Friday, June 24, 2011

What makes games fun?

A distant goal would be to create applications/devices/tools that help people accomplish certain habits. But I wouldn't want to make something "painfully effective"- something that works but people hate it. (for examples.) It'd be nice to make something that helps people improve their lives and enjoy the process.

What makes games enjoyable? What makes them engaging; what makes people want to play them? A ton of people are trying to answer this question now; I'll give it a shot myself.

Daniel Cook (of and Ribbon Hero at MS) says that interpreting information gives us a high. He mentions Biederman and Vessel, whose article "Perceptual Pleasure and the Brain" describes how interpreting new images activates our mu-opioid receptors.
Raph Koster (Ultima Online, among others) provides a nice quote: "with games, learning is the drug." Give someone tools, let them play with them and figure out how they work: this is fun. How so? Cook provides additional guidelines revolving around "skill atoms" and "skill chains".
Yannakakis and Hallam agree: "We view a game primarily as a learning process, and the level of entertainment is kept high when game opponents enable new learning patterns (‘not too easy a game’) for the player that can be perceived and learned by the player (‘not too difficult a game’)"
James Paul Gee bases at least a couple of papers on the idea that games are "learning machines". (this one is similar but shorter.)

Appropriate challenge
Von Ahn and Dabbish, in an ACM article, dedicate about a page to "increasing player enjoyment" and focus on creating an appropriate challenge through time limits, scores, leaderboards, leveling up, and randomness.
David Myers (1990) pulled out Malone's criteria of challenge, curiosity, and fantasy, and added interactivity, and found that challenge was the most important aesthetic in determining someone's favorite game. (including this is a stretch; they were talking about the overall point of the game, like "is it a game based on challenge or a game based on social interaction?" etc, and it's all based on surveys, and it's from 1990.)

The Gameflow model by Sweetser and Wyeth proposes 8 categories: concentration, challenge, skills, control, clear goals, feedback, immersion, and social interaction. It talks about (indeed, is named after) Csikszentmihalyi's idea of Flow. Appropriate level of challenge and feedback are important conditions for flow.
Some, like Jenova Chen and Robin Hunicke, have created Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment systems to address this particular need.

The article that I pulled Koster's quote from, in the Guardian, goes on to talk about authority and reward systems: disproportionate feedback, unpredictable rewards. It branches into self-determination theory, which I alluded to in a previous post. Authority, autonomy, the ability to create your world; these are important things if you want your game to be fun.
Melissa Federoff's thesis may come in handy. (this blog is all work-in-progress!)

For the most part, it seems like making a fun game is all about providing opportunities for learning while keeping the right challenge level. Conspicuously absent is any sort of reward system. Sure, there are long-standing psychological theories behind unpredictable rewards, disproportionate feedback, etc, but those mainly allow some shallow fun. To get to the deeper fun, it seems that we need learning at the right challenge level.

But "gamification" today ("gamification 1.0"?) is all about rewards: points, badges, leader boards. And everyone who talks about gamification hates this. Here's my hypothesis, then: instead of structuring your reward system, structure your learning system.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Healthy Mind Platter: let's not follow the FDA.

Dan Siegel and David Rock recently published an idea called the Healthy Mind Platter. The idea is that we need some guidelines for mental health, kind of like guidelines for physical health. I'm a little conflicted.

The good:
- raising awareness that mental health is necessary (even for people without mental disorders)
- creating a concept ("healthy mind platter") and giving it a name
- calling out some types of mental health that we may not usually be aware of. We all know that sleep, physical, and focus time are helpful; maybe we're aware of connecting time and down time; and time in and play time definitely get the short end of the stick.

The bad:
- are these 7 types of time all that's necessary for a healthy life?
- where can I read more about the decisions that went into creating this Platter?
- it's vague and not actionable. If I'm an average person, how do I use this in my life, besides just worry that I'm not getting a good balance? I guess every so often, I could think "I haven't been getting enough Down Time recently" or something, but I don't think I'd need a Healthy Mind Platter for that.
- do we really want to go the way of physical nutrition? The Food Pyramid was horrendously broken, the new MyPlate is similarly useless (e.g. they're still promoting skim milk), and so I'm not likely to trust anything that follows in their footsteps. Instead of making sweeping generalizations, let's focus on small manageable changes and helping people figure out what's best for their own mental health.