Thursday, July 23, 2015

Little Experiments and Small Mutations

I should be grading my student's project right now. But, I just can't bring my self to do it — so it will get done tomorrow (Sorry Omar). I've been thinking about a common problem amongst beginning and even mature designers — letting go of control and letting go of the notion of perfection. Until, you are able to get past these obstacles you will struggle as a designer. Design commonly deals with problems, concerns and ideas that simply do not have a single "best" solution. When this quality is combine with our compulsion to worship the designed "artifact" it can prevent us from being effective designers. An artifact is a fixed point in time and space and it's very hard to let go of the idea that that object should be a perfect "best" solution to a design exploration. Because it is fixed that means that as a designer you will always be generating artifacts that will very likely be replaced by something that better suits new contexts. It's a painful reality.

I find that I can get past this by viewing my work as little experiments or small mutations. It's quite fun to design with this mind-set — trying new things and seeing how people react. You have to have an elastic ego to approach design in this way. First your ego must be quite huge to be able to come up with a design to begin with. You are saying "look at me... here is something that I made... it came out of my brain... isn't it interesting?!" Then once it's out there you have to let go and be willing to receive all kinds of feedback. You have to let go and move on to other designs or in many cases re-designing the same thing or some aspect of the same thing... over... and over again. It's all little experiments and mutations to me. So, if it strikes the fancy of other people that's awesome. But, if not then I try something new or different.

When I change a design, whether it's my own or whether I am riffing off of someone else's work it helps to think in terms of small mutations. I design things or make changes to some thing or some idea and I understand that this thing I am designing is not the beginning or some revolutionary new thing and neither is it the end to some long journey. The design that I create — it is in the middle of an on-going process. There are things that came before and there are things that will evolve out of this thing. When I see someone else take an idea of mine and do something new with it I rejoice. I want other designers to "steal" my ideas and do something different with them. That is the evolutionary process.

Yes I have my obsessions and these drive most of my work. I suspect that most designers are pretty obsessive. To keep bouncing back and designing and redesigning over and over again one has to be obsessive and yes have that elastic ego.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Knowing versus Knowing-About

The ideas from my previous post continue to weigh on my mind. Over the weekend I thought quite a bit about knowing people through their designs. It occurred to me that there may be some subtle but important differences between "knowing-about" and "knowing" a designer through their designs.

Part of this stems from a conversation I had with a designer about a year ago. This designer mentioned that when they run playtests for their games it is less about testing whether or not mechanisms work and more an effort to understand the experience that that players have as they play their game. This designer said that "mechanisms" can be tested mathematically but "experience" must be observed during gameplay. I think that this is a very interesting point and it hints at the difference between knowing and knowing-about a designer through their games. In my last post I outlined an example using the games of Stefan Feld. In that example I feel like I explored ideas that reflect more a "knowing-about" than a "knowing" model.


"Knowing-about" seems to me a more quantitative approach. We can study the game as a mathematical model or as a system. For example we can read the rules for a game, analyzing the mechanisms, the system, the theme and on a basic level the components of the game. These characteristics and others can be learned without ever playing the game. This way of studying a game may provide us a way of "knowing-about" the designer.

I propose that the likelihood of being able to "know" the designer through their design increases greatly is we actually play the game with other people (assuming it's not a solo game). An example of this might be a game that includes a bluffing of a hidden information element. These characteristics might be very hard to understand by just reading the rules or studying the game system. But, really I believe that most games have these types of characteristics. This would include a player trying to guess what his competitors might be planning to do on future turns.

I try to teach my students this all the time — the users/players are an integral part of the system. So, understanding the system simply by a study of the rules, the theme or the components does not provide a clear understanding of the complete system. This is in part why the designer I mentioned earlier was so passionate about playtesting. And this is why in part I suspect that "knowing-about" happens through a study of the mechanisms and "knowing" happens more deeply through playing a design. It is only when we very literally include the humans in a study of HCI-D that we are able to even begin to have a deep understanding of a design and by extension the designer.

Testing, observing and analyzing the concepts of a game design through playing the game with other humans exposes the emotions and subtle human-human, human-game and human-game-human interactions that the designer may have intended for the users.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Fruits and Knowing

Stefan Feld's Aquasphere

I have had a particular phrase on my mind for a while now — "by their fruits yea shall know them." It's a phrase that is somewhat ancient in origins and shows up in a few books that many people cite as religious scripture. But, my recent interest in the phrase is not religious in nature. I am interested in this idea — that you can know someone by experiencing the things that they design. I'm not entirely convince that this is possible but the idea intrigues me. It is one of a handful of concepts that lie near the core of the research that I am interested in doing (and/or that I have been doing). I just had never really thought of it in these exact terms. The phrase (as I am familiar with it) is so interesting to me because of the many things that it does not say. It does not say — by their fruits you shall recognize or be reminded of or have hints about them. It says by their fruits yea shall know them. I accept it's possible that I am interpreting the phase wrong. It may well  be in this case that "know" is equal to "recognize." But, even so, this idea that you can know someone by the things that they create has stuck in my mind. If it's true then what?

I like examples. So, I will outline one here.

Let's look at the board games of Stefan Feld. He has designed many games that I have played and he is often cited as ... that guy who makes "point salad" games. In these games there are many, many ways to score points (i.e. the point salad). Usually, winning a game designed by Feld requires that you focus heavily on two or three of these point scoring mechanisms without entirely neglecting the other scoring mechanisms. Most Feld games also include a pervasive punishment for neglecting very specific mechanisms. These are design qualities or characteristics that I have become familiar with through playing his games or experiencing his designs. So, what can I know about Stefan Feld by playing his games?

Perhaps he is a person who believes or likes the idea that... in the things that we do there are many ways to succeed - and - that success will most likely be found in focusing heavily on a few things. In addition to this it is important to not forget that there are some things that cannot be ignored or we will be punished in some way. I'm not sure that Feld believes these things. If my perception is false then that too seems important. It's quite possible that these things have little to do with life habits and that he simply likes games that provide these types of an experience. But, even if that is the case then it seems that I learn something about him by experiencing his designs. The big question remains — can I begin to really know him by playing, experiencing or studying his games? It seems the answer in some way, shape, form or degree must be yes. I would be interested to hear what other people think about this.

I do believe that it's not possible to know someone with 100% accuracy or entirety through their designs. Firstly because there is just too much to know about another human being. Secondly because in the process of transferring ideas from one persons mind to an artifact (i.e. design) and then from that artifact back into another person's mind there will always be mistakes in the copying process (i.e. mutation). And thirdly because people are constantly changing — I'm not the same designer/person today that I was in the past.

What is the upshot of all this? I'm not sure I know. But, it interests me deeply.