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.