Applying ”The Mechanics of Magic” To Analog Interactions

Thank you internets for the gift of this lecture! Here’s Christina Wodtke, a UX (user experience) designer who loves, LOVES games – but is quite suspicious of gamification. I should say, for the record, that so am I. I like to call the thing which is usually called gamification “trivial gamification”, for its obsession with levels, rewards, and arbitrary challenges, as well as its its complete lack of analysis as to what makes games pleasurable, the nature of play, or the narrative qualities inherent even in rules systems that are not designed to arbitrate competition. (If that sounds like a good sidetrack for another tab in your browser, I have a nine-minute Nordic Larp Talk about rules and society here).

Wodtke worked at Zinga for a year, but has a wider user experience background working with MySpace, LinkedIn and Yahoo (back in the day). She’s the author of Information Architecture: Blueprints for the Web. So why is this relevant to you if you’re not working with web design? I’m glad you asked!

Above you can Christina Wodtke’s one-hour talk about non-trivial things you can learn from game design. I think the target audience are UX designers working with digital interfaces, but you’ll find most of it applicable even if you’re in service design, or working with any kind of visitor or participant process. 15 minutes into the talk, she explains the concept of Magic Circle through one of its effects, which is providing interaction alibis, although she does not use the term. (Again, for social experience design context, my introductory talk from last year’s Alibis conference on Alibi and the Magic Circle is here).

Since it’s a one-hour lecture, you might want to skim this summary before you commit! [EDIT: UPDATE: if you would like to this talk it live in Europe, you can in September]. Wodtke covers the following consistently interesting points – my comments are mostly about contextualising it for analog experience designers:

1) Find your North Star – understand what you’re trying to achieve and let that anchor your design. There’s a Brenda Romero lecture quote early on here: if you’re already a game designer, don’t stop watching just because you’re familiar with her work. The rest of the lecture ranges so wide you’re likely to catch a bunch of new knowledge!

2) Design for Emotion – not just emotions like “surprise and delight”, but gratitude and serenity and rejuvenation or indeed the “negative” ones, which in fact can give just as much joy, because games are not fundamentally about fun, they are about meaning (and about order, a yearning hilariously covered at the beginning of the talk).

3) Use Player Types – this is great stuff! Especially in its discussion of how people working with trivial gamification get this wrong. The most important lesson here is that when you’re designing something new you may not actually know what your participant types are, and that they evolve over time.

4) Loop de Loop – designing a simple, clean, interesting loop will give more loyalty than stacking design elements on top of each other. (I learned a new term here, the “cold start problem”: the difficulty of starting up something that relies even in part on anything social or co-creative. I promise to blog more about this as it applies to analog behaviours later!)

5) Know Your Mechanics – What are game mechanics? Well, they’re rules, basically. (Just an aside from me: Traditionally speaking they’d be the explicit rules that control the establishing of the magic circle and most interaction inside it. We actually don’t have a good name for all the implicit rules, or for the explicit rules not related to the magic circle that still control behaviour in or around it. Both of these are categories you as an experience designer are designing for, whether digitally or in the body world. And if you’re not designing for them, you’re letting them be designed for you by tradition and by the participants’ often conflicting expectations).

Another great term Christina Wodtke is talking about here is “the pinch”, the moment in the game when you can’t continue and have to try something else, and different game design strategies for both bringing them about and resolving them. Expect more blogging here about “the pinch” in physical social spaces! The above talk offers great tools for thinking about this though. Then there’s a whole great bit about motivational game design, practical design tools that motivate players to keep doing different activities. (This is also where most of trivial gamification is helpfully ripped to shreds).

6) Art from the Start – put the designers in AT THE BEGINNING, working hand in hand with the artists.

7) Learn to Teach – This is very, very important for the design of new behaviours, as well as social processes and spaces. If your nightclub/ tax office/ museum/ department store/ interactive theatre play requires a human to explain how to behave, you’re probably already undermining the participant/visitor’s confidence by socially framing them as a incompetent. (It is also possible to design magical, beautiful human-guide-processes, if it’s a CONSCIOUS DESIGN, not a desperate band-aid). Anyway, this is why you have to learn to teach, and most digital games are really good at teaching you how to behave in new environments. (Obviously, this is harder in social spaces for the same reasons it’s tough in online games: you might feel, or be, exposed to ridicule. But looking at how single-player games do it is still a great place to start).

8) Test MOAR – Wodtke talks about testing practices in digital games design and how they completely outrun everyone else working in the digital field. She quotes a great clip of Sid Meier describing the testing process of the battle systems in Civilization, that illustrates how the correct thing from a designer’s perspective does not always feel right to the participant. I have a million thoughts about testing in physical spaces, since I hail from the one game design tradition (Nordic larp) where full-scale testing is essentially impossible. I’ll return with a separate post about that, too.

I hope I’ve inspired you to watch the full lecture. On this resource page you  can find the slides and further links to applicable game design-resources that Christina Wodtke curates, including YouTube links to full versions of the lectures she quotes. Everything on her site is worth reading, but for the purposes of this blog, a good place to start is the Design tab. And when you’re a fan and start thinking that, damn, I’d take a User Experience class if it was taught by this lady, you could look at her UX syllabus!


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