Friday, January 15, 2010

Games and the Three Levels of Design

Continuing to read Donald Norman's Emotional Design, I am finding the three levels of design most of the book is based on to be very useful, especially when thinking about game design (as I have been doing lately).

These are the three levels:
  1. Visceral. Like animal instinct.
  2. Behavioural. What usability engineering is all about.
  3. Reflective. Message, culture, and meaning.
Good visceral product design is a great attention grabber. Sometimes it is even enough on its own to cause a purchase. It's what says that we react to bright colours and rounded edges in a positive way, but that we feel negatively toward a car door that doesn't make a good, satisfying clunk when it closes. For games, I think of aesthetic experiences like Auditorium and Flower.

Greg Costikyan wrote about colour in his famous I Have No Words and I Must Design essay:
Color counts for a lot: as a simulation of World War II, Lawrence Harris's Axis & Allies is a pathetic effort. Ah, but the color! Millions of little plastic airplanes and battleships and tanks! Thundering dice! The world at war! The game works almost solely because of its color. [...]

Pageantry and detail and sense of place can greatly add to a game's emotional appeal.

This has almost nothing to do with the game qua game; the original Nova edition of Axis & Allies was virtually identical to the Milton Bradley edition. Except that it had a godawful garish paper map, some of the ugliest counters I've ever seen, and a truly amateurish box. I looked at it once, put it away, and never looked at it again.

Yet the Milton Bradley edition, with all the little plastic pieces, still gets pulled out now and again... Same game. Far better color.
This sounds a lot like design on the visceral level, and it does matter.

But it's usually not enough. That's where the behavioural level comes in. This type of design "is all about use. Appearance doesn't matter. Performance does." There's a lot wrong with high-tech devices on this level, what with their non-descriptive buttons and flashing lights. Or, worse, the fact that computer interfaces are so disconnected from us. You have to wiggle some little pod-thing so that a cursor moves around on a screen above? What?

That's where tangible objects can help:
Physical objects have weight, texture, and surface. The design term for this is "tangibility." Far too many high-technology creations have moved from real physical controls and products to ones that reside on computer screens, to be operated by touching the screen or manipulating a mouse. All the pleasure of manipulating a physical object is gone and, with it, a sense of control. Physical feel matters. We are, after all, biological creatures, with physical bodies, arms, and legs.
I see games making progress in this area. The Nintendo Wii was the first to change things, creating games that required the use of the whole body. I think Microsoft's Project Natal, when it comes out this Christmas (allegedly), will take it to a whole new level. Its computer vision capabilities are nothing short of amazing, making your entire body the controller. Check out the videos on the project page to see what I mean. I also think that augmented reality will play a big role in this realm.

Finally, reflective design is the one that gets us thinking about the product we are using, the movie we're watching, or the game we are playing. We might choose a watch that is less functional than its cousin, but more intellectual (needing explanation of how it works, say), or more loaded with status.

Video games can be 'just played.' A few moments of fun, nothing more. But they can also be all those things we listed reflective as: meaningful, cultural, and with a message. Think about Grand Theft Auto. Is it really just about stealing cars and shooting people? Or is there some kind of comment on the dark side of human nature that we are finally able to act on in an inconsequential game world? I'm sure there are many more ways to look at video games through this lens.

I don't think a video games needs to be attractive on every one of these design levels to work, but thinking about each does seem to provide some useful idea generation.

(All quotes are from Emotional design unless otherwise stated.)


Oliver said...

I think the pod thing accomplishes its goal in a most effective manner. If mouse and keyboard interaction were not such greatly designed approaches to solving the problems for which they were designed, they probably wouldn't have persisted with such ubiquity as long as they have. Consider that it conforms almost perfectly to the resting state of your hand with a multitude of buttons (depending on model) on every contact surface within minimal reach of each finger, and with mouse speed settings, it provides a mapping from the small scale used by the mouse (~1-2") to the large scale of the monitor array (~17-60+") allowing one to specify with a trivial amount of effort the elements onscreen we may wish to interact with, and having the buttons on the same device provides a convenient cognitive correlation between the thing being pointed at and the action being applied to it. Replicating that mechanism with as much responsiveness as the existing technology but with newer technology is one of the great challenges I'm trying to solve.

Gail Carmichael said...

I agree there is nothing better yet... this is because nobody has come up with an improvement. I am definitely convinced that there will be something better than the mouse. Just don't know what it will be. (And maybe it will be for some tasks only, and the mouse will stay for others.)

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