As a game designer, I’m often asked what designers of all stripes can learn from games. Games, after all, appear to be magical objects. Dark ones, even. From Tetris to World of Warcraft, games have an uncanny ability to lure players in. Once hooked on a game, people will spend nearly endless time pursuing bizarre and arbitrary goals—like navigating configurations of four squares in a grid to remove lines. Meanwhile, it’s almost impossible to get those very same users to spend more than a few seconds with an app, an experience, or a gizmo before they abandon it in disgust or boredom, never to return again.
For better or worse, designers have borrowed lessons from games for product and service design. Unfortunately, the features they tend to choose are either the least interesting aspects of games (points, levels, rewards, and other incidental measures of progress) or else they’re the most insidious (partial reinforcement and other models of behavioral economics).
In truth, the most useful lesson to take away from games doesn’t have much to do with games at all. It’s just easier to see the lesson inside of games than outside them.
That lesson is that things are most compelling when they are allowed to be exactly what they are. And they’re even more compelling the more they are exactly what they are. That means that the designer’s job is to make things even more what they already are.
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It sounds tautological, I know. But think about Tetris again. What is it? It’s a made-up activity based on the mathematical concept of tetrominoes—patterns of four squares stuck together—mated to gravity. Tetris has an easy job. It’s not trying to balance your bank account or express your feelings. It’s just there spilling squares down your screen.
Once you’ve played, Tetris isn’t compelling because it distracts you from work or calms you down before bed (even though it might do both of those things). It’s appealing because playing it requires you to see, understand, and respect the limitations on action and effect that it imposes. Games are where people practice a tolerance for arbitrary structures.
Now think about an app, or a website, or a thermostat, or a toaster, or an automobile, or a building. What makes them appealing? Function, for one, and style, and usability, and cost, and value, and a whole range of other things. So how would you go about making a “better” app or website or thermostat or toaster? Probably not by adding Tetris to it, amusing as that might be.
Rather, you’d make it appealing by making it as much the app or thermostat or toaster or automobile or whatever that it can be. And that means respecting the constraints and limitations of home temperature regulation or driving or bread-browning even while adding novelty that reinvents those activities.
The lesson games have for design is not really a lesson about games at all. It’s a lesson about play. Play isn’t leisure or distraction or the opposite of work. Nor is it doing whatever you want. Play is the work of working something, of figuring out what it does and determining how to operate it. Like a woodworker works wood. By accepting the constraints of an object like a guitar (or like Tetris), the player can proceed to determine what new acts are possible with that object. The pleasure of play—the thing we call fun—is actually just the discovery of that novel action.
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Both users and designers play with designed objects. But not all designers take the process of design seriously as a kind of play within limitations. And as a result, over time, users also begin to forget what it’s like to engage with products and services that were made with care and attention.
In a 1972 interview, the prolific designer Charles Eames said that design depends largely on constraints. When asked what kind of constraints, Eames offers this response:
The sum of all constraints. Here is one of the few effective keys to the Design problem: the ability of the Designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible; his willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints. Constraints of price, of size, of strength, of balance, of surface, of time, and so forth. Each problem has its own peculiar list.
No designer would fail to nod sagely at this advice. But in practice, design more often seeks to escape or overcome constraints rather than to embrace them. Apps that want to disrupt automobiles. Thermostats that connect to the internet. Of course, Uber and Nest do have something to offer the world. But they do so in spite of rather than thanks to the ethos of constraint.
That’s because design today tends to point in the wrong direction. Design thinks it’s a discipline that moves forward, carrying design objects into the future. But in truth, design works best when it moves downward, making things even more what they are. This latter kind of design proceeds through play rather than innovation.
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Design has long sustained a love affair with innovation, and vice-versa. Bauhaus merged the designerly arts and connected simplification to rationalism and purpose. In Dieter Rams’s famous 10 principles for good design, number one is “Good design is innovative.” The famous design agency IDEO describes itself as an “innovation and design firm.” Case Western Reserve University hosts a department of design & innovation. Apple constantly touts its bold and “courageous” futurism, even in controversial decisions like removing the headphone jack from its smartphones. And “design thinking” promises to improve all manner of futures by adopting the attitude of the designer in any situation. Forward-looking design always assumes that the current state of affairs is insufficient.
Downward-looking design, by contrast, focuses on the product or service itself as the object of design. This might strike you as a profoundly old-fashioned way of thinking about design. Thanks to the rise of human-centered design, user-interaction design, participatory design, and related practices, the product is always situated in the context of its human use. The user’s experience, pleasure, and utility are paramount. Likewise, the speed of the designer’s iterative refinement. The user’s input and capacities drive the design process, rather than the designer’s whim.
The problem is, the human user describes only a fraction of the possibility space of the product or service. Think about Eames’s catalog of constraints again. A ride-hailing service does not just involve people and cars and destinations and credit cards, but also labor laws, transit infrastructure, technological access, race and class, and many more. A thermostat participates not just in energy regulation and bodily comfort, but also privacy, access, caretaking, and domesticity. In this respect, user experience (UX) design has led us astray. The designer’s job is not to please or comfort the user, but to make the designed object even more what it already is.
If design is currently shaped like an arrow, pressing ever forward, instead it should be shaped like an auger, drilling ever deeper. Design isn’t a process of invention or innovation, at least not most of the time. It’s a process of play—of identifying all the material properties of a thing, and then working within those constraints to treat that object with dignity.
That doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to be improved; rather, that design’s process of refinement commences from the assumption that what is already there is valid, worthy of respect, and even necessary for the design to exist. Designers become their stewards, not their saviors.
Adapted from Play Anything: The Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games. (Basic Books, 2016).
Ian Bogost is a writer and game designer. He is Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in Media Studies and Professor of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, a Founding Partner at Persuasive Games, and a Contributing Editor at The Atlantic.