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Intuition, Expectations and Culture: Learning from Psychology to Build Better Game Interfaces
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Intuition, Expectations and Culture: Learning from Psychology to Build Better Game Interfaces

April 4, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

[In this Game Developer Magazine reprint, designer Ara Shirinian discusses affordances -- how interfaces suggest what they let people accomplish versus what they actually let people accomplish -- and how that affects game players.]

One peculiarity of video games is that we often think of them in terms of "games we are able to play" and "games we are not able to play." Much like a sport, and unlike most other forms of consumer entertainment, video games typically demand some standard of performance ability before the player can even begin to enjoy their various workings. From the very moment we start playing a game, we develop an impression of how easy or hard a time it's going to give us.

Some games are quite easy to understand. Regardless of whether there is an explicit tutorial, players instantly intuit what to do, what the basic rules are, what is good, what is bad, and how to go about doing the various things that can be accomplished.

They feel like they're capable of playing the game from the first moment. They don't really expend a lot of effort figuring out how to operate the basic mechanics of the game, they "just do it," and find themselves immediately engaged. Any problems and difficulties they do experience are intrinsic to the game.

Conversely, other games seem to be bewildering and obtuse. When you play those games, your capabilities are unclear, you find yourself punished for reasons you don't understand, and you take guesses (often to find out you are wrong) about what various cues and symbols mean.

You spend far more time thinking about "how to work" the game. If you're an experienced gamer, you'll often ask yourself questions like "What the hell is that?" or, "Why the hell is this here?" -- substituting your favorite expletive for "hell."

Of course, I have just illustrated two extreme situations, and most gameplay experiences have some mix of intuitive-feeling things and counterintuitive-feeling things. In this article, I'll explore some reasons why certain things feel natural or intuitive, why certain other things don't, how two people can have very different opinions of what intuitive means, and what the implications are for video game design.

Intuition Taste Test #1

For the sake of communicating in a more universally familiar way, but also to illustrate a more complete picture of how these dynamics work, I'm going to draw on some non-video game examples throughout this piece. The psychological ideas we explore here are indeed the same ones that govern general human interaction with interfaces. Video games just happen to be an application of these ideas, albeit one of primary importance to us.

Suppose you were presented with two different GUI arrangements. In Figure 1a, we have Mystery GUI A where the Cancel button is always displayed to the left of the Save button. In Figure 1b, we have Mystery GUI B where the order of the buttons is exactly reversed: The Cancel button is always displayed to the right of the Save button.

Is one of these arrangements more intuitive than the other? If so, why? You can make a reasonably compelling argument either way. Incidentally, Mystery GUI A is the Mac GUI standard, and Mystery GUI B is the Windows GUI standard. For the moment, all that we will say about this example is that it is interesting that the two most popular computer GUI interfaces use standards that are complete opposites of each other.

Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

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Michael DeFazio
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I absolutely love talking about design/mechanics and interfaces and kudos for this post.
I checked out Red Star on Youtube and I'll pick it up... looks right up my alley.

Not to argue with you, but I think Norman would likely argue with your the example (Side-Scrollers with a Jump button) are really examples of "Convention" rather than "Affordance". From your own link :

"The computer system, with its keyboard, display screen, pointing device (e.g., mouse) and selection buttons (e.g., mouse buttons) affords pointing, touching, looking, and clicking on every pixel of the display screen. Most of this affordance is of no value. Thus, if the display does not have a touch-sensitive screen, the screen still affords touching, but it has no result on the computer system."

Norman defines affordance in terms the physical or human characteristics.

"In graphical design (e.g., screen displays), physical affordances play only a minor role, so other principles must be invoked. Here are four, but like most design conventions, each has both virtues and drawbacks:
[*]Follow conventional usage, both in the choice of images and the allowable interactions.
[*]Use words to describe the desired action (e.g., "click here" or use labels in front of perceived objects).
[*]Use metaphor
[*]Follow a coherent conceptual model so that once part of the interface is learned, the same principles apply to other parts"

Anyways, I don't mean to argue as a way of diminishing the post, I agree with your conclusions. Thanks

Kale Menges
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Very cool article.

Lars Doucet
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Kudos, great article!

To add to your citations: Steve Krug (
_Don't Make Me Think!_
_Rocket Surgery Made Easy_

For anyone interested in learning more about easy, low-cost usability studies of the type described in the article.

Will Buck
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'Don't Make Me Think!' and 'Design of Everyday things' are SUPER important design books IMO, Don't Make Me Think is a very quick read too.

Great summary article applied to games!

Part of me really wishes we all used the metric system and DVORAK keyboards, but another part of me dreads how hard it would be to switch my brain that way.

Ryan Marshall
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My take away from this article is that I should consider cultural familiarity as inherently beneficial during the design process, such that the familiar option would be preferably to another option where the two provide identical utility.

My question, though, is how much frustration did the players express as a result of expectations based on previous experience relative to the frustration based on not following the logic that originally created those expectations?

To elaborate, the close tie between jumping and 2D side-view games came about because Rule of Perception states that the additional visible area above the ground plane must have some reason for being included on screen (and if nothing ever happened in the sky, then it is mis-leading to present the view at that angle). It would be like making a top-view game where you had no means of moving to either side.

Wylie Garvin
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Mass Effect 3's weapon loadout screen has been bugging me from the first moment I saw it.
In the bottom left corner are five pieces of information, in this order:

(Left Trigger icon) [Person 1 Icon] [Person 2 Icon] (Right Trigger icon)

When I look down at that little jumble of icons, I easily get confused about whose loadout I'm looking at. For some reason, [Person 2 Icon] in the middle draws most of my attention, and I end up thinking I'm looking at their loadout.

What they obviously should have done, is arrange it like this:

[Person 1 Icon] (Left Trigger icon) (Right Trigger icon) [Person 2 Icon]

Wylie Garvin
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bah, angle brackets got eaten.

They made the UI like this:

(LT icon) [Person 1 icon] [Person 2 icon] (RT icon) Current-Person-Name

And they should have made it like this:

[Person 1 icon](LT icon) Current-Person-Name (RT icon)[Person 2 icon]

Brian Matthys
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Just to let you know, the leftmost key that moves you left is A, not W. Pg. 4.

Christian Nutt
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Oops, yep. We're fixing that.

Axel Cholewa
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Great Article!

Here is an example of the change of cognitive baggage:

When my girlfriend first picked up ModNation Racers on PS3, she created a racer, a cart, started the race, waited for the green light and pressed X! And nothing happened. Because you accelerate with R2. There were no instructions (because I played the game before and the tutorial was already over), so she pressed the button she thought natural for acceleration: X. Why X? Because she played Mario Kart Wii before, and Rock'n Roll Racing back in the SNES days, and a lot of other old racing titles.

Actually the same happened to me when I first played NfS: Most Wanted. I was totally confused by accelrating with RT and changed the button layout immediately to accelerate with A. That was just around the time when the change of standard button mappings in racing games happened, and in the years after that games like Burnout Paradise really "replaced" my cognitive baggage. But the new baggage is there, in the head and hands of millions of players. And if some clever mind should ever come up with a better controller layout for racing games, he'll have a hard time replacing it.

Tora Teig
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I love this, thank you! Now I am going to be annoyed at fake sink drawers the rest of my life.

Gil Salvado
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great article, thanks a lot.

Matt Johnston
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Nice article. Even examining the "jump" button is an article in itself. I am amused why jump appears in FPS so often and why it is the expectation in side strollers. And in the layout of buttons, it's Mirrors Edge on PS3 that created chaos in our household as it swapped buttons around from 'expected' to 'what we think is best'.

Great ROI on this article. Now I want to go to the pub with some game player and designer friends and talk about "jump".

Joshua Oyler
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I haven't had the chance to finish the "Design of Everyday Things" but something tells me I should. At any rate very well written and researched article.

My main question with all of this though, is because we are so engraved to "accept" the way things designed. Are we then forced to stick with that design or is there room for change? For example, in the design of main menus, the buttons are typically laid out in the center of the screen. Could we move them though to the left or the right and allow that to be the standard?

Just asking, as a student of design trying to do everything I can to learn and understand elements of design.

Nagesh Hinge
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Great article!