve come across is FoldIt, a project out of the University of Washington that has game players folding chains of proteins.  It’s actually a lot more awesome than it sounds.

Biochemistry is hard.  Protein molecules grow to extraordinary lengths, and can be folded into a dizzying variety of different shapes following a set of basic rules.  And a single protein can have completely different effects depending upon the way it’s folded.  Fold one protein this way and you have a normal part of the human body; fold it that way and you’ve got mad cow disease.  Unraveling the complicated effects of different protein shapes is an extremely important area of inquiry in modern biochemistry.

A rules-based problem with countless numbers of possible solutions?  On the surface it sounds like a job for SUPERCOMPUTER!  It’s not.  Computers certainly provide vital support through modeling complicated protein structures in real time, but it turns out that they’re not especially good at figuring out how to twist protein chains into new shapes that obey all of the rules.  I recently spoke with Seth Cooper, one of the developers of FoldIt, who told me that left on its own a computer “just kind of flails around, trying random moves to get the pieces to fit together.”  Since there are so many possible combinations to run through, this sort of brute force approach gets results very slowly.

On the other hand, human intuition can recognize patterns and anticipate strategies that are lost on machines.  But human beings come with their own set of problems — in particular, you need to give them a reason to do something.  As Luis Von Ahn pointed out, you can motivate people with material things like money or goods — but inexpensive and intangible things like recognition, praise, and social credit can often be just as effective.

And that’s why the designers of decided to make their human-guided protein folding interface into a video game.  Making progress gets you points, points get you onto leaderboards, and leaderboards give you recognition.  This simple formula has been sufficient to get tens of thousands of players to volunteer their time to a science which, in many cases, they have no background.  Though it must be pointed out that it’s at least conceivable that a by playing this game, you could actually win a Nobel prize.

White House Launches Games for Health Initiative

Can video games get kids to go easy on the Lucky Charms?  The Obama administration thinks they might be able to.

In a letter to attendees of the annual Game Developers’ Conference last week, Michelle Obama issued a challenge to develop games that would educate kids about eating better and living healthier lives.  Prize money will be awarded to the best entrants, as judged by a panel including Zynga’s Mark Pincus and professional TV dancer Steve Wozniak.

Can this work?  I absolutely believe it can, but I’m more concerned that it might not.  Let me explain.

On the one hand, I fully believe that games can be used to bring about change in people.  In his speech at the DICE summit, game designer Jesse Schell proposed games to get people to do anything from brushing their teeth more often to helping their kids with their homework.  Popular games like WiiFit and Brain Age improbably get people to exercise their bodies and minds.  Games are intimately tied to motivation, and can be powerfully persuasive ways to get people to do something or adopt a certain point of view.

On the other hand, I’m concerned that this competition (itself a motivational game!) might not be structured to elicit the best solutions.  To be successful, a game must first and foremost be a game.  If an educational mission (however noble) supersedes the gameplay, the experience can become heavy-handed and unenjoyable.   I think there’s a danger here that the prize competition could reward entrants that most conspicuously promote the healthy eating idea, rather than those that really engage the player.  A game can’t influence people if no one actually wants to play it — call it “The Bible Game” problem.

But still, the White House is is doing something really significant by endorsing the idea that games can achieve real-world objectives.  I think that’s a sign of shifting expectations about the role games have to play in all of our lives.

Send questions for foursquare

This weekend I’ll be interviewing Dennis Crowley, creator of foursquare.  We’ll be discussing the decision to design what could have been a conventional UI as a game-based experience.  If you have questions you’d like me to ask, please post them as comments to this blog.

Letting crows do the work for you

Let’s say you wanted to gather all the loose change within a 5-mile radius, but you lack the time to do it yourself (which seems likely).  Why not enlist crows to do the scavenging for you?

That’s exactly what Josh Klein has done.  For his master’s thesis at NYU Klein invented a device that, through operant conditioning, trains crows to gather coins and drop them into a slot.  The device then disburses peanuts as a reward, like a vending machine.  It’s a fantastically efficient arrangement, since he only needs to keep the machine stocked and the crows take care of the rest.

C. Brachyrhynchos, the American crow

C. brachyrhynchos, the American crow

This is formally described as “synanthropy”, adapting animals to work within human environments.  But I think it’s an awesome demonstration of an even larger strategy: getting an organism to do a useful job while pursuing an unrelated goal.  The crow doesn’t share our interest in money, it’s just trying to get some peanuts.

Luis Von Ahn applies the same strategy to solve difficult computational problems, using human beings as crows.   A researcher at Carnegie Mellon, he’s developed a series of “Games with a Purpose” that surreptitiously gather useful metadata while engaging players in 2-person online computer games.  As with Klein’s crows, the players are pursuing their own goal — in this case to have a bit of fun.  But through the games’ design, they create a byproduct that has real value.  All of the games attach human meaning to data that machines can’t read.

His games are:

Games with a Purpose

Games with a Purpose

  • The ESP game, where two players are shown the same image and asked to suggest tags describing it, then awarded points when they match up.  When more than one person has independently chosen the same tag, that implies it’s a reliable descriptor of the image.  Search engines can then use those tags to return more relevant image results.
  • Tag a Tune plays a musical track for both players.  The players need to figure out whether they’re listening to the same track or different tracks by sending each other descriptions of what they hear.  The value of the game is that in the process they’ll provide useful tags like “piano”, “airy”, and “female vocals” to indicate qualities that would otherwise be indecipherable to a computer.
  • Verbosity is a password-like game that gives one player a word to describe to the other player, who has to guess it.  The game provides a number of canned relationships that can be used to describe the word, like “It is a type of ___”, or “it is the opposite of ___”, or “it looks like ___”.  For example, if the word were “cough” then the clues might be “it is a type of physical reaction” and “it is used to clear your airway”.  This game assigns meaningful ontology relationships (known as “triples”) to words, which can be used to deepen computer understanding of human language.
  • Squigl takes the images and tags created in the ESP game and asks players to trace the portion of the image in which the tagged object appears.  So for a picture of a woman walking her dog that’s tagged “leash”, both players would be tracing a similar area of the picture.  Points are awarded depending upon how well the areas overlap.  There are several possible utilities for the data gathered, from deciding what proportion of an image is relevant to a tag to informing image-reading applications.
  • Matchin simply shows both players two pictures and asks them to pick the one they like best.  Each consecutive time they pick the same one, they’re awarded an increasing pool of points.  This game provides data along the lines of Flickr’s “interestingness” function, adding human subjectivity to digital images.

Von Ahn compares the design of these games to the design of an algorithm.  Each one ensures that its data output is correct, and has a certain level of efficiency associated with it.  Like Klein’s device, they also take advantage of operant conditioning by awarding players points on the site’s leaderboard.  It’s a simple currency and less tangible than peanuts, but effective because it’s promoted as a measure of prestige.  Profiles even allow players to use the site as a matchmaker, pairing people who see the world in similar ways.

There are plenty of other examples of people acting as crows on the Web:

  • Search logs of the most commonly submitted queries provide Web designers with a prioritized list of the things users expect to find on the site, expressed in their own words.
  • Flickr users feed image-processing applications when they tag their images for personal use.
  • Foreign language translations of documents are used to inform probabilistic translation applications.

In all of these cases, the people doing the work have an objective that’s unrelated to the way in which someone else makes use of their work.

User-distributed work is emerging as a central component of Web 2.0, but some jobs are too laborious, too tedious, or too unfulfilling for people to pursue them on their own merits.  Learning how to use crows will be an important part of governing the role of the human being in future applications.

Games as production

In my presentation at the 2008 IA Summit, I discussed how many human activities can be understood as games, and benefit from adopting their characteristics. When we think of games as being specifically unproductive, we’re missing the opportunity to engage users at a level beyond what can be achieved in more conventional interfaces.

In fact games can serve as catalysts of production. Take, which is a puzzle game that challenges players to find the best ways to fold proteins. This is in fact among the most difficult problems in modern biology, as a protein can take on very different characteristics depending upon its shape. For example, mad cow disease is caused by proteins that already exist in the body, but which have been folded into irregular shapes that make them agents of the disease.

A screenshot from

A screenshot from

People who play are actually contributing to science, because the game uses the real physical properties of the proteins as its rules. Players are awarded points for things like reducing the size of the protein efficiently, or turning certain types of molecules so they all face inward. The New York Times notes that it’s plausible that by playing this game, you could actually win a Nobel prize (even if you know nothing of biochemistry).

The real pioneer in the productive use of games, though, is Luis Von Ahn of Carnegie Mellon University. I’ll discuss his work in depth in an upcoming posting.

Final Fantasy User Interface

Over the past few weeks I’ve been playing a game for the PS2 called Final Fantasy XII (sounds dirty, but it’s not). I haven’t been a big fan of the series, but this one is really very good. I’m finding it especially interesting from the perspective of user interface design.

FFXII is a role-playing game, in the vein of Dungeons & Dragons. Generally speaking, these can be fairly complex endeavors. You control multiple characters, each of whom has its own attributes that evolve over the course of the game, and you need to attend to their complement of weapons, armor, and accessories, as well as micromanaging their individual actions in battle (I know, fun times). Creating a UI that allows players to sort through all of this complexity is a real challenge, but the design in this game is just fantastic. I expand on a few examples below.

Equip (click to enlarge)

Screenshot 1: Equip

Equip screen

This first screen shows the interface for equipping a character with body armor (click the screenshot to enlarge it). The list of available armor is on the right side, and colored dots show what each of the 6 characters is currently wearing. So character 4 is currently wearing bronze armor, and we’re considering upgrading him to diamond armor (the current position of the cursor). The list of attributes on the left shows what the exact effect of that upgrade will be, with the blue numbers indicating the new values. The character’s defense will go up fivefold, while his strength will increase by a more modest amount. Players can compare different armors just by moving the cursor up and down and noting the attribute changes each one affords.

Another little nuance is that certain characters are only allowed to wear certain types of armor. This is indicated by a circle under that character’s face. If the character can’t wear the armor, we see a dot instead of a circle. So we can tell at a glance that Basch is the only person who can wear diamond armor, while anyone is welcome to leather clothes. I like too that faces are used as column headings here: it’s both space-efficient and takes advantage of the fact that people are innately good at recognizing faces.

Gambits (click to enlarge)

Screenshot 2: Gambits


Final Fantasy XII includes a novel gameplay element called the gambit system, which is a sort of very simple programming language. Rather than laboriously commanding each character action by action in battle, you can set up a list of things they should do automatically whenever a certain condition is true. This is the gambit screen for a character named Penelo, who is currently assigned five active commands. The fifth one says that if any foe is nearby, she should attack it. But it’s superceded by all of the commands listed above it, which include healing poisoned allies or curing them if their health drops below 70%. It’s kind of funny that the condition statements are purchased or won over the course of the game, with the most helpful ones being more difficult to attain.

The system is flexible and very easy to use. You just pair a condition statement with an action, turn the gambit on and you’re ready to roll. Each gambit can be picked up and repositioned in the list to ensure the actions are executed in the proper order. The interplay of different characters in different battles against different enemies makes the gambits rather involved. It’s a great use of programming logic, allowing the player to assemble a sequence of if-then statements and then test out their effectiveness in different scenarios.

Battle (click to enlarge)

Screen 3: Battle

Battle head-up display

When in battle, an overlay provides a remarkable amount of information without obscuring your view of the action, as shown in screen 3. You’re able to keep track of each character’s current and maximum health, current and maximum magic power, available actions, next action, how soon an action will be performed, which character is leading, whether their gambits are active, whether a character is being targeted, the enemy’s health, and your character’s position in a map of the world. That’s really quite a lot, yet it doesn’t feel at all obtrusive. The economy of space strikes me as very Tufte.

Scratching the surface

That’s really just the beginning; I could go on at some length describing the menu structure, automated mapping, selection controls, cursor behavior, etc. There are so many good things happening in this game, many of them very small touches that are easy to overlook because they feel completely natural. Far from treating the game as frivolous, it’s clear that the designers put real care into this UI.

If you Love Warcraft, but Wish it Were Nerdier

NASA has issued a request for information for development of an MMO to serve as a training platform for aspiring space scientists. The RFI leaves the details open to the submitters, but suggests that it might make use of realistic physics and chemistry to simulate experiments. While the home page shows a bunch of very young and poorly compressed children, the FAQ sets the target player age as high school through college students.

What’s really interesting to me here is the serious educational goal that NASA’s pursuing. This is more than just trying to show the kids how hip you are; they’re positioning it as a way to learn real science and try out various careers in the field. The website goes further to say:

MMOs help players develop and exercise a skill set closely matching the thinking, planning, learning, and technical skills increasingly in demand by employers. These skills include strategic thinking, interpretative analysis, problem solving, plan formulation and execution, team-building and cooperation, and adaptation to rapid change.

I think that people who play these games know this instinctively, but it’s startling how widely this sentiment is being echoed these days.