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.


  1. Terrific insights! I've long thought that what sets games apart is their separation from any externally defined, utilitarian goal (per Huizinga's separate, non-consequential space or magic circle).

    So if I understand the terms and model you're using, it occurs to me that games may differ from other designed-things in the balance of weight or focus given to Object and Outcome: in a bluntly practical design for a tool the Object has little weight (which is how we get to poor usability), and the Outcome is all.

    In a game, it may be the reverse: "the play's the thing," to appropriate Shakespeare's line. In a paideic game, the Outcome may have little if any importance; the more formally ludic it is, the more that Outcome matters -- but rarely if ever, I think, to the point of outweighing the internal goal/Object (what I would call the experience, though this has me wondering if I've switched your internal/external terms). A game with more focus on Outcome sacrifices satisfying engagement along the way: the end isn't the sole point in a game, how you get there is at least as important. This may be why games where theme and mechanics separate are unsatisfying, as they have lost the balance and integration of Object and Outcome.

    Lots to think about here. Good post!

    1. Thanks man! Having studied many board game designers I think many of them understand (sometimes only on an intuitive level) that the object serves the outcome. The object is largely based in the mechanisms of the game and the outcome lies in the overall experience of the game.

      I interviewed a designer some time ago who said that he wasn't play testing to prove the mechanisms work as he felt that could be done mathematically. He was play testing his games to see that the players were having the overall experience he hoped they would have by playing the game.

      Back to the tea maker -- if I can use it and it makes a great cup of tea but the experience of using the tea maker is tedious and unpleasant then where does that leave the user? The desired object(ive) is achieved but the outcome is far from optimal. With games (as with most types of design) the desired outcome is often based in emotion or meaning rather than utility. A good tool will effectively address the object(ive) -- a great tool does that as well as produce the desired outcome.

      In my classes I have students primarily aimed at their desired outcomes. These are usually focused on social change or edification of some kind. The object(ive)s are only considered good if they produce the outcome outlined in the problem statement.

  2. So in a game, because of the magic circle, the Object is irrelevant: the goal of the game and the victor of the game have no impact on the real world. However, the Outcome can be greatly significant: the game produces entertainment, possibly teaches transferable skills, and the shared experience within the magic circle can make (and using _Diplomacy_ as an example) or break friendships, regardless of who won or lost the game. The Object is a mechanism to drive toward an Outcome, but the Outcome is the reason we play.