is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Vice President of User Experience at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
Back in 2007, during the initial burst of enthusiasm for the Wii, I bought one, thinking that perhaps there was the soul of a gamer lying dormant inside me. After playing with it for several months, though, I essentially got bored, and haven’t much touched it recently. Today it sits in my living room, hooked up but usually forgotten.
In spite of this inability to muster a sustained interest in video games, I’m savvy enough at least to recognize that very interesting things are happening in that world. As a point of reference for interaction design — for design of every kind — I’m convinced that games represent an important new paradigm that people, like me, pay insufficient attention to at our own peril.
Forget design, even. As a subset of our culture, video games are clearly headed to center of the conversation, where it’s not inconceivable that one day they might shoulder aside old media mainstays like television and newspapers, or even eclipse plain-vanilla Interweb browsing. The inherent power of the concept of play shouldn’t be underestimated.
There’s no shortage of intelligent thinking about this field being written in all corners of the Web. For someone like me though, who remains essentially disconnected from gaming, validation still bubbles up through the mainstream media. And lately, I’ve been noticing increasingly thoughtful writing about video games in some of my favorite publications.
For example, an article by Tom Bissel in The New Yorker about Epic Games’ design director, Cliff “CliffyB” Bleszinski bowled me over as I read it during a recent morning commute. The New Yorker is less stuffy than its reputation, but it’s still notable that the editorial staff are applying their trademark care and deep insight into something as un-stuffy as “Gears of War.” Aside from being written to the magazine’s usual levels of excellence, what struck me as so fascinating about this piece was how much, in trying to understand the creative equation that makes games work, Bissel engages in language that’s very familiar to designers.
“Anyone who plays modern games such as ‘Gears’ does not so much learn the rules as develop a kind of intuition for how the game operates. Often, there is no single way to accomplish a given task; improvisation is rewarded. Older games, like ‘Super Mario,’ punish improvisation: you live or die according to their algebra alone.”
Bissel is essentially peeling back the layers on how designers guide users through experiences. A lot of these concepts — intuitiveness, task completion, improvisation, and especially rewards — lay at the heart of design of all kinds.
Another passage later in the article discusses the prevailing philosophy of the “Gears of War” designers, and it reads very much like a mantra for designers everywhere:
“The singularity of ‘Gears of War’ resides in what designers describe as its ‘feel’ — the way that the game’s mechanics are orchestrated to create both a compelling experience for the player and the illusion of an internally consistent world.”
If there’s anything that says design to me, it’s that desire to engage an audience while evoking order — order that is occasionally explicit, but more frequently implicit. Which is to say, we are experts in creating a ‘look’ — the part of a design that draws in an audience — but what makes us designers is that we are beholden to rules and logic that sometimes only we are aware of — that’s the part that to users constitutes the ‘feel.’
The Gray Lady Is a Gamer
Meanwhile, even closer to home for me, Seth Schiesel’s writing on games in The New York Times has been consistently covering similar ground. Following is a lengthy and typically excellent passage from a review of Electronic Arts’ horror game “Dead Space.”
“But horror games (and films and, to a certain extent, fiction) don’t really rely on story to make them compelling. They do not really rely on production gloss, either (though Dead Space looks and sounds beautifully gross).
“What they rely on is pacing. The difference between an excellent horror experience in any medium and a mediocre one is in how it measures out all those little jolts over time. It is balancing the generation and release of episodic tension with a mounting sense of dread that gives the narrative its basic arc. If viewers, players or readers are oversaturated with dramatic and graphic scenes, they can become desensitized. Too much wasted space and the consumer can become bored in a more obvious way.
“These pacing decisions are more art than science. One could argue that maintaining an audience’s attention with a drumbeat of minor moments, punctuated at just the right times with major events, makes the big difference in all entertainment. It just becomes especially clear with horror, because horror generally relies on such blunt emotional instruments: revulsion, surprise, panic, confusion and, of course, fear. Such powerful tools must be wielded delicately.
“And the one word that kept occurring to me in playing Dead Space was discipline. Not over-cautiousness on the part of the designers, but a discipline to stay focused on providing the basics at a high level: spooky levels of the Ishimura to explore, suitably gruesome foes to shoot, and enough depth in the detailed if predictable back story to give the action a sense of consequence (as in ‘I really should care if I can blow apart this next slimy necromorph, because the fate of humanity may depend on it’).”
Here Schiesel draws a more direct parallel with filmmaking, but there are critical ideas that he touches upon — pacing, fending off user boredom, and artistic discipline — that speak to the decision-making in which designers engage every day.
In another review, this one for “LittleBigPlanet,” a quirky game that puts an avatar called Sackboy at the center of the action, Schiesel practically unites game design with the kind of experience design through which I earn my paycheck, under a single umbrella, as if they were very much the same thing:
“This [game] is more a system than a product. Most traditional entertainment is about providing an artifact — a book, a script, a show, a score, a performance — that is then preserved, passed on and reinterpreted. There’s nothing wrong with that. But new entertainment — social networks, games, online communities — is about empowering everyday people to express themselves and interact without a central arbiter. The thing is, interactive entertainment is much harder to design than it is to experience. A great game like chess, poker or Tetris should be easy to play at first and then reveal deeper levels of complexity and skill.”
When I read that, I thought to myself, I need to start playing some video games.+