Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Differences and Similarities: board games & software apps

I'm Making A List 
— it is still a work in progress —

Several weeks ago Erik Stolterman and I were discussing my work and he suggested I make a list of similarities and differences between digital apps and board games. There was some discussion speculating on what I would discover. Would I find more differences than similarities or vice versa?

As I wrote the little that you see here, instead of finding clarity, instead of finding separation between the two, I feel even more strongly the similarities between the two. Yes, there are many differences. And yes they are significant. But, through the lens of designing an experience for a user/player the similarities still seem quite striking to me.

I am clearly posting this prematurely. I'm not asking you to do my work for me (as if that were even possible... me being the genius that I am ;)   But, I thought it might be fun to get some comments. Let me know what you think.

Similarities and Differences — Boardgames and Digital Apps


1. Designs often driven by and incorporate user/player objectives... goals... and motivations

2. Design considerations often include...
— degrees of agency — quantity of choices and decisions
— the quality of decisions can shape experience

3. designed artifact (often)

4. there is a stylistic look/feel that is an integral part of the experience

5. bot are designed systems that human interacts with

6.  artifact is a mediator
— signifiers and affordances
— data is manipulated via visual/physical mediators

7. rules create a framework for the experience

8. steps or phases are part of the experience

9. sense of input/output

10. replay-ability and emergent qualities
— users/players often come up with new uses
— outcomes can surprise users/players
— outcomes are different from one experience/use to the next
— outcomes are subject to qualities of the user/player

11. Produced by teams including designers, illustrators, writers and stakeholders

12. not generally considered an activity for spectators

13. rules based activity
— in software apps the rule set is the software program
— in a board games the rules are written in a booklet (or on The Geek ;)

14. both are rules based activity with an objective   

— Differences —

Board Games

1. usually a group activity

2. experience and physical space is usually shared by other users

3. there are end conditions

4. achievements are quantified as well as qualified by the rule set

5. physical artifact
 — three dimensional experience over time
6. rules can readily be modified by users

7. specific objective(s) determined by designer

8. it is not uncommon for luck to be designed into the system  


1. objectives can be sharply adjusted by the user

2. often a solo activity

3. rules are not easily modified by user

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Design and the Stealing of Our Thunder

Some of you may be aware that I am working toward my PhD and some of you may even know of my deep obsession with design (more specifically design methods), evolutionary biology and board games. Indeed I have had one paper published discussing the development of design methods and principles that may be borrowed from board game design. And my current work continues to focus on these three things. Today I read an interesting article by Cosimo Cardellicchio titled "Evolution for Games." Upon first glance it might be tempting for me to say, "well there it is... it's been written, so why should I continue with this paper I'm writing."

Oh ye of little faith... Fear not! While Cardellicchio's article may touch upon some of specific topics that I am researching, his piece fails to explore them from the perspective of design and design methods. I'm not certain of Cardellicchio's background and a brief google hunt proved disappointing. I suspect from the little I could find that he is some kind of chemist who evidently has an interest in board games... cool! So, I actually found his article quite encouraging.

I have learned much here in my academic pursuits at Indiana University. One of the things I've learned is that finding other writings that seem to echo your pursuits is a good thing. It provides several very useful things.

Firstly it lets you know that you're writing about a topic that is of interest to other people. Hey, that's awesome -- there's other people out there nearly as strange and dysfunctional as I am.

Secondly it provides a source of reference -- gotta fill up that bibiography ;)

And thirdly and probably most importantly it gives you a frame of reference or a source that you can use to compare and contrast your own work to. This allows you to refine and improve your own writing.

Yesterday in our research groups weekly meeting we discussed this very thing. One of my colleagues expressed concerns over article he had found that seemed to already say what he was wanting to say. It was clear however that these articles of concern did not say it in quite the same way that my colleague would. I hope that our discussion encouraged him to move forward with his ideas as I think that they are very interesting. And I'm absolutely certain that he would bring a fresh perspective to to topics.

This all, while ostensibly about research and writing, actually is a fine illustration of my ideas about evolution in design. It's unlikely that someone will ever design something that doesn't have some sort of genealogy. You absorb tons of information and ideas every day. These are our raw genetic material for generating new design creations. You are a 100% unique filter, mutator and maker. Seeing what others have done should only compel you to show the world your own spin on things.

Yesterday I read an article by board game design Richard Breese titled "My Life in Games." Breese is rapidly becoming one of my favorite designers. And day by day I am coming to believe that he is "the man" when it comes to the game mechanism of worker placement. Anyhow, in this article he shares some extremely interesting information about himself as a game designer. He lists the 5 things/mechanisms that he enjoys most in a board game. This list is followed immediately by reference to a game that he liked but lacked some of the elements from his list. He then says that this was the catalyst for his creation of the core mechanisms for his game Keydom. This is the game that many believe to be the genesis of the worker placement mechanism.

This illustrates beautifully the ideas that I am working on. Let me break it down:

1. Breese has a pre-existing personal philosophy of design — i.e. his list of 5.
2. He experiences a new game that he likes but it falls short in some of those 5 things that make up the core of his design philosophy.
3. He then takes some of the ideas from that game and by mutating them using his own philosophy he creates a new and highly unique set of mechanics for the core of his new game.

I hope to find many more examples that will allow me to dig deeper into this. I know that many other people have written similar ideas. All I can hope for is to put my own fingerprints all over those ideas until at some point they become something I can call my own.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Circle

This past week I read Dave Eggers' "The Circle." This book is about a large young technology corporation named "The Circle" that rapidly buys up the likes of Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc. and unites and unifies all of them. The story follows a young woman as she is hired for a low-level position and quickly becomes the company's ambassador. The core ideas of the book are echoed in the Circles three slogans —

"Secrets are Lies" 
"Sharing is Caring"
"Privacy is Theft"

Many of he ideas outlined in the book sound like good ideas on their surface. It's not good to keep secrets — it's almost like your lying to people. It's good to share things — it shows you care. Keeping things from people can be a little like theft. In the begin of the book these ideas are looked through soft lenses in this way. However, by the end of the book it is clear that extrapolating these ideas out to their logical end could easily create a world where privacy is a crime, intense participation in social media is mandatory and sharing literally everything is compulsory.

As with most books of this nature, one of the things that makes it a good, scary read is that it would only take a slight nudge to start our own reality rapidly down a similar path. As I read it I was reminded of Orwell's 1984 and other, similar books about dystopian near futures. This book seems to illustrate how we could rapidly find our selves in such a future. The book begins in a setting very close to where we are at right now and over the course of mere months spirals into dystopian madness. It is written in such a way that as a reader I was unsure of the authors opinion about social media, privacy and other core concepts through much of the book. Good stuff.

In the world of the "Circle," it's offensive to not post your status, share what you are doing, rate, review, offer "smiles" or "frowns" on everything and every one via social media.  So, I found it... well... interesting that as I finished reading "The Circle" on my iPad, a screen popped up asking if I wouldn't review/rate the book and share my completion and rating of it on Facebook and Twitter. That was on Tuesday — so it has taken me a few days to realize that I was not being very caring by not sharing. In fact I was pretty much stealing from ya'll by not posting these comments earlier. Sorry!


I would be remiss if I didn't add a note here suggesting that if this book of fiction sounds good to you that you take a look at Jaron Lanier's manifesto "You Are Not a Gadget." Yes, it reads a bit like the rambling mutterings of a neo-luddite, techno-guru madman. That is partly why it is so beautiful. As a techno-insider, Lanier offers provocative observations, opinions and suggestions addressing sharing, privacy and the state and trajectory of our digital culture.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Mutador Lives! The Genetics of Design.

I have been working with Erik Stolterman on a research paper  that discusses the similarities between a design process and the process of biological evolution. While it may be easy to see that evolution occurs on a very surface level, my interest really lies deeper.

You see in genetic evolution all of the surface stuff — hair color, skin complexion, behavioral predispositions, etc. — is driven by a microscopic, genetic code that lies deeper within the organism. So, while it is possible to examine and analyze the qualities of evolution based on these outward manifestations, if you want to more deeply understand evolution you need to look at the code.

My quest then is to discuss the genetic or "design-code" that lies deeper within the design artifact and design process. If this design-code is analogous to a genetic code then it does not lie on the outward surface of a design. Instead it is almost invisible to unaided physical observation. And yet it is ultimately the very engine deep within the artifact or process. It is the exclusive, elusive thing that determines what we see — be it physical attributes or behavioral characteristics.

So, what is the "design-code?" This is the big question for me. My working theory is that this code is the designer's personal philosophy.

Is the design-code analogous to a genetic code — determining the outward characteristics of a design? Does it move like a genetic code from host to host, generation to generation, artifact to mind and mind to artifact? How do the evolutionary principles of mutation, fidelity, fecundity and fitness apply or work in this analogy?