Playful Design

You are reading an older blog post. Please be aware that the information contained in it may be technologically outdated. This text may not necessarily reflect my current opinions or capabilities.

July 27th, 2012

Last week I was talking to the current professor for HCI at the University of Hamburg in his office, and among the current set of books that he was asked to assess for inclusion in our department's library, something caught my eye. I recognized the cover design of John Ferrara's Playful Design, published very recently by Rosenfeld Media. That was pretty exciting for me, since I had been looking forward to that book for a while, to the extent that I recommended it in a recent talk about gamification, just on the basis of the introductory article at UX Magazine. This occassion presented me with a chance to actually read the whole thing, so here's what came of that.

Topic and Relevance

Here's the blurb from the publisher's website linked above:

Game design is a sibling discipline to software and Web design, but they're siblings that grew up in different houses. They have much more in common than their perceived distinction typically suggests, and user experience practitioners can realize enormous benefit by exploiting the solutions that games have found to the real problems of design. This book will show you how.

Those few lines already managed to catch my attention, since they state something that I've been also thinking and talking about for a while. Usability engineering and interaction design have somewhat become my core interest concerning my studies of computer science, and I've dabbled in game design occassionally, passively (I enjoy some amounts of well-crafted gameplay in my free time) and actively (most visibly in a rather enjoyable real-time strategy game prototype that I developed with a few other students a couple of years ago, that I sadly have yet to document in a world-accessible way).

My recent drive to put games and playful experiences into the spotlight might be fueled partially by the tendency of our current faculty to dismiss games as mostly uninteresting and irrelevant to our work. (Since Timo left, games don't really have a “voice” at our CS department anymore.) I don't mean this as an insult, both mck and Claudia have highly interesting and relevant research topics for our little HCI group, it's just that games happen to not be among those.

Last semester I gave a talk about the challenges of interface complexity in our research colloquium, in which I showcased explorative learning in games by explaining the extraordinarily well-engineered level design of Super Mario Bros on the NES, stage 1-1. This seems to have been a real eye-opener for some of the visitors as to how much thought can go into a good game – they had simply never looked at them so deeply.

So John Ferrara's book, to which excellent timing (in the sense that the UX community can profit immensely from it right now) has been attributed by Hamburg's own Sebastian Deterding, is also excellently timed for me on a more individual level. It's a great opportunity to further the discussion about games in the HCI context at our department. More on that later.

Mini Summary and Review

The book contains three main parts subdivided into four to six chapters each, on 200-odd pages in total. You could say that the three parts roughly contain 1. clarification of what games are and how they're impacting UX practices, 2. how to create games that don't stink, and 3. how games can help us do other things than just relax after work.

It is rather clear about its audience: Playful Design is aimed at UX practitioners who recognize that games may hold something of value to them at least insofar as they're willing to read a book about it. It is not aimed at aspiring game designers without any UX background – although it would probably work, there are other, better-fitting books for them. The ideal reader is someone who has at least some HCI-related knowledge and wants to understand “what's the deal” with games. No experience playing video games is required, though it would probably be helpful for following along.

To give an example: There's a chapter about play-testing and how it relates to the quality of the finished game. The author draws parallels to classic usability testing and highlights the differences. If you know nothing at all about usability testing, parts of this chapter may be hard to follow. You don't need years of experience of course, just a cursory idea will do plenty to help you.

It succeeds in conveying central concepts and messages. I found the way that it delves into UX, psychology and game design very well-rounded. Please note that it is not a textbook on either of those subjects, but is concerned with their overlap and interaction. If you've studied one of these subjects in depth, you might find yourself thinking “well yes, this is nice, but there's so much more.” Indeed there is, but if you're looking for e.g. a fundamental introduction into human psychology, you should look elsewhere.

Playful Design is more of an “applied science” type of book, designed to let you know how to tranform theoretical knowledge into practical results. It reminded my of Steve Krug's famous Don't Make Me Think in its hands-on, “this is how you could do what you do better” kind of way, while also supplying adequate citations for its assertions. Language-wise, it is thankfully not comparable to typical computer science papers, but can be easily and fluently read even by non-native English speakers like me. I read it over the course of a weekend, during which I did plenty of other things as well.

Is this Book for You?

As mentioned above, if you already have some knowledge about interaction design and/or HCI (e.g. if you enrolled in our Interaction Design course last semester or some time beforehand, then you're more than covered) and want to know what all the fuss with gamification, serious games and all that is about, this book is for you. If you're a game design novice and want to know what you can do to better your craft, it almost certainly holds value to you, but I would probalby look elsewhere beforehand. If you're a project manager who has heard about gamification and wants to slap a point system and leaderboards on a tax management software to make it more successful, I will put you inside a Skinner box and repeatedly hit you over the head with this book until you show some improvement.

If you're a student of computer science at the University of Hamburg, I would expect Playful Design to be available at our department library soon-ish. If you're in the master's programme, consider enrolling in the Interactive Systems course next semester, provided you're interested in this topic and want to help further the discussion about games at our department. It looks like a detailed analysis of Playful Design could be a viable task for the seminar. (Of course a plethora of non-game-related topics will be discussed in the seminar as well, so if this book in particular doesn't faze you, don't be deterred.)

If you're a UX professional of any kind, I heartily recommend just buying the book. I will do so myself as soon as I can part with the cash. It's a fantastic addition to your physical bookshelf as well as your mental toolbox.


You can leave a comment by replying to this Mastodon post from your own account on Mastodon, Firefish, Akkoma, or any other ActivityPub-capable social network that can exchange replies with Mastodon.