topical media & game development

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designing the user experience

In a time in which so much information is available as in ours, we may make statements like

postmodern design

... postmodern design is of a highly reflective nature ... appropriating design of the past ... in other words, sampling is allowed but no plagianarism

One interpretation might be that it is impossible to be original. But another interpretation might be that it is undesirable to be (totally) original. In other words, as discussed in section 2.3, it is necessary that your design contains references to not only some real situation but also to other work, so that it can be understood and experienced by the user/spectator/client whatever you like to call the people that look at your work. As observed in  [VR], designing for multimedia does not take into account only the technological or aesthetic issues, but also constraints on what people can perceive and what the experiential context is in which the work is presented, which may be re-phrased more plainly as what expectations the user has.

game design

Let us consider how these observations affect one of the project assignments for our visual design course. Also for game design, there are several options, dependent on the track the student is most comfortable with.

game design

To explain, style may be considered to involve the whole gamut of concepts, plot and genre, as well as the visual assets or props of the game, those things by which the game differentiates itself from other games. Since the reader of this book will probably be more familiar with games than the author, there is no need to expand on these issues. Content is concerned with the actual game environment, including the models and animations. Finally, effects, to simplify things, is everything else, those things that are visual but does not belong to the story line or game environment.

Games, perhaps more than any other multimedia application, are appealing, not because they are useful, although they might be, but because the user gets emotionally involved, not to say addicted. Now, following  [Norman],

did you ever wonder why cheap wine tastes better in fancy glasses?

Exactly, because cheap glasses do not give us the same emotion. It is, indeed, a matter of style!

Obviously, games are played for fun. As applications, games may be classified as seductive, which is, see section 2.3, stronger than persuasive.  [Norman] distinguishes between four categories of pleasure.


  • physio-pleasure -- of the body
  • socio-pleasure -- by interaction with others
  • psycho-pleasure -- due to use of the product
  • ideo-pleasure -- reflecting on the experience
In other words, games are seductive, or fun to play, because they arouse any combination of pleasure from the categories above. Which combination depends on the kind or genre of game. Quoted from  [Norman], but originally from  [Wolf] we can list, not exhaustively, the following genres of video game:


Abstract, Adaptation, Adventure, Artificial Life, Board Games, Capturing, Card Games, Catching, Chase, Collecting, Combat, Demo, Diagnostic, Dodging, Driving, Educational, Escape, Fighting, Flying, Gambling, Interactive Movie, Management Simulation, Maze, Obstacle Course, Pencil-and-Paper Games, Pinball, Platform, Programming Games, Puzzle, Quiz, Racing, Role-Playing, Rhythm and Dance, Shoot Em Up, Simulation, Sports, Strategy, Table-Top Games, Target, Text Adventure, Training Simulation, and Utility.

When you develop a game it is good to reflect on what genre your game belongs to, because that will directly affect the user's expectation when playing the game, due to the conventions and rules that exist within a particular genre. For video games, which can be characterized as a mixture of interactive fiction with entertainment, interaction is evidently another distinguishing factor in determining the success of the game.

Corresponding to the kind of pleasure a user may experience,  [Norman] distuinguishes between three levels of design:

levels of design

  • visceral -- what appeals to our intuition (affordance)
  • behavioral -- is all about use (performance)
  • reflective -- its all about message, culture and meaning
Of these, the latter two should be rather obvious, although we will elaborate on the notion of usability later on. But what does affordance mean, and how is it related to our intuition.



affordance -- ecology of behavior

The notion of affordance has a long history. According to Don Norman, the word "affordance" was invented by the perceptual psychologist J. J. Gibson, to refer to the properties of the world that 'invite' actions, as for example a char invites one to sit. Originally, however, the notion of affordance dates back to the beginning of the 20th century, when it was used in phenomenologist philosophy to describe how the world around us presents itself as meaningful. Affordance, in other words, is a concept that explains why it seems natural for us to behave in a particular way, either because it is innate, as the reflex to close one's eyes by sudden exposure to light, or because we have learned that behavior, as for example surfing the web by clicking on links. In game or product design, thinking about 'affordance' may help us to find the most natural way to perform certain actions. Natural is in this context perhaps not the best phrase. What we must take into account is what is perceived as an affordance, and how actions fit in with what we may call an exology of behavior (with the system).

How does this diversion in abstract philosophy help us design better games? To answer this question, I'd like to recount my visit at the Virtual Humans Workshop, held in october 2004 at the Institute of Creative Technologies, in Los Angeles. Of interest in particular is the ICT Games Project:

ICT Games Project

The goal of the ICT games project is to develop immersive, interactive, real time training simulations to help the Army create a new generation of decision-making and leadership-development tools.

As further explained on the website: with the cooperation of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, Simulation Technology Center (RDECOM STC), Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), and commercial game development companies, ICT is creating two training simulations that are intended to have the same holding power and repeat value as mainstream entertainment software.

The two training applications developed by ICT are:

  • Mission Rehearsal Exercise -- to solve a potential conflict after a car accident
  • Language Training Simulation -- to learn how to contact local leaders in arabic
The mission rehearsal exercise is situated in former Yugoslavia. The trainee is confronted with the situation after a car accident in which a boy got injured. The mother of the boy is furious, and a potentially hostile crowd is waiting. An army convoy is on its way to a nearby airport, and needs to pass the crossing where the accident took place. The trainee must decide what to do and give appropriate orders, knowing that the wrong decision may lead to serious trouble.

The language training simulation is situated in the Middle-East, and is meant to teach the trainee not only some basic arabic but also proper ways of conduct, in conformance with local customs to gain confidence.

Both applications are highly realistic, with impressive graphics. A lot of attention has been devoted to creating the models and environments. Both simulations are implemented using the Unreal game engine. The both support speech input. The challenge in both simulation games was to come up with a natural way to indicate to the trainee what options for actions were available. Natural means, in this context, that it should fit within the simulation or game environment. Obviously, a menu or a row of pushbuttons does not fit naturally within such an environment, and would break what we have previously, in section 2.3 called 'immersion'.

I was invited at ICT for the Virtual Humans Workshop because of my involvement with embodied conversational agents (ECAs), as discussed in section 8.3. The topic of the workshop was, among others, to investigate whether the notion of affordance could help in analyzing and evaluating the interaction of a user/trainee with the simulation game. These were the questions we tackled:

Virtual Humans Workshop

  • Is it more appropriate to construct a frame of analysis that encompasses both user and ECA in a single interaction graph?
  • Is it fitting to think in terms of a fixed graph that the user comes to recognize, or is the graph itself a dynamic structure?
  • Is it even appropriate to focus on "affordances to act," or is it more fitting to consider cues that influence the mental interpretations that lead to action (e.g., affordances of control, affordances of valence of potential outcomes, etc.)? How does this relate to intrinsic motivation?
This workshop was a follow-up on a seminar in Dagstuhl on Evaluating Embodied Conversational Agents, where we discussed the tipics of interaction and affordance in a special interest group. In the research directions, I will further discuss an evaluation study that we did on agent-supported navigation in a virtual environment.

Back to our question, how can affordance help us in designing a game? In the mission rehearsal exercise, described above, it would be much more easy to have a menu with all available options listed. However, such amenu would defeat the purpose of the simulation, since such menus will not likely occur in real life. Immersion is, in other words, necessary to maintain the emotional involvement with the application, and affordance is the key to immersion. But, although it sounds like an answer, it does rather lead to another question, how can we define the usability of a game?



usability and fun

In interaction design there is a clear, yet unresolved, tension between usability and fun. Usability is, despite the many disputes, a well-defined notion:

usability (ISO DIS 9241-11)

... the effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction with which specified users can achieve particular goals in particular environments ...

This is the ISO DIS 9241-11 definition, cited from  [Faulkner]. In sectiona 10.3 we will further investigate usability as a means to evaluate systems from an interaction perspective. Now, I wish to focus on why artefacts or games might be appealing even if these same aspects may compromise usability in the traditional interpretation.

In describing a fancy juice squeezer, designed by Philip Starck  [Norman] observes, following  [KS], that is:

emotional involvement

  • entices by diverting attention -- unlike the common
  • delivers surprising novelty -- not identifiable to its function
  • goes beyond obvious needs and expectations -- it becomes something else
  • creates an instinctive response -- curiosity and confusion
The phrase satisfaction in the definition of usability above seems somewhat meagre to explain the emotional involvement with games, and even inappropriate as one realizes that, in the mission rehearsal exercise, frustration might actually be beneficial for the learning experience.



example(s) -- visual sensations

The dutch visual sensations festival is an annual contest for VJs. In 2005, in cooperation with the festival, a parallel seminar seminar was held discussing the topic of the history of VJ-ing, a aplenary discussion of the relation between club-VJs and the established art circuit. In addition there were two guest speakers, Geert Mul and Micha Klein, both visual artists who also have a ten-years experience as VJ.



Above is another work of Geert Mul, in cooperation with DJ Speedy J. It was shown a dance event in cooperation with Rotterdam Maritime Museum. On the right, the cranes are swinging on the rhythm of the music.

The portfolio of Geert Mul starts with a quote from  [Film]:

form and content

Very often people assume that "form" as a concept is the opposite of something called "content". This assumption implies that a poem or a musical piece or a film is like a jug. An external shape, the jug, contains something that could just as easily be held in a cup or pail. Under this assumption, form becomes less important than whatever it is presumed to contain.

We do not accept this assumption. If form is the total system, which the viewer attributes to the film, there is no inside or outside. Every component functions as part of the overall pattern that is perceived. Thus we shall treat as formal elements many things that some people consider content. From our standpoint, subject matter and abstract ideas all enter into the total system of the artwork ( .... )

I totally agree with this. And perhaps this is why I have a preference for artworks that are slightly out of the main stream of tradional art.

research directions -- engaging with fictional characters

What do you need to evaluate your game or multimedia application? There are many ways to gain insight in how your system is being used, see section 10.3. But if you want to establish functional properties of a multimedia application, for example the effectiveness of using an agent in navigating a virtual environment, in a scientifically more rigorous way, you need to have:

experimental validation

  • a theory -- in our case: PEFiC
  • a test scenario -- for example, memory tasks in a digital dossier
  • the technology -- to realize applications
In this section, I will briefly describe our efforts in experimentally validating the use of ECAs in virtual environments. As technology, we use our intelligent multimedia technolgy, described in sectiona 8.3 and appendix E. So what must be explained is the theory we adopt and the test scenarios we use. PEFiC is a theory developed by Johan Hoorn and Elly Konijn, to explain Perceiving and Experiencing Fictional Characters, see  [PEFIC]. The PEFiC theory may serve as the basis for the experimental evaluation of user responses to embodied agents. In summary, PEFiC distinguishes between three phases, encoding, comparison and response, in analyzing the user's behaviour towards an agent. Encoding involves positioning the agent (or fictitious character) on the dimensions of ethics (good vs bad), aesthetics (beauty vs ugliness) and epistemics (realistic vs unrealistic). Comparison entails establishing personal relevance and valence towards the agent. Response, finally, determines the tendency to approach or avoid the character, in other words involvement versus distance.

In general, having a virtual environment, there is, for developing test scenarios, a choice between:

validation scenario(s)

  • navigation -- pure interactivity
  • guided tours -- using some narrative structure
  • agent-mediated -- navigation and guided tours
For our application, a virtual environment of an artist's atelier, we have three experimental conditions, navigation without an agent, navigation with a realistic agent and navigation with a cartoon-like (unrealistic) agent. To ensure that these conditions can be compared, the acrtual information encountered when using the application is in all conditions the same.

The independent variable in our experiment, the degree of realism of the agent, corresponds with the epistemic and to some extent the aesthetic dimension of appraisal in the PEFiC theory. As dependent variables we have, among others, user satisfaction, believability, that is estimated usefulness of the agent, and also the extent to which the relevant information is retained.



The application is a digital dossier for the Dutch artist Marinus Boezem. The spatial metaphor we used for the dossier is the artist's atelier. We created a virtual environment containing a display of the artworks, in 3D, a file cabinet with textual information, a workbench for inspecting the artist's material, and a video projector, with which the user can display a video-recorded interview with the artist.

The actual task to be performed by the user is to learn what constraints do apply to the installation of one of the artworks, Stone and Feather:

Stone and Feather

  • feather: 70 cm, from ostrich, curved
  • stone: 13.5 cm, white marble
  • position: alignment with pedestal, no glue
  • environment: 50 lux of light max.
The items mentioned in this list must be reproduced by the user in a subsequent memory test, and in another experiment the user must be able to choose the right materials and reconstruct the artwork.

Our assumption in designing this test scenario was that the gestural nature of positioning the artwork will be favorable for the condition with a gesturing agent, whereas believability will be positively affected by the degree of realism of the agent.

(C) Æliens 04/09/2009

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