Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Why Board Game Design...

Should Be Taught to Graphic Design Students.

Lately I've been thinking... "What the heck am I doing here?"
You see I've been teach an intro to graphic design course here at Indiana University and I've been trying to think a little differently. My distant past is in graphic design and in the more recent past (the last 6 years) my focus has been on "interaction and user-experience design" (IX/UX design) The past couple of years I've been intensely studying board games and how they are designed. It seems to me that board game design may provided a useful bridge for graphic designers to start thinking in terms of IX/UX design. With digital spaces growing in presence, sophistication and complexity so rapidly I believe that IX/UX design is the future. I believe that this is the future of graphic design. This is not to say that good old logo design or any of the other more traditional forms of graphic design hold not value. It's simply means that these more traditional forms should be considered in the context of our rapidly evolving digital spaces. Towards that end I have been using board game design in my intro to graphic design course. I have done this not just by having them design a board game  — though that is the central project of the course and is the primary thread throughout it's entire 15 weeks. Along the way I have had students do user-research, read and discuss topics like semiotics, affordances, thinking in systems, etc. The goal has been to help them understand the importance of considering context and culture with an eye toward interaction.

So, what's so special about board game design?
Three categories to consider...

Users — without players a game is just a tabletop decoration. Furthermore it is insanely important to try to understand the people who will play the game. Over it's lifespan the context and culture that a board game inhabits is largely about the people that share the space of the game. This is true whether the game is sitting on the shelf, set up for play or being played on the table.

Rules — there must be some form of rules document and it needs to be good. Rules are the equivalent to the digital code of the game. A bad set of rules and/or a poorly designed rules document means that the game will crash. A good rules set means the game will run smoothly. This is perhaps an over simplification but I think it makes my point.

Signifiers and Affordances — the way that a game looks, it's graphic elements and physical bits mean something. As a designer you better be sure that these things mean the right things to the right people. These visual elements can go miles towards how a game feels and functions.

These three categories provide a framework of experience for the game. Each needs to work in conjunction with the others for a game to provide an acceptable experience for the players (or potential players). Each of them mirrors important considerations for interactions that are designed for our digital spaces.

Designing a board game provides students with an opportunity to use simple materials that are easily edited to create an interactive experience for users. In conjunction with a basic knowledge of form making and software -- Using paper, cardboard and other simple materials a student can rapidly prototype a game and easily make changes as problems and opportunities are discovered through playtesting.

Graphic designers need to start thinking about design in terms of interaction and user-experience. And I propose that board game design can be a powerful bridge to help them do just that.