May 22, 2007

What Do Non-Gamers Want?

by Andrew Stern · , 6:11 pm

With our efforts to build interactive drama and comedy, we want to reach a large audience — both as a business opportunity, so we can make our work self-sustaining, and as artists, hoping to reach out and communicate to many. We’re particularly excited about making entertainment that appeals to all those who don’t consider today’s videogames much fun. Let’s call them “non-gamers”. I think non-gamers outnumber gamers, perhaps greatly. For entertainment media, non-gamers enjoy TV, movies, books, even a bit of web, blog and YouTube surfing. We want to add interactive drama and comedy to their list. Reaching them would also have the nice side effect of expanding the expressiveness of videogames as an art/entertainment form.

What would non-gamers theoretically enjoy from videogames? I’ll speculate on this from my “it takes one to know one” perspective. Yes, I’m a non-gamer. I don’t enjoy playing today’s games. Actually that’s not precisely true; I enjoy the games of today, and yesterday, but I enjoy excellent TV, movies, books, comics, theater even more. (My free time is limited, so I’m forced to choose, and videogames fall by the wayside.) As a teenager videogames were near the top of my list (I also had more free time then), and I am quite a good player actually, but what I want out of entertainment has changed, and today’s videogames don’t do it for me.

Videogames could regain a place on my list of entertainment choices if: as I played I gained experience of people’s lives, culture, and especially human behavior and psychology — and therefore, learned about myself — just as I gain from the best TV shows, movies, books, and so on. And, if I’m going to do work to interact with my entertainment, I want my actions to be meaningful, to be expressive of who I am, and to matter.

Further, we non-gamers don’t want to have to work a lot for our entertainment. We don’t want to be spoon-fed, but it won’t fly to make our entertainment laborious. If given the opportunity to act, make it worth it our effort — give us a lot of choice (like, at least twelve American Idols to vote for ;-), and give us a lot of reward back for little work.

Don’t make us learn some arbitrary control mechanism either; it should be easy and natural to play.

In the discussion of natural language understanding (NLU) interfaces, from which this post is launched, Christopher brought up the topic of what I’ll call “simplified” game interfaces, such as color-based mood choosers. An example is Cecropia’s (to-be-released) The Act, where the player, in a series of mini-games presented between cut-scenes, simply turns a dial to express various emotion states, each a point on a linear range of emotions for the player character. (The timing of how long the player expresses an emotion matters there as well; I know because we got a chance to play it at GDC last March.)

Another version of simplified interfaces are symbolic ones, as Ian Bogost suggests in a discussion on NLU interfaces from several years ago. In the realm of games on interpersonal subject matter, this includes games such as Eric Zimmerman’s SissyFight 2000 which offers a button-menu of high-level generic actions such as “scratch”, “tease”, “grab” and “tattle”, in the context of playground fight. (These player moves might seem literal, but they are abstracted versions of real playground interactions.) An even more symbolic interface, Rod Humble’s recent game The Marriage has players pushing and changing the size of squares and circles representing features of a married couple’s relationship.

(Ian called symbolic representation of human interaction “representational expression”, versus more literal, natural, mimetic representions he called “semantic expression”.)

The idea here is that abstracted interfaces can allow players to express nuanced meaning via simple mechanisms. On the surface that would seem to match the requirement that non-gamers do little work, and that their actions be meaningful. A good solution?

My concern is that these kinds of interfaces are actually too abstract for most everyone’s tastes, especially for non-gamers. Among the general population, people tend to want their entertainment to have specific expression, especially in their fiction. Dance, poetry, experimental theater, metaphorical literature — these just aren’t very popular, I think because they don’t communicate literally enough for most people. (“Literal” does not mean “dumbed down”, it just means specific and not abstract.) I’m not making a value judgment on these forms, I’m just making a business and popularity argument.

(There are interesting exceptions to people’s aversion to abstraction in entertainment. Abstract visual art seems to have some mass appeal, but I’m guessing it’s more about the enjoyment of visual beauty and sensory spectacle, than literal meaning. Abstract lyrics (a flavor of poetry) combined with music is of course extremely popular, I think because both music and singing have their own special, fundamental auditory appeal.)

Dials and sliders, particularly when used to represent emotions, require some cognitive work for players to filter their expression into the particular range, and abstraction, of the interface. I suppose dials and sliders can be considered somewhat akin to how we can express ranges of meaning by the strength of our facial expressions and voice — e.g. a wider smile means happier, a louder voice means more emphasis. But this filtering work is still there, and, the range itself can feel too limiting, requiring the player to fit their expression into a overly simplified, narrow spectrum of expression.

My overall argument here is: I think your average Joe and Jane need interfaces that mimic how they express themselves naturally. This interface issue, my gut tells me, is a big reason the general public doesn’t play games. (Don’t get me started on controller button sequences.)


Take the breakthrough game Myst. To use physical objects, players use the mouse to move a pointer onto an object and click, which is not too removed from reaching out and using their real hand. For locomotion, clicking where they want to walk to is not too different from literally pointing at where she wants to go. (Likewise, moving a joystick or controller pad in a direction is akin to leaning, and therefore walking, in that direction.)

Take the breakthrough game Nintendogs and its predecessors. Literally stroking the scruff of your pet’s neck with a stylus, or using a mouse to move a pointer, is not too removed from petting using your hand.

For games with language, typing conversational dialog in natural language in a real-time, non-turn-taking fashion, would not be too removed from just saying the words out loud.

I realize I’m suggesting that any game interface with a menu of choices, particularly for the purpose of interpersonal communication, will be alienating to the mass of non-gamers out there. But it could be true. (Menus feel natural enough on e-commerce webpages, akin to filling out an order form.)

In the NLU post, I suggested that non-gamers would forgive the occasional misunderstanding in an NLU interface, e.g. if errors occurred no more than 10% of the time, for the gain of the natural interface form itself. Josh questioned if non-gamers would really be forgiving, when they already have a low tolerance for, and possibly bad experiences with, wrestling with existing computer and game interfaces?

I think my points in this post actually make a case for this. When non-gamers have had frustrating experiences using computers, I’d suggest, it is exactly because so few interfaces are natural. The work of trying to learn various non-natural control systems, sometimes bizarre or arbitrary, could be the problem. Present players with a very natural interface, even one with an light error rate, and they may be more open to playing.

My next post will discuss a related and, I think, very interesting, topic: transparency in the behavior of, and interface to, NPCs.