These are the three levels:
- Visceral. Like animal instinct.
- Behavioural. What usability engineering is all about.
- Reflective. Message, culture, and meaning.
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. [...]This sounds a lot like design on the visceral level, and it does matter.
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.
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.)