Games and Decisions

I read somewhere (maybe Everything is Miscellaneous?) that the concept of “game” is hard to define; we have prototypical examples of games in our minds – chess, soccer, solitaire – but it’s difficult to draw boundaries based on attributes (does solitaire have any of the same features as improv games?). The point was that we categorize based on prototypical examples, not by inherent properties of the category.

But I’m going to go out on a limb and posit that games are defined by a player making choices. In chess or solitaire, choosing your moves; in soccer, precise motor sequences to maneuver the ball. There are certainly activities that fall outside this boundary – passive activities like reading or sitting in lecture. But it seems like every activity involving at least one active participant has been referred to as a game – from soccer up through stock trading, having a conversation, or living life!

What makes prototypical games more “gamey” may be that they don’t have significant consequences in the “real world”. They allow us to practice our decision-making skills in a safe environment, so that we can see the outcomes of a decision without having to worry too much about it – and thus, learn. By “decision-making”, I mean everything from instinctive muscle reactions to complex, deliberated thought processes.

What does this mean for interface design? Games are fun. If what I am claiming is correct, games are all about if-then scenarios. Interfaces involve the user making decisions in the form of input. In order to complete the if-then, so the user can see the outcomes of their decisions, we should design interfaces that respond to input with feedback about the outcome. As soon as a decision is made, the consequences should be shown. This is what I call “user-generated animation” and it’s all over Graph Sketcher and Mac OS X in general. Basic drag and drop. Colors and widths changing as you drag the sliders. The dock resizing as you run your mouse along. The new album “skimming” feature in iPhoto. Bill Moggridge was on to something when he encouraged us to draw inspiration from games.

Going even further, maybe this helps explain my dislike of both games and decision-making (compared to the average person). I’m most comfortable making decisions in a very emotionally safe context; and most games and aspects of life do not fall under that category. I tend to approach decision-making as a chore, in which case games are not fun unless they have some other outcome such as getting to know the other players or learning some useful skill.

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