Matthew Gallant posted an interesting commentary that confronts video game interfaces with Donald Norman’s ubiquitous book on design, The Design of Everyday Things. There is some sense in the three design principles that Norman distils from his analyses of well-designed everyday objects, and Matthew has done a wonderful job of translating them for game designers.
In this article I try to plead a case against ”good” interface design. Rather, I would like to see interfaces that frustrate the gamer and encourage them to explore the game’s world creatively, rather than instrumentally.
Here are some of the interface design goals that Matthew suggests:
- Visibility: It Should Be Obvious What a Control Is Used For.
If I press this button, what will happen? If I want to unlock the door, which control should I use? A system with good visibility allows the user to easily translate goals into actions.
- Affordance: It Should Be Obvious How a Control Is Used.
The system should provide “strong clues to the operation of things”. A button affords pushing, a lever affords pulling, etc. The user should know how to operate a control just by looking at it.
- Feedback: It Should Be Obvious When a Control Has Been Used.
Once the user has pressed a button, the system should react in a manner that clearly communicates what has just been accomplished. If nothing has happened, this fact should also be obvious.
Each of these design principles is sensible precisely because they are grounded in the way of life we already live: we have goals (or are given goals by the designer), we encounter objects in the world, we use those objects to achieve those goals, we receive feedback when we engage in them. Almost all games that we’ve played are based on this very rational structure.
Instrumental reason in video games
But to get a little philosophical here, all of these principles are based on an instrumental relation to video games. It’s an instrumental view insofar as the world is seen as a collection of things, and the gamer is an organism with clearly specified goals. In order to achieve those goals, s/he must use those things in the correct way. The fact that we call our HIDs “controllers” now instead of a “joysticks” is very indicative of the culture we live in: we tend to believe that games are there to satisfy goals.
But are games tools or instruments? This is the problem I have with Donald Norman’s usability studies: they are all based on an instrumentalist view of the world. If you aren’t playing by the rules that the designer has created, you aren’t doing it right. So the designer is encouraged to make the game’s goals and controls as transparent as possible, so gamers can satisfy quests/goals/rules as efficiently as possible.
But what about play? When we play games, are we trying to satisfy our instrumental goals? Perhaps vaguely. A friend and I used to play Midtown Madness together, and try to cause horrible traffic jams at one side of town, so we could race our car down the highway and hit the jam at the highest possible speed. Sometimes the car would catch an edge of a bumper and launch over the other cars in the jam – kudos would be awarded for the most spectacular collision. We were not playing the game according to the rules – we were trying to break the rules and create new possibilities within the constraints of the game.
Making a case for ‘broken’ interfaces
If you’re designing a new hammer or building a sports car, you want the ‘interface’ (the usability) to be predictable, reliable, and intuitive. You don’t want the hammer dancing around the nail, nor do you want your new sports car choosing a random direction every time you turn left.
But when we make video games, we should not be engineering for usability. A game is not a utility. It is an imaginative space and a play space. Creating “user-friendly” video games is another way of saying, “We are making a faster, better, hammer, that practically anyone can use!” What we need instead, I think, is a game that frustrates us. A game where learning the rules of play – whatever they are – is an exploration in itself. We don’t need to learn the rules first, then learn how to play. We play a game, and learn the bounds of the space as we do it.
Iroquois Pliskin (understandably) argues that Resident Evil 5 suffers from ”bad interface design” that prevents the player from moving forwards in the game. In my view, this has the potential to be a wonderful opportunity for play. Unfortunately, RE5 is just as instrumentally-minded as most gamers are, and only one “solution” to the “puzzle” is the “right” one. Creativity and play do not imagine specific ends such as these. So instead of making RE5′s interface more intuitive, easy-to-play, or straightforward, I’d like to see the game enable creative solutions to its very difficult challenges.
Sure, instrumental reason satisfies our desire for achievement and consumption… but it fundamentally denies other desires we have, such as the desire to play, think creatively, and undermine the rules. I’d like to see some badly designed interfaces that leave lots of cracks in the pavement – spaces for the imagination. A game is not a hammer.
Thank you to (fellow Canuck!) Matthew Gallant and Iroquois Pliskin for their thoughts on game interfaces.
Note: Nels Anderson, who lives dangerously near the 49th parallel, has some interesting thoughts on design/UI issues that are directly pertinent to this discussion here and here… his thoughts fall closer to Matthew Gallant’s reading of Donald Norman’s book than mine do, but they offer an articulate interpretation of game mechanics and interactivity.