Friday, July 8, 2016

Board Games, The Breville Tea Maker, and Activity Theory

I am teaching an intensive 6 week summer course at IU focused on "human-center design." As usual I have been using board game design as a vehicle to teach many of the concepts in the course. I love teaching in part because it helps me to clarify and evolve many aspects of my personal design ideas or philosophy.

Based on fieldsite studies that the students have been conducting I have had them generating explicit...

1) Insights,
2) Problem Statement, and
3) Game Idea

Their insights were drawn from their field-studies and their analysis of several boardgames using semiotics, visual gestalt theory and systems thinking.

Their problem statements (a single sentence in the form of a question) identified a design opportunity. The statement included a specific...

a) group of people,
b) context of use,
c) designed artifact (in this case a tabeltop game), and
d) "goal"

Their game idea was a simple, short description of the game they had in mind. This should include the goal(s) of the game.

This past week we reviewed their second iterations on numbers 1-2 and their first iteration on number 3. I had another one of those moments where my own gears were turning as much or more than my students.

You see there are really two primary types of goals that need to be considered when working on a new design. First, there is the goal that is in a way external to the design — i.e. "I want the users to have this very specific type of experience" or "I want the experience of the design to affect them in this very specific kind of way." Second, there is the goal that is internal to the design — i.e. "the specific goal or end condition for using the design." It became very clear to me that it is useful for the external goal to be defined in the problem statement and the internal goal to be described in the game idea statement.

In class these two types of goals were related to the game designs that the students were working on. But, these two categories of goals really drive most good design. For example I have a tea maker that I use every day and it seems to me that there is clearly this external type of goal and internal type of goal. The external goal is that the design just makes my mornings very pleasant and eliminates the hassle usually involved in making my morning tea. The internal goal is simply to make a very good pot of tea.

It became clear to me during/after the in-class discussion that I could clarify much of what needed to be addressed with these three things (insights, problem statement and game idea) by referring back to concepts that I presented earlier in the course that come from activity theory (see diagram below). In the framework of activity theory there is a "subject" (this is a person or group of people). The subject uses a "tool" (some type of design). The tool is used on an "object" (or to achieve and objective). By achieving the objective (or perhaps in the case of games -- attempting to achieve) there is an "outcome."

In the context of activity theory we can think of the "internal" goal as the "object(ive)" and the "external" goal as the "outcome." Applying this to a game design — the goal within the game is the "object" and the experience you want the players to have is the "outcome." For me this all seems useful for any type of design work. If we add the remaining framework of activity theory — "rules," "community," and "division of labor" — it becomes even more useful. This framework becomes mobilized and we can begin to better understand small portions of the system we are designing even more deeply if we include the "actions" and "operations" concepts from activity theory. But that is perhaps better left for some future post.

I believe it cannot be stated strongly enough that spending significant attention to writing these down on paper is extremely valuable. Having even a short written statement that includes a set of insights, a problem statement (with the 4 elements I listed above), and the game/design idea can be a powerful and useful engine to drive design work. It is my belief that including a clear object(ive) in the design idea and an explicit outcome in the problem statement can bring a great clarity to a designers process and result in better, more compelling designs.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Design is Everything is Design

I have written many posts for this blog that I have never published. In some cases this has been because I felt that they were too rough and unfinished to provide any clarity whatsoever. In other cases they just felt too personal. This is a post that I wrote/created in late August 2015. For reasons that even I am not sure of I'm publishing it now   :-/   ... 

My fascination with design process runs deep. 

I recently received a rejection for a paper I have been working on for quite some time. I worked on it with a Professor here at IU for several months. But, quite honestly it is something I have been working on personally (and usually in the back ground of everything I do) for many years. The rejection didn't surprise me even though I feel like it is a good paper.

I see design process as a very close relative of evolutionary biology. 

We received some good feedback from the reviewers who thought the ideas the paper put forth were very interesting and worth pursuing. There were two reviewers and each of them wrote a full page of comments and concerns — this type/length of response indicates a sincere interest in the work. So, now we put it aside for a bit and move forward.

Ideas evolve.  

As I mentioned the topic of this paper has haunted me and my thoughts for many years. So, the chance it will ever go away are slim to none. I will return to "the paper" one day, probably very soon.

Humans are central to this process.

Last week I was in a meeting with three of my colleagues. We have these meetings once a week or so and they are our chance to hang out and discuss what we are working on and also to vent a little. It's our once a week catharsis. This week I had a chance to talk about this paper and it's rejection. It turned into an hour long discussion about it — very encouraging. I struggle to feel as though I fit with academics. They often ask me questions that are framed in such a way that I find it difficult to respond. 

Humans are both carriers and engineers of ideas.

I fear that I don't think like a researcher — at least not an "Informatics," "HCI," or academic researcher. When asked what my "findings" are or what my "contribution" is for this (or any) paper I honestly feel like I don't have any. Sure I wrote some stuff that came under those headings. 

We embed ideas in the things that we create and those things pass ideas on to other humans. 

But, the things I wrote feel to me like things that are just my own crazy ideas even though they are supported with interviews, participant-observation and other papers. Furthermore, these ideas seem to me quite obvious and they have been written about by others (albeit in different ways than my own).

Along the way those ideas mutate.

I look back on all of this now more convinced than ever that everything is in some way a design process. I designed a paper. Reviewers reject it and offer me feedback. I talk with my colleagues and they provide further feedback and a nice dose of encouragement. Soon I will return to the paper and redesign it and the process will begin again. In some ways this is what the paper was about.

This mutation can be a result of environmental factors and/or filters in our way of thinking... or... 

as humans/designers we can forcibly mutate an idea. 

This last statement, if it is true, is extremely powerful. 

If it's not true — then maybe we are just exactly like every other animal on the planet — (pre)programed by our experience, environment and genetics to do everything we do. 

If it's not true — then we have no agency and that would devastate me.


Thursday, May 5, 2016

Why I Love Euro-Games and Resist Modernism

"Cuba" — design by Michael Rieneck and Stefan Stadler with art by Michael Menzel

A brief intro here about who I am as a gamer. It's no secret — I play a ton-o-games. Indeed I average about 6 games a week. These days about 3 of the games that I play every month are new to me and I am almost always the one to learn and teach a new game. Most of the games I play are what are commonly described as "euro-games" and most of them are 90-120 minutes in length. On the weight scale the games that I tend to gravitate towards are medium to heavy.

I love boardgames. But, it's not purely recreation for me. I am an academic/researcher who studies board game designers — their processes, methods and culture. An integral part of this is of course studying the games themselves. Other, related and relevant interests of mine are systems and complexity. I teach college courses in design and I often tell students that the old reductivist tenant of modernism to simplify must be re-thought. We are living in a world of rapidly accelerating complexity. Stripping designs down purely because we want to simplify them is no longer a desirable strategy. Instead I say let's embrace complexity and as designers try to bring clarity rather than simplification to our designs.

So, what does this have to do with boardgames and why they are important? Well... a lot! Complex euro-games in particular relate to these ideas of mine as I believe that they are a powerful precedent that designers can learn from. They excel at embodying extremely complex systems of interaction and at doing so with great clarity. A good game designer can strip away the clutter and streamline game mechanisms while still maintaining a strong theme in their game. This is one of the hallmarks of a good euro-game. This is in part the why and how of their ability to make their games language independent. It is also why I am drawn to euro-games — extreme complexity with amazing clarity. The design objectives of — few if any rules exceptions and a low threshold for extraneous in-game text act to drive the complexity/clarity dogma even deeper into the design of these types of games.

It's worth noting that many games that do this well may not be considered strictly as "euro-games." Many people may not consider games designed by Martin Wallace to fit neatly into the euro-game category. And yet they maintain many of the characteristics I have described here. So, while I will ever be drawn to "euro-games" for the reasons I have described here I am not an exclusive a devotee. Rather they provide a base of operations for me to explore the world of complex/clarity that I find so compelling in contemporary boardgames.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Co-Hosting "Rahdo Runs Through" with Richard Ham

Last Friday I had the opportunity to co-host the "Final Thoughts" segment on "Rahdo Runs Through" with Richard Ham. It was a lot of fun and I thoroughly enjoyed talking with Richard about board games and other related stuff (much of our conversation -- i.e. before and after the "Final Thoughts" -- is not in the YouTube video). Watching this video now it's interesting to note how little I have to say. In hindsight I wonder if this is because I am so accustom to conducting ethnographic research/interviews where my objective is really to prompt others to talk about things.  I'm not sure this is the case in this video — Richard is really a ball of energy and it's doesn't take much to get him talking about game stuff.

On a related note I feel compelled to comment on what a great community board game people are (be they designers, publishers, reviewers, etc). Having been involved the way that I have been for the last 3 years it still amazes me. I have reached out to people that I only thought I could dream of talking with and almost without exception they have been open and enthusiastic to talk with me. This has made me feel welcome and has allowed to me interview dozens and dozens of designers, publishers and other people in the board game community from all over the world.  The list of people I've been able to talk with constantly amazes me. It may come as no surprise that these people are some of the smartest and most interesting people I have ever had the pleasure of associating with. And Richard has been no exception. I actually interviewed him a couple of years ago (though he didn't remember it) and when I contacted him he was more than happy to take time out of his busy schedule to and chat with me. I am a bit anti-social, a bit of an introvert. So, having my subjects of research be so welcoming has been an enormous blessing.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Visual Ethnography — Digital Experiences and Orientalism

A friend of mine posted a link on Facebook some time ago and it has ever since been on my mind.

Steven J. Bernstein once wrote, 
"I like to think when something disturbs me - that - it - is - important."

Initially, I would not have characterized the link as one that "disturbs" me. But, over time and upon reflection it has caused me some serious contemplation. Something about it bugs me — i.e. evidently it does disturb me. Here is the link — "Falling Up" – Genre Busting Digital Ethnography  

I don't know how to write/right this so... I will write... 
My initial reaction to this blurb/video about this strange new candy referred to as digital ethnography was quite positive. But, being a designer and a researcher has warped me. I can no longer partake of such fresh delights without quickly descending into the madness of my own personal cynicism.

What is the purpose of such an ethnography?!

Does this serve the purpose that an ethnography should?!

What does new media such as this actually do when it is used as "ethnography?!"

Cultural anthropology of the past/present followed a "salvage" model where the work was intended to preserve knowledge of current cultures by generating written ethnographies and other fairly static artifacts. Photos, films and other forms of media have increasingly been wove into the works that cultural anthropologists generate. I have been experimenting with ethnographic video so my post here is aimed not just at Wesch's project but at my own work as well. Arguably -- photos, film, video and audio records can be immersive and they do present their own set of challenges. But, interactive digital experiences are less a "record" of culture. They are more of a re-creation that claims to allow the viewer/user to feel as though they are stepping into a culture. Producing and editing such a re-creation puts the anthropologist in a position to manipulate the ethnography to a much greater degree than with previous media.

New media such as video and digital artifacts could be seen as pursuing a new model aimed at providing an "experience." This new model of experience is exciting to me. Seemingly, it can provide the audience with a means to understand a culture more deeply, to feel, empathize, and... well... experience other cultures. But, does it really do this? Does it do it in a way that is true, real or productive? I'm not sure that it always does. I fear that too often it will not. And yet I feel compelled to create such ethnography. There is power in these new methods. It seems that spreading knowledge through such experiences could have such positive outcomes that it would be foolish to not make the attempt.

Still I have serious questions and reservations. Let's consider anthropological exhibits as they are often created within the context of a museum. When we put the seemingly strange object of another culture on a white pedestal and light it dramatically in a large white room what exactly is the experience for the viewers? What is the experience when we fill that room with other carefully lit objects in glass cases and on white pedestals? Does it respect the culture? Does it represent it in such a way that the viewer gets an accurate feel for the culture?

A digital virtual space seems all to similar to this type of treatment — the digital screen is a glowing, candy-like window hanging in space. In fact it seems to have even a greater potential for ill (or good?). Does such a presentation become a feast on knowledge or does it become a binge on candy? Is it a fine line that is in some ways too easy to cross? More importantly -- are we "othering" the subjects of such an ethnography? We have lived this problem before through the orientalism of the 20th century. I believe it is possible to do better if we are aware of this recent past.

So, many concerns come with creating an ethnography of this type or in this way. I will end this post with more questions that may act as provocations or perhaps guide me to make better ethnographic artifacts.

Does it treat the culture and people being studied with respect?

Does it treat the viewer/reader/user with respect?

What is the purpose of such a project?

Does it represent the culture in a way that is "real" and who is defining what "real" is?

Does it compel the audience to explore their world or does it make them just crave more candy?


Monday, March 21, 2016

Small "Rules," Large Effects, and Rapid Iterations

 — more board game design observations
and how they might apply to IX/UX design

I continue to ask myself whether or not there is really any value in studying board game design. Can this path of research be adapted for improving interaction/experience (IX/UX) design skills. Can board game design teach us something that simply studying IX/UX design cannot or what can it teach us in a better way?

I will focus here on one particular area that I think is noteworthy. It's something that I have tried to incorporate into my teaching and it was tangentially the topic of my last blog post. But, I think it's worthwhile to spend a few more words on it here.

In IX/UX design (i.e. the design of digital, interactive experiences) the "rules" that the user must follow are buried in the software code. This makes it impossible for the user to break the rules and at the same time allows them to learn the rules through experiencing the design -- e.g. if I click here something happens that I like but if I click there nothing happens at all. Once a digital design has been produced (even in the form of a digital prototype) it can sometimes be difficult to change the rules. There may be truck loads of intertwined rules and in some cases the designer may not have even considered in an explicit way what the rules are or how they relate to one another and/or to the user.

Board game design forces the designer to think explicitly about the rules of the experience — if you are going to hand a board game over to someone else then those rules have to be in writing and they have to be written well. Rules need to be expressed in writing in a clear and concise way. Rule sets can be extremely complex — but, must be broken down systematically in a well structured, written document. This forces the designer to generate rules governing game play at all levels and scales — e.g. lots of very small rules are clustered together and these clusters form (or are governed by) larger or overarching rules. 

The upshot of this is that it is then relatively easy to change a single small rule to test and see the effect of that change. When tested in this way it is easy for the designers to see the effect of changing a small rule. Changing a small rule is easy but such a change can radically change the way that the design is experienced by users/players. This type of experimentation is common in the design and testing of board games because it is relatively easy to do and the pay-off can be that the game-play experience is effected in radical ways. During the test of a board game such experimentation and iteration can happen in only a few minutes. This provides the designer with very rapid feedback on small tweaks that have large effects. I have witnessed this process on many occasions in my research with board game designers.

Here are a few things that I think these elements of board game design can help IX/UX designers do better or understand more fully.

- preparing a set of written "rules" provides a way of precisely targeting small areas where changes can be made very quickly.

- a paper prototype paired with a written rule-set provides the designer with a means of testing small, highly targeted, quick iterations on a design.

- small changes can have large effects — read in Donella Meadows "Thinking in Systems" the section on leverage points.

This use of board game design tactics for IX/UX design is largely untested. And while there are more similarities than differences between these two types of design I must acknowledge that there are limitations in comparing the two. But, I continue to believe that there is great value in pursuing this path of research.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Board Games and the Future of Graphic Design in a World of Interaction

From very early in their education graphic design students must start thinking about design in terms of interaction, user-experience, and systems.   

The future of design will very likely be centered in digital spaces where these ways of thinking are crucial. I propose that board game design can be a powerful bridge to help beginning students do just that. Designing board games forces students to think in systems without requiring them to be skilled at writing code or using complex software features. Students tasked with designing a board game can use common materials like paper, markers, scissors and found objects. Using such materials students can work unconstrained to develop complex systems of interaction and user-experience.

My research for the last three years has focused on board game designers, their design processes and the artifacts that they create. These designers are often adept at rapidly prototyping complex systems that are represented in a very physical and visual form. In conjunction with this, the designer's primary effort is the creation of a set of rules outlining the behavior of the system — i.e. the function, use and experience of the physical artifact. In other words the board game designer creates a system — 

- the structure of the system is represented in the physical artifact as it is set up on the table AND

- the behavior of the system is described in the rule-set for playing the game.

These two characteristics — the structure and behavior of systems — form a comprehensive (if somewhat basic) framework for thinking, creating and working in systems.

Last semester I incorporated the design of a board game into the curriculum of my “Intro to Graphic Design” course. Students in these classes began by conducting ethnographic research to understand a particular group of people and a space that they frequent. This research was analyzed by the students using visual methodologies. This visual analysis was used to generate a problem statement that then drove the creation and testing of a board game. So, far the results of this course curriculum seem positive. I believe that this use of a visual ethnographic approach and its application in the form of creating a board game provides an accessible entry point for beginning graphic design students to begin thinking and working is ways that prepare them for the future of design.