Playful Design

Question: What do the following have in common? Monopoly; open heart surgery; and the women’s 4x100 meter relay. Answer: According to John Ferrara’s definition, these are all examples of games.

On the face of it, the case is clear: Ferrara argues that all games have objectives, environmental constraints and formal constraints. So, chess has an objective (to win); environmental constraints (the pieces); and formal constraints (the rules). (Let’s ignore, for the sake of argument, that the differences between environmental and formal constraints are often minimal and that objectives can be wide and narrow in scope.) However, in an excellent example of flawed reasoning, Ferrara then argues that anything with these characteristics is a game. You might agree, but would you really want your surgeon to share your enthusiasm?

Perhaps I’m being too critical. However, it’s hard not to be when Ferrara begins this attractively designed and well referenced book with one aim—to infuse user experience (UX) design with fresh ideas from game design—and finishes with another—to predict the future of UX design. Unfortunately, neither is realised, which makes for a frustrating read as chapter after chapter goes over what seems like—and surely I can’t be alone in thinking this?—common sense.

For example, Ferrara often advises the would-be designer to refer back to a game’s objectives to avoid getting lost in the details, frequently reminding them to ‘remember it’s a game’. I know it could be argued that no sense is common, but surely such basic advice could be left to Project Management for Dummies? Indeed, Ferrara seems to ignore his own advice and piles on the description: should they have never played a game before, the reader is confronted with a reminder as to what points and levels are, an extensive section on why fun is so hard to define (I don’t remember asking for a definition; this isn’t a philosophical treatise!) and an overview of promising new technologies such as touch screens that emulate joysticks.

On the positive side, this book provides several frameworks to support the design process (even if they don’t stand up to scrutiny). It also gives a gentle introduction to creativity techniques and makes a persuasive case for paper prototyping. Every so often, there’s also an interesting throwaway comment—for example, on who should set the objectives in a game (the designer? the player?)—but these aren’t followed up. Some of the case studies also have, in principle, the capacity to inform. However, in practice, the difference between what Injini could achieve, and what Injini did achieve are not discussed. (Injini is an iPad app that helps children with cognitive and sensorimotor disabilities develop “essential skills”.) And don’t even get me started on why Behaviourism is an awful model for the psychology of games.

Fundamentally, Playful Design doesn’t deliver an adequate overview of the space between Microsoft Outlook and FarmVille. If you do get your hands on a copy, try to alleviate your frustration by thinking of it as a game.

Playful Design: Creating Game Experiences in Everyday Interfaces” by John Ferrara (Rosenfeld Media).

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book through O’Reilly’s Blogger Review Program.)