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