I had the opportunity to chat with the designers of Riot Games, the company behind the worldwide phenomenon, League of Legends, at one of their events this past week. It was fun to talk about design, games, and entertainment. I also took the opportunity to encourage more of them to watch Stranger Things (BTW if you haven't watched that on Netflix yet, you're completely missing out).
That afternoon my friend Alan, his Riot Games colleague Alicia, and I had a great conversation over a couple tasty gin & tonics about the relationship between game design and user experience design. Both Alan & I have played game designer and UX/UI designer in the past so it was interesting to try and connect those disciplines.
This combination of people & cocktails resulted in some interesting ideas worth sharing. By the way, I think that the entire experience one has with a given game is experience design, regardless of function or title, but for simplicity's sake I'll use "game design" and "UX/UI design" as the terms for comparison in this post.
Good games do a great job of keeping players in a state of flow, "a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The idea of flow is identical to the feeling of being in the zone or in the groove" according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.
This means giving players just the right level of challenge based on their skill level. If the challenge is too low, players get bored; if it's too high, players get frustrated.
UX/UI designers attempt to push the challenge level down by optimizing for user understanding so that the challenge should appropriately come from the task at hand; users shouldn't fail because they didn't know what to do or didn't have the information they needed to make the right decision.
Game designers, on the other hand, optimize for achievement. Players should feel an incredible sense of accomplishment because they recognized the challenge ahead of them, they were motivated to face it, and they had the right combination of skills & knowledge to overcome it.
When UX/UI design and game design work well together, this is seamless and complementary.
Another interesting comparison is about UX/UI designers and game designers themselves. I believe that the former are cognitive psychologists, whereas the latter are philosophers.
As cognitive psychologists, UX/UI designers are focused on the user's mental functions including learning, memory, attention, perception, reasoning, language, conceptual development, and decision making.
As philosophers, game designers wrestle with issues of morality, logic, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, existence, and the nature of reality. Some of the games that tackle these head on are Journey, Bioshock, Limbo, Fallout, Final Fantasy Tactics, and The Last of Us.
This vein deserves a lot more thought, research, and discussion, and I'm sure I'll be spending more time on this in the future.
The best games are the outcome of the work from people whose skills span these disciplines. They grab our attention for hours, days, or weeks at a time. They create memories and associations that last for decades. They distract us, entertain us, and absorb us. And once in a while they teach us something fundamental about ourselves.