Friday, May 30, 2014

Design/Game... Game/Design... Design/Game/Design... Game/Design/Game...

People who are into photography understand that a single camera "lens" is actually made up many lenses.

This last week I was in a meeting where we talked about "design competency." That strikes me as a strange topic... but, that's really not what this post is about. One of the things we discussed was how we evolve as designers. Many designers who are just setting their feet to the design path see design in very specific contexts — i.e.  this thing that I am doing or experiencing right here/now is design. Designers who have been around the track once or twice tend to see design in literally everything. For these designers, everything relates to design in some way. Design shifts from being specific and literal to being general and metaphorical.

I don't think that this type of evolution is exclusive to design. I have seen a similar change in people who play tabletop games. Early on gamers struggle to understand simple mechanics, how they work and how mechanic are combine to create a specific experience. As a gamer becomes more experienced they begin to see the broader perspective. I don't feel like I'm quite there yet myself — but, I think I see it in other, more experienced gamers. They sometimes refer to a thing called "gaming the game" or "gaming the ________." They are able to see everything through the lens of game concepts.

As I have grown older, my design lens has become increasingly broad and metaphorical. How does this progress happen? For me, there seems to be several key factors. The first is immersion in the topic. I have a bit of an obsessive personality and this quality helps me to focus. Secondly is making. I need to make something or write something. I may not be very good at the making part but I still have to do it. It is an important part of how I think and how I process information.

As I continue to be obsessed with board games I don't know what will come of it. But, I think it will be with me for a while. Interestingly I feel that I am just beginning to adopt a game lens as a way of viewing things. I suspect that this second lens for me is a powerful compliment to my design lens and I'm excited to see how the two of them might work together. I wonder if perhaps they are are actually two elements of a single lens.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The OTHER Kind of Interactivity

Coming from the field of HCI-D the term “interactive” has certain connotations... that... I am beginning to have issues with. Information, data, pre-programed software, hardware, pixels... these things have no life of their own. And yet we glory in our ability to “interact” with them. Framed in this way it all sounds pretty boring and just a little wrong to me. Here are a few bits from one of my favorite passages in Jaron Laniers book "You Are Not A Gadget." I think they are relevant here...

“Information wants to be free.”
I say that information doesn’t deserve to be free.

Cybernetic totalists love to think of the stuff as if it were alive and had its own ideas and ambitions. But what if information is inanimate? What if it’s even less than inanimate, a mere artifact of human thought? What if only humans are real, and information is not?
Information is alienated experience (Lanier 2009).”

In March of 2013 I became deeply and helplessly obsessed with modern board games. In the world of contemporary tabletop games the term “interactive” means something very specific and very different than in HCI-D. It means two or more people interacting with one another via a system of meditation (e.g. a board game). I don’t think the term “interactive” is ever used in the context of board games to discuss anything but human-human interaction (albeit mediated by the game system).

I think HCI’s notion of interactivity stinks. This is one reason in a long list of reasons that I will continue to be obsessed with board games.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014


I’ve been studying the life of ideas — how ideas reside in objects, how they move into our minds and how they move from our minds into the physical worlds. Of course “they” do not move themselves. They are essentially information. We are the movers. But, once they are in our heads strange things can happen. Information in our minds can become ideas. We shift them around. We cut and splice and rearrange bits and pieces to form new or different ideas.

There has been some research about one peculiar notion dealing with ideas in a field referred to as memetics. This notion proposes that once in our minds, information programs the way that we think and do everything. Taken to a rational conclusion we might believe that we are programed entirely by the information we take into our minds — that free will or agency is pure fiction. This is in fact a form or extension of evolutionary biology theory.

The arguments for this are very convincing as they parallel everything we believe to be true in evolutionary biology. The foundational element in biology is the gene and in the world of human behavior it is the meme. Human beings are meme machines (Blackmore 1999). As a side note I believe that this notion has strong ties to the “One Dimensional-Man” theory posited by Herbert Marcuse.

If I were a strong believer in the notion that all truth and reality springs from scientific rationality then I would be completely on board with all of this. But, alas I am not that guy. Neither am I fully on whatever side might oppose these ideas. I think there is truth in theories of memetic evolution. But, I also have strong beliefs that we are each individual, eternal, spiritual beings. Shocking I know! But, pairing these beliefs with memetics means that while ideas do evolve via our minds and bodies they can only do so if we choose to use them. This is the very essence of what it means to be a designer.

Friday, May 16, 2014

It's Not How Fast You Play

It was in the fall of 1983 and I was driving with my brother Owen somewhere on highway 167 near Kent Washington. As we quite often did we were listening to music loudly. I put in a cassette tape of Cream’s Wheels of Fire and Owen began to rant. Not unusual for Owen. But, for some reason I remember this rant. Owen began talking excitedly about Ginger Baker. I don’t remember a lot of details... here is what I do remember...

“Ginger Baker... one of the greatest drummers of all time... madman... above and beyond rock... jazz... Baker... crazy... truly a jazz drummer... rock is lesser... jazz is the higher scale... and Baker is near the top of even that scale.” 

I don’t know where Owen got this information from. He would repeat this rant in different forms a time or two more before he died. I stored it away. That first time I knew little about jazz.

Years later I came to love jazz. I now understand Owen's passion for Baker. This morning I watched a documentary about Ginger Baker. Here is a quote from Ginger Baker from the film...

Independence... the ability to play a different thing with all four limbs. Which is how I play things that sound incredibly fast, when I’m not actually moving anything very fast. Because, all four beats are there in a different place, so what comes out is four times as fast. But, it’s not how fast you play... it’s what you say.

That quote — I’m not sure that Baker intended it as such but for me it is a metaphor. It speaks of life and only incidentally of drumming.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Tent Pegs

I am hoping to resuscitate this blog — back from the dead after a couple of years.

For the last year or so I have been a PhD student studying HCI-D. My area of focus has been design methods — how they are created, adapted, evolved and employed. I have at least two side interests that I have managed to cultivate a little. I am often contemplating ways that I might weave them together. These side interests are board game design and the model of evolutionary biology. Using all three of these together in some way may not be as strange as it sounds at first.

The evolution thing is an analogy that I have been reflecting on for several years and I have specifically been interested in mutation and how viruses work. Designs carry ideas like a virus carries a genetic code. The code moves from design to mind and back to design in much that same way that the code of a virus moves from virus to host cell and back to virus. It replicates through this process and mutates and evolves. I am currently writing a paper about this with Erik Stolterman and I'm very exited about it.

Boardgames are a recent passion. I am mostly enamored with eurogames — I love almost everything about them. For over a year now I have been studying them and how they are designed. I wrote a paper comparing board game design to the development of design methods that was publish for the AIGA design educators conference in March. I was able to present it at the conference and it was a lot of fun. If you are interested you can find it as part of this document here.

My interest in design methods, the evolution model and boardgames may or may not come together at some point. But, I certainly do not foresee any one of them waning any time soon. In some ideal and perhaps alternate version of my life in the near future, these three interests form the tent pegs of some unified canvas that makes up my research.