John Ferrara on Playful Design

An interview by Kris Mausser

Published: July 9, 2012

“I wanted to invite UX designers to think of game design as a competency they should build into their own toolkits, as well as to think of video games as another form of human-computer interaction.”

While I don’t consider myself a gamer, I have played a lot of video games in my time—from Coleco’s hand-held Head to Head Baseball in the early 80’s to my recent obsession with the launch of Darksiders II. So imagine my delight when UXmatters asked me to interview John Ferrara about his recent Rosenfeld Media book, Playful Design: Creating Game Experiences in Everyday Interfaces. It isn’t every day that I get to combine my professional expertise in user experience with my closely related personal interest in gaming. I caught up with John just prior to the recent launch of his book.

KM: Let me start by saying there’s a huge buzz in the industry about your new book, Playful Design: Creating Game Experiences in Everyday Interfaces. I think people’s interest comes down to their innate understanding of play. Everyone can relate to it—and it’s fun! After all, game play is a shared human experience that ties directly into our emotions—something we think about a lot in user experience. Why did you write your book?

JF: I wanted to invite UX designers to think of game design as a competency they should build into their own toolkits, as well as to think of video games as another form of human-computer interaction. These two disciplines are like siblings who grew up in different houses. There’s a lot of mutual benefit in uniting them, which actually seems inevitable now that games and user experiences are so tightly fused into single devices like smartphones. The distinctions we tend to draw between them are very provincial—but at the macro level, it’s all one experience.

KM: You make it very clear in your book that playful design isn’t about gamification. Why? What’s the distinction, and why does it matter?

“Companies have created a lot of really terrible things in the name of gamification. The word gamification is itself a problem, because it implies a user experience that is, by its nature, something other than a game, but dressed up to resemble one.”

JF: I think companies have created a lot of really terrible things in the name of gamification. The word gamification is itself a problem, because it implies a user experience that is, by its nature, something other than a game, but dressed up to resemble one. So you often see a few badges and leaderboards tacked onto an underlying system that remains otherwise unchanged, with no real thought given to the quality of the player experience. In the worst cases, gamified user experiences exhibit an impoverished, cynical, and exploitative view of games. These kinds of approaches won’t survive long, because when companies that don’t value play create gamified solutions, players won’t value those solutions.

The distinction is that we must design game experiences, first and foremost, to be enjoyed by people. That’s the reason why people put their time into games in the first place. It’s not because they love your brand or because they want to solve world hunger. It’s because they value the experience. Successful games need to serve the interests of the player above those of the designer. So a large portion of Playful Design focuses on building the competencies that UX designers need to create high-quality player experiences.

KM: For those of us who are video gamers, I think we can all identify with the frustration of getting caught up in a poorly designed game vortex that just doesn’t sync up with the button-smashing sequence we’re trying to accomplish. I know, when I’m in that situation, I often think how much the gaming industry could benefit from the expertise of user experience and interaction designers. But you also see the reverse. What can we learn from the gaming industry?

“In the UX design, we want to leverage the conventions and patterns that are most familiar to people. Games have become a truly ubiquitous experience among young people….”

JF: Video games are becoming a normal way of interacting with machines, and they will inevitably influence the way we think about interactive experiences. In the UX design, we want to leverage the conventions and patterns that are most familiar to people. Games have become a truly ubiquitous experience among young people, and as that population ages, UX designers will need to understand what’s going on in games out of necessity—just to stay current.

Games can also be a great laboratory for user interface technologies. The EyeToy, the Wii, and Kinect have demonstrated very credible motion-control user interfaces. The Wii user interface showcases some really creative ways of using multiple linked screens in tandem with one another. A lot of the playful charm in Siri’s natural-language artificial intelligence was present in text-based adventure games of the late 70’s. Games can give us a sense of what interactivity could look like in the future.

And then there’s the general inspiration we can find in looking at the ways game designers have approached the design of user interfaces. They often solve the same sorts of basic issues we deal with in UX design, but they have to do it in a very economical and no-nonsense sort of way. For example, I’ve sometimes looked at the Equip screens in Final Fantasy XII when seeking ways to design conventional user interfaces that compare the attributes of products or allow people to set up command trees, because these are things that are incredibly easy to do in Final Fantasy XII. Games can get you thinking in new ways.

KM: There are many similarities in the processes UX designers and game designers follow to get to a finished product. But one stands out: playtesting. This isn’t the same thing as user experience testing, is it?

“Usability is just one consideration among many in playtesting, which needs to make a much broader assessment of the experience.”

JF: No. You’re right. Usability is just one consideration among many in playtesting, which needs to make a much broader assessment of the experience. How much fun are people having? How long does it take for people to start feeling bored? Is the amount of experience a player needs to level up appropriate? Are the players’ abilities in the game well balanced against one another? Can they solve the puzzles without becoming too frustrated? Do they find the storyline interesting, amusing, or heart wrenching? Do they identify with the characters in the game? On and on, these are all things that are so far outside of what we normally do in usability testing.

At the same time, you conduct playtesting in much the same way as the usability testing to which UX designers are accustomed. You sit with people one on one and ask them to think aloud as they complete a set of objectives, while you record your observations on their actions. So a lot of the facilitation and test design skills that people who do usability testing already have translate very well to playtesting. In fact, I think one of the best ways to introduce UX designers to the game design discipline is for them to provide testing services as a consultant. It’s a great way to bring a valuable skill set to games, while developing a critical eye for design.

KM: Before reading your book, I never thought of Web sites like Yahoo! Answers or eBay as being games, but they are. In what way?

JF: Because they share the core characteristics that make a game a game—as distinct from other types of experiences. They have objectives, roles, rules, hard constraints, conflict, winners, losers, reward systems, and so on. When you start thinking about the most basic characteristics that define games, you discover that they’re present in many interactions of everyday life, from exercise routines to classroom tests. These things are not just game-like, but are fundamentally indistinguishable from games. We’re just not used to thinking of them in that way. And they can benefit from the very same things that make games so compelling. This is a much better way to approach design—by bringing out the playful aspects of everyday life.

KM: In your book you talk about a concept known in game design as reframing. It seems to me that this concept applies really well to the future of social and mobile design. Do you agree?

JF: Well, that’s the name I gave to it anyway. I classify experiences like Foursquare, the Pokewalker, and Zombies, Run! as reframing games because they take actions that people perform every day and present them in a broader, more playful context. For sure, mobile and social are enabling technologies for these kinds of experiences. Foursquare wasn’t really possible before you could carry a smartphone to a bar, gym, or coffee shop and wouldn’t have had its communal appeal without its connection to your social network. A brave new world.

KM: Back in the early days of Flash, there were many gaming applications—
particularly those geared toward online learning. Since then, our focus has shifted elsewhere in our execution of online experiences. As you point out in your book, however, this doesn’t have to be the case. While the technologies have changed, there are still a lot of strategies for using games to support learning. Can you share a few of these with us?

“Games are also a great way to introduce a new mindset, offering people a different way to think about the world.”

JF: Sure. The traditional way in which people have used games for learning has been by directly imparting information through the game, using a format that’s fun and engaging. This is the model of Carmen Sandiego, Math Blaster, Oregon Trail, and many other games.

Games are also a great way to introduce a new mindset, offering people a different way to think about the world. The Portal games do this brilliantly by allowing players to explore what could happen if the laws of physics were perverted. In this way, they invite players to reflect more deeply on those laws. Last year, their developer launched an initiative to incorporate the games into classroom instruction.

Games guide experiential learning in places like museums and historical sites. A group from the University of Wisconsin-Madison developed a game called Dow Day that steps players through the events of a 1967 riot in the city. Using their iPhones, players must walk to the actual GPS coordinates where events unfolded to meet virtual characters and complete quests. A highlight of the game comes when they reach a hill from which the riot was filmed and unlock the archival footage—viewing it like a magic window into the past.

Games can also help people to develop specific skills. Minesweeper first appeared when mouse input devices for computers became commonplace and taught players basic conventions for visual affordances a user could click and the role of the left mouse button (select) versus the right mouse button (modify). By requiring players to perform these actions again and again, the game built up a competency with the basic skills people needed to use Windows.

Finally, games can foster collective intelligence. Groups working collaboratively online can produce more complete answers to questions than any individual could. A 2004 game called I Love Bees was an experiment in collective intelligence that required players around the globe to decode the mystery of an apparently hacked Web site. Each individuals had access to only partial information, and the community needed to work collectively to piece together the backstory.

KM: The Wii, X-Box Kinect, and the iPhone have really revolutionized video gaming. How are games changing, and what opportunities or challenges does this present for UX designers?

“One of the really surprising things about modern smartphones and tablets is that they’ve turned out to be such credible gaming platforms.”

JF: One of the really surprising things about modern smartphones and tablets is that they’ve turned out to be such credible gaming platforms. They open doors to new ways of experiencing games by giving designers access to touchscreens, accelerometers, cameras, microphones, GPSs, and Internet connectivity through a single device. They also allow people to experience games in new contexts—enjoying them on the train to work, in the minutes between meetings, and while out with friends. The traditional gaming model, in which players sit passively in one place at home and stare at a fixed screen, seems stodgy and limiting by comparison.

For UX designers, game design has arrived in our own backyard. The collision between games and Internet, mobile, and social technologies has opened up new creative avenues for designers. Our aptitudes with these technologies can bring new thinking to game design, just as demand is ramping up. But game design also turns many of our usual ways of thinking upside down. Creating great player experiences means learning an entirely new set of competencies and gaining experience putting them into practice.

KM: Finally, I don’t normally ask these kinds of questions in a professional interview, but I am quite certain everyone is dying to know: what’s your favorite game and why?

JF: Team Fortress 2, hands down. It’s an online game in which two teams of people playing various characters with different abilities hunt each other down and try to capture one another’s intelligence files. I play The Spy, and I am a total badass.

KM: LOL!

JF: As with a lot of games, I look at this one and think: wow, there’s so much good design behind this. So, people who don’t play games are really missing out on some of the most compelling, artistic, and cleverest work that’s being done anywhere, in any medium. As UX designers, we have the privilege of creating experiences that are really meaningful and life changing for people, but they’re not profoundly and utterly engrossing in the way games are. Playing Team Fortress 2, oh, that is a freaking experience!

KM: And I think that’s where your book hits the nail on the head in terms of the opportunities that exist on both sides—UX design and video game design—learning from each other to create experiences in which all users, regardless of the game, win. Thank you for taking the time to talk with us today, John!

Here’s one great deal that could lead to another: Get 15% off your copy of Playful Design when you purchase it directly from Rosenfeld Media, using the code PLAYFULUXMATTERS. Your purchase will enter you in a drawing to win a Rosenfeld Media Future Pack. If you win, we’ll send our next four titles your way as soon as they’re available! We’ll select the winner on July 30, 2012, so please get your copy of Playful Design right away!

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